Yevno Azef

Yevno Fishelevich Azef (Russian: Евгений Филиппович (Евно Фишелевич) Азеф, also transliterated as Evno Azef, 1869–1918), was a Russian socialist revolutionary who was also a double agent and agent provocateur, working both as an organizer of assassinations for the Socialist-Revolutionary Party and a police spy for the Okhrana, the Imperial secret police. He rose in the ranks to become the leader of the party's terrorist branch, the SR Combat Organization, from 1904 to 1908.

Yevno Azef
Yevno Fishelevich Azef

1869 (1869)
DiedApril 24, 1918(1918-04-24) (aged 48–49)

After having been found out by the revolutionary Vladimir Burtsev in 1909, he fled to Germany where he died in 1918.

Early life

Yevno Fishelevich Azef was born in Lyskava (now Brest Region, Belarus) in 1869, the second of seven children of a poor Jewish tailor. His father moved to Rostov with the family when Yevno was aged five, opened a drapery, but barely made enough money to get his children through school.[1] After leaving school, around 1890, Azef worked as a journalist and a traveling salesman. In 1892, the police suspected him of distributing revolutionary literature. To avoid arrest, he embezzled 800 rubles and fled to Germany, first to Karlsruhe and then Darmstadt. There he studied to become an electrical engineer, and joined a group of Russian social democrats.

Career as a double agent

In April 1893, Azef wrote to the Okhrana - the Russian police - offering to inform on his fellow students, for money. Later in the year, he moved to Switzerland, and in Berne, in 1894, joined the Union of Socialist Revolutionaries Abroad, organised by the respected narodnik couple, Chaim Zhitlovsky and Vera Lokhova.

When he graduated, in 1899, the Okhrana ordered him to return to Russia, where he joined the Northern Union of Socialist Revolutionaries, led by A.A. Argunov, and became, in effect, his right hand man, even though Azef wanted the revolutionaries to resume the use of terrorist tactics, and Argunov did not believe in violence. He valued Azef's ability to resolve practical problems, such as setting up an underground printing operation - unaware that he was being assisted by the Okhrana. In November 1901, Argunov sent him to Europe to help unify the Northern, Southern and foreign Socialist Revolutionary unions into a single organisation. Argunov was arrested as soon as Azef had left Russia. In Switzerland, in 1902, Azef was a founding member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, and became deputy head of its combat organisation (terrorist branch), headed by Grigori Gershuni.

Gershuni thought so highly of Azef that he nominated him as his successor, so when Gershuni was arrested in spring 1903 after being betrayed by another double agent, Azef became head of the combat organisation (with Boris Savinkov as his deputy), and thus, simultaneously, Russia's leading terrorist and highest paid police informant. In that position he organized assassinations of Vyacheslav Plehve (1904) - who, as minister of interior, was Azef's nominal employer and the person who had ultimately authorised him to infiltrate the combat organisation, and who had made Gershuni's arrest the police's main priority, thus facilitating Azef's rise - and of the Governor of Moscow, the Tsar's uncle Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia (1905).

The success of these two assassinations gave Azef immense prestige within the Socialist Revolutionary Party. Because he was so trusted, he was able to deliver up a long list of party members over to the Okhrana, to be arrested, including Anna Yakimova, a veteran of the plot to kill the Tsar Alexander II, who had served 24 years in prison, and Zinaida Kopolyannikova, who was hanged in August 1906 for assassinating the head of the Tsar's lifeguards. In 1905 alone, according to researchers who accessed police records after the 1917 revolution, he betrayed 17 members of the combat organisation.[2]

The assassinations also set off a crisis within the Okhrana. The Director of Police, Alexei Lopukhin, resigned, and was replaced by his rival Pyotr Rachkovsky, whom he despised. One of Rachkovsky's first action was to sack Leonid Ratayev, who had been acting as Azef's controller, and take over supervision of him personally. His actions were resented by some of the Okhrana's long serving officers, one of whom anonymously tipped off the Social Revolutionary that there were two spies in their ranks - Azef, and a man named Tatarov. Boris Savinkov ordered that Tatarov should be killed: he was stabbed to death on 4 April 1906 - but none of the revolutionaries could believe that Azef was also a spy. Nonetheless, fearing more leaks from within the Okhrana, Azef emigrated to Geneva.[3] He was in Helsingfors in February 1906, when he learnt from a go-between named Pinchas Rutenberg that Father Gapon the popular hero of the 1905 revolution, had become a police informant. Azef ordered that Gapon should be killed "like a snake."[4] - though he took care to ensure that his paymaster, Rachkovsky, was not killed at the same time.


Late in 1906, Vladimir Burtsev, a left wing magazine editor, was approached by an Okhrana officer who had turned against the government, who provided him with a wealth of accurate information, including the presence of a spy in the leader of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, whose identity he did not know. Later, Burtsev spotted Azef riding through St Petersburg in an open cab when most revolutionaries were in hiding, and suspected that he was the unidentified spy. Unable to prove his suspicions, or persuade any significant figures within the party to share them, Burtsev contrived to meet Alexei Lopukhin in the carriage of a train leaving Cologne, and put it to him that Azef was a spy, which Lopukhin confirmed. Burtsev then wrote up the case against Azef, had it printed and dispatched to the Central Committee of the SR party, who appointed three veteran revolutionaries - Vera Figner, German Lopatin and Prince Kropotkin as a Court of Honour. which held a month long hearing in Paris, and concluded that Burtsev's claims should be taken seriously. Learning where Burtsev had gained his information, Azef secretly visited Petersburg to put pressure on Lopukhin to repudiate his story. Instead, Lopukhin approached Azev's former mentor, Andrei Argunov in Petersburg to verify Burtsev's testimony, then travelled to London to give the same information to three of the party's representatives. In January 1909, the Central Committee resolved to have Azef killed, and tried to lure him to an isolated villa in France, but he fled to Germany. His wife, Ljuba Mankin, who had been unaware of his double-dealing, divorced him and moved to the United States. One of his last acts as a spy was to denounce Lopukhin, who was exiled to Siberia.

In Germany, Azef lived with a singer and worked as a corset salesman and stock speculator, investing the money he had amassed during his career as a double spy, constantly in fear of being recognised and killed. From 1915 to 1917, during the First World War, he was interned by Germany as an enemy alien.[5] In prison he suffered from kidney disease.


Yevno Azef died of renal failure in Berlin on April 24, 1918. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Wilmersdorf cemetery.


  • Nikolajewsky, B. Aseff the Spy: Russian Terrorist and Police Stool. Garden City, NY, 1934.
  • Pevsner, G. La Doppia Vita di Evno Azev (1869-1918). Milano: Mondadori, 1936. 315 pp.
  • Anna Geifman Entangled in Terror: The Azef Affair and the Russian Revolution. Scholarly Resources, 1999.
  • Richard E. Rubenstein Comrade Valentine: The True Story of Azef the Spy—The Most Dangerous Man in Russia at the Time of the Last Czars. Harcourt Brace and Company, 1994.
  • Shukman, H. (ed.) The Blackwell Encyclopedia of the Russian Revolution. Oxford, 1988.
  • Hildermeier, M. Die sozialrevolutionäre Partei Russlands. Cologne, 1978.


  • Rebecca West's The Birds Fall Down (1966) is a spy thriller based on the deeds of Azef.[6]
  • Roman Gul's novel Azef (originally General B.O., 1929; later edition OCLC 3229274) hewed closely to the facts, according to Allen Dulles.[6]
  • Joseph Conrad's novel Under Western Eyes (1911, OCLC 608066) used elements of the Azef story.[6]


  1. Nicolaievsky, Boris (translated by George Reavy) (1934). Aseff: the Russian Judas. London: Hurst & Blackett. pp. 32–33.
  2. Shmidt, O.Yu.; Bukharin N.i.; et al., eds. (1926). Большая совтская энциклопедия volume 1. Moscow. pp. 666–667.
  3. Nicolaevsky, Boris. Aseff the Spy. pp. 120–125.
  4. Notes on Georgii Appolonovich Gapon (1870-1906), Northern Virginia Community College
  5. Baylen, Joseph O. (November 1972). "Yevno Azeff: The Story of a Scoundrel". The History Teacher. 6 (1): 77–82. doi:10.2307/492626. JSTOR 492626.
  6. Dulles, Allen, ed. (1969). Great Spy Stories from Fiction. Harper & Row. pp. 47–48. ISBN 978-0-00-410591-8.
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