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Soviet Spymasters Memoirs-book review

Author: Grzegorz Litynski

Editorial comments: It is difficult to understand Polish and Central European history surrounding WWII without insight into the Soviet Empire that controlled Poland for over 40 years. Below we present to our readers a review of two books of exceptional importance – memoirs of Pavel Sudoplatov and Ivan Sierov, leaders of the Soviet intelligence. The review was done by Adam Lityński, emeritus professor of legal history.

"Special Tasks: The Memoirs of an Uncomfortable Witness – A Soviet Spymaster”

“This is the most sensational, the most devastating, and in many ways, the most informative autobiography ever to emerge from the Stalinist milieu. It is perhaps the single most important contribution to our knowledge since Khrushchev’s Secret Speech,” wrote Robert Conquest, the British historian, and leading Stalinism expert, in the preface to Sudoplatov’s diaries. The book, titled “Special Tasks: The Memoirs of an Uncomfortable Witness – A Soviet Spymaster” was first published in English in the United States in 1994. A few years later, it was published in Polish. Sudoplatov was a man with remarkable competencies in Soviet special operations and espionage. After 1938, he was in constant direct contact with Lavrentiy Beria (1899-1953) and Joseph Stalin (1878-1953). Sudoplatov received orders from Stalin to murder Leon Trotsky. Additionally, he had first-hand access to confidential information on several topics, including Polish affairs. U.S. readers might find Sudoplatov’s chapter seven on atomic espionage interesting, however, it offers minimal evidence.

Pavel Sudoplatov

Starting with 1944, Pavel Sudoplatov (1907-1996) became head of the NKVD’s intelligence services (the interior ministry of the Soviet Union). He was the lone surviving institutional memory of the Soviet intelligence service, which he served until 1953 when he was arrested for being a close co-worker of Beria, who was soon to be executed. Sudoplatov spent 15 years in jail. At the end of his life, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Sudoplatov decided to record his memoirs. With the support of his son, a Moscow State University professor, Sudoplatov provided lengthy interviews with American journalist-historians Jerrold L. Schecter, former editor of Time Magazine, and Leona Schecter. The noticeable editorial touches make these memories distinguishable from a diary. In the end, Sudoplatov did not have any regrets aside from spending 15 years in prison and being unable to serve the Communist movement and the Soviet Union during that time.

"The Secrets of the Suitcase of Ivan Serov"

Another valuable diary belonging to a highest-rank officer of the Soviet secret service was published in Russia in 2016 (Polish edition: 2019). No English translation is yet available. “The Secrets of the Suitcase of Ivan Serov” is based on the diary and notes of the former head of KGB, Ivan Serov (1905-1990). It turned out that Ivan Serov kept diaries and notes throughout his life. He did it in such strict secrecy and hid them so professionally that even the KGB, with its best efforts, could not find and destroy them. He placed the notes in two suitcases and walled them up in the garage of his dacha (countryside home that was typically state-owned and gifted to Russian citizens during the USSR). They were found by chance by Serov's granddaughter and published by her 28 years after his death. Serov’s records sparked a heated discussion among historians and the media. Regardless of his adopted narrative about the system in which he operated, Serov’s accounts of some of the darkest figures of the 20th century will forever be associated with mass murder for Poles and many other Eastern European nations.

Ivan Serov

This book will not leave anyone indifferent. It shows the background of Stalinist politics from World War II, the techniques of NKVD and KGB operations, details of secret intelligence operations, and the methods and course of communization of the post-war countries. The book certainly deserves to be called a sensation. It also includes many essential facts on the Polish history of the Stalinist period. In this way, Polish readers received the memoirs of the two highest-ranking officers of the Soviet primary security agencies. Both books contain several details that give us a much better understanding of Soviet politics towards Poland.

For the Poles, WWII began with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact on August 23, 1939. A week later, Germany invaded Poland. On September 17, 1939, the Soviet Red Army invasion followed. Both Sierov and Sudoplatov took an active part in the beginning of the Second World War and delivered fascinating remarks on the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. “Once again,” noted Sudoplatov, “for the Kremlin, the mission of communism was primarily to consolidate the might of the Soviet state. Only military strength and domination of the countries on our borders could ensure us a superpower role. The idea of propagating the world Communist revolution was an ideological screen to hide our desire for world domination. (…) This possibility arose for the Soviet Union only after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed.”

We agree with Sudoplatov when he stated in his memoirs that

The road to Yalta, strange as it may seem, was opened by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Without claiming any high-minded moral principles for that deal in 1939, it was clearly the first time the USSR was treated as a superpower. Following Yalta, Russia became one of the political power centers in determining the future of the world. Nowadays, many analysts point to Stalin’s and Hitler’s approaches to dividing the world. Stalin is bitterly attacked for betraying principles of human morality in signing a pact with Hitler; it is overlooked that he also signed a secret deal to divide Europe with Roosevelt and Churchill at Yalta, and later with Truman at Potsdam.

For readers interested in some of the developments of 20th-century European history, both books give substantially informative insights into the history of the Soviet Union and Central Europe including Poland. We should treat the revelations of Sudoplatov and Serov with criticism, bearing in mind that they were serving much-afraid communist secret services responsible for assassination, kidnapping, torture, murder, and other crimes of the Soviet Empire.

About the authors: Adam Litynski, lawyer, emeritus professor of legal history. Former professor at Bialystok University, Humanitas University in Sosnowiec, and the University of Silesia in Katowice, where he served as vice-president in the 1990s. He is the author of several books, textbooks, and articles on the history of Poland and the history of law. He received numerous awards and distinctions including: the Knight's Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta, the Officer's Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta, and the Medal of the National Education Commission.

Grzegorz Litynski is Managing Editor of MPMS (Minnesota Polish Medical Society).

Further reading:

Internet Archive. Anatoli Sudoplatov; Pavel Sudoplatov; Leona P. Schecter; Jerrold L. Schecter "Special Tasks: The Memoirs of an Unwanted Witness—A Soviet Spymaster" (1994), first edition. ISBN 0-316-77352-2. Access on February 26, 2021.

Pavel Sudoplatov "Спецоперации. Лубянка и Кремль 1930–1950 годы." (Russian). Access on February 26, 2021.

Adam B. Ulam "Murder Was Part of the Job Description." The New York Times, May 22, 1994. Access on February 26, 2021.

Wikipedia - Pavel Sudoplatov. Access on February 26, 2021.

Wikipedia - Pavel Sudoplatov (Russian). Access on February 26, 2021.Судоплатов,_Павел_Анатольевич

David Stout, "Pavel Sudoplatov, 89, Dies. Top Soviet Spy Who Accused Oppenheimer." The New York Times, September 28, 1996. Access on February 26, 2021.

Oleg Yegerov "Lord of the spies: The 4 most impressive operations by Stalin's chief spymaster." (2018). Access on February 26, 2021.

Jeanne Vronskaya "Obituary: Pavel Sudoplatov." The Independent. September 29, 1996. Access on February 26, 2021.

Neil MacFarquhar "From a Dacha Wall, a Clue to Raoul Wallenberg's Cold War Fate." The New York Times. August 6, 2016. Access on February 26, 2021.

Holocaust savior Wallenberg executed in Soviet jail, former KGB chief's diaries say. August 8, 2016. Access on February 26, 2021.

Adam Lityński "Generał Iwanow – ostatni stalinowiec – o Polsce." Czasopismo Prawno-Historyczne. Tom LXXI (2019), pages 243-266. Polish. Abstract available online (Access on February 26, 2021):

Nikita Pietrow "Stalinowski kat Polski Iwan Sierow." Demart, Warszawa (2013). 416 pages. ISBN-13 : 978-8374279192. Polish.



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