CHAPTER 8 Why Howitzer Artillery for the Chekists? 58
We shall destroy the beast in his lair.
L. BERIA (Commissar General for State Security,
People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs, February 1941)
The communist punitive machine had two principal mechanisms, the organs and the troops. What is understood here by ‘troops’ is not, of course, Red Army troops, but special formations of the VChK (Vserossiiskaya Chrezvychainaya Komissiya -the All-Russian Special Commission, or Cheka), the OGPU (Ob’edinennoe Gosudarstvennoe Politicheskoe Upravlenie) and the NKVD.While the Red Army fought on external fronts, these special divisions waged war on internal fronts.
At the time when the communist dictatorship was being established, the punitive troops played an incomparably more important role than the punitive organs. Equipped with armoured cars, armoured trains, three-inch cannon and machine guns, they waged a real war against their own people. In 1923, the Chief Directorate was set up to co-ordinate the operations carried out by all punitive troops. Although the punitive machine changed its name from time to time as easily as a snake changes its skin, the name of the Chief Directorate remained unchanged.
This organization, and the troops under its command, perpetrated fearful atrocities against the Russian and indeed all other nations who populate the Soviet Union. In the times of collectivization alone, the punitive troops exterminated millions of people, and handed over more than ten million of them to that other directorate of the NKVD, the GULAG, responsible for prisons and labour camps. As the communist dictatorship grew in strength, the organs came to occupy an increasingly important place in relation to that held by the punitive troops. The informer’s pen, the interrogator’s thumbscrew and the executioner’s Nagan revolver became the main weapons of terror.
Of course, the numbers of the punitive troops did not grow any less, but their role became largely a secondary one, involving round-ups, searches, arrests, deportations, and the protection of punitive and ‘correctional’ establishments. The punitive troops also protected leaders, the national frontiers and communications. The image of the punitive fighter also changed. It was then no longer a sailor with the face of a criminal in an armoured car, but a soldier wearing a sheepskin coat, his face turned into the Arctic wind, rifle in hand and with his faithful dog at his side. The punitive soldiery no longer had armoured cars. They were no longer needed.
1937 was not, as the communists assure us, the beginning of the terror, but rather the year when it reached its peak. A year later, it had undergone a change in character, in that it had changed from being a general terror into a selective terror. It was during 1937 and 1938 that the terror even spread to the communist leaders themselves. By the time that stage had been reached, the Chekists no longer needed their machine guns. The communists, who had by then come under the blows of the axe of terror, did not offer any particular resistance.
After the Great Purge had been successfully concluded in December 1938, the terror within the country abated sharply; many prisoners were released by the GULAG, and preparations were made to release many more. In this situation, what was to happen to the troops of the NKVD and the Chief Directorate which coordinated their activities? Any doubts as to whether they would in fact be abolished were quickly dispelled. The Soviet Union had embarked upon a new phase of its existence, for immediately after the Great Purge had ended and Nikolai Yezhov had been removed from power, the Chief Directorate controlling the NKVD frontier and interior troops ceased to exist under a decree issued on 2 February 1939 by the Council of People’s Commissars.
On the same day, no fewer than six independent chief directorates were created inside the NKVD to take charge of the troops and deal with military matters. These were:
The Chief Directorate (GU) of NKVD
The Chief Directorate (GU) of NKVD
The Chief Directorate (GU) of NKVD
The Chief Directorate (GU) of NKVD
The Chief Directorate (GU) of NKVD
The Chief Directorate (GU) of NKVD
Military Construction, given the
acronym of Glavvoenstroi of the NKVD.
The Soviet punitive machine then underwent a sharp change in character as the Government decided that the punitive troops should be given a position of primacy over the organs. The beginning of 1939 marked the start of a breathtaking increase in the punitive troops’ power. Once again their armament included armoured trains, the latest BA-10 armoured cars, howitzers, and finally tanks and aircraft. Punitive troops of all types and functions began to grow rapidly in numbers. The NKVD troops became so numerous that a special post had to be created to control them, and Lieutenant-General I. I. Maslennikov was appointed Deputy People’s Commissar for Troops.
The strange thing, however, was that punitive troops were no longer needed on Soviet territory. There were clearly no plans for another purge in the Soviet Union in 1939, as the country had been brought to its knees and was by then totally subjected to Stalin. The NKVD troops developed in many directions, one of which was the formation of their retreat-blocking service in 1939. The task of retreat-blocking detachments is to bolster the resolve of troops in battle, particularly an offensive battle. Having deployed behind the troops, the retreat-blocking detachment encourages the advancing soldiery with bursts of machine-gun fire directed at the backs of their heads, delays the troops if they are retreating, returns the obedient soldiers to the battle and shoots the disobedient ones on the spot.
Such detachments had been used during the Civil War. Indeed, quite a few rascals who distinguishedthemselves in this field were cited in Soviet publications as ‘heroes of the Civil War’. Here is a typical example: ‘Vypov, I. P.—leader of a machine-gun team of the retreat-blocking detachment of the 38th Infantry Division’ (VIZH, 1976, No. 12, p. 76)
The retreat-blocking soldiers’ life is not one of service, but a holiday. Enemy artillery does not worry them. They fight not against a stray enemy, but against their own demoralized men. Decorations shower upon them from the horn of plenty. Our hero has two Orders of the Red Banner. As part of the secret build-up of Soviet forces in the country’s western regions before the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed, a detached motorized infantry regiment of the NKVD became an integral part of each army. This regiment consisted not of battalions, but of retreat-blocking detachments.
Apart from the regiments which made up the armies, there werMolotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed, a detached motorized infantry regiment of the NKVD became an integral part of each army. This regiment consisted not of battalions, but of retreat-blocking detachments. Apart from the regiments which made up the armies, there were also detached NKVD motorized rifle regiments which formed part of the fronts.
For example, in June 1941, there were nine regiments, an independent detachment and a detached battalion of the NKVD behind the Southern Front alone. (VIZH, 1983, No. 9)
In addition to NKVD motorized rifle regiments, independent retreat-blocking detachments of the NKVD were also created. These immediately became part of the corps and armies which were then being formed. One of these, for example, was the 241st Detached Retreat-Blocking Detachment, which became part of the 19th Army.Major-General P. V. Sevast’yanov has stated that the NKVD’s retreat-blocking service worked with great precision and sureness of touch. In order to perform their allotted service of stopping any retreat, the NKVD troops always took up position behind the fighting troops in every situation. ‘Companies of frontier troops immediately deployed behind us’ (Volga-Neman-Dunai, Moscow Voenizdat, 1961, p. 82)
In General Sevast’yanov’s words, his infantry were having to fight German troops without tanks, while the Chekists, who did have tanks, stood behind them.
We can find quite a few indications in Soviet sources which show that the NKVD’s retreat-blocking service was active from the very first hours of the war, which means that it had been deployed even before the Germans invaded. Their presence is acknowledged in Colonel-General Leonid Mikhailovich Sandalov’s account of June 1941: ‘I shall leave the Army retreat-blocking detachment here,’ he writes. ‘The Army retreatblocking detachments were stopping them and sending them to the nearest units of the 28th Rifle Corps.’ (Perezhitoe, Moscow, 1966)
That the NKVD’s retreat-blocking service was revived before the German attack and indeed before the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact is direct evidence that the war had been decided upon in the Kremlin long before it actually began. The NKVD expanded its operations in other directions as well. From the beginning of 1939, the strength of the NKVD frontier troops sharply increased. Since Lenin’s time, the Soviet Union had had six frontier districts. Now their number increased to eighteen, while at the same time the military strength in each new district grew in relation to what it had been in the old districts.
We have already had occasion to observe the aggressive tendencies of the Soviet frontier troops, which always served as the basis on which the OSNAZ (Osobogo Naznacheniya – special purpose) formations were set up. In August 1939, before the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed, a rapid growth occurred in the number of NKVD OSNAZ troops. OSNAZ formations were the most aggressive strike formations in the Soviet punitive machine. In the Civil War OSNAZ units were notorious for their brutality, which was extreme even by Cheka standards.
After the Civil War had ended, OSNAZ was sharply cut back so that only one NKVD OSNAZ division remained in the Moscow region. This division was under the command of NKVD Kombrig8 Pavel Artem’ev. At the beginning of August 1939, G. K. Zhukov was preparing his surprise strike against the Japanese. A detached OSNAZ battalion of the NKVD numbering 502 men was placed at Zhukov’s command.
Although the battalion was small, it consisted of specially picked stranglers whose hands were more than accustomed to murder. The main task of this OSNAZ battalion was ‘to purge that area of the rear which lay closest to the 8 Brigade-Commander – term used before 1940. Kombrig and similar terms were abandoned after 1940, and the English equivalent rankings were used. front’. (Chasovye Sovetskikh Granits, IPL, Moscow 1983, p. 106)
OSNAZ did its work splendidly and Zhukov was highly satisfied. Immediately after this, the formation of OSNAZ battalions began on the Polish frontier. A dispatch from the political department of the frontier troops in the Kiev district, dated 17 September 1939, mentions that OSNAZ battalions had already been set up.
During the ‘liberation’ of Poland, Bessarabia, Bukovina, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Finland, the OSNAZbattalions were the first to cross the frontiers. Their task was first to knock out enemy frontier posts by surprise attack, and then, by operating ahead of the advancing troops, to capture bridges, cut communications, wipe out small groups of the enemy and terrorize the population. Once the Red Army units had caught up with the OSNAZ battalions, these then turned to the tasks of purging the territory and of exterminating undesirable elements.
We can find mention of the NKVD’s OSNAZ battalions in the same official history of the frontier troops. (Documents Nos. 185 and 193) Here are the fruits of their work: ‘About 600 prisoners were escorted across the frontier; these included officers, landowners, priests, gendarmes and policemen . . .’ (Document No. 196) In a contemporary version of this document this sentence comes to an abrupt halt at its semi-colon, and we are not told who were taken as ‘prisoners’.
A document dated 19 September 1939 describes the situation at one particular small NKVD frontier post. It was the third day of the ‘liberation campaign’ in Poland. This liberation is explained nowadays as a Soviet attempt to secure its borders against Hitler. Why then drive ‘landowners and priests’ across the frontier into the Soviet Union and declare them prisoners? These 600 prisoners formed only one drop in a very great stream which poured not simply through one frontier post, but through all of them, having begun its flow on the very first day of’liberation’.
It was foreseen that, after the new frontier with Germany had been established, new usurpations would follow. Far from dissolving the previously created OSNAZ battalions of the NKVD, Stalin set up new battalions, and not only battalions. He created regiments, divisions, and even an NKVD OSNAZ corps under the command of NKVD Komdiv9 Shmyrev, Commissar Chumakov, and Chief of Staff NKVD Colonel 9 Sec previous page. Vinogradov. References to this top secret corps may sometimes be found in official Soviet documents. (Pogranichnye Voiska SSSR 1939-41, Nauka, 1970, Document No. 39).
The movement of all types of NKVD troops towards the Soviet Union’s western frontier in February 1941 cannot be explained as a defence against German invasion. Had it been so, then surely the formation of new punitive battalions, regiments and divisions should have been halted in favour of something more appropriate to defence, such as the formation of a corps of sappers to mine the entire western territory of the Soviet Union or cover it with anti-tank ditches and trenches. But Stalin was not engaged in anything like this. Stalin needed punitive troops, not sappers. That is why
one more military chief directorate was set up in the NKVD at the beginning of 1941.
This time it was a purely military one, the Chief Directorate of Operational Troops of the NKVD. At its head, Stalin placed Pavel Artem’ev, an OSNAZ veteran who had commanded the 1st OSNAZ Division of the NKVD, and who had already risen to the rank of NKVD lieutenant-general. The new chief directorate immediately set in motion a vast deployment of troops. The basic military unit was an NKVD motor-rifle division consisting of a tank regiment (or battalion), two or three motor-rifle regiments, a howitzer artillery battalion, and other sub-units. The total strength of each division was more than 10,000 Chekists.
The NKVD motor rifle divisions spread immediately to the western border of the Soviet Union. NKVD punitive divisions armed with tanks, howitzers and other heavy weapons were simply not needed on Soviet territory. Neither were they required in the territories which had recently been seized. Here the NKVD’s terror machine got by without tanks, although in extreme cases they sought help from the Red Army. The NKVD divisions were intended to be used in the rear in wartime, not in the front. That these divisions had heavy weapons indicates that it was planned to use these divisions against a strong enemy. But there was no strong enemy, nor could there be one, in the rear of the Red Army on Soviet territory.
A strong enemy could only appear in the rear of the Red Army in the event of the Red Army crossing the frontier and driving forward. Hitler did not allow this to happen. He struck the first blow, and thus rendered all the NKVD’s Soviet rifle divisions redundant. The NKVD’s Chief Directorate of Operational Troops proved to be quite unnecessary in the defensive war which followed. Four days after the war had begun, Stalin moved NKVD General Artem’ev from the Chief Directorate of Operational Troops, leaving it without a leader.
No more NKVD motor-rifle divisions were formed after 1941, and the existing divisions were re-formed as ordinary rifle divisions of the Red Army. The NKVD’s 21 st Motor Rifle Division, for instance, under NKVD Colonel M. D. Panchenko, was changed into the lopth Rifle Division of the Red Army; the NKVD’s 13th Motor Rifle Division became the 95th Rifle Division of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army (and later the 75th Guards Division); and the NKVD’s 8th Motor Rifle Division became the 63rd Rifle Division of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army (later the 52nd Guards Division). In all, 29 divisions were transferred from the NKVD to the Red Army. (Major-General V. Nekrasov, VIZH, 1985, No. 9)
In the defensive war that had been forced upon him, Stalin needed ordinary infantry, not punitive troops. In 1944 the Red Army, with the NKVD in its wake, arrived in Central Europe and established workers’ and peasants’ power, social justice and other blessings. But even in 1939 Stalin was already setting up the machinery for establishing that happy life. Hitler simply prevented this machinery being used until 1944.
The Soviet terror machine was enormous and was intended not just for Eastern Europe but Europe in its entirety.
It had to be sharply reduced in size after Hitler invaded because it no longer served any immediate purpose. The creation of machinery with which to Sovietize Europe began before the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The Pact was signed after a final decision had been taken to establish a happy life in Europe. The Pact was only a tactical move which would allow Europe to be brought down to the levels which had existed there in 1918, thereby opening the gates to the OSNAZ formations and the motor-rifle divisions of the NKVD.
CHAPTER 9 Why the Security Zone was Dismantled 58