Spanish Civil War

   The Soviet intelligence security services played a critical role in Joseph Stalin’s strategy in the Spanish Civil War to create a Soviet satellite state run by a communist party absolutely loyal to Moscow. To achieve this end, the NKVD and GRU trained Republican intelligence and Special Forces for operations against General Francisco Franco’s army. The NKVD was also used to destroy any potential opposition within Republican ranks. NKVD executioners, working with Spanish colleagues, murdered thousands of Trotskyites, Anarchists, and disloyal communists. NKVD resident Alexander Orlov masterminded these terrorist operations and persuaded the Republican government to allow the country’s gold supply, reportedly $700 million, to be shipped to the Soviet Union for safekeeping.
   Stalin’s paranoia and the NKVD’s tactics in Spain were a major reason for Franco’s eventual victory. Both services kept lists of Spanish officers and international volunteers to be shot: the only reason was their lack of affection for the Communist Party. This spasmodic persecution of enemies in the Republican camp reduced the effectiveness of the armed forces. Militants who could have been employed against Franco were murdered in the execution chambers of the NKVD. Moreover, as defeat became obvious, NKVD and GRU officers blamed and denounced each other, damaging relations between the services and weakening their ability to serve the Republican cause. The end of the war came in 1939 with a total Franco victory. At the end, 20,000 Spanish citizens left for the Soviet Union. Among them were 2,000 children and many of their teachers. They were only able to return to Spain after 1970.
   Stalin deeply distrusted the Red Army, NKVD, and GRU specialists who served in Spain. Many were executed on their return from the battlefield. Among those executed were senior GRU and NKVD officers, as well as Red Army pilots and military advisors. Two of the most famous “Spaniards” to be executed were Vladimir Antonov-Ovsenko, whom Lenin had selected to lead the attack on the Winter Palace on 7 November 1917, and Mikhail Koltsov, the “Soviet Hemingway,” who was known for his coverage of the war. Both were arrested hours after interviews with Stalin in the Kremlin. Nevertheless, the Soviet experience in Spain benefited Stalin’s intelligence services and prepared them for war on a larger front four years later against Nazi Germany. Spain also was a venue for the services to recruit idealistic anti-Fascists for operations in Europe and North America. One Soviet intelligence officer noted in his memoirs: “Spain was sort of a children’s playground where we perfected many of our later espionage techniques.”

Historical dictionary of Russian and Soviet Intelligence. . 2014.

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