Obituary: Pavel Sudaplatov

Pavel Sudoplatov was the most sinister man in the Communist system. He was also the most secret, both in the former Soviet Union and during Perestroika, until three years ago, when his name appeared for the first time in the Russian press.

He was head of special operations of the NKVD (better known as the KGB) death squads that carried out "special tasks" - kidnappings and assassinations of Stalin's political opponents all over Europe in the 1930s, the Second World War and the post-war years.

He admitted publicly that he had carried out one assassination in the West, but Russian researchers into the subject think that he was personally responsible for many more.

In 1953, after the arrest of Lavrenti Beria, the head of Stalin's secret police, he was one of two-dozen people arrested, and he went on to serve 15 years in prison, not for the crimes he had committed but as one of Beria's close associates.

Sudoplatov was born in 1907 in Melitopol (then a small town of 20,000 inhabitants) in southern Ukraine, one of the sons of a Ukrainian grain miller and a Russian mother. There were five children. Pavel was baptised in the Russian Orthodox Church and went to a Russian school, but was completely bi-lingual in the Russian and Ukrainian languages.

In 1919 his elder brother Nikolai joined a battalion of the Cheka (the KGB's original name) and was killed shortly afterwards. Like his brother, as a teenager Pavel also joined the Cheka. He took part in the ruthless Cheka operations against the Ukrainian nationalist leaders Simon Petliura (who was assassinated in Paris in 1926 by a Cheka agent, Shvartsbard) and Yevgeni Konovalets, one of the leaders of the independent Ukraine. By 1922 the Russian civil war had ended and Ukraine was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union.

In 1927 Sudoplatov was promoted to the secret political department of the Ukrainian OGPU (another name for the KGB) in Kharkov, Ukraine's second largest city. Here in 1928 he met Emma Kaganova, originally from Gomel, who became his common-law wife. They married in 1951. Kaganova was a much more senior officer in the secret police than Sudaplatov was and promoted him. In the early 1930s both moved to Moscow. Before long both were acting as illegal agents operating all over Europe.

During the Spanish Civil War Sudoplatov posed as a Polish volunteer on the Republican side. In fact he headed a foreign guerrilla warfare group run by the NKVD (another name of the KGB). It was in Spain that he met a young lieutenant Ramon Mercader del Rio, the future assassin of Trotsky in Mexico. It was Sudoplatov's friend and close associate in the NKVD Naum Eitingon who made Ramon's mother, Caridad, his mistress and recruited Mercader for the "murder of the century", as it was called at the time, on 20 August 1940.

In 1937, after General Franco's victory, both fled Spain. Eitingon stayed briefly in France where he ran Guy Burgess (of the Cambridge spy ring) and lived with Caridad Mercader, while Sudoplatov went to Belgium. He was one of several dozen operative agents of cells carrying out "special tasks" - he used the phrase for the title of his memoirs - such as kidnapping and the murder of Stalin's opponents.

One such task was to eliminate Yevgeni Konovalets, against whom he had fought as a Cheka teenager. He managed to befriend him by pretending to be a Ukrainian nationalist and on 23 May 1938, in Rotterdam, presented him with a box of chocolates containing a bomb, which blew up in Konovalets's face. Watching opposite in a cafe, Sudaplatov then quietly took a taxi and went to Brussels and from there to Paris. He returned to Moscow, where he was met as a hero and presented to the head of the NKVD, Nikolai Yezhov, and the rising star in Stalin's secret police, Lavrenti Beria.

During the Second World War Sudoplatov was the head of the NKVD's sabotage and diversions operations throughout the German-occupied territories of the Soviet Union. He was also at the centre of Soviet atomic espionage which was transferred from the GRU - Military Intelligence - to the Foreign Intelligence Directorate of the NKVD, where Sudoplatov was deputy director until 1942.

With the help of people like Bruno Pontecorvo (who defected to the Soviet Union), Klaus Fuchs (who was arrested and convicted) and hundreds of other sympathisers who supplied Beria (then supervising Soviet atomic espionage) with secrets from the United States and Britain, the Soviet physicist Igor Kurchatov and his team of scientists were given enough information to create the Soviet atomic bomb.

In the post-war years Sudaplatov continued to be in charge both of illegal operations against NATO installations in Europe and a disinformation campaign particularly against West Germany and the US. In a purge during the power struggle after Stalin's death (in March 1953) Sudoplatov was arrested (shortly after his boss, Beria, in August that year) and became prisoner number eight in a cell, first in the basement of Lubianka (later Butyrka) jail, where he tried simulating lunacy. He was such a hated figure in the now prevailing anti-Stalinist atmosphere that political inmates arrested by his organisation gave him a severe beating. Sentenced to 15 years in jail for his association with Beria, he was eventually released in 1969.

Decades on, he was approached by an American journalist couple, Gerrold and Leona Schecter, to write his memoirs. He was unwilling to tell them anything, but eventually they persuaded him through his lecturer son, Anatoly, who helped him with Special Tasks: the memoirs of an unwanted witness - a Soviet spymaster, which was published by Little, Brown and Company in 1994. Sudaplatov's wife Emma, a veteran of the KGB, died in 1988.

In 1992 Sudaplatov was rehabilitated after years of campaigning from his KGB friends and relatives, and his military rank of lieutenant-general was restored. This caused controversy and protests from the many victims of his organisation who were still alive.

His memoirs appeared in Russian in Moscow only this year (as "Intelligence and the Kremlin", without an index), when nobody was interested any more. He never gave a proper interview to an independent newspaper or television, but only to KGB publications.

Jeanne Vronskaya

Pavel Anatolievich Sudoplatov, KGB agent: born Melitopol 1907; married 1951 Emma Kaganova (died 1988; one son); died Moscow 24 September 1996.

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