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"'Don't be afraid, my little pigeon: I've been appointed to keep an eye on the secret police by the Party...'"

"'I assure you: we don’t have any Unknown One in the Party...'"
-Bely, Petersburg*

Evno Fishelovich Azef (1869-1918)

Evno (also known as Evgeny Filipovich) Azef was born the son of a poor Jewish tailor in Lyskovo in Grodnensky Province. He was a participant in illegal political activities from a very young age. In 1892, when he came under suspicion for circulating revolutionary leaflets, Azef escaped abroad and there he earned enough money to attend Germany's Polytechnic Institute. There, he met the radical Russian students known as "the Karlsruhe group." As early as 4 April 1893, Azef began informing on this group to the Russian secret police, and by 10 June of that year, Azef had both infiltrated the SRs as well as become a full-fledged police agent. After earning his degree in electrical engineering from Darmstadt in 1899, Azef was ordered back to Moscow and, with the approval of his boss, police chief Alexei Alexandrovich Lopukhin, he joined the Combat Organization in 1902 and became its head in 1903. By all accounts, Azef worked tirelessly as a revolutionary terrorist for the Combat Organization and within a year, he assumed a leadership role organizing the assassination of Minister Plehve.

Azef as a Young Man.

Many scholars have speculated as to why Azef dedicated himself to assassinating this particular figure. Certainly, as a Jew, he had strong reasons to dislike Plehve and held the Minister accountable, for example, for the horrific pogrom in Kishenev in 1903. Conversely, as a poor, but enterprising young man, Azef also had good reason to maintain strong ties with the police, and he had to constantly feed them false information about terrorist attacks and conspiracies in order to keep up the appearance that he was doing his police duties.

Last Known Photograph of Azef (1918)

Azef was the mastermind behind the plot to assassinate Plehve, and while he placed Boris Savinkov in charge (Azef could not stay in Petersburg, but had to keep moving about to avoid the suspicions of both groups), he planned all the details himself down to the cabbies, the incognitos, and the positions of the bomb-throwers. After the successful assassination, Azef kept up his double life as policeman and terrorist, but with increasing difficulty. Inside the Combat Organization, his authority was being challenged by Savinkov and in okhrana, several agents began to spy on him.

Photograph from Azef's Police File Photograph from Azef's Police File

It was clear to both the terrorists and the secret police that there was a traitor in their ranks. In January 1909, after his life as a police agent had been revealed, members of the Combat Organization, including Savinkov, vote that Azef should be killed (277)**. This revelation was a huge blow to the prestige of both the SRs and the police. Azef, however, succeeded in fleeing to Germany, where he lived for years as a stockbroker and then an owner of a corset shop. Of course, he constantly feared that his enemies would find him and take their revenge. Finally, on June 12, 1915 he was discovered, arrested and sent to a German prison.

Until October 1915 Azef sat in solitary confinement in complete darkness. It was not until November of that year that Azef learned he was being held not as an agent of Russian government but as a terrorist revolutionary. In 1917, Azef was to be handed over to the new Soviet regime (as part of the postwar agreement to exchange civilian prisoners) (301)**, but he was too ill to make the journey. In April 1918 he was hospitalized for kidney troubles and died there on 24 April. Azef was buried on April 26 in Wilmersdorf cemetery.


*Petersburg, 284, 341.
**Boris Nikolajewsky, Aseff the Spy: Russian Terrorist and Police Stool. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran and Company, Inc., 1934, 277, 301.