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What is the GRU? Who gets recruited to be a spy? Why are they exposed so often? Here are the most important things you should know about Russia’s intelligence community

Meduza
President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov visit the GRU’s headquarters, November 8, 2006
President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov visit the GRU’s headquarters, November 8, 2006
Dmitry Astakhov / TASS

Both at home and abroad, the Russian abbreviation of the year has been “GRU” — the erstwhile but still commonly used initialism for the country’s Military Intelligence Directorate. The agency’s staff now stand accused of hacking the Democratic National Committee computer network and trying to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election; hacking various anti-doping agencies and the International Court of Arbitration; and trying to hack the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in the Netherlands. Additionally, in what has led to a new wave of Western sanctions against Russia, GRU agents are also accused of poisoning Sergey Skripal (a former GRU colonel who spied for the British) in Salisbury, England. “Alexander Petrov” and “Ruslan Boshirov” — the two individuals identified by London police who came to Salisbury to try to kill Skripal — are apparently cover names for the GRU agents Alexander Mishkin and Anatoly Chepiga. To add some context to this explosion of publicity, Meduza special correspondent Daniil Turovsky reviews the past and present of Russia’s intelligence community.

What is the GRU? What does the initialism stand for?

Subordinate to the Defense Ministry, the GRU is Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate, and technically speaking it doesn’t exist.

In 2010, following major reforms to the army, Russia’s military intelligence agency was renamed “the Main Office of the General Staff of the Defense Ministry.” This change, however, hasn’t stopped anyone from referring to the organization or its members as “the GRU” — an initialism that’s now used constantly by journalists and in official documents, including indictments by the U.S. government and announcements by the Dutch authorities.

Some agency veterans complained about the reforms, saying, “[Former Defense Minister Anatoly] Serdyukov cut more than just a letter [from the agency’s initialism]. The best brigades in the GRU Spetsnaz fell under the knife of reforms.” In November 2010, officers celebrated Military Intelligence Day at the Crocus City concert hall outside Moscow, raising toasts to the “cherished memory of the GRU.”

Many GRU officers lost their jobs in the reforms, and some research institutes that worked with the agency closed shop. The Defense Ministry’s Military Academy (the same one where Anatoly Chepiga studied) fired many of its instructors. As a result of the cutbacks, Russia’s human intelligence in foreign states suffered a major setback. In 2011, The New Times found laid off GRU staff working as truckers and furniture assemblers.

What’s the difference between the GRU and Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR)?

What separates the GRU and SVR seems to be perceptible only to those inside the two agencies. In 2006, one SVR Lieutenant General explained that the SVR collects “political” intelligence, while the GRU collects “military” intelligence. The structure and activities of both agencies are classified as state secrets.

The defector Sergey Tretyakov revealed more than anyone about the SVR’s methods and training in a collection of interviews, published in 2008 as a book titled “Comrade J.: The Untold Secrets of Russia's Master Spy in America After the End of the Cold War,” written by journalist Pete Earley. The grandson and son of KGB officers, Tretyakov spent his youth reading Ian Fleming novels and dreaming of becoming a spy. In the early 1980s, KGB recruiters invited him to participate in a student-exchange program to France, where he would collect intelligence about the newly elected president, François Mitterrand. When Tretyakov returned, he was sent to the “Forest School” not far from Medvedkovo in northeast Moscow, like other young intelligence workers.

Tretyakov and his cohort were trained to work with sources (for example, they learned not to discuss collaboration with contacts until meeting at least seven times, giving them the chance to learn each source’s habits and personal problems), to use portable cameras, to invent their own “legends” (backstories) on the fly, and to plant and retrieve eavesdropping devices (they usually practiced this latter skill at Gorky Park in Moscow).

The collapse of the USSR had no effect on Tretkyakov’s intelligence work. He soon ended up in the United States, and by the mid-1990s he was in charge of the SVR station there, operating under U.N. cover. (Other agents in the U.S. were posing as reporters from the news agencies TASS and Komsomolskaya Pravda.)

In New York, Russian intelligence agents worked in the Manhattan building that housed Russia’s Permanent Mission to the UN. Ordinary diplomats used the lower five floors, while intelligence workers and cryptographers occupied the upper stories — the so-called “submarine” floors. The walls in this building were fitted with vibrating pipes that emitted white noise, and there was a total absence of telephones and Internet-connected computers. SVR agents also worked at Russia’s consulate in the Bronx, where they copied the documents of U.S. citizens who applied for Russian visas. The agency later used this information when inventing new identities for its spies in America, who were supposed to find jobs at organizations tied to the U.S. government.

On the rooftops of its consulate and U.N. Permanent Mission buildings in New York, Russia installed special antennae designed to intercept telephone calls across the entire city. Agents called this equipment “Pulse Signal.”

Tretyakov says Federal Protective Service (FSO) General Viktor Zolotov once even attacked him by surprise (as a joke), knocking him unconscious at a cafe in Brighton Beach in 2000, weeks ahead of Vladimir Putin’s visit to the United States. “They were dangerous,” Tretyakov told Pete Earley. “I didn’t see a difference between Yeltsin’s people and these unsophisticates who were the president’s closest friends.” Also present at the Brighton Beach meeting was Evgeny Murov, who headed the FSO until 2016. (Zolotov is now the director of Russia’s new National Guard.) According to Tretyakov, then FSO deputy director Alexander Lunkin claimed that Murov and Zolotov had previously discussed ways to murder Alexander Volodin, then Putin’s chief of staff, because they believed the president was “jealous” of him.

In 2000, Tretyakov asked the United States for political asylum.

How does the GRU choose and train its staff? What is the “Conservatory”?

GRU officers train at the Defense Ministry’s Military Academy, at 50 Narodnoe Opolchenie Street in Moscow — not far from the region where you’ll find the GRU’s headquarters and the research institutes affiliated with Russia’s military intelligence. The academy is better known as “the Conservatory.”

Military intelligence agents — including cyber-security specialists — also train at the Cherepovets Higher Military School of Radio Electronics. (For instance, two of Anatoly Chepiga’s neighbors from the Russian State University for the Humanities dormitory on Kirovogradskaya Street, where he was registered in the early 2010s, graduated from this school.) Another training grounds for GRU agents is the Alexander Mozhaysky Military Space Academy, where Alexey Morenets (the GRU agent recently accused of carrying out hacker attacks in the Netherlands) was a student.

Computer science classes at the Cherepovets Higher Military School of Radio Electronics, December 2016
Computer science classes at the Cherepovets Higher Military School of Radio Electronics, December 2016

Academy instructors usually choose their new students by sending out recruiters to military units across the country, reviewing the records of young officers. They interview potential recruits at their homes and then invite the most promising candidates to Moscow for testing.

Assessments in Moscow last a week, starting each morning and ending in the late evening. Candidates endure hundreds of exams testing their knowledge of foreign languages, their attention span, memory, mental acumen, “noise immunity,” and “information stamina.” One test might ask them to repeat a phrase in an unfamiliar language, while another could show them dozens of mug shots and then ask candidates to recite each person’s name. There are also interviews with a review board, which might ask candidates about their favorite alcoholic beverages, their reasons for wanting to join Russia’s military intelligence, and even their attitudes about women.

Training lasts three years. The first year of instruction puts special emphasis on foreign languages, operating special-purpose machinery, area studies, encryption, decryption, and covert intelligence work. There are even classes in how to invent your own “legend” (backstory) and how to evade surveillance.

Each student is assigned a sector of Moscow, where he is supposed to plot routes for potential meetings with other agents, determine locations for eavesdropping devices, and detect anyone tailing him (FSB officers usually play the counterintelligence role). One of the most important assignments at the Conservatory is penetrating a high-security facility: the future spy must gain admittance legally, for example, by befriending someone who in turn gets him an entry permit.

What are GRU agents' areas of expertise?

The Defense Ministry’s Military Academy has three departments.

The first department trains undercover agents who operate under diplomatic protection (they’re also called “suit jackets”). When entering the field, these officers start as advisers, secretaries to ambassadors, and representatives of Russian companies in other countries. They’re responsible for communications with undercover agents and foreign recruitment efforts.

One such “suit jacket” was Viktor Ilyushin, who was expelled from France in 2014. Officially working as an Air Force deputy attaché at Russia’s embassy in France, GRU agent Ilyushin tried to obtain “intimate information” about one of President François Hollande’s staff members.

The Conservatory’s second department trains military attachés (representatives of Russia’s armed forces serving on diplomatic missions). Eduard Shishmakov, whom Montenegran officials say tried to organize a coup in 2016, studied in this department. In 2014, he worked as a military attaché in Poland and was later expelled.

The third department, meanwhile, prepares officers who will lead special operations abroad.

GRU defectors and websites dedicated to the Russian armed forces describe the Military Intelligence Directorate’s structure as follows:

  • 1st division: intelligence gathering in Europe
  • 2nd division: the United States
  • 3rd division: Asia
  • 4th division: the Middle East and Africa
  • 5th division: strategic reconnaissance
  • 6th division: communications surveillance
  • 7th division: information analysis service
  • 8th division: subversion
  • 12B division: information war

What are GRU agents’ assignments?

The website for the Main Office of the Russian Defense Ministry’s General Staff says broadly that its officers provide the country’s leadership with information meant to create conditions that are “conducive to the successful realization of Russian state policy on defense and national security,” while also contributing to the state’s development. This language is lifted directly from Russia’s federal law on foreign intelligence gathering.

According to the law, Russian intelligence agencies can work confidentially with their informants, and take measures to “conceal their personnel.” Agencies are permitted to use both public and covert methods, but not in relation to Russian citizens, not on Russian territory, and not in cases where people are harmed.

Alexander Shlyakhturov, who headed the GRU in the late 2000s, said in 2011 that the agency’s job is to “discover and analyze threats to Russia’s national interests and military security.” His predecessor, Valentin Korabelnikov, said in 2003 that the GRU also collects intelligence about research carried out by foreign states.

“Ruslan Boshirov” and “Alexander Petrov” in Salisbury, shortly before Sergey Skripal was poisoned, March 3, 2018
“Ruslan Boshirov” and “Alexander Petrov” in Salisbury, shortly before Sergey Skripal was poisoned, March 3, 2018
Metropolitan Police

The GRU does most of its intelligence gathering through “illegals” (deep-cover agents), who live in foreign states under false names. Additionally, separate identities can be created for agents who travel abroad to carry out special missions, which appears to be what happened with Chepiga and Mishkin.

Sometimes, undercover agents’ assignments can last decades. One GRU veteran recalled how his academy classmate was given a backstory and send to live in an Arab country for the next 24 years. He bought a kiosk in a market and opened a shoe-repair business, where he met with agents. There were often reports and dispatches hidden in the heels of the shoes brought to him.

“My father died without ever knowing that I serve in military intelligence, though I was already a general by the time he passed away,” said Sergey Lebedev, one of the GRU’s top officials, in 2005. “He was very proud that I was a diplomat. He told everyone that his son worked for the Foreign Ministry.”

Is the GRU responsible for “information war,” too?

Disinformation has been one of the Military Intelligence Directorate’s main objectives since it was founded. From the beginning, KGB foreign intelligence (Department “A”) and the GRU have been responsible for Moscow’s “active measures.” The Disinformation Department grew out of the “Disinformburo,” which first appeared in 1923 with the objectives of creating false information and phony documents about domestic affairs in Russia, and “preparing the ground for the release of fake materials.”

Some of Russia’s greatest disinformation successes (described in detail in documents available at the Churchill Archives Center) include:

  • In 1923, the Disinformburo published revelatory articles about Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich in newspapers in Bavaria, where he was living, three years before he proclaimed himself emperor in exile. The exposés led many Russian monarchists and German sponsors to abandon him.
  • In the 1950s, Soviet military intelligence invented reports that the U.S. was using biological weapons in Korea, supposedly dropping bombs filled with insects and rats infected with cholera and the plague.
  • In the 1960s, military spies spread false rumors about ties between the American intelligence community and the murder of President John F. Kennedy. Soviet agencies financed the work of Mark Lane, who popularized his conspiracy theories in several books. Moscow also fabricated documents and letters linking Lee Harvey Oswald to the CIA and FBI.
  • Between 1972 and 1973, Soviet military intelligence financed roughly 5,000 articles in Indian newspapers in support of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
  • In 1983, Soviet military intelligence spread rumors that Korean Air Lines Flight 007, shot down by the USSR on September 1, was a spy plane sent by the CIA.
  • In the late 1980s, Soviet spies circulated false information that the AIDS epidemic was due to experiments at a secret military biological laboratory in the United States. Soviet military intelligence passed fabricated documents to a CIA officer, who later wrote about them in books.
  • In the late 1980s, Soviet military intelligence promoted conspiracy theories that the 1978 Jonestown deaths were part of a CIA operation.

Leonid Shebarshin, one of the top officials in the Soviet intelligence community, said in 2003 that spies are able to find reporters at any newspaper who are willing to publish a needed story for the right price or amount of booze. Shebarshin supervised the USSR’s disinformation campaign in the 1970s and 1980s, and told Kommersant that the only newspaper in which he never managed to plant a story was The Washington Post. He also claimed that the KGB’s Department A paid for the publication of articles in the Western press about “Gorbymania” and Perestroika.

In 2012, Shebarshin was found dead in his home, after he apparently shot himself. Twenty-one years earlier, the GRU’s supervisor for disinformation in the United States, Dmitry Lisovolik, died when he fell from the window of his apartment.

Since the fall of the USSR, the agencies and organizations involved in Russian military intelligence have apparently not abandoned the use of disinformation. Since 2016, American officials have accused Moscow of running a so-called “troll factory” in St. Petersburg to interfere in U.S. elections by fielding “discourse saboteurs” who operate under phony identities to promote Donald Trump and oppose Hillary Clinton. In 2016, the group allegedly organized political events in the U.S., and spread viral and promoted content on social networks. According to new research, the trolls’ efforts to sow discord in American society may have even included tweets meant to amplify the right-wing backlash to Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

Admittedly, nothing is known about GRU involvement in St. Petersburg’s “troll factory,” the creation of which has been attributed to Evgeny Prigozhin, a businessman with close personal ties to Vladimir Putin.

Are the hackers from the GRU, too?

The GRU is part of the Defense Ministry, and Meduza has written repeatedly about Moscow’s ongoing efforts to build up its cyber-forces (the so-called “research companies”).

In 2014, the Russian Defense Ministry created its “information-operation troops” for action in “cyber-confrontations with potential adversaries.” Later, sources in the Defense Ministry explained that these new troops were meant to “disrupt the potential adversary’s information networks.” Recruiters reportedly went looking for “hackers who have had problems with the law.” According to an instructor at a Defense Ministry center that trains the new cyber-forces, students prepare for future conflicts by “developing cyber-attack algorithms.” In recent years, cyber-attacks on government agencies in multiple countries — Estonia, Georgia, Ukraine, Turkey, and the U.S. — have coincided with escalations in tensions between Moscow and these states.

Additionally, many Russian hackers work at research institutes affiliated with the GRU.

What are these “research institutes”? How are they tied to Russian military intelligence?

There are apparently dozens of GRU-connected research institutes. We know reliably about a handful:

  • The Defense Ministry’s 46th Central Research Institute (Military Unit 54726) is a center for military-technical information and intelligence about the military potential of foreign states. It's located at 86 Khoroshevskoye Highway and was previously subordinate to the GRU. Locals call the four-floor building “the Pentagon” — not because of its shape, but because of the secrecy that surrounds it. Staff at this institute have been characterized as “the most informed people in the GRU,” and its management is part of Russia’s Security Council.
  • The building that neighbors this research institute houses a small company called Steadyhost, which owns the IP address for StopGeorgia.ru — a website where Russian hackers shared tips about which Georgian websites to target during the 2008 war in South Ossetia, as well as hyperlinks to the software needed to carry out these cyber-attacks.
  • The Defense Ministry’s Center for Special Studies is based in Moscow on Svoboda Street. Meduza wrote at length about this institute in 2016. Created two years earlier, the center advertised job vacancies on employment websites aimed mainly at graduates from engineering schools. More than anything, the institute was looking for staff who could analyze exploits and find vulnerabilities in computer networks. New hires are granted confidential security clearance (which requires staff to give advance notice whenever traveling abroad) and a starting monthly salary as high as 120,000 rubles ($1,835).
  • The Center for Special Studies employed Evgeny Serebryakov, who was expelled from the Netherlands in April 2018 for trying to hack the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
  • Military Unit 26165 — the “Khamovnichesky Barracks” — is located at 20 Komsomolsky Prospect. This unit is perhaps the Russian military’s biggest repository of hacker talent. Here you’ll find the GRU’s 85th Central Research Institute, where cryptographers create decryption algorithms.
  • Several hackers suspected of cyber-attacking the U.S. and Europe have apparently worked in Unit 26165. When Wikileaks published the stolen emails of Emmanuel Macron on May 7, 2017 (a day before the French presidential election), Internet sleuths noticed almost immediately that someone named Georgy Petrovich Roshka modified nine of the published emails. Roshka turned out to be an employee at several Russian military intelligence research institutes. In a participant list for one conference where he was named as a speaker, Roshka was identified as a specialist at the GRU’s 85th Central Research Institute, located at 20 Komsomolsky Prospect.
  • It was from this building that OPCW-attack suspect Alexey Morenets took a taxi to the airport, before boarding his plane to the Netherlands. According to U.S. intelligence, this was also a base of operations for 10 hackers and GRU officers who infiltrated the Democratic National Committee computer network.
  • Military Unit 74455 is based at 22 Kirov Street. Officially, this is the address of the “Novator” business center, but the building’s entrance has a sign indicating that it also houses the “Center for Daily Operations Management” (which, according to representatives from the Defense Ministry’s General Staff, is what they call research institutes created “for the operational coordination of military agencies”). The U.S. Justice Department says this building was also a workplace for some of the GRU hackers who broke into the DNC in 2016.
  • The 18th Central Research Institute works specifically with communications electronics. Nothing is known publicly about this outfit, but Internet users who “stalk” the topic on forums sometimes joke that there’s a UFO, crashed in 1959, hidden on an underground floor at 22 Kirov Street, which is also supposedly connected to Moscow’s “Metro-2” (a rumored secret subway system).
  • “Sovinformsputnik” is a division of the GRU’s space intelligence operations. In 2000, it was reportedly the first to photograph “Area 51” in the United States.

The GRU has its own Spetsnaz? Who carries out its special operations?

More is known about the GRU Spetsnaz than any other division within the agency. These troops are often the focus of feature films and network television reports, and the public frequently learns about their operations.

In the early 2010s, during major reforms to the Defense Ministry, the GRU Spetsnaz was transferred to Russia’s paratroopers and army command. Today, the Spetsnaz are part of the Special Operations Forces, based outside Moscow in Kubinka-2. From 2014 to 2015, the group was under the command of Alexey Dyumin, one of Vladimir Putin’s former guards and the current governor of the Tula region.

Holding its soldiers to enormously high standards, the GRU Spetsnaz is considered one of the most elite branches of Russia’s armed forces. According to “Preparing a Spy: The GRU Spetsnaz System” (a book written by former special forces troops), spies in the GRU Spetsnaz are expected to be capable of essentially everything that James Bond does on screen: parachuting, rappelling from a helicopter, hang gliding, steering a speedboat, operating heavy machinery, flying a plane, navigation, using the weapons of a likely enemy, swimming long distances, laying mines, rock climbing, identifying on sight any firearm, military uniform, and insignia, using disguises, and moving silently on any terrain. The book says Russia’s military intelligence recruits people who exhibit above-average stamina and “passive-aggressive” personality traits. Candidates must be venturesome, value male camaraderie, and be able to tailor their behavior to any situation.

In boot camp, GRU Spetsnaz troops also undergo psychological training: for example, to prepare them for seeing a lot of blood and inflicting injuries on others, soldiers are subjected to an exercise where they have to catch a live rabbit, kill it by smashing its head against a tree, quickly behead the animal, and then drink its blood, while holding their breath.

“We’d make this scarecrow — a mannequin. We’d dress him in a U.S. Army uniform and hide some document in his shirt pocket,” recalled GRU Colonel Sergey Kozlov in his book. “Then we’d dump buckets of blood on the mannequin and smear the guts and other innards taken from a stray dog all inside the unbuttoned jacket. And the intelligence officers have to search this ‘corpse.’ Far from everyone can just dive into a bloody mess of guts, but overcoming this psychological barrier is simply necessary. No less important is preparing men to kill the enemy by any means in their training, which is another area where stray dogs can come in handy. Psychologically, it’s extremely difficult to ‘waste’ a completely innocent creature, but it will weigh on a man far worse if he’s required to murder a civilian who accidentally discovers his group behind enemy lines.”

What are some known GRU Spetsnaz missions?

In their books and memoirs, veterans say the most successful operation ever by the GRU Spetsnaz was the storming of the Tajbeg Palace in Afghanistan and the assassination of President Hafizullah Amin, which began the Soviet–Afghan War. The assault successfully overthrew Amin and installed Babrak Karmal, who was loyal to the USSR. Eleven GRU officers died in the raid, along with Amin and 350 palace guards. One special forces soldier later recalled: “The guys who made it to the second floor kicked in the office doors and threw their grenades. They were already up ahead in the hallway when Amin jumped out behind them, in his Adidas underwear and T-shirt. I think he’d already been fatally wounded.”

The GRU Spetsnaz participated in both Chechen wars. In the mid-1990s, these troops were in Tajikistan under the command of Vladimir Kvachkov, training local soldiers and liberating territories occupied by terrorists. In 2008, the GRU Spetsnaz fought in the brief war against Georgia.

Since 2014, the GRU Spetsnaz has carried out missions in Ukraine. In February 2014, it seized the airport and government buildings in Crimea in a special operation directed by Vladimir Putin. “To blockade and disarm 20,000 well-armed people, we needed a certain set of personnel — not just in terms of quantity but also quality. We needed specialists who could pull this off. That’s why I gave orders and instructions to the Defense Ministry to deploy the Main Intelligence [Directorate’s] special forces to Crimea, disguised as reinforcements for our military facilities there,” the president revealed a year after Moscow’s annexation of the peninsula.

The GRU Spetsnaz later operated in southeastern Ukraine. Russian officials have never acknowledged the GRU’s role in the Donbass, but several officers have died in combat and others have been captured and interrogated. Taken prisoner in 2015 during fighting outside Luhansk, Alexander Alexandrov and Evgeny Erofeev admitted to being GRU Spetsnaz agents stationed in Tolyatti. On May 25, 2016, they were exchanged for Nadiya Savchenko.

In Syria, the GRU Spetsnaz has trained local soldiers and fought in missions against ISIS and other groups. It's also directed warplanes to targets on the ground and participated in operational logistics to eliminate terrorist leaders. The GRU Spetsnaz also helped liberate Aleppo and Palmyra.

In October 2018, journalists also learned that the GRU Spetsnaz is active in Libya, where it is training soldiers loyal to strongman General Khalifa Haftar, who controls the eastern part of the country.

Who’s in charge of the GRU?

The director of Russia’s military intelligence is appointed by the president, who controls and coordinates the activities of the entire intelligence community. Additionally, the GRU's director reports to the defense minister and the chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces. (The current General Staff chief is Valery Gerasimov — the same military official whose supposed “doctrine” suggests using cyber-forces in the course of hybrid war.)

Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu (left) with Igor Korobov, just after his appointment as head of Russia’s Military Intelligence Directorate, February 2, 2016
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu (left) with Igor Korobov, just after his appointment as head of Russia’s Military Intelligence Directorate, February 2, 2016
Russian Defense Ministry / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

In 2016, Putin appointed Igor Korobov to serve as the director of the Military Intelligence Directorate. A career intelligence officer who started out in the 1980s, Korobov graduated from the “Conservatory” and went on to oversee Russia’s strategic intelligence gathering, including the management of all foreign stations. His appointment was no surprise: since the 1990s, the president has traditionally entrusted the job to lieutenants who supervised Russia’s foreign stations.

American officials added Korobov to their sanctions list in December 2016 for his “efforts to undermine democracy” by organizing hacker attacks. Nevertheless, Korobov and the directors of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) made an unprecedented trip to Washington in February 2018 to meet with members of the U.S. intelligence community to discuss the war against terrorism.

The man credited with establishing the “GRU empire” is Pyotr Ivashutin, who led the USSR’s military intelligence from the early 1960s until the late 1980s. Ivashutin was the one who conceived and started building an information-collection system that worked around the clock, warning the country’s leadership about national security threats in real time. His workday would begin at 7:05 a.m.: a car would take him to Gogolevsky Boulevard in Moscow, where the GRU was based in the early 1960s. He settled problems with defectors, traveled to Novocherkassk to administer a bloody crackdown on demonstrators in June 1962, supervised intelligence gathering in hostile territories, oversaw the seizure of the Prague airport in 1968, and managed special operations in Afghanistan. In the only interview he ever granted, Ivashutin said as GRU director he “supported revolutionary movements, transferring them large sums of money.” He died in 2002.

Where is the GRU headquarters located? What is the “Aquarium”?

Since the late 1960s, the GRU has occupied an enormous complex on Khoroshevskoye Highway in Moscow.

The facility got its “aquarium” nickname from a book by defector Vladimir Rezun (who wrote under the pseudonym Viktor Suvorov). He said the word came to him because of the building’s glass exterior, and because the intelligence community is a “closed-off aquarium where everyone knows each other.”

The GRU complex is made up of prefabricated nine-story buildings and surrounded by a tall metal fence. Near the front security office, in a courtyard that’s home to spruces and poplars, there's a monument to killed military intelligence officers. In the main building’s entrance hall, there is a memorial dedicated to the heroes of Soviet and Russian intelligence work. The names listed there are the officers’ real names.

A view of the GRU headquarters on Khoroshevskoye Highway in Moscow, October 4, 2018
A view of the GRU headquarters on Khoroshevskoye Highway in Moscow, October 4, 2018
Reuters / AP / Scanpix / LETA

According to Viktor Suvorov’s book (which many say is more a work of art than a documentary account), there is a crematorium inside the GRU complex that’s used to dispose of traitors. Pyotr Ivashutin once confirmed that the facility has an oven, but he said it is for burning documents.

People who saw the inside of the GRU headquarters in the late 1990s say it was in a “sorry state”: the linoleum was cracked, the furniture varnish was flaking, and the walls were peeling. The whole place was remodeled in 2002, however, after Vladimir Putin visited. When the restoration work was done, the agency’s name appeared at the building’s entrance, written in gold letters. (The sign came down a day later.)

When the new military intelligence building opened in 2006 in the same complex, Vladimir Putin was there to lead the ceremony. All the office computers in the facility are completely Russian made, and there are big screens monitoring the military situation in real time, as well as the locations of all Russian nuclear submarines and strategic bombers. The new building also sports a swimming pool, a spa, multiple saunas, tennis courts, basketball and volleyball courts, and a winter garden. GRU officers sometimes joke that they were transferred to a five-star hotel.

Are GRU agents often exposed?

At least a few agents are exposed almost every year. In most cases, unmasked staff at legal stations (those serving in embassies or working as corporate overseas representatives) are deported immediately rather than arrested, particularly when they enjoy diplomatic status. But there are exceptions: in 1978, two Soviet intelligence operatives working under U.N. cover were caught making a dead drop of documents about the U.S. Navy. Both spies were tried and sentenced to 50 years in prison, but a year later they were traded for five dissidents imprisoned in the USSR. When they returned home, the two officers were granted the “Honorary State Security Officer” award.

In recent years, GRU agents have been discovered in the United States (in 1999, the FBI charged Stanislav Gusev, the second secretary of Russia’s embassy in D.C., with sitting in his car outside the State Department and eavesdropping on conversations inside the building), Japan (2000), Bulgaria (2001), Germany (2004 and 2005), Qatar (2004), Azerbaijan (2006), Austria (2007), Poland (2010 and 2018), Georgia (2011), and Ukraine (2014).

On July 15, 2014, an article titled “War in Putin’s Spy Triade” appeared on the website Warfiles.ru, arguing that the FSB wants “to return to the status of the all-powerful KGB” and take over Russia’s other intelligence agencies. The text concluded with a list of 79 names — all supposedly active GRU agents operating undercover in the U.S., Europe, and South America. It turned out that some of the people on the list were working as Aeroflot corporate representatives in the Netherlands and others were serving as advisers at Russia’s embassy in Moldova.

According to investigative journalist Sergey Kanev, the FSB’s Information Security Center was ordered to find those responsible for leaking the names of the undercover GRU agents. The center’s director at the time, Sergey Mikhailov, was put in charge of the search, and the FSB sent out warnings to site registrars, explaining that the personnel list is a state secret. (In December 2016, Mikhailov was arrested himself and charged with treason, possibly for allegedly supplying the United States with intelligence about Russian hackers.) Nothing more is known about what happened to the people whose names were leaked. At least one person on the list — an Aeroflot employee who used to comment frequently on news about the company in the U.S. and the Netherlands — has ceased all public activity.

During its search, the FSB discovered that random people sometimes stumble onto GRU agents’ real names. For example, according to an investigative report by Sergey Kanev, a police officer in Moscow’s Shchukino District woke up a man sleeping at a bus station in March 2017. When examining his personal effects, the officer found the phone numbers and names of residents at a Defense Ministry housing complex on Narodnoe Opolchenie Street — all GRU agents and instructors at the “Conservatory.” It turned out that the man had moonlighted as a canvasser for United Russia in recent elections, and all the GRU personnel had gone to vote at the same school in Shchukino.

Have there been any double agents embedded in the GRU?

Yes — more than a few.

Dmitry Polyakov worked with American intelligence from 1961 until 1986, during which time he managed to supply the U.S. with roughly 25 boxes of classified documents, give up 19 Soviet undercover intelligence agents, and more than 150 foreign agents spying for Moscow. Essentially, he single-handedly paralyzed the USSR’s undercover intelligence gathering in the United States. Polyakov first served as a member of the Soviet U.N. mission in New York, where he managed covert intelligence work, supervising undercover agents. Later, in the 1970s, he led the main intelligence department at the “Conservatory” back in Moscow. In 1986, Polyakov was arrested. President Ronald Reagan tried to intercede on his behalf directly to Mikhail Gorbachev, but it was too late by then: Polyakov had already been shot. Sandra Grimes, one of the CIA officers who helped uncover Soviet double agent Aldrich Ames, called Polyakov “our crown jewel” and “the best source that any intelligence service has ever had.”

GRU Colonel Oleg Penkovsky started working with British intelligence in the 1960s, and in just a few years he managed to supply MI5 with roughly 5,000 documents, which he copied using a Minox subminiature camera. Penkovsky would drop the intelligence at different locations around Moscow, for example, on Tsvetnoy Boulevard or at the Arbat. Once, he left a package at Vagankovo Cemetery, hidden at the poet Sergey Yesenin’s grave. When he was later arrested and interrogated, Penkovsky reportedly said his signal for making a dead drop was “a walk along the embankment with a cigarette in his mouth and a book in a white wrapper under his arm.” He was arrested and shot in 1962 (though some believe he was incinerated in the GRU building’s oven).

In the early 1990s, GRU Colonel Stanislav Lunev worked at Russia’s station in Washington, D.C. as a staffer at the ITAR-TASS bureau. After being contacted by the CIA, Lunev decided to stay in the United States, and later wrote an autobiography called “Through the Eyes of the Enemy,” where he claimed that GRU agents might be assigned “dead drop sites” to dump chemical and biological weapons into the Potomac River to poison the population of Washington, D.C., in the event of war. Lunev said it was “likely” that GRU specialists had already placed “poison supplies near the tributaries to major U.S. reservoirs.” Alexander Kouzminov, a defector from Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, later supported this information, stating that he transported different pathogens in the early 1990s.

Sergey Skripal at a Moscow District Military Court hearing on August 9, 2006
Sergey Skripal at a Moscow District Military Court hearing on August 9, 2006
Yuri Senatorov / Kommersant

GRU Colonel Sergey Skripal worked undercover in Spain as a military attaché. In 1995, he started cooperating with British intelligence. Skripal supervised the GRU’s personnel department and was well acquainted with most of the agency’s intelligence officers. He also managed to give MI5 information about secret Russian military sites and the Plesetsk Cosmodrome. In 2006, Skripal was arrested and sentenced to 13 years in prison. In 2010, however, he was exchanged with Alexander Zaporozhsky for undercover Russian agents captured in the United States.

In 1997, Alexander Zaporozhsky quit the GRU and moved with his family to the United States, where he found work as a corporate consultant. Shortly after arriving in America, he also started cooperating with the U.S. intelligence community, providing information about the activities of Russian spy agencies and individual intelligence operatives. Shortly before his arrest in Russia, Zaporozhsky bought a home in Maryland, not far from Baltimore, for $400,000. In 2001, his former colleagues lured him back home, and he was arrested as soon as he set foot in the Moscow airport. Zaporozhsky was sentenced to 18 years in prison, but he was traded back to the West with Sergey Skripal in 2010.

In February 2002, a policeman saw GRU Colonel Alexander Sypachev enter the U.S. embassy in Moscow, and the officer reported it to his supervisors. Sypachev was put under surveillance immediately afterwards, and soon he met a CIA agent in Khimki, outside Moscow, who asked him to acquire information about Russia’s spies abroad. After obtaining the intelligence, Sypachev delivered it to a drop site near Moscow’s Studencheskaya subway station, where FSB agents promptly arrested him. In court, he said he did it for the money. A year before his contact with American intelligence agents, Sypachev went through a divorce that left his ex-wife with everything, including their apartment. He later remarried, but he had to take out loans to rent a new apartment and buy furniture. The court sentenced him to eight years in prison.

How dangerous is it to work in Russia’s intelligence community?

Former and current intelligence operatives often die under mysterious circumstances.

Sergey Tretyakov, who served as the head of the SVR station in New York until 2000, was the highest ranking Russian intelligence official ever to spy for the United States. Beginning in the mid-1990s, he started passing documents to U.S. officials in exchange for money. Before long, his wife was seen driving around in a sports car. In 2000, Tretyakov received political asylum in America. Eight years later, while promoting a book about his experiences as a Russian spy, Tretyakov said in an interview, “I am the highest ranking intelligence officer who’s ever [switched sides]. If something happens to me, Russia will be excluded from [the world’s] civilized community.” A little more than a year later, in 2010, Tretyakov choked on a piece of meat at a restaurant in Florida and died.

In 2009, GRU Deputy Director Yuri Ivanov also died under mysterious circumstances: he was in Syria on official business when his body washed up in a Turkish village. Meanwhile, SVR officer Evgeny Toporov, who fled to Canada in 2000, was electrocuted to death in his bathtub, 10 years later.

In 1992, the GRU’s deputy director died in a traffic collision. The next year, the head of the agency’s Pacific Fleet Military Counterintelligence Department was killed in a similar tragedy. In 1996, another GRU commander, Alexey Lomanov, was hit and killed by a car. A year later, GRU Major General Viktor Shipilov fell to his death from the 15th floor of his apartment building. In 1999, GRU Major General Ivan Shalaev also died in a car crash. In 2000, police found the body of a lieutenant colonel from the SVR who had been stabbed in the neck.

In the 2000s, Russian intelligence officers were attacked and robbed almost constantly. In 2002, an SVR officer was assaulted on Demyan Bedny Street in Moscow. A year later, unidentified men armed with handguns attacked SVR Colonel Alexander Poteyev in his home, beating up both him and his son (then a senior in college), before stealing his money. (This is the same intelligence operative who later defected to the U.S., and helped unmask Anna Chapman and other “illegals.” BuzzFeed recently reported that Poteyev is still alive, despite claims by Russian state television that he died.) In 2003, unknown persons infiltrated SVR departmental housing through an air duct and stole an operative’s laptop. A year later, unknown persons attacked another SVR agent on Uzumrudnaya Street in Moscow, stealing his briefcase. In 2005, another SVR officer was assaulted in the street, and that same year the SVR’s departmental housing was infiltrated again — through another air duct, no less — and someone made off with an officer’s documents and money. In 2006, someone stole a safe from one of the SVR’s departmental housing units.

GRU Director Igor Sergun died suddenly on January 3, 2016. Officially, he passed away at his home outside Moscow after suffering a heart attack. According to the American geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor, however, Sergun died on New Year’s Day in Lebanon.

What happens to former intelligence operatives?

In retirement, the lives of former GRU operatives have taken many turns.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, ex-agents from the GRU often popped up in news reports about organized crime. In 1996, for example, a former officer carried out the Kotlyakovskoya Cemetery bombing, which killed 14 people. Together with the Orekhovskaya gang, other former GRU operatives planned to kill the president of the “Russian Gold” company, and staged the businessman’s abduction. In 2005, ex-GRU Sergeant Major Yuri Kolchin was convicted of organizing the assassination of Soviet dissident and Russian politician Galina Starovoytova. In 2015, federal agents raided the home of a former GRU colonel in Nizhny Novgorod. In his garage, they discovered Kalashnikov automatic weapons, rifles, two machine guns, grenade launchers, and a Makarov pistol that a year before had been used to murder a Moscow businessman.

GRU Colonel Vladimir Kvachkov’s story is widely known. Tried for plotting to kill Anatoly Chubais and acquitted by a jury, Kvachkov was re-arrested almost immediately after his release from pretrial detention — this time for planning an armed revolt and acts of terrorism. A judge ultimately sentenced him to 13 years in prison.

After being unmasked or deciding to leave the intelligence community, many operatives find jobs at state corporations. (In this vein, the people expelled from the United States in 2010 along with Anna Chapman soon found themselves working as executives at Transneft and Rosneft.) Others become state officials. But there are some special cases.

In the early 2000s, Vladimir Frolov may have served as Robert Hanssen’s handler, allegedly working as a liaison between Russian operatives and the American double agent who passed secrets to Moscow for more than two decades. According to an FBI report in 2002, Hanssen's actions were “possibly the worst intelligence disaster in U.S. history.” He sold thousands of documents to the Russians, made 22 dead drops, and turned over 26 computer discs with data about Washington’s undercover programs, double agents, and more.

A graduate of the Defense Ministry’s Military Institute (a training grounds for Russian intelligence officers), Frolov worked as first deputy secretary at Russia’s embassy in Washington, D.C. In mid-March 2001 (a few years after Hanssen’s arrest), Frolov left the U.S. in a hurry, announcing that he was taking a job at Izvestia (which the newspaper immediately refuted). In his book, “The Deep State,” Mike Lofgren says Vladimir Frolov tried to recruit him in 2000, when he was working as an analyst for the House Budget Committee.

Back in Russia, Frolov established himself as a respected expert on Russian-U.S. relations, writing articles about spies and “troll factories.” The New York Times, which called him a “Russian spy” in 2001, now describes Frolov as a “prominent international expert.” Today, he has a regular column at the website Republic, where he argues that people from the SVR and GRU will repair U.S-Russian relations, and weighs in on issues like on the expulsion of American diplomats from Russia.

Frolov refused to meet with Meduza’s correspondent for this story. Asked about his alleged intelligence work, all he said was, “The first rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club.”

In a recent article about the unmasked GRU agents accused of carrying out the nerve-agent attack in Salisbury, England, Frolov wrote the following: “Journalist colleagues, you really shouldn’t push yourselves to expose the identities of active Russian intelligence operatives working undercover. This information is a state secret and its disclosure is a criminal offense.”

Story by Daniil Turovsky, translation by Kevin Rothrock

Sources: Nikolai Pushkarev, “GRU. Vymysly i realnost” (GRU: Inventions and Reality); collected works, “Spetsnaz GRU: Pyatdesyat let istorii, dvadtsat let voiny” (GRU Spetsnaz: 50 Years of History, 20 Years of War); Viktor Suvorov, “Akvarium” (Aquarium); Anatoly Taras, “Podgotovka razvedchika: sistema spetsnaza GRU” (Preparing a Spy: The GRU Spetsnaz System); Leonid Shebarshin, “Ruka Moskvy: zapiski nachalnika sovetskoi razvedki” (The Hand of Moscow: Notes From a Soviet Intelligence Chief); Vasily Mitrokhin and Christopher Andrew, “The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB”; Pete Earley, “Comrade J.: The Untold Secrets of Russia's Master Spy in America after the End of the Cold War”; and interviews with multiple intelligence agency senior officials.