SMERSH (short for SMERt' SHpionam (СМЕРть Шпионам), or "Death to Spies") was the name of a specialized counterintelligence department in the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff GRU of the Soviet Union. Operating under various names since the beginning of the GRU, it was given its most notorious name SMERSH during the years immediately preceding World War II. The direction of SMERSH was to secure the rear of the active Red Army from partisans, saboteurs, and spies, on the front to investigate and arrest conspirators and mutineers, "traitors, deserters, spies, and criminal elements", and support the General Staff's strategic operations by carrying out global assassination of elements considered subversive to the military stability of the Red Army.
Soviet intelligence policy generally divided their activities along three directions in accordance with the division of power in the Soviet Union: State, Party, Military. The State's primary intelligence arm was the Cheka and remained focused on counter-intelligence; the Party's main intelligence arm was the various Communist Commissions on the domestic front which focused on political counter-intelligence and the Communist International which was focused on foreign intelligence and covert operations; and the Military which focused on politico-military activities both intelligence and counter-intelligence at home and abroad. Because of the early status of the Soviet Union as a pariah nation, most of what today would be considered politico-military intelligence activities as conducted by a state power were conducted by the GRU.
SMERSH existed within the GRU almost from its beginning. However, the early years were almost entirely devoted to investigating and carrying out counter-intelligence operations against partisans, saboteurs, and other dissident elements at home in the military units or in areas of rebellion of the Soviet Union. Therefore, as the Russian Civil War died down and Moscow's grip became more strengthened, the elements which it constituted were almost entirely folded up and replaced by the Checka and various paramilitary police organizations such as the MVD.
However, the GRU remained as the primary covert intelligence service of the Soviet Government following its almost total isolation by world powers. The GRU became the primary agent of the Soviet Union in obtaining military-industrial hardware such as electronics, aerospace design, radio communications, etc., as well as traditional military intelligence such as unit strength, table of organization values, military policy and strategy, etc.
As the various global powers came to grip with the spread of GRU activities, counter-intelligence activities by the Western nations soon began blocking penetration attempts, then later identifying potential GRU agents, and finally expanding more complex counter-intelligence operations of doubling and disinforming GRU agents. At this point in the late 1920s, the ruthlessness of the Soviets which had featured the summary executions of millions of dissidents at home let alone suspected spies were now brought to bear on GRU officers and their agents who were suspected of wittingly or unwittingly working for the Western powers. Thus, the various death squads of the Russian Civil War were reactivated for use in the GRU. For the next twenty years, operating under various names, usually under names such as killing squads, death to traitors, death to spies etc, were named, but always operating under the same bureau of the Defense Chief Counter-intelligence Directorate.
As the requirements of war expanded and the Soviet arms began their conquest of previously occupied German territory, the complexities of counter-espionage, counter-insurgency, and occupation were sufficiently large to encourage the Stalin to consolidate all of SMERSH under his direct control. On April 15, 1943 SMERSH was officially transferred to NKO (Narodnyi Komissariat Oboroni). The full name of the head entity was Главное управление контрразведки СМЕРШ Народного комиссариата обороны СССР, or USSR People's Commissariat of Defense Chief Counterintelligence Directorate "SMERSH". At the same time SMERSH directorate within the People's Commissariat of the Soviet Navy and SMERSH department of NKVD were created.. All were to be coordinated by a single directorate with its own analytical division. It was headed by Viktor Abakumov, who instead of reporting to the Defense Committee now reported directly to Stalin.
As the war wound down, the need for a strategic directorate focused on counter-espionage wet operations and counter-insurgency pacification operations which answered directly to Stalin was no longer viewed necessary. Thus, on March 1946 SMERSH Chief Directorate was resubordinated to the People's Commissariat of Military Forces (Наркомат Вооруженных Сил, НКВС. Additionally, as a period of increased scrutiny by Western powers was expected as well as a new Soviet propaganda offensive at political subversion of Western anti-communist resistance, the Soviets further sought to purge the image of SMERSH and the HKBC was latter reorganized into the Ministry of Military Forces (МВС) soon thereafter), and officially discontinued in May, 1946. However, the elements and organs of SMERSH remained structured and glimpses of the organization remained as late as the 1950s, particularly during the Korean War and the late 50's Cold War.
Some high-profile assassinations or disappearances of individuals that would historically have been under the writ of SMERSH also continued. These include Louis Adamic, Noel Field and his entire family, and hundreds of Field's agents. Additionally, numerous suspected GRU German agents as well as a number of Allied agents (even intelligence officers) disappeared in Berlin and other parts of occupied Europe well into the 1950s.
SMERSH had functioned as an organization to mobilize youth in national defense, and some of its promising young members, such as Yuri Modin, were recruited into the KGB.
SMERSH was divided into 8 sections:
Counter-intelligence protection of central Red Army institutions
Work among POWs
Counterespionage and conduct radio games
Organization of Counter-intelligence behind front lines
Oversight of SMERSH organs in military districts
Information and statistic
Codes and communications