Yan Berzin (real name Pēteris Ķuzis) was born into a peasant family in Latvia on 13th November 1889. After leaving school he became a teacher and joined the Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) in 1902. It has been claimed by the Russian historian, Roy A. Medvedev, that Berzin was twice sentenced to death by tsarist courts for revolutionary activity."
At the Second Congress of the SDLP in London in 1903, there was a dispute between Lenin and Julius Martov, two of SDLP's leaders. Lenin argued for a small party of professional revolutionaries with a large fringe of non-party sympathizers and supporters. Martov disagreed believing it was better to have a large party of activists. Martov based his ideas on the socialist parties that existed in other European countries such as the British Labour Party.
Lenin argued that the situation was different in Russia as it was illegal to form socialist political parties under the Tsar's autocratic government. At the end of the debate Martov won the vote 28-23. Lenin was unwilling to accept the result and formed a faction known as the Bolsheviks. Those who remained loyal to Martov became known as Mensheviks.
Berzin, Gregory Zinoviev, Anatoli Lunacharsky, Joseph Stalin, Mikhail Lashevich, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Mikhail Frunze, Alexei Rykov, Yakov Sverdlov, Lev Kamenev, Maxim Litvinov, Vladimir Antonov, Felix Dzerzhinsky, Vyacheslav Menzhinsky, Kliment Voroshilov, Vatslav Vorovsky, Gregory Ordzhonikidze and Alexander Bogdanov joined the Bolsheviks. Whereas George Plekhanov, Pavel Axelrod, Leon Trotsky, Lev Deich, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, Vera Zasulich, Irakli Tsereteli, Moisei Uritsky, Noi Zhordania and Fedor Dan supported the Mensheviks.
Berzin moved to St Petersburg and was a participant in the 1905 Russian Revolution. The following year he was appointed as the Secretary of the St. Petersburg Committee. He was also a leading organizer of the Bolshevik faction within the Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party (LSDWP) and led the fight against the Menshevik dominated Central Committee. It has been argued by Whittaker Chambers that Lenin was very fond of Berzin because he "had once saved Lenin's life".
In 1914, Berzin was appointed editor of The Struggle, the official newspaper of the Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party. During the First World War Berzin attended the Zimmerwald Conference with Lenin, Karl Radek, Gregory Zinoviev, Pavel Axelrod and Angelica Balabanoff. In 1916 Berzin moved to the United States where he was active in the socialist movement.
After the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in March, 1917, George Lvov was asked to head the new Provisional Government in Russia. One of the first reforms was to allow political dissents to return to Russia. Berzin arrived back in the country that summer. Later that year he was elected a member of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party. Other members included Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Leon Trotsky, Lev Kamenev, Gregory Zinoviev, Yakov Sverdlov, Alexei Rykov, Nickolai Bukharin, Anatoli Lunacharsky, Victor Nogin, Moisei Uritsky, Alexandra Kollontai, Nikolai Krestinsky, Felix Dzerzhinsky, Adolf Joffe, Grigori Sokolnikov, Ivar Smilga, Andrey Bubnov, Stepan Shaumyan, Vladimir Milyutin, Fyodor Sergeyev and Nikolay Muralov.
Following the Russian Revolution Berzen was appointed as Russia's ambassador to Switzerland. He also served as Minister of Education in the Latvian Socialist Soviet Republic that existed between December 1918 and May 1919. On his return he joined Felix Dzerzhinsky, the head of All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage (Cheka), in carrying out the Red Terror during the Russian Civil War. It has been argued by Whittaker Chambers that Lenin arrange for Berzin to gain
Berzin was appointed as Soviet Ambassador to Finland in 1921. At the same time he served as deputy chief of Military Intelligence. By 1924 he was appointed as chief of that department. He also spent time in London and was officially Soviet Ambassador to Austria from 1925 to 1927. After being recalled to Moscow he became chief of the Red Army's Fourth Bureau (military intelligence), the GRU. His agents included Ignaz Reiss, Emilio Kléber, Richard Sorge and Walter Krivitsky. During this period he was described by Antonina Porfirieva as "clean-shaven, bright-eyed and youthful in appearance, but grey-haired, gruff and all business."
In 1929 Joseph Stalin asked Yan Berzin, to develop a plan to obtain foreign currency and to undermine capitalism. They selected a team of expert forgers led by a German engraver who had been manufacturing false passprts for the Comintern in Berlin. He produced plates for the $100 United States Federal Reserve banknote that not only reproduced perfectly the portrait of Benjamin Franklin, but placed an individual serial number on each bill. The bills were printed on excellent paper and flawless to the naked eye. Krivitsky was involved in this conspiracy that involved printing counterfeit $100 bills and using them in Europe, Asia and America to buy what the Soviet Union needed as part of the Five Year Plan with the clean currency. One way that Krivitsky did this was to buy chips with them in a casino, play a while and lose a bit, then cash in the chips remaining for good bills.
Alexander Orlov was another NKVD agent who was involved in this plot. He argued that no more than a million dollars could have been passed before the authorities would discovery the fraud. He later told a Senate Committee twenty-eight years later that Stalin insisted that the agents went ahead with the plan because he was "ninety per cent a criminal and ten per cent a politician." The conspiracy was discovered when one agent, Franz Fischer, had passed $19,000 at the Sass & Martini Bank in Berlin. One reason for the discovery was that the U.S. Treasury issued new $100 notes that were slightly smaller than the forgeries.
Berzin was afraid that the conspiracy had brought attention to his agents working abroad. Gary Kern, the author of A Death in Washington: Walter G. Krivitsky and the Stalin Terror (2004): "General Berzin... took steps to protect his best men. He transferred Ignaz Reiss from espionage operations abroad to a quiet spot in the archives in Moscow; simultaneously he appointed Krivitsky to head the Institute of War Industry... Reiss did not like working in the archive and let friends know that he wanted to return to foreign service."
In the summer of 1932, Martemyan Ryutin, a leader in the Moscow Party organization, wrote a 200 page analysis of Stalin's policies and dictatorial tactics, Stalin and the Crisis of the Proletarian Dictatorship. He also wrote up a short synopsis of the work and called it a manifesto and circulated it to friends. General Berzin obtained a copy and called a meeting of his most trusted staff to discuss and denounce the work. Krivitsky remembers Berzen reading excerpts of the manifesto in which Ryutin called "the great agent provocateur, the destroyer of the Party" and "the gravedigger of the revolution and of Russia."
In 1936 Berzin was chief military advisor to the Republican Army in the Spanish Civil War and worked with Alexander Orlov. According to the authors of Deadly Illusions (1993) in March 1937 General Berzin had sent a confidential report to War Commissar Kliment Voroshilov "reporting resentment and protests he had received about the NKVD's repressive operations from high Republican officials. It stated that the NKVD agents were compromising Soviet authority by their excessive interference and espionage in Government quarters. They were treating Spain like a colony. The ranking Red Army General concluded his report with a demand that Orlov be recalled from Spain at once." Abram Slutsky, the head of the Foreign Department of NKVD, told Walter Krivitsky. "Berzin is absolutely right our men were behaving in Spain as if they were in a colony, treating even Spanish leaders as colonists handle natives".
In June 1937, Berzin was recalled from Spain and reappointed as head of Military Intelligence (GRU). However, he was arrested on 13th May, 1938 during the Great Purge.
Whittaker Chambers had some experience of this practice in America. At the time he worked for Soviet intelligence, he did not know to what specific organization he belonged. Later he wrote: "The Washington apparatus to which I was assigned was only one wing of a larger apparatus ... There were no doubt other apparatuses of the GPU (OGPL) and and the Fourth Departments in Washington, of which I knew nothing ... A variety of self-contained underground apparatuses, ignorant of each other's existence, operate side by side for more or less the same purpose.
Thus the OGPU (NKVD after 1933) and the Fourth Department (GRU after the war), as we have seen, rarely worked in concert and more often worked apart, in fierce competition. They envied each other's successes and tried to surpass them. They tried to steal each other's stolen information (when they knew about it), to trip up each other's agents in the field (when they recognized them), to make the other look bad in the eyes of the Party (where they had a chance). More than that, they engaged in mutual purges. In 1935 a branch of the general staff, led bv Berzin, liquidated NKVD illegals in the Far East, then repeated the exercise the next year in Spain. Payback came the following year when the Red Army generals and their staffs, including intelligence men, fell in the purges carried out by the NKVD. Naturally each agency received its instructions to purge from the Party, which remained dominant, despite its own depletions in the purges, since the overall slaughter was being directed by the Party man at the top, running a rigged and terrorized Politburo.
The Communist campaign denouncing Krivitsky as an impostor succeeded in creating around him a suspect aura that partially explains the cautious manner in which some historians even many years later treated his evidence ... Krivitskv was, in fact, the first person to reveal the presence in Spain of General Yan K. Berzin, the principal Soviet military adviser; of Alexander Orlov, the chief NKVD (secret police) operative; of Artur Stashevsky, the adviser to Juan Negrin, the minister of finance; and to reveal the true name of General Emilio Kleber, the charismatic leader of the International Brigades... In the light of what is now known of the unchecked power of the NKVD and of Krivitskys extraordinary knowledge of the Soviet secret police, his disclosures ... have unassailable credibility today.
The Spanish Government possess all the possibilities for waging a victorious war: they have modern weapons, an excellent air force, tanks, a navy and great human resources. They hold a sizeable territory with a war industry base which is more than adequate for supporting such a "small" war (Hispano Suiza's plants and others). Adequate provision base and so on. The number of Government troops outnumbers the enemy considerably. But this whole machine and all these resources are corroded by:
1. Inter-party conflicts in which the energy of most people is devoted to winning authority and power in the country for their own party and discrediting others rather than to the struggle against Fascism.
2. The corrupt composition of the Government, part of which has got nothing in common with the Revolution and which reacts to events passively and whose only consideration is preparing a timely escape in the event of a collapse.
3. The Government's failure to appreciate the real danger of the situation as a result of anxieties and excessive panics. The true threat to the fortunes of the Republican Government of Spain is now perceived by them as a normal state of alarm.
4. Irresponsibility and sabotage by Government bodies and staff in supplying the army and directing its operations.
5. Failure to mobilize hundreds of thousands of healthy men living in cities (Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and a number of others) for civil works and erecting fortifications.
6. The absence of an experienced Soviet staff with clear authority and the absence of a really prominent adviser on our part. Gorev (the Soviet military attache) has no military experience. In war affairs he is a child. Grishin (the alias of General Berzin, the former GRU chief) is a good Party member, but he's not an expert - and this is the pinnacle of our military command. With such a lack of leadership the abilities of a number of our specialists subordinated to them are brought to nought. (Only the air force and tanks and their heroic personnel are good, but they cannot stand in for an army.)
General Alexander Orlov's efforts to build up a secret police force under NKVD control to effect a Stalinization of Spain did not go unnoticed, or unchallenged, by ministers of the Republican administration. In his memoirs the Communist Education Minister, Jose Hernandez, bitterly and specifically attacked the NKVD chief for his sinister role in establishing and directing the SIM, the acronym for the feared Servicio de Investigacion Militar, which he believed was intended to become the mechanism for enforcing a totalitarian state in Spain. In March 1937 General Berzin had sent a confidential report to War Commissar Vorishilov reporting resentment and protests he had received about the NKVD's repressive operations from high Republican officials. It stated that the NKVD agents were compromising Soviet authority by their excessive interference and espionage in Government quarters. They were treating Spain like a colony. The ranking Red Army General concluded his report with a demand that Orlov be recalled from Spain at once.
"Berzin is absolutely right," Slutsky allegedly told another NKVD officer, Walter Krivitsky, who happened to be in Moscow when the General's report arrived. The head of the Foreign Department, he said, went on to assert that "our men were behaving in Spain as if they were in a colony, treating even Spanish leaders as colonists handle natives". When Krivitsky asked what action he was going to take, Slutsky told him it was "up to Yezhov", the NKVD chief.
When in exile in the postwar United States, Orlov repeatedly denounced the assertions ofhis former comrade Krivitsky as unfounded. He would vehemently deny any personal involvement in repressive secret police operations, nor would he concede that the NKVD in Spain was involved in the brutal suppression of anti-Communist opposition elements in, or outside of, the Republican Government. Orlov sought to portray himself in his books, to the Fst and before the Senate Committees, as a professional adviser to the Spanish Government on counter-intelligence and guerilla warfare. He charged that those who accused him of sinister activities on behalf of Stalin were motivated by Trotskyist sympathies and that he was the innocent victim of lying propaganda.