Alexander Orlov was born in Russia in about 1898. Orlov fought in the Red Army during the Russian Civil War and was later recruited to join the Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage (Cheka). In 1934 this organization was replaced by the NKVD.
On 26th August 1936 Orlov was appointed by the Soviet Politburo as adviser to the Popular Front government. The following month Orlov travelled to Spain and was given considerable authority by the Republican administration during the Spanish Civil War.
Orlov supervised a large-scale guerrilla operation behind Nationalist lines. He later claimed that around 14,000 people had been trained for this work by 1938. Orlov also used NKVD agents to deal with left-wing opponents of the Communist Party (PCE) in Republican held areas. This included the arrest and execution of leaders of the Worker's Party (POUM), National Confederation of Trabajo (CNT) and the Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI).