Evno Azef, the son of poor Jewish parents, was born in Lyskovo, in 1869. In an attempt to improve their fortunes, the family moved to Rostov-on-Don in 1874.
Educated at the local school, Azef worked as a journalist before becoming a travelling salesman. He became a revolutionary and in 1892, facing arrest for his political activities, he stole 800 rubles and escaped to Karlsruhe, Germany. He moved to Datmstadt where he successfully studied for a diploma in electrical engineering.
While in Germany he joined a group of exiled members of the Social Democratic Party. Unknown to his fellow comrades, he also became a paid police informer. In order to obtain the information that the Okhrana required, Azef toured Europe where he met all the leading Russian revolutionaries living in exile.
Azef was paid 100 rubles a month and in 1899 it was suggested by Okhrana that he would be more effective working in Russia. On his return he joined the Socialist Revolutionary Party where he advocated of armed terrorism. He was appointed a member of the party's Central Committee and in 1903 replaced Gregory Gershuni, as head of the SR Combat Organization. Boris Savinkov became his second in command.
Gershuni was unaware that his deputy was in the pay of the Okhrana. In 1904 Azef secretly provided the secret police with the information needed to arrest and try Gershuni with terrorism. Edward H. Judge, the author of Plehve: Repression and Reform in Imperial Russia (1983), has argued: "Azef sat in a very dangerous position, especially after Gershuni's arrest, and he had to think first of his own safety. A continual series of arrests, and a long train of assassination attempts gone awry, could only help convince his SR colleagues that they had a traitor in their midst. If he were found out, his game would be over, and so, most probably, would be his life. On the other hand, if he could successfully plan and accomplish the murder of Plehve, his position among the SRs would be secured. Azef had little love for Plehve: as a Jew, he could not help but resent the Kishinev pogrom and the minister's reputed role."
Azef organized the assassination of Vyacheslav Plehve in 1904 and Father Gregory Gapon in 1906. At the same time he was receiving 1,000 rubles a month from the Okhrana. Several members of the police leaked information to the leadership of the Socialist Revolutionary Party about the undercover activities of Azef. However, they refused to believe the stories and assumed the secret service was trying to undermine the success of the terrorist unit.
Eventually a police defector managed to persuade V. L. Burtsev that Azef was a police spy. He investigated the case and found confirmation in the accusation when he interviewed a former director of the Police Department in 1912.
When Azef heard the news he escaped to Germany. During the First World War Azef was arrested by the German authorities but was released in December, 1917.
Evno Azef died in Berlin in 1918.