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RIA Novosti

Features & Opinion

Ivan Ilyichev – Head of GRU

10:18 09/05/2006

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Alexei Ilyichev) -  During the war, my grandfather, Ivan Ivanovich Ilyichev, was a General, or more precisely a Lieutenant-General. None of my childhood friends had such a granddad. I used to admire the numerous orders and medals on his dress uniform and the huge sword he kept in the closet. At that time I wanted my granddad to wear this uniform and the sword all the time, but he did not like to talk about the war, and told me about his service reluctantly.


When I was a boy, I was told that my granddad was a leader of the partisan movement during the war. Only later, in my student years did I find out that he was actually the head of the GRU, the Red Army's Main Intelligence Directorate.
The GRU had great officers who played an important part in our country's victory and prevented the dangerous backstage intrigues of the Western allies. Some military intelligence agents have already become legends, for example Richard Zorge (Ramzai), Hero of Russia Yan Chernyak, Rudolf Roessler (Lucy - one of the most efficient agents of World War II), Sandor Rado (Dora), Anatoly Gurevich (Kent), and Ursula Kuczynski-Beurton (the famous Sonia, whom some Western historians consider the best female spy ever). Yet many brilliant spies remain unknown, their names concealed by their pseudonyms.
During the Soviet era, little was known about the GRU's activities in the war, but in the early 1990s they gradually began to open secret archives and the first treatises and books were published, including great works such as The GRU Empire (Imperia GRU) by Alexander Kolpakidi and Dmitry Prokhorov; The GRU and the Atomic Bomb (GRU i atomnaya bomba) by Vladimir Lota; and The GRU's Spies and Residents (Razvedchiki i rezidenty GRU) by Valery Kochik. From these and other books I finally learned the facts about the GRU that my grandfather would never have disclosed for certain reasons.
My grandfather lived a great life.


He was born on August 14, 1905, into a peasant family in the village of Navoloki near Kaluga. The revolution drastically changed his life. In the mid 1920s he already held positions in the Komsomol and the Communist Party. The country badly needed educated personnel, and gifted ordinary people had brilliant perspectives. In 1938, he graduated from the Tolmachev Military Political Academy in Leningrad (later transferred to Moscow and renamed as the Lenin Academy). In his last year he headed the department's party organization, but was suddenly excluded from the party following a denunciation by an NKVD agent.


They recalled his earlier sins.
When a secretary of the Kaluga regional Komsomol committee, Ivan had had the imprudence to visit a meeting of Trotsky followers.


He waited for the inevitable arrest, and his friends and colleagues immediately began to shun him, but the sword of Damocles never fell. In 1938, the repressions reached such a level that the Party's Central Committee adopted its famous decree on excesses. Yemelyan Yaroslavsky's commission arrived in Leningrad to reconsider hundreds of cases, and Ivan Ilyichev was restored to the party. Moreover, his career unexpectedly took off, and he was sent to the 5th intelligence directorate of the Red Army as head of the political department, with the rank of a brigade commissar. And the man who denounced him was given a show trial. So were the times.


And then there was the Kremlin: the 33-year-old Ilyichev was received by Joseph Stalin himself, who, as granddad liked to recall, gave him a meaningful farewell: "We know you were excluded from the party. ... The party made a mistake - the party is correcting it." Grandfather respected Stalin until he died.


When Ilyichev came to the Red Army's military intelligence, almost its entire central staff had been repressed and crushed. The directorate was devastated, he said. Immediately before the Nazi invasion, five military intelligence chiefs were repressed. The GRU's wartime heads - Fyodor Golikov, Alexey Panfilov, Ivan Ilyichev and Fyodor Kuznetsov - were luckier. For example, when, before the war, in June 1940, the 5th directorate was returned to the Red Army's General Staff and renamed as the General Staff's Intelligence Directorate, Ilyichev remained head of the political department.
He read almost all reports of the agents and, most importantly, was able to influence decision-making. Before the war, reports about a German invasion became more frequent. Grandfather was at odds with Lieutenant-General Fyodor Golikov, who feared Stalin dreadfully and kept editing agents' reports. This was especially true just before the war started.
The war was a horrible ordeal for the country and its intelligence.


A few months later my grandfather understood that the military intelligence was failing and its structure was not suitable for the war. At the end of January 1942, brigade commissar Ilyichev sent a staff report to the State Defense Committee, where he emphasized, "the organizational structure of the military intelligence has not been brought in line with the war conditions and is holding up intelligence operations." Having considered the report, the Committee made the crucial decision of dividing military and clandestine intelligence into two independent divisions. Stalin appreciated Ilyichev's proposals and appointed him head of GRU agents. A number of changes followed and in October 1942 the main intelligence directorate of the Red Army's General Staff was transformed into the Red Army's Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), subordinated to the People's Commissar for Defense, and given the task of supervising all clandestine intelligence abroad, including in Germany. Lieutenant-General Ilyichev was appointed head of the GRU, and Lieutenant-General Fyodor Kuznetsov head of the General Staff's military intelligence.


It is such a pity that grandfather left few memoirs. To the end of his life he thought that excessive openness might hurt the state and the GRU, and did not believe secrets should ever be declassified. He greatly appreciated the master of military clandestine intelligence, Mikhail Milshtein, who was given the most difficult tasks. His deputy for naval intelligence was Vice Admiral Mikhail Vorontsov, who, as naval attache in Berlin, had reported the exact date of Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union before the war.


Stalin's trust made my grandfather a rival to Lavrenty Beriya, the then head of the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs, or NKVD.


At home, Ilyichev had a special phone for direct connection with the Supreme Commander-in-Chief. There were very few such phones in the country.


Although in some operations my grandfather cooperated efficiently with head of the NKVD's foreign department, Pavel Fitin, and head of the NKVD's 4th department, Pavel Sudoplatov, (decrees on cooperation between the NKVD and the GRU had been signed in September 1941), he had strained relations with NKVD head Lavrenty Beriya. Beriya repeatedly tried to compromise the GRU, but Stalin always stood up for the clandestine intelligence. My grandfather recalled that Stalin had been interested in personal files of all spies who were sent legally or illegally to Germany and the largest Western countries.
The fact that General Ilyichev could report directly to Stalin, bypassing all the levels, was especially irritating for the NKVD chief.


Our family tradition recalls the following story.
One night, Stalin called at 3 a.m., wanting to dictate an urgent directive. Unfortunately, the boys (that is, my father and his brother) had removed all the pens and pencils from the phone table. My grandfather, however, could not tell Stalin, "Wait while I find a pencil," and had to memorize all the directive that lasted for several minutes. I think this added some gray hairs! He then spoke to the boys, and no one ever touched the pencils near that phone again.
In fact, every GRU operation during World War II deserves a separate book. Ivan Ilyichev was involved in providing intelligence support to absolutely all of the Army's major front operations, and the GRU was responsible for acquiring information via agent networks about the Wehrmacht's strategic plans and distribution of theater forces.
Apart from intelligence against Germany, the GRU was charged with finding out the plans and moves of the allies, who, unfortunately, were not always sincere towards the Soviet Union. Soviet residents worked in London, Geneva, Paris, Washington, Tokyo, Stockholm, Ankara and other capitals.


Rivalry was as tough as the war itself.
The allies gave us almost no information via official channels. But due to efficient intelligence, Stalin was aware of almost all of their plans. GRU agents in Britain and the USA sent the Soviet leaders detailed reports on the allies' positions before the Tehran and Yalta conferences. At the end of 1942 a scientific group of the GRU deciphering service, with the help of agents, found a way to decipher German telegrams encoded using the Enigma machine. On November 29, 1942 General Ilyichev signed an award recommendation for the officers of the deciphering service. The GRU had a brilliant agent in the British military agency, who sent German, Japanese and Turkish coded telegrams deciphered by the British to Moscow en masse. Lieutenant-General Ilyichev signed special reports that gave detailed accounts of the Overlord and Rankin operations. The GRU had a special role in saving the allies after the unfortunate Ardennes-Alsace operation. Ilyichev was responsible for controlling the redeployment of German troops eastwards.


A great achievement of the GRU was getting information on the uranium problem.
In 1943, Ivan Ilyichev received a report from London from Sonia, who reported that US President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Churchill had signed a secret agreement on joining efforts to create an atomic bomb. At that time, Ursula Kuczynski was watching the legendary physicist Klaus Fuchs, who consciously played a crucial role in destroying America's nuclear monopoly. It was via military intelligence channels that Fuchs supplied information on the British atomic project Tube Alloys, and later on the Manhattan Project as well. The specific tasks were set by GRU chief Ilyichev, who got guidance from Igor Kurchatov. In 1941-1943, Fuchs provided the GRU with over 570 sheets of important information on the uranium project.
In 1944, surveillance over Fuchs was transferred to the NKVD's foreign intelligence as part of the program to coordinate the work of the NKVD and the Red Army intelligence on the atomic problem. Yet the GRU had brilliant agents besides Fuchs. An important role in getting American nuclear secrets belonged to GRU agents Artur Adams (Achilles) and Allan Nunn May (Alec). There were other great spies as well.


After the peak of success, trouble hit.


In September 1945, Igor Guzenko, the military attache's cipher officer, defected in Ottawa. It was a catastrophe. Cipher officers usually know everything. Many agents were arrested or quickly returned to the Soviet Union. Stalin set up a party commission to investigate the blunder. My grandfather's life once again hung by a thread. The commission headed by Malenkov and Beriya wanted blood, and Ilyichev expected arrest. Yet once again Stalin was benevolent. My grandfather was saved because, before Guzenko defected, Ilyichev had demanded that Guzenko be returned to Moscow, as he doubted his reliability. The Soviet leader took this into account. Yet Ilyichev still had to retire from the GRU and the army. At their last meeting Stalin told him, "I personally have no complaints about you, but try to work in the diplomatic field." So his calmer and more predictable diplomatic career began.

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