Along with the initials KGB, the word Spetsnaz ranks as one of the best-known Soviet terms to come out of the Cold War. Movies and novels portrayed Spetsnaz as highly trained, bloodthirsty killers who knew no bounds and ended up getting wiped out before the screen faded to black or the final page turned.

Truth sometimes imitated art, especially in the Soviet era, but beneath stigma and rumor laid a core of the best trained men the Soviet Union, now the Russian Federation, could produce.

Spetsnaz, or Special Purpose Units, is a broad term that encompasses elite units in both military and police forces.

Once a closely guarded secret, the beginning of Spetsnaz came after the Second World War. The GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate of the Armed Forces) underwent a reorganization in which independent special purpose reconnaissance companies were formed in 1949. These grew to battalions in 1957 and then to brigades averaging between 1,000 to 1,300 men in 1962.

There were two separate Spetsnaz-type brigades created for general warfare, Army and Naval.

An Army-based element consisted of a headquarters group, four parachute battalions, a communications company and logistics personnel. Their primary assignments were to carry out deep penetration missions hundreds of miles behind enemy lines against high value targets, such as American mobile tactical nuclear missiles based in Western Europe during the Cold War. Secondary missions included raids, prisoner snatches, sabotage, assassinations and guerilla warfare.

Naval Spetsnaz, which trained for maritime warfare, consisted of a headquarters group, three battalions of combat swimmers, and a parachute battalion. Midget submarines were also assigned to the brigade.

In typical Special Forces fashion, both Army and Navy were designed to operate in small detachments of about but not limited to eight men, with a much larger force capable of coming together on short notice.