Abram Slutsky, the son of a Jewish railroad worker, was born in the Ukraine in July 1898. He worked as a clerk at a cotton plant until the outbreak of the First World War. He joined the Russian Army and served on the Eastern Front.
Slutsky, a member of the Bolshevik Party, took part in the Russian Revolution. He also fought for the Red Army during the Russian Civil War. In 1920 he joined Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage (Cheka), the Bolshevik secret police.
In 1924 Slutsky joined the Government Political Administration (GPU) under Felix Dzerzhinsky. In 1926 he was transferred to the recently formed Foreign Department (INO), the branch of the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD). During this period the INO instigated a new system of spying. Alexander Orlov had argued that it was a mistake to use diplomats as spies. In this way NKVD officers enjoyed the protection of diplomatic immunity. However, the opposing intelligence service had little difficulty identifying the agents and therefore could minimize their effectiveness. He argued for the sending out agents using the cover of being trade officials, academics or journalists. Their task was to recruit people who had to access to secrets but had the potential to be in a position to obtain information in the future.
Agents sent out into Europe in the early 1930s included Theodore Maly, Arnold Deutsch, Richard Sorge, Ignaz Reiss, Walter Krivitsky and Leopard Trepper. The most important of these agents were Maly and Deutsch who were based in London. Together they recruited several young people who they believed were destined for future success. This included Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, John Cairncross and Michael Straight.
In May 1935, Genrikh Yagoda, the head of NKVD, put Slutsky in charge of the INO. In December 1936 Joseph Stalin decided that too many people in the NKVD knew of how he ordered the assassination of Sergy Kirov and put the blame on Leon Trotsky, Gregory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev. He therefore told Nikolai Yezhov to establish a new section of the NKVD named the Administration of Special Tasks (AST). It contained about 300 of his own trusted men from the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Yezhov's intention was complete control of the NKVD by using men who could be expected to carry out sensitive assignments without any reservations. The new AST operatives would have no allegiance to any members of the old NKVD and would therefore have no reason not to carry out an assignment against any of one of them. The AST was used to remove all those who had knowledge of the conspiracy to destroy Stalin's rivals. One of the first to be arrested was Yagoda.
Within the administration of the ADT, a clandestine unit called the Mobile Group had been created to deal with the ever increasing problem of possible NKVD defectors, as officers serving abroad were beginning to see that the arrest of people like Yagoda, their former chief, would mean that they might be next in line. Mikhail Shpiegelglass became the head of the Mobile Group. By the summer of 1937, over forty intelligence agents serving abroad were summoned back to the Soviet Union.
In July 1937, Alexander Orlov had a meeting with Theodore Maly in Paris, who had just been recalled to the Soviet Union. He explained his concern as he had heard stories of other senior NKVD officers who had been recalled and then seemed to have disappeared. He feared being executed but after discussing the matter he decided to return and take up this offer of a post in the Foreign Department in Moscow.
Ignaz Reiss was an NKVD agent serving in Belgium when he was summoned back to the Soviet Union. Reiss had the advantage of having his wife and daughter with him when he decided to defect to France. In July 1937 he sent a letter to the Soviet Embassy in Paris explaining his decision to break with the Soviet Union because he no longer supported the views of Stalin's counter-revolution and wanted to return to the freedom and teachings of Lenin. Orlov learnt of this letter from a close contact in France.
According to Edward P. Gazur, the author of Alexander Orlov: The FBI's KGB General (2001): "On learning that Reiss had disobeyed the order to return and intended to defect, an enraged Stalin ordered that an example be made of his case so as to warn other KGB officers against taking steps in the same direction. Stalin reasoned that any betrayal by KGB officers would not only expose the entire operation, but would succeed in placing the most dangerous secrets of the KGB's spy networks in the hands of the enemy's intelligence services. Stalin ordered Yezhov to dispatch a Mobile Group to find and assassinate Reiss and his family in a manner that would be sure to send an unmistakable message to any KGB officer considering Reiss's route."
Reiss was found hiding in a village near Lausanne, Switzerland. It was claimed by Alexander Orlov that a trusted Reiss family friend, Gertrude Schildback, lured Reiss to a rendezvous, where the Mobile Group killed Reiss with machine-gun fire on the evening of 4th September 1937. Schildback was arrested by the local police and at the hotel was a box of chocolates containing strychnine. It is believed these were intended for Reiss's wife and daughter.
By the beginning of 1938, most of the intelligence officers serving abroad had been targeted for elimination had already returned to Moscow. Stalin now decided to remove another witness to his crimes, Slutsky. On 17th February 1938, Slutsky was summoned to the office of Mikhail Frinovsky, one of those who worked closely with Nikolai Yezhov, the head of ADT. According to Mikhail Shpiegelglass he was called to Frinovsky's office and found him dead from a heart attack.
Simon Sebag Montefiore, the author of Stalin: The Count of the Red Tsar (2004): "Yezhov was called upon to kill his own NKVD appointees whom he had protected. In early 1938, Stalin and Yezhov decided to liquidate the veteran Chekist, Abram Slutsky, but since he headed the Foreign Department, they devised a plan so as not to scare their foreign agents. On 17 February, Frinovsky invited Slutsky to his office where another of Yezhov's deputies came up behind him and drew a mask of chloroform over his face. He was then injected with poison and died right there in the office. It was officially announced that he had died of a heart attack." Two months later Slutsky was posthumously stripped of his CPSU membership and declared an enemy of the people.
Constantly drunk, Yezhov sensed Stalin was, as he later wrote to his master, "dissatisfied with the NKVD work which deteriorated my mood still further". He made frantic attempts to prove his worth: he was said to have suggested renaming Moscow as "Stalinodar". This was laughed off. Instead Yezhov was called upon to kill his own NKVD appointees whom he had protected. In early 1938, Stalin and Yezhov decided to liquidate the veteran Chekist, Abram Slutsky, but since he headed the Foreign Department, they devised a plan so as not to scare their foreign agents. On 17 February, Frinovsky invited Slutsky to his office where another of Yezhov's deputies came up behind him and drew a mask of chloroform over his face. He was then injected with poison and died right there in the office. It was officially announced that he had died of a heart attack. Soon the purge began to threaten those closer to Yezhov. When his protege Liushkov was recalled from the Far East, Yezhov tipped him off. Liushkov defected to the Japanese. Yezhov was so rattled by this fiasco that he asked Frinovsky to go with him to tell Stalin: "On my own I did not have the strength." Yezhov "literally went mad". Stalin rightly suspected Yezhov of warning Liushkov.