Alexander Orlov was born in Babruysk on 21st August, 1895 to an Orthodox Jewish family. He studied law at Moscow University before joining the Russian Army. During the First World War he became a Bolshevik and during the Russian Civil War he fought in the Red Army.
Orlov became a Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage (Cheka) officer and was involved in the arrest of American spy, Xenophon Kalamatiano, in September 1918. Orlov later recalled in his memoirs: "Kalamatiano turned pale and lost his composure. The investigation soon discovered that the cane contained an inner tube and he extracted it. In it were hidden a secret cipher, spy reports, a coded list of thirty-two spies and money receipts from some of them."
In 1921 he left Cheka to resume his law studies. When he completed his degree he worked under Nikolai Krylenko at the Bolshevik High Tribunal. In May 1924 he joined the Government Political Administration (GPU). Orlov was involved in the setting up the anti-Bolshevik organization, Monarchist Union of Central Russia (also known as "The Trust") that was used to trap Boris Savinkov and MI6 contract agent Sidney Reilly. In his book, The March of Time (2004) Orlov describes the arrest of Savinkov, who was killed on 25th May, 1925. Reilly was executed on 5th November 1925.
Two years later he was transferred to the INO, the branch of the NKVD responsible for overseas operations. During this period he spent time in Berlin, Vienna and London. According to Edvard Radzinsky: "In 1933-1935 he operated in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland." Orlov was also involved in the early Soviet Show Trials and later told how Nikolai Yezhov obtained confessions from Lev Kamenev and Gregory Zinoviev by making threats that they would kill their families.
On 26th August 1936 Joseph Stalin appointed Orlov as the Soviet Politburo 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. His official assignment was to organize intelligence and counterintelligence activities and guerrilla warfare in the territory under the control of General Francisco Franco. He later claimed that around 14,000 people had been trained for this work by 1938.
Orlov and his NKVD agents had the unofficial task of eliminating the supporters of Leon Trotsky fighting for the Republican Army and the International Brigades. 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). Edvard Radzinsky, the author of Stalin (1996) has pointed out: "Stalin had a secret and extremely important aim in Spain: to eliminate the supporters of Trotsky who had gathered from all over the world to fight for the Spanish revolution. NKVD men, and Comintern agents loyal to Stalin, accused the Trotskyists of espionage and ruthlessly executed them." Orlov later claimed that "the decision to perform an execution abroad, a rather risky affair, was up to Stalin personally. If he ordered it, a so-called mobile brigade was dispatched to carry it out. It was too dangerous to operate through local agents who might deviate later and start to talk."
Orlov was responsible for the killing of Andreu Nin, the POUM leader. Nin was tortured for several days. Jesus Hernández has explained: "Nin was not giving in. He was resisting until he fainted. His inquisitors were getting impatient. They decided to abandon the dry method. Then the blood flowed, the skin peeled off, muscles torn, physical suffering pushed to the limits of human endurance. Nin resisted the cruel pain of the most refined tortures. In a few days his face was a shapeless mass of flesh." Nin was executed on 20th June 1937.
Orlov was also involved in the rationalization of the security services into the Servicio de Investigacion Militar (SIM). NKVD agents and members of the Spanish Communist Party began to infiltrate and control the police and security services in the autumn of 1936. Anthony Beevor, the author of The Spanish Civil War (1982) has argued: "If Russian communism appeared to its critics as Tsarism with a proletarian face, then Spanish communism, with its power base in New Castile, seemed to them to be growing into a Marxist variation of Philip II's integrated state based on the army. The SIM resembled the Inquisition and the commissars the church. SIM officers included both unquestioningly loyal Party members and the ambitious. Its unchallenged power attracted opportunists of every sort to its ranks." The SIM was later described as "the Russian syphilis" by the German writer, Gustav Regler, who served in the International Brigades.
Orlov also organized the transfer of about 70 per cent of Spain's gold reserves to Russia for "safe-keeping". At the time Spain had the fourth largest reserves in the world (worth nearly $800 million) as a result of the trade boom during the First World War. Orlov's men were given false papers that suggested the gold was being moved by the Bank of America: "If the anarchists intercepted my men, Russians with truckloads of Spanish gold, they would kill my men, and it would be a tremendous political scandal all over the world, and it might even create an internal revolution." On its arrival in Moscow, Stalin was said to have remarked that "the Spaniards will never see their gold again, just as one cannot see one's own ears".
In July 1938 Orlov was ordered back to the Soviet Union by Joseph Stalin. Aware of the Great Purge that was going on and that several of his friends had been executed, Orlov fled to France with his wife and daughter before making his way to the United States. Orlov sent a letter to Nikolai Yezhov, the head of the NKVD, that he would reveal the organizations secrets if any action was taken against him or his family.
After the Second World War Orlov worked at the Law School of the University of Michigan. He published The Secret History of Stalin's Crimes (1953) after the death of Joseph Stalin. In 1956 he wrote an article for Life Magazine claiming that NKVD agents had discovered papers in the Tsarist archives which proved Stalin had once been an Okhrana agent.
Alexander Orlov died in Cleveland, Ohio, on 25th March 1973. FBI agent Edward P. Gazur, claims that Orlov told him that MI6 agent, Ernest Boyce, was a double agent and was responsible for betraying Sidney Reilly, Xenophon Kalamatiano and Boris Savinkov. This information was published for the first time in Gazur's book, Alexander Orlov: The FBI's KGB General (2001).
Orlov's The March of Time Reminiscences, was published in 2004. Gordon Brook-Shepherd, the author of Iron Maze: The Western Secret Services and the Bolsheviks (1998) has pointed out: "Entitled The March of Time, Reminiscences by Alexander Orlov, it is 655 pages long and deals in twenty-nine chapters with episodes in his career as a soldier and Soviet secret service man, from those first years of Bolshevik rule down to his own break with Stalin in 1939 and his adventurous flight from his final post in Spain to North America. Much of that Spanish story and his escape from Stalin's clutches had already appeared in print. This account of the earlier period had never been published or even circulated. It covered half the book, much of it on that first decade of Bolshevik power with which I was concerned. (The whole of Chapter Five, for example, gives the real story, over seventy-six pages, of the entrapment of Boris Savinkov, the 'great conspirator', and the most dangerous of all the Bolsheviks' Russian foes.) I have quoted extensively from both of these sections, not only because of the fascinating human detail they provide, but because I came to regard them, after frequent counter-checks, as totally reliable."