Alexander Bondarenko, author of a new book about former Soviet foreign intelligence head Pavel Fitin, shares the inside story of how the Soviet intelligence service acquired the plans to the nuclear bomb from the U.S.

President Harry Truman, center, talks with Soviet leader Josef Stalin, left, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, at the Potsdam Conference in Potsdam, Germany, near Berlin, on July 17, 1945. Photo: AP

Writer and military intelligence historian Alexander Bondarenko’s new book Fitin tells the story of Pavel Fitin, head of the Foreign Intelligence Service of the Soviet Union during the Second World War. In conversation with RBTH's Editor Maria Obrazkova, the author talked about his protagonist, the Soviet intelligence service, the impact of Soviet intelligence on the course of the war, and the creation of the Soviet nuclear industry.

Alexander BondarenkoRussia Direct: Alexander, tell us why you’re interested in Fitin.

Alexander Bondarenko: I have long-standing contacts in the press office of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). On the 70th anniversary of Victory Day in Russia, we took the joint decision that the life of the unjustly forgotten Pavel Fitin would make for interesting reading. I learned from confidential sources that on finding out about my book a renowned intelligence writer burst into tears! Because the idea hadn’t occurred to him! Fitin is a fascinating character but as often happens in Russia he was simply forgotten.

RD: Is his biography of historical relevance today?

A.B.: Yes. After all, he was the first to warn [Soviet leader Joseph] Stalin, through {Lavrentiy] Beria [chief of the Soviet security and secret police apparatus (NKVD)], of the high probability of a German attack on the Soviet Union, but he was ignored...

Fitin’s career path is also a fine example: a village lad from the Urals who became a self-made man. He graduated from Timiryazev Academy and worked as a book publisher for a village. He joined the security service via the publishing house. Government agencies were in the throes of Stalin's purges and about 800 young people with higher education were needed as recruits.

Our hero was one of the youngsters invited to join the NKVD in the secret service. After serving for just a year, he became the chief of intelligence! I was dumbfounded by his organizational skills and ability to find a common language with “veterans.”

In one episode he helped the family of a lad who was on the wrong side of the front line. His family was in the rear in a woeful situation. When Fitin learned about what was happening, he sorted it out in a flash. The family was given an apartment and put on rations, which in wartime was nothing short of priceless.

RD: How old was Fitin then?

A.B.: He joined the intelligence service at the age of 31. He effectively created the concept of “intelligence” as we know it today. And not only intelligence — the idea of strategic “closed cities” for critical industries, including nuclear developments, also belonged to him.

He was the first to glimpse the potential of the atomic project and convinced the authorities to pay close attention to it. Through his efforts, the Soviet Union developed a nuclear bomb almost simultaneously with the United States. He set up the information channels to assist the country’s leadership in the decision-making process. Now it is one of the most important branches of the service.

RD: Are there any new facts about the Great Patriotic War in the book?

A.B.: What’s new is that, based on documents and eyewitness accounts, we can confirm the Soviet leadership’s disdainful attitude to intelligence. After all, Fitin’s vital information was not treated seriously. I mean, if it had been given due consideration, immense human sacrifices could have been avoided.


With the kind permission of book publisher Molodaya Gvardia, RBTH includes these excerpts from Fitin by Alexander Bondarenko on the development of nuclear weapons and the espionage mission “Operation ENORMOZ” during World War II.

“... We know that on December 22, 1942, a detailed report was forwarded from London to Moscow on work being carried out not only in Britain, but also in the United States. The document indicated that the Americans were already far ahead of the British in the development of an actual bomb. We also know about the start of an intelligence mission loftily entitled “Operation ENORMOZ” (unsurprising, since the Department of Scientific and Technical Intelligence was part of the 5th Division, Anglo-American). ENORMOZ is a Russian transcription of “enormous,” which besides the literal meaning of “very large” also has connotations of “monstrous” and “terrible” in U.S. slang. But for some reason we were left in the dark about when the operation officially began...

Analyzing the materials in the intelligence report, Academician Igor Kurchatov, a.k.a. “the father of the Soviet atomic bomb” (he was the vital link between the two structures, so to speak), wrote in March 1943 to People’s Commissar Lavrenti Beria:

“My examination of these materials shows them to be of inestimable value to our country and Soviet science... The materials contain vital markers for our research, allowing us to bypass many highly labor-intensive phases of development and uncover new scientific and technical ways of resolving issues.”

Beria would shortly become the overseer of the “atomic project.”

* * *

We shall suppress the urge to delve into the details of Operation ENORMOZ, since it is only of passing relevance to the subject of this book.

But it was thanks to Fitin that it all got started. According to experts, if he hadn’t cast an eye on the reports about London’s research, and then about Washington’s, they would have been left lying around... No time for that — there was a war going on!

He immediately took charge of this field, directed it as intelligence chief, and dispatched his own people across the seven seas on specific assignments. Everyone had a role to play — in intelligence and life in general.

What's more — and this happened at the level of Fitin — we can clarify that Soviet military intelligence soon came onboard the “atomic project.” German-born British Communist and world-renowned scientist Klaus Fuchs was proactive in establishing contact.

But in 1943 the State Defense Committee declared the main objective of military intelligence to be the acquisition of German military-political plans, while scientific and technical matters would be the exclusive prerogative of the scientific and technical intelligence branch of the NKGB (People’s Commissariat for State Security). Contact with Fuchs was assigned to the foreign intelligence rezidentura (operations base for resident spies)...

The scale and focus of the work carried out under the “atomic project” can be gleaned from the top-secret plan approved by Pavel Fitin on November 5, 1944.

* * *

“… The most critical facility in the U.S. nuclear program was the Los Alamos National Laboratory, employing about 45,000 service and civilian personnel. The construction of the first atomic bomb involved 12 Nobel Laureates in Physics from the United States and Europe.

These people were not only well aware of what they are doing at that precise moment and the role that nuclear weapons would play in the near future, but also concerned about the long-term prospects. Some U.S. scientists even wrote to President Roosevelt to propose that he share the country’s nuclear secrets with the Soviet Union... Needless to say, the proposal was not welcomed.

It was then that these intellectuals (we don’t know who exactly) opted for Plan B, which involved transferring the nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union by themselves. A source in the New York rezidentura put it like this:

“There is no country except the Soviet Union that could be entrusted with such a terrible thing. But since we are powerless to take it away from other countries, let the Soviet Union know of its existence and be kept in the loop about testing and construction. Then the Soviet Union will not be in the list of countries able to be blackmailed.”

 Recommended: "War, dialogue, and reconciliation: Russia and the world in 2020"

* * *

“... People, even those far removed from Communist convictions (and entirely selflessly at that), sought to help the Soviet Union in its righteous struggle against fascism, and did not want the post-war Soviet Union to end up defenseless in the face of the world’s mightiest imperialist power...

There was, for instance, a case when an anonymous individual handed over a package to our Consulate General in New York, which turned out to contain top-secret materials on the “Manhattan Project” — as designated by the Americans. Having dropped off the package, the “benefactor” immediately left, and their identity was never established...

... The information came from various sources, but as far as we know, it all turned out to be extremely reliable — no false leads or dead-ends. Moreover, the work of Soviet intelligence under Operation ENORMOZ stayed under the West’s radar for a long time, despite the veil of absolute secrecy that shrouded the Manhattan Project, and the best efforts of foreign intelligence services to keep it in place. For this reason, when at the July 1945 Potsdam Conference U.S. President Harry Truman “casually mentioned” (his own words) the testing of a “new weapon of unusual destructive force,” Western leaders even indulged in a spot of irony.

Churchill later wrote in his memoirs: “I was sure that [Stalin] had no idea of the significance of what he was being told.”

But, as the saying goes, he who laughs last laughs best... And Stalin can be said to have had the last laugh — on August 29, 1949, to be precise, when the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear weapon.