Ivanov Andrey Alexandrovich
Saint-Petersburg State Academy of Veterinary Medicine
Candidate of History

The article is dedicated to investigating the history of building, development and functioning of military counterintelligence service of the Russian Empire in 1903-1914. The basic principals of counterintelligence’s organizational structure, evolution of goals and objectives, etc. were analyzed.

Keywords: counterintelligence, intelligence, Russian Empire, secret service, state security, The First World War

Category: 07.00.00 History

Article reference:
Ivanov A.A. Russian Empire Counterintelligence Service on the eve of the First World War: Traditions and Innovations // Modern scientific researches and innovations. 2017. № 7 [Electronic journal]. URL:

View this article in Russian

The problem of transitional regimes in politics, economy, and culture occupies an important place in modern historical research. In this context, the period prior to the beginning of the First World War has a significant interest. This is largely due to the fact that the reforming of Russian Empire administrative system which took place after the Russian-Japanese war and the First Russian revolution provoked change in almost all spheres of public life. One of such spheres was the sphere of internal security of the state. In this regard, studying history of Russian state security organs’ formation taking into accounts both national and international factors of this process appears to be quite relevant.

The security organs traditionally played an important role in the development of Russian state. Though its prototypes first appeared in the XVI-XVII centuries, prior to the beginning of the XX century Russia didn’t have any kind of professional counterintelligence service, because espionage until that period appeared to be a random phenomenon, so the creation of separate counterintelligence (or military control) institution in the Russian Empire state apparatus was considered to be impractical. The function of struggling foreign intelligence activities was divided between such institutions as Police Department (PD), Corps of Gendarmes (CG), Border Service and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. At the same time, increasing tensions between the major European powers in the beginning of the XX century led not only to militarization of public life in these countries, but also to significant increase in the role of secret intelligence, which undoubtedly required the organization of an appropriate response.

This process was started on 20 January, 1903, when Russian Military Minister, General A.N. Kuropatkin sent a report to Emperor Nicholas II with a suggestion to create an independent counterespionage organisation. The necessity of forming such department was determined by the fact that «the system of army training and preliminary development of strategic plans on the first period of campaign, acquire an actual value only if they remain secret for the supposed opponent; therefore the matter of paramount importance is protecting those secrets and detecting criminal activity of persons, informing foreign governments about it» [11, p. 98].

Meanwhile, up to 1905 about 15 German and Austrian intelligence organizations were operating in Russia, and their number was constantly growing. According to the Police Department and General Staff «espionage has received an unprecedented development and is now no longer random, as before, but rather systematic and permanent, and includes picking up a variety of information about the status of the armed forces». Hostile agents were interested in any information about «1) the moral element of the Russian Army; and 2) the officers; 3) uniform; 4) weapons; 5) equipment; 6) military training; 7) deployment of troops; 8) aeronautics; 9) railways; 10) the organization of troops during the war; 11) Russian fortresses; 12) quartermasters’ warehouses and stores» [Galvazin, 2001, p. 14], etc. Not only the German and Austrian but also Japanese spies acted in this manner. However, the majority of Russian officers were not even familiar with the methods of foreign intelligence.

At the same time, the competence of police and gendarme officers in this question caused obvious doubts, as a basic sphere of their activity – political investigation – was however very far from struggling military espionage. As far as Russia from the beginning of the century became one of major objects of German secret service [Gilensen, 1991, p. 157], it is difficult to disagree with the conclusions of Kuropatkin. After receiving Emperor’s positive resolution, inside the General Staff of the Russian army was created a special «Intelligence division» under the direction of gendarme captain V.N. Lavrov, which assumed resistance to foreign agents and secret surveillance of foreign spies and their agents among the Russian citizens. Nevertheless, because of small number of staff (only 21 employees) and a certain ambiguity of legal status, this organ did not leave noticeable track in history of Russian special services. There were only a few arrests of foreign spies on its account, which were not fully appreciated by the Royal government. As a result, the «division» was abolished with the end of Russian-Japanese war.

Meanwhile, the defeat of Russian forces in this conflict entailed the cardinal revision of not only the bases of military organization but also a counterespionage system. The conclusions made after war were that the lack of a clear distinction between «spheres of influence» in detecting enemy agents between the Police Department, Corps of gendarmes and military headquarters, as well as the absence of systematic counterintelligence measures, hindered the identification of enemy spies. Gendarme officer’s efforts in the field were mostly non-agential and limited to registration of all Japanese living in strategically important areas, and interdicting their movements to the districts of battle actions, which, certainly, cannot be acknowledged as positive practice. The imbalance of different institutions in counterespionage sphere forced the government to create a special service of military control to resist foreign intelligence agencies both in times of peace and war.

The first attempt of forming such a service refers to 1906, when in several military districts was created a network of special directorates engaging both intelligence and counterintelligence work. However, the combination of these functions in the same hands with the lack of specificity of goals and objectives, absence of structural-functional relationships with other elements of military management and a small number of staff did not allow these institutions to begin full-scale fight against enemy espionage. Besides, the laws of Russian Empire gave a right to make searches, arrests and preliminary inquest only to the employees of Ministry of Internal Affairs and CG, therefore headquarters’ officers often had to ask local police and gendarmerie for approvals to conduct operational-investigative activities, and that made their work hampered and complicated.

In addition, a certain obstacle on the way of construction an effective system of independent counterespionage units was the position of some Russian Empire statesmen. In particular, in opinion of head of the Council of Ministers P.A. Stolypin, «counterintelligence, in fact, is only one of the branches of political investigation» [12, p. 176], and this point of view nullified any attempts to create an independent military control agency. As for the leaders of the Military Ministry, many of them considered organising such an agency inappropriate, as well as counterespionage was perceived only as a form of intelligence [Alekseev, 1998, p. 49]. In this situation, one of the few bearers of organizational initiatives to establish professional military control institutions became the General Staff, headed by General F.F. Palitsyn who still insisted on segregating counterintelligence service in a particular organ.

To resolve the contradictions in 1908 and 1910 were held a few meetings of two Inter-Ministerial Commissions on forming of counterintelligence service, chaired by the PD director M.I. Trusevich and chief of gendarmes P.G. Kourlov. Their subordinates done a lot of work to analyze the operational practices of Russian secret services, aimed at developing recommendations to improve the counterintelligence security of Russian Empire. In spite of considerable distinction of the decisions, accepted in 1908 and 1910, stemming not only from the change of participants in the meeting, but also from the political conjuncture, the fundamental conclusions of both commissions have a lot of in common. First and foremost, their undoubted achievement should be attributed the development of basic counterespionage terminology. In particular, military intelligence was defined as «collecting all sorts of information about the armed forces and fortified settlements of the state, as well as the relevant geographical, topographical and statistical data about the country and its communications produced with the aim of handing them over to a foreign state».

As a consequence, the counterintelligence activity was aimed at «timely detection of persons engaged in intelligence work for foreign countries, and taking measures to prevent the intelligence work of these states inRussia. The ultimate goal of counterintelligence is prosecuting persons proved guilty in military espionage by articles 108-109 of the Criminal code of law of 1903, or stopping harmful activity of these persons at least by administrative measures». In addition, the conclusion of commissions that «the most rational measure of counterintelligence is organisation of correctly set and wide secret emissary service» also deserves attention. Partly, this conclusion was caused by desire of its developers to rely on experience and methodology of political investigation organs at forming a new secret service.

However, it should be acknowledged that this decision, not depending of the motives of people who accepted it, was the most suitable measure of struggling enemy espionage due to several factors. Firstly, the officers of the Russian army and officials of PD and CG up to 1908 acquired a rich experience of conducting intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance in Russian Empire and abroad. For example, from the end of XIX century Russian secret agents operated inGermany,Turkey,Japanand at the Balkans, and the employees of gendarmerie used the ramified secret-service network for countering anti-state activity of some radical political parties. Secondly, the agential provision of counterintelligence activities was a central element of military control systems of Great Britain, Germany and France [Boukar, 1943, p. 62], and therefore it is possible to assert that this trait was a pan-European tendency of security organs’ development, which had already proved its solvency in the countries of Western Europe.

As to conflicts between members of two commissions, they were reflected in the discussion concerning the structural identity of counterespionage institutions. If general Kuropatkin supposed to integrate counterintelligence into the structure of the Military Ministry or General staff [Kuropatkin, 2002, p. 261], Trusevich aimed to put this service under the control of Police Department. It should be mentioned that the head of PD was not alone in such aspiration, and, in fact, was only a conductor of ideas of his direct manager – Prime-Minister Stolypin.

In 1906 Stolypin began reforming the Department to convert it into a central managing organ of all the secret services of Russian Empire. In particular, one of the steps in this direction was the establishment of police control over the activities of district «okhrana directorates» at the end of 1906. Taking these facts into account, we must acknowledge the Trusevich’s commission conclusions a landmark of Stolypin’s deliberate policy to consolidate the various security functions in the hands of Police Department. Besides, it is necessary to mention that members of political investigation organs, by the laws currently in force up to 1908, had more power in realization of operational-investigative activities in comparison with the military structures. For example, police officers had a right to view personal postal correspondence in order to identify criminals, while the officers of Russian army didn’t have similar rights at the moment. Thus, an attempt to integrate counterintelligence into the structure of political investigation institutions was basically a measure of extensive expansion of military control agents’ rights and plenary powers.

Ultimately, it shouldn’t be forgot that foreign secret services in their activity in Russia often used different criminal elements and even representatives of political opposition for their purposes (for example, German secret service once received a similar suggestion from U. Pilsoudskyi [Ronge, 2004, p. 22] – a well-known Polish nationalist). As a result, it was easier to carry out the identification of this type of hostile agents basing on investigative materials and files of law-enforcement establishments, as far as military organs did not have any relevant data. However, due to the necessity to solve numerous bureaucratic formalities, the decisions of the first Inter-Ministerial commission were never implemented. The convening of second commission in 1910 marked a major revision of previous findings. Taking into account that by this time the influence of Stolypin substantially fell down, his ideas and views on organization of counterespionage service already did not play such role as two years earlier.

In this connection, the members of second commission, headed by Kurlov, noted that «Police Department does not have any special knowledge of military organization of Russian and foreign armies, and hence cannot manage counterintelligence service» [Starkov, 2006, 174]. As a consequence, the work of commission was, actually, directed on lobbying the interests of General Staff and Corps of gendarmes in the formation of counterespionage organs. According to the commission’s decision, counterintelligence was included into the structure of the Military Ministry, but its staff consisted of gendarmes as well as army officers. The proper documents were ratified by the State Duma, and then by chief of General Staff Y.G. Zhilinskyi.

The aim of new department consisted in «discovery, inspection, elaboration and liquidation as soon as possible all sorts of spy organizations and agents, secretly collecting information about our armed forces and, in general, all kinds of military information in order to prevent these organizations and agents to operate detrimentally against us». For execution of these functions it was annually assumed 583500 roubles from a state treasury or 27% of all secret spending of Military Ministry. It is important that these funds were not under government control.

On the whole, the analysis of «The Regulations on the Counterintelligence Organs» and «The Instruction to Chiefs of Counterintelligence Organs», based on the findings of Inter-Ministerial commissions, demonstrates their compatibility with the traditional principles of construction of Russian secret services. In particular, basic structural unit of military control service became a Counterintelligence Department (CID), which was a direct borrowing of elements of CG’s organizational system. So, at the headquarters of military districts were established 11 CIDs in Warsaw, Vilno, Kiev, Odessa, Tashkent, Tiflis, Moscow, Irkutsk, Khabarovsk and two Departments in Saint-Petersburg [Batiushin, 2007, p. 170].

These institutions, as well as regional «okhrana directorates» were characterized by a high level of autonomy in their activity. It happened because of the absence of a single governing body in the structure of military control service and the remoteness of many CIDs from Saint-Petersburg. Thus, despite the structural belonging of CIDs to headquarters of military districts, jurisdiction of regional military authorities did not spread on counterintelligence the same way as jurisdiction of Governors did not spread on provincial gendarme departments. The commanders of military districts and chiefs of headquarters were able to give official tasks and requests to CID employees, but couldn’t manage their activity – it was the exclusive prerogative of the General Directorate of General Staff.

Another important borrowing of political investigation organs’ operative practice was the general principles of agential surveillance, revaluated for the purposes of counterespionage work. As to the orders about the integration of gendarme officers into the Counterintelligence Departments, it could solve several problems at the same time. Firstly, the Corps of gendarmes up to 1910 had one of their most powerful emissary apparatus inRussia, which was focused on struggling political radicalism and could be easily modified to counter foreign intelligence and sabotage activities. Secondly, this move was also an attempt to solve the staffing problem – there was no professional system of counterintelligence-training in the Empire, and officials of CG had sufficient experience in intelligence work.

Certainly, aforesaid documents were not deprived of failings, one of which was excessive secrecy of military control service. The 11 CIDs formed on the territory of Russian Empire were very conspiratorial, which was rigidly declared by the instruction to its’ chiefs: «It is necessary to take all measures not to identify the secret agents’ belonging to counterintelligence and their role neither in preliminary investigation, nor in the court» [Galvazin, 2001, p. 46]. If detecting of foreign spies was easier to fulfill staying undercover, the conduction of the trial in these cases without the participation of counterintelligence agents was practically meaningless. As a result, the majority of spy-cases did not even come to court, and identified foreign agents were simply expelled fromRussia– the proportion of condemned in espionage rarely exceeded 20%. Thus, of 150 spies, exposed by counterintelligence ofWarsawmilitary district, only 29 were condemned. In Irkutsk district the percentage was even lower – of nearly 50 suspects, finally, only one appeared before the court. Still, such flaws were not fatal and didn’t cause the systemic failings in the work of CIDs.

The initial stage of formation counterespionage service was completed – it received its own staffing, legal providing and financing, and counterintelligence branches were formed in the headquarters of military districts in most parts of the country. As a result, the created Counterintelligence Departments began work by the summer 1911. In future, the necessity to solve different organizational problems, associated with the formation of a new establishment, entailed the revision of legislation in the sphere of espionage, inspired by the Military Minister, General V.A. Sukhomlinov. He concluded that «our criminal law provides an opportunity to fight not the espionage, but only its manifestations – transmission and reporting […] the information about the military defence of the State». Sukhomlinov’s persistence and conviction in the correctness his point of view  pushed Duma to make the appropriate changes in Russian legislation by July 1912 [Galvazin, 2001, pp. 6-8]. The main positive component of legal-normative innovations was the more precise specification of counterintelligence terminology: the spying was separated from the inadvertent disclosure of secret information, and the definition of state secrets was clarified – «the information or items relating to the external security of Russia or its armed forces, intended for military defence of the country».

The position of gendarmes appointed to the staff of counterintelligence was also changed. It was mostly related with the position of a new head of Corps of gendarmes V.F. Dzhunkovskyi who considered the powerful intelligence apparatus of his organ to be harmful for the state [Ruud et al., 1993, p. 334]. In order to prevent the removal of skilled agents, the government in 1913 made the decision about the structural subordination of the former gendarmes working in CIDs to the General Staff. This turn of events did not meet any resistance from the Dzhunkovskyi, despite the fact that his employees from that time were under the control of two institutions at the same time – Military ministry and Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Summing, it must be concluded that during the pre-war period Russian counterintelligence service acquired final shape, despite the fact that directions of reform often varied, being dependent on the views and opinions of different statesmen about the goals and objectives of counterespionage agency. The reason of such a high role of subjectivity can be explained by the fact that counterintelligence in Russia was a comparatively new phenomenon, and the relative stability of military-political situation in the country created a false impression that military control will not be used for a long time, and could be treated as a «small change» in the struggle of political groups inside the government.

Though, the formation of counterintelligence service was a certain innovation for Russian military system, this institution adopted the traditional traits of native secret services, such as: leaning on emissary apparatus in operative work, high independence of regional braches, using of political investigation organs’ staff, etc. At the same time organisation of counterespionage institutions didn’t influence on the main trait of Russian security structures – its decentralization. As for the interdepartmental co-operation in counterintelligence, it was mostly characterised by «corresponding on general questions of dynamics of foreign espionage» [Starkov, 2006, p.189].

Development of counterintelligence was also impended by purely psychological factors, as well as «the mentality of skilled officers was initially negative to any kind of operative search among them» [Kirmel, 2006, p. 52]. It really hampered the identification of foreign agents among senior officers of the Russian army. Thus, the new organ had to face misunderstanding of the importance of its work, not only among government officials, but even ordinary soldiers and officers. This omission was corrected only with the beginning of the First World War.

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  2. N.S. Batiushin, At the Roots of Russian Counterintelligence (Moscow: Kuchkovo Pole, 2007), in Russian.
  3. R. Boukar, Backstage of French and German intelligence services (Moscow: Military Literature Press, 1943), in Russian.
  4. S.N. Galvazin, Security Structures of Russian Empire: Organisation of apparatus, the Analysis of Operational Practices (Moscow: Top Secret, 2001), in Russian.
  5. V.M. Gilensen, “German Military Intelligence againstRussia(1871-1917)”, Modern and Contemporary History, 2 (1991), 153-159.
  6. N.S. Kirmel, “BuildingofRussianEmpire Counterintelligence Service”, Military-Historical Journal, 2 (2006), 50-54.
  7. A.N. Kuropatkin, Russian-Japanese War, 1904-1905: Outcome of the War (Saint-Petersburg: Polygon, 2002), in Russian.
  8. M. Ronge, Intelligence and Counterintelligence (Saint-Petersburg:Saint-PetersburgUniversity Press, 2004), in Russian.
  9. C.A. Ruud, S.A. Stepakov, Fontanka, 16: Political Investigation during the time of Tsars (Moscow: Mysl, 1993), in Russian.
  10. B.A. Starkov, Spy hunters. Counterintelligence of Russian Empire in 1903-1914 (Saint-Petersburg: Piter, 2006), in Russian.
  11. Russian State Military-Historical Archive. F. 2000. Inv. 15. File 18.
  12. Russian State Military-Historical Archive. F. 2000. Inv. 15. File. 26.

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