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Post Soviet POWs in Spanish Civil War
Created by John Eipper on 07/04/19 6:19 AM

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Soviet POWs in Spanish Civil War (Boris Volodarsky, Austria, 07/04/19 6:19 am)

I am sorry for delay in commenting our esteemed editor's excellent question (and Cameron Sawyer's comment of 29 June). I was travelling.

JE asked, "Boris, what do we know about the (albeit few) Soviets who were captured by the Francoists? Did any of them switch sides and stay?"

If I wanted to be very laconic I would simply say--nothing at all is known about Russian PoWs in the Spanish Civil War. In my files I can probably fish out a few names but that would be it. The intriguing part of the story is that, as in the case with other nationalities, Russians were fighting on both sides. A certain number of the White Guards, former tsarist officers and NCOs, after the revolution and the Russian civil war resident in France, Germany, Italy, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Turkey were volunteers to the Franco troops. The Soviets were of course on the Republican side. As it happens, a small number of them became prisoners of war. Some of those who were captured by the rebels were interrogated and information was later summarised in the infamous Causa General collection without any reference to sources. Part of this information leaked to (but was not officially shared with) SIS. In London it was considered of no value and shelved. Remarkably, it is still classified but I am sure there is nothing interesting there except for the fact that British agents collaborated, albeit sporadically, with Franco's information services. One related story, however, is rather interesting.

In Paris, there were in fact two Russian centres that organised and sent volunteers to Spain. One was run by the "White" Russian Combined Armed Forces Union (ROVS) headed by General Eugen Ludwig Müller, better known as Yevgeny Miller. Another centre was the Russian Union for Repatriation closely linked to the Russian embassy and headed by the former "White" officer Serge Efron. Efron was the husband of a great Russian poet Marina Tsvetayeva and an NKVD agent. His centre was sending volunteers to the Republican forces while ROVS supplied well-trained Russian officers to Franco troops.

One of the Efron's recruits was Lev Savinkov, a son of Boris Savinkov. "The Russian terrorist and Socialist-Revolutionary Boris Savinkov (1879-1925) has become well known as an ardent rebel against Communism," his sons' biographer Marc Jansen writes. "After having fought the Communists, first within Russia and then from abroad, in 1924 he crossed the border in order to continue the struggle again in Russia itself, but fell into the trap the Soviet secret service had set for him." Unfortunately, Jansen's piece published in Revolutionary Russia is not consistent and contains some factual errors.

Savinkov was lured to the USSR by his mistress, Lyubov Daerenthal, accompanied by her and her husband, both of whom were NKVD agents, and arrested soon after crossing the Russian border. Savinkov was tried, sentenced to death, but repented and was given a life sentence instead. However, in May 1925 he was thrown out of the prison window by several OGPU (predecessor to the NKVD) operatives, among whom was one Grigory Syroyezhkin.

In 1937 Lev Savinkov, his younger son and a Russian patriot, who lived in Paris, left for Spain to joint the International Brigades but was recruited as an NKVD agent by Syroyezhkin--one of the two commanders of the NKVD-trained Spanish republican guerrillas. Savinkov junior was soon promoted to lieutenant and then captain, serving under the nom de guerre "Léon Savin" (or Savint, as he called himself in Catalan). In October, Efron came to Spain himself on the run from the French police who were after him in connection with the murder in Lausanne of a Russian NKVD defector. Efron was not an assassin but took part in this operation together with "Alexander Orlov" (Lev Nikolsky) who especially came from Spain for this matter.

Late in 1937 Efron returned to Russia and was arrested by the NKVD in December together with his daughter Alya, both accused of being German spies. Alya betrayed her father, spent time in the Gulag but survived while he was shot. Syroyezhkin was soon recalled to Moscow and also shot.

After returning from Spain to France in 1939, Lev Savinkov lived in poverty. He gave several interviews but did not say much. Lev died in January 1987. Savinkov's elder son, Victor, lived in Moscow and also collaborated with the NKVD. He was later shot after which all members of his family committed suicide.

General Miller's deputy in ROVS was young Tsarist General Nikolai Skoblin, another OGPU/NKVD agent. He took part in the kidnapping of General Miller from Paris in September 1937. Miller was exfiltrated to Russia, imprisoned and later shot. After having spent some weeks in the Soviet embassy in Paris hiding from police, Skoblin was transported to Barcelona by Orlov and later shot near the Russian consulate villa.

Marina Tsvetayeva returned to Russia with her son in 1939. She committed suicide in 1941.

A niece of General Miller, Lily Sergueiev, also known as Natalie Sergueiew, was sent by the German Abwehr to Spain as a spy but collaborated with SIS and became an agent (codenamed TREASURY) in the double cross disinformation game organised by the British during WWII. She wrote a book Secret Service Rendered (London, 1966).

Most of the Soviet military advisers who were in Spain, including all RU (later GRU) officers, with only a few exceptions, were executed. The interpreters and rank-and-file fighters survived. Many, but not all NKVD operators survived. Almost all of them became Russian intelligence heroes although some, like Sudoplatov, Eitingon, Grigulevich, Vaupshasov and "Orlov" were involved in murders. Altogether from September 1936 to April 1939 there had been about 10-12 NKVD operatives in Spain but quite a number of agents, mainly foreigners. What happened to the civil war prisoners (Russian and Soviet) is not known but several prisoner exchanges took place under the British umbrella.

Some of those Spaniards who went to live in exile in Russia during or after the civil war, were permitted to return to Spain after Stalin's death. About 2,000 returned. The CIA immediately took notice and decided to use the opportunity to get some valuable intelligence about Russia. The operation was codenamed PROJECT NIÑOS and involved hundreds of people. A Barcelona film studio is currently making a documentary about this operation with Yours Truly taking part. It should be out in autumn.

JE comments:  Boris, please keep us updated on the Project Niños project.  I anticipate there will be some major revelations--although presumably none of the participants are still living.

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