GRU History: Ivashutin, Master of Counter-Intelligence

When bringing to Moscow a delegation from the House of Lords back in the summer of 2002, I was anxious lest they be misled: not by the Russians, of course, who were at sixes and sevens after President Putin’s decision to open the intelligence books to the Bush administration after 9.11, but by our own side.

I had requested that the British embassy arrange for us to see a number of people who were not the usual tired and unrepresentative characters trotted out to meet Western politicians – like-minded liberals whose supporters would barely fill a school hall let alone a football stadium.

Instead I asked for, among others, Marshal Pyotr Ivashutin, recently dismissed as head of the GRU and a diehard hawk who, though losing his sight, argued strongly for continued resistance to Western influence which he believed had destroyed the Soviet Union.  The embassy, of course, did nothing of the sort. Indeed, it did exactly what I feared it would do if left to its own devices. The Party line from No 10 under the authoritarian know-it-all Tony Blair was that the ambassador could rely upon person-to-person relations between President Putin and the Prime Minister, just as he had insisted on the same in Washington D.C. with President Bush – to the same disastrous result.

Ivashutin was a unique figure of unusual raw talent tested in the war atop Smersh on the south-western front, where penetration of the enemy and disinformation through “radio games” were the order of the day. Here Ivashutin rubbed shoulders with and blocked the officer commanding, Georgi Zhukov, in his own insistence on liberating Romania from within by coup d’état rather than through a full and costly military offensive. Thoroughly trustworthy even to his boss Abakumov and the boss of bosses Stalin, he somehow survived the worst that Stalinism had to offer in a career I have outlined in my history of Soviet intelligence, Near and Distant Neighbours. It was Ivashutin who eventually uncovered and arrested Colonels Pyotr Popov and Oleg Pen’kovsky. He later ensured that the greatest American spy in Russian military intelligence, the courageous and defiant General Dmitrii Polyakov, came to a predictably grisly end; though well after wreaking havoc with state secrecy in military and foreign polical affairs under a régime he loathed.

The Russian deep state TV channel Zvezda aired a fascinating documentary on Ivashutin in its series “Legendy Gosbezopasnosti” on 24 December with commentary from veterans/historians Oleg Matveev, Vladimir Galitskii (whom I had not seen before) and Oleg Khlobustov. A crucial new fact that emerges from the documentary is that after the damaging exposure of Pen’kovsky, Ivashutin volunteered to take over the post of GRU director from the hapless fitness fanatic Ivan Serov, who had dithered at a time when crucial decisions needed to be taken over Pen’kovsky. This was actually a step down since the GRU was subordinate to the General Staff, whereas as Deputy Head of the KGB Ivashutin was in full control of military counter-intelligence. None the less he did as he was determined to do and swept the stable clean. A fascinating story, of which the documentary tells but a small part.