Looming over the sergeant’s internal ruminations was the inescapable fact that Minister of Defense and General of the Army Vyacheslav Maximovich Biryukov—recently returned from a secret trip to America—had no patience for mistakes. None. And, like most senior Russian military and security service commanders, the Minister was also clinically paranoid. He often perceived innocent failure as deliberate sabotage, gossip around the samovar as whispering intrigue.
If a room fell silent the instant he entered, he was known to seal the door and call everyone who happened to be in the room into his office, one at a time. His unblinking gaze pinned each to a chair, like a butterfly in a museum of natural history, treated as a prime suspect in a vague crime, the specifics of which only Biryukov knew. He saw no need to explain the offense to his specimens. Each suffered a thorough interrogation, a talent for which had helped make the general’s fame as a junior officer of the GRU, the Russian military intelligence service. Most survived the ordeal. An unlucky few were referred for “further processing” and fell from favor. One or two disappeared and were never seen or heard from again.
From Cronatos Hybamper –An Extraordinary Incident by Tom Diaz
Well, isn’t this timely?
No sooner do I write a novel in which an alumni of the GRU (Glavnoye razvedyvatel’noye upravleniye) is a prominent character than the “real” news accommodates me. President Obama expels a pot full of GRU officers from the USA!
Long regarded as the understudy of the infamous KGB and its successor services, Russian military intelligence is now front and center in the Moscow-Washington showdown…But on Thursday the GRU suddenly emerged from the shadows when the waning Obama administration imposed sanctions on the four top-ranking GRU officers for their roles hacking the private email correspondence of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chief John Podesta. The entire spy agency, along with the FSB, was also sanctioned institutionally.
Michael Weiss, “The GRU: Putin’s No-Longer-So-Secret Weapon,” The Daily Beast.
I am not sure that “understudy” is a word properly applied to the GRU, but Weiss mentions the story of Col. Oleg Penkovsky, who played a key role in preventing war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Penkovsky was “a GRU colonel and… a double agent being jointly run by Britain’s MI6 and the CIA…When Penkovsky’s betrayal was discovered it cost him his life.”
“Cost him his life” may be an understatement. Therein hangs a gruesome tale. Or not, depending on whose version of which story you believe.
A GRU defector who wrote under the pen name of Victor Suvorov described the horrible execution of an unnamed colonel in one of his books, Inside the Aquarium: The Making of a Top Soviet Spy (New York: Macmillan, 1986), pp. 2-3. Supposedly, his class of GRU recruits were shown a film of an anonymous colonel being cremated alive. The black and white silent film was a cautionary lesson in keeping one’s mouth shut.
The fire doors open smoothly to each side, the coffin is given a gentle push and it bears its unknown occupant into the roaring flames. Then the camera gives a close-up of a living person. A face swimming in perspiration. It is probably very hot near the furnace A face is displayed from all sides of what seems an eternity. At last the camera pulls back to show the person full length. He is not in a gown. He is dressed in an expensive black suit, terribly crumpled. His tie is tightly screwed round his neck. The man himself is bound fast with steel wire to a stretcher, and the stretcher has been propped up against the wall so that the man can see the furnace…At last it is the turn of the man bound to the stretcher…I study the man’s face in the hope of finding there signs of madness. It’s easier for madmen in this world. But there are no such signs on that handsome face. It is simply that he doesn’t want to go into the furnace and is trying somehow to make that clear. But what can he do except scream? So he screams…Then his patent leather shoes go into the fire, and that is that.
Some believe that the unfortunate colonel was Penkovsky. Some think it was not. Others think the whole story is fiction.Who am I to judge?
Here is how that every-ready open source Wikipedia sums up the matter.
GRU agent Vladimir Rezun, known for his controversial books under the pseudonym Viktor Suvorov following his defection from the Soviet Union to the United Kingdom, claimed in Aquarium to have been shown a black and white film in which a GRU colonel was bound to a stretcher and cremated alive in a crematorium as a warning to potential traitors and since Penkovsky is the only GRU colonel known to have been executed, Suvorov’s story was taken by many to be an account of Penkovsky’s execution. A similar description of the process was later included in Ernest Volkman’s popular book and Tom Clancy’s novel Red Rabbit. However, Suvorov in an interview in 2010 denied that the man in the film was Penkovsky, and claimed that he had been shot. Greville Wynne in his book ‘The Man from Odessa’ claimed that Penkovsky committed suicide.
There is more grist for the imagination.
One of the 24 episodes of the CNN-BBC documentary Cold War is about the spies on each side. It includes actual footage of Penkovsky’s interrogation and an interview with his interrogator, Alexander Zagvozdin. Here is the relevant excerpt from a brief cut posted on YouTube:
“I know for sure that Penkovsky was shot. I can’t tell you anything else. I know his body was cremated. I don’t know anything more. And I’m not interested.”
There’s a lot of wiggle-room in that answer. Was he shot to death? Or just enough to let him savor the smoke on the way in? And, just by the way, why wouldn’t you be interested?
For a brief and very sober account of Penkovsky’s story, you can find the CIA’s version at “The Capture and Execution of Colonel Penkovsky, 1963.”
[Oh, wait, I guess one should properly write “CIA’s version,” rather than “the CIA’s version,” as the article “the” is tres gauche when applied to either the name or the acronym of the organization. Get it? It’s CIA. Not, the CIA.]