The other side of the legend
Nikolai Kuznetsov: a biography revisited
During the Soviet period Nikolai Kuznetsov was regularly described in publications as none other than a “legendary intelligence agent,” a celebrated Soviet hero, and the pride of the famous partisan unit “Pobediteli” (Victors), which operated in the Rivne area between 1942 and 1944, under the command of Dmitriy Medvedev. Indeed, the life and military biography of this Hero of the Soviet Union (1911-1944) are enveloped in a mist of legend. Whereas in past decades this legend was heroically romantic (Kuznetsov’s biography was meticulously filtered and purified of “unheroic” facts), in the last 15 years it has become ominously secretive. The legend in its sundry versions holds a strong fascination for researchers. Nonetheless, only accurate historical facts make it possible to objectively reassess the biography of any “legendary” person. Researchers inevitably face major obstacles in Kuznetsov’s case, as there is a dearth of accurate facts. Thus, we have certain grounds to speak of “the Kuznetsov enigma”. These obstacles must be overcome, since only then can we recreate a true picture of our history, free of falsifications.
What do we know definitely about Kuznetsov? He was born on July 27, 1911, in the Ural Mountain village of Zyrianka, now in Talitsk raion near Yekaterinburg, Russia. Nikolai (Nikanor, according to his birth certificate) Kuznetsov was born into a family of an established “middle peasant,” not a poor peasant, as official historiographers would have it. He took a most active part in the collectivization of the Urals region (1929-1930), but, interestingly enough, he was expelled from the Komsomol in 1930 “for concealing his family’s kulak past.” Obviously facing arrest, he moved to a remote area of the Urals, settling down in Kudymkar, where he worked as a forest warden. Two years later he was reinstated in the Komsomol (Kuznetsov was never a member of the All-Union Communist Party, although he called himself a “Bolshevik”). He then graduated from the Sverdlovsk Industrial Institute, worked as a designer at the Ural Machine Plant, where he was distinguished for his perfect command of the German language, his strong and willful character, self-possession, and composure. According to Kuznetsov’s Soviet biographers, “in March 1938 he began carrying out special assignments in the sphere of state security.” All old publications summarize this man’s biography in just a few lines. This is far too little. One would expect historians to establish exactly what Kuznetsov did during the three years that he worked in the infamous “organs” before the war. This is a very interesting question.
Kuznetsov set foot on Ukrainian soil in August 1942. He did so in a very rare capacity, doubling as an intelligence agent and a partisan. Biographers wrote that “he landed behind enemy lines outside Rivne, where he joined a special partisan unit ‘Pobediteli’ (controlled by the NKVD), which was commanded by Colonel Dmitriy Medvedev.” At the time Rivne was the center of the so-called Reich Commissariat Ukraine, to which Hitler appointed Gauleiter Erich Koch, a sworn enemy of the Ukrainian nation. This greatly increased the significance of this provincial town, which in 1941- 1943 was home to the military authorities of the Nazi occupation administration and the punitive structures of the Gestapo and SS.
A brief summary of the espionage work undertaken by Kuznetsov (known as Nikolai Grachov to his brothers-in-arms in the “Pobediteli” unit and, to the Nazi occupation government in Rivne — as Ober-Lieutenant Paul Wilhelm Sieber, who was disguised as “an extraordinary commissioner of the economic command for the use of material resources of the Eastern territories in the interests of the Wehrmacht”), calls for some general remarks on the specifics of the partisan movement in Ukraine in 1941-1944, since Kuznetsov was both an intelligence officer and a Soviet partisan. One must bear in mind that the documents of the Soviet military command quite rightfully refer to the partisan movement as “one of the decisive factors in defeating the enemy.” Clearly understanding the role of subversive, partisan, and espionage tactics behind enemy lines, already in 1942 both the Nazis and the NKVD had begun to “enlist” the local population to combat Ukrainian insurgent forces and went on to create pseudo-insurgents’ units. An important fact is that the Soviet partisan movement was not the exclusive province of party functionaries. Contrary to what Brezhnev’s ideologues said about the special role of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolshevik), the number of communists and Komsomol members in the ranks of the Soviet partisans was a mere 13.6% and 19.9% of the total, respectively.
Two more circumstances must be mentioned. Kuznetsov, the Soviet spy and partisan, operated on the territory of Western Ukraine (Rivne and, later, Lviv oblasts), where the population had become overwhelmingly filled with hatred for the occupiers and supported the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), having become convinced that Hitler’s words about Ukraine in 1942, “We must wipe this country off the face of the earth and destroy its people,” reflected the true nature of the Fuhrer’s intentions. These circumstances exacerbated the irreconcilable enmity between the Soviet partisan movement on the one hand, as represented by the “Bolshevik” and “Russian patriot” and as Kuznetsov characterized himself, and the mass units of nationalists on the other. This was in fact a Ukrainian-Russian war, one in which Kuznetsov was killed (we must remember this war as well and not reduce all the hostilities of this period to a confrontation between the Nazis and Soviet troops). Finally, we must not forget the extreme cruelty of all the warring sides, which is exactly why it is difficult to put the blame on one particular side. Rather, everyone without exception should be blamed, including those who fought “for the right cause”: both the occupiers and all those who at least indirectly sympathized with them, as well as the enemy’s “accomplices,” informers, village headmen, and minor officials. Such were the ruthless dictates of the war.
There are reasons to believe that the “Pobediteli” partisan unit, of which Kuznetsov was a member, was acting on orders of the Fourth NKVD Department whose functions included the organization, control, and command of military operations of extermination battalions, “special purpose” partisan units, and sabotage groups.
It must be noted that the situation of such an undoubtedly accomplished intelligence agent as Siebert-Kuznetsov was an extraordinary one: visiting Rivne on a regular basis, three or four times a week, from the “Pobediteli” camp, he had to consider that since he was not a real Nazi officer, he had nothing to do with any official Nazi institution in Rivne or the Wehrmacht in general. He made the necessary acquaintances with the occupiers in a “private” way. Almost every new acquaintance soon introduced “Siebert” to his own friends. Since he was staying in Rivne illegally, Kuznetsov could not avail himself of any permanent lodgings, as this involved registering with the military commandant’s office and the police, which was out of the question for him.
A brief account of Kuznetsov’s espionage work in Rivne between October 1942 and January 1944 follows. For the Soviet command he secured such valuable intelligence as the location of Hitler’s field headquarters outside Vinnytsia (December 1942) and plans by the Nazi command to launch a massive offensive at Kursk (Operation Citadel, late May 1943). “Oberleutenant Siebert” eliminated the following ranking functionaries in the Nazi occupation administration: Imperial Financial Advisor with ministerial status General Gell (September 1943); General von Ilgen, Chief Justice of the Supreme German Court in Ukraine; General Alfred Funk (November 1943); Vice-Governor of Galicia Otton Bauer; and the head of his chancellery Heinrich Schneider (Lviv, February 1944). “Siebert” wounded General Paul Dargel, Deputy Imperial Commissioner of the Reich Commissariat Ukraine, who was also the right-hand man of the Nazi satrap of Ukraine — Erich Koch. On May 31, 1943, Kuznetsov secured a personal audience with Koch himself, intending to assassinate him, but his plans failed, owing to the fact that Koch was extremely well guarded.
Another aspect of his activities should be mentioned for the sake of historical justice. Kuznetsov committed all of the above acts not least in order to provoke Nazi reprisals against the Ukrainian nationalist circles. After each assassination he would leave certain documents near the Nazi officers he had killed or wounded, which allegedly “proved” the OUN’s complicity in the assassination. This, in turn, provoked fierce reprisals from the Germans (this happened after Bauer’s assassination in Lviv).
In an ironic twist, Kuznetsov was killed during one such “special game.” In early March 1944, while trying to break through to Soviet units, Kuznetsov unwittingly entered a camp of Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) fighters, who were disguised in Red Army uniforms (according to the old Soviet version, this happened near the village of Boratyn, near Brody in Lviv oblast, whereas contemporary historians identify this location as the village of Verba). Soviet historians wrote that Kuznetsov blew himself up with a grenade after realizing his fatal mistake. However, according to newly released documents, the Ukrainian insurgents executed him on March 9, 1944. One thing is clear: there is so much continuing secrecy around Kuznetsov, it is as though he is still an active intelligence agent.
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