Training School for Foreign Intelligence

These days it is the grushniki – operatives of the intelligence directorate of the General Staff – who have brought down on Russian heads the most atrocious publicity by promising more than they could deliver in operations abroad. They have made more of a hash of it than the FSB – the domestic intelligence service – when its officers despatched Litvinenko in London, leaving a trail of polonium behind them in November 2006.

But what of the Foreign Intelligence Service: the SVR? It has been busy polishing its image for some time under Sergei Naryshkin, himself a former officer in the service who once trained with President Putin. And the SVR has undoubtedly benefited by default from the cock-ups of the two rival services. On 4 October the Zvezda television channel, which often covers the history of war and the history of intelligence, aired an intriguing documentary about the Yuri Andropov Academy of Foreign Intelligence, responsible for training the SVR’s operatives for work abroad (“SVR. Akademiya Osobogo Naznacheniya”, documentary series “Kod dostupa”, Zvezda, 4 October 2018.)

The Academy has had many nomenclatures and began with Stalin’s decision during the bloody terror when over 600 officers in the foreign department of the NKVD were wiped out and the Russians were forced to start from scratch. Hitherto its officers were not trained under one roof. The order to build one training establishment went out on 3 October 1937. It began life as the SHON (the specially designated school) on five sites located in the outskirts of Moscow, literally in the woods.

What the television programme emphasises is that the core curriculum consists of Psychology, Foreign Languages and Physical Training, including sports of various kinds. The stress on psychology is particularly interesting. Bob Conquest, the noted historian of the Soviet Union, used to tell the story of a visit to the Frunze Military Academy by a delegation of senior American officers after the end of the Cold War. The leading American general proudly outlined the training in the social sciences in comparable US institutions. When he had finished, the general asked his hosts what they taught. The one word answer came in an instant: War!

The SVR can thus be said to have branched out much further than its military counterparts.