Wednesday, March 19, 2014

New books on Soviet cryptology in WWII

The role of signals intelligence and codebreaking in WWII has received a lot of attention from historians, especially after the release of new information in the 1970’s (ULTRA story). Information on the successes of the Axis codebreakers is not as easy to find but at least we know the main cases (Fellers code, Naval Cypher No3, etc) fairly well. However the work and successes of the Soviet codebreakers are still shrouded in secrecy.

During Soviet times there was no direct acknowledgment of cryptanalysis of Axis codes.  Soviet histories either glossed over that part of the war or referred to ‘radio-electronic combat’ which was limited to D/F, traffic analysis and jamming. After the breakup of the SU some new books and articles have been published that have a lot of information on the prewar organization and successes of the Soviet codebreaking agencies but not as much regarding their wartime efforts. Recently two new books have been published with more information on Soviet WWII codebreaking: ‘History of cryptology’ by Grebennkov Vadim Viktorovich and ‘The cryptographic front’ by Butirsky, Larin and Shankin.
I have read a chapter from the first book (with the help of google translate) that the author was kind enough to send me. There is certainly new information presented such as the solution of the codes of Germany’s allies in the Eastern Front. As for the second book, according to the table of contents it has the following chapters:

Chapter 1. History of manual encryption devices
Chapter 2. The twentieth century - the era of rotor cipher machines
Chapter 3. History of telephone speech coders
Chapter 4. Soviet cryptographic service
Chapter 5. Cryptographic WWII. Soviet decryption service
Chapter 6. Exploration and guerrillas
Chapter 7. Worked as a counterintelligence
Chapter 8. The agent radio
Chapter 9. Steganographic transmission means covert messages
Chapter 10. Postwar period
References and Resources

Apparently there is information on the decryption of foreign codes but i don’t have the book and I can’t read Russian. Perhaps a Russian reader of this site can read this book and give an overview.

Some information from the same authors is presented in a series of essays published in site :
Pioneers of domestic machine cryptography

In the service of the motherland, mathematics and cryptography

These essays have very interesting information on Soviet cryptology and some of the early cipher machines in use. In ‘Transformation in the fundamental science of cryptology’ i noted these very interesting statements (through google translate) regarding codebreaking:

Meanwhile, this statement is fundamentally wrong. Many results have been achieved "clean" methods, using mathematics and computer science.

Meanwhile, many American ciphers were then opened by the combined use of cryptanalytic and engineering methods and powerful computing. However, for the opening of these ciphers such a way - the only possibility.
These statements refer to the Cryptologia article ‘Soviet comint in the Cold war’ by David Kahn, specifically the part in page 7: ‘First, the Soviet Union seems to have gained most of its communications intelligence, not from cryptanalysis, but from bugs and traitors’ and ‘High-level American cryptosystems appear not to have been solved by analysis, but some were read because traitors had sold them to the Soviet Union’.

Perhaps one day when the story of codebreaking during the Cold War is fully revealed it will be interesting to compare the NSA’s efforts with their Soviet counterparts. 


  1. Thanks for awesome post, this second book "Cryptographic front" i have in my library and i read it slow, step by step. I have plan to review it after finishing read. Its little bit difficult, because russian language is not my native. On twitter I point out to the mistake at page number 63. Misunderstood between Maffie - chzechoslovakian conspirational organization in World War and Mafia - criminal organization. Description from exposition of the Military History Institute in Prague (VHU Praha) - A device used for encryption of messages of the Maffia. Authors are mistaked because cipher discs for encryption messages was devised by Engineer Baracek for use in political and cospiratorial bussiness.
    Thanks again for quick and brief aquaintace with Soviet cryptographic war effort. My first impression from book is neutral, because authors using largely western sources e.g. chapter "Russkaia kryptologia" from Kahn's The Codebreakers, thats inspired also colonel KGB Tatiana Sobolyeva, which wrote two books on history of russian and Soviet cryptology, also references in the book, you are covered. Its largely for russian readers, who don't have access to western cryptologic books.

    1. As you know I’m very interested in the wartime work of the Soviet codebreakers so when you review the book in your website let me know by linking it in the comments. Also feel free to point out information that may not be available from other sources. I was told this book has new information but from your account this seems to be false.

    2. Also added you in the links

    3. Thanks for adding to your favorite sites list. I'd like point out to the article "On history of cryptography in Russia" of N.N. Tokareva, researcher at the
      Laboratory of Discrete Analysis from the
      Sobolev Institute of Mathematics in Novosibirsk, available online:
      Article describes largely new information available also in the book in question. From reading this article can be render idea about contents of the book. Link for review kindly provide for evaluation ASAP.

    4. Thanks for the Russian study. When you write a review of ‘Cryptographic front’ let me know and I’ll link to you.