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A Bulgar Bond, A Kingly Code, and Pushy Plugs
Presenting another in an occasional series highlighting bits-and-bobs from Spionage with some follow-ups and several intrusive plugs for my brilliant new book, coming out on December 6—which just happens to be an extremely convenient time of year for those seeking valuable and enlightening gifts for their loved ones. So, remember, remember, the sixth of December.
Moving on, a quick quiz: What was the only newspaper read by James Bond? (Answer at the bottom.)
In a previous post—you can read it embedded below—I discussed the mysterious absence of a Soviet James Bond. New information has since come to light. It turns out that in fact for a very short time there actually was . . . sort of.
According to a recent book by Ian Fleming’s nephew, James Fleming, called Bond Behind The Iron Curtain, in the 1960s the KGB commissioned Bulgarian novelist Andrei Gulyashki to invent a character who could take on the mighty British secret agent.
He came up with Avakoum Zakhov, a Bulgarian counterintelligence operative, who in 1966’s Avakoum Zakhov Versus 07 (not a typo: Communists are sticklers for intellectual property, so a 0 was lopped off to avoid infringing on Fleming’s copyright) liquidated Bond, thus definitively proving the East’s superiority over the callow West.
(If you’d like to know more about the other stuff Bulgarian intellience was getting up to, read my post below.)
Another revelation contained in Bond Behind the Iron Curtain is that the Soviets commissioned the mouthpiece, Izvestiya, to run a devastatingly poor review of the new Bond film, Dr. No. Fair enough, except the movie hadn’t even yet been released in the West, and was pre-banned from the USSR anyway, so no one there had seen, or would see, it.
When Fleming discovered the review—“rubbish” and “mediocre” were some of its kinder descriptions—he requested that his publishers run excerpts on the jacket of his next book, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, as a marketing jape.
He got very annoyed when some killjoy spiked the idea, and complained that he “had been overridden by dolts.”
We all know the feeling, man.
Further Reading: J. Fleming’s Bond Behind the Iron Curtain is hard to find, but a summary is available via T. Zenou’s review, “From Russia With Loathing,” Literary Review, March 2022, p. 28.
It’s been a time since I posted on olde-tyme ciphers, but I noticed some news recently detailing the cracking of a code employed by King Charles V of Spain (and Holy Roman Emperor) in a February 1547 letter to his ambassador in France.
Relations between Spain and France (under Francis I) had been rocky for a while, but there had been peace since the signing of the Treaty of Crépy three years earlier. The death of Charles’s more-or-less ally, Henry VIII of England, in January 1547 removed a useful rearward threat to Francis and the Spanish king was worried that Paris might exploit his sudden weakness.
To that end, Charles had heard whispers that a French-paid Italian mercenary named Pierre Strozzi had been directed to assassinate him. Hence the top-secret letter to his ambassador, Jean de Saint-Mauris, directing him to investigate the truth of the matter at court (ambassadors at the time served as intelligence-gatherers). Long story short: Nothing to it, reported Saint-Mauris month later.
Also in the letter is an interesting how-the-sausage-gets-made instruction from Charles saying that it was critically important for Saint-Mauris to ensure that nothing ruffled Francis’s feathers until Charles could crush the Schmalkaldic League.
For those strangely unaware of the Schmalkaldic League, this alliance had been irritating Charles for nearly two decades and comprised the German-Lutheran territories (like Hesse, Brunswick, and Saxony) of the Holy Roman Empire, which were determined to retain their rights. There was ambitious talk of their replacing the Empire, Charles’s empire, with their own.
In 1544, concerned that the League would ally with the vigorously anti-Protestant Francis—when it came to statecraft during the Wars of Religion, despite what you may have heard, bitter enemies habitually worked together—Charles had been forced to grant it de facto recognition, but in 1546, shortly before the letter was written, he had kicked off the War of Schmalkald.
As of February 1547, he was now close to winning and so nothing was more important than preventing Paris, now not having to worry about an English war, from aiding the League, or worse, warring simultaneously with France, the Germans, and his other current bête noire, the Ottoman Empire. There was only so much fighting New World gold could sustain, let’s face it.
The good news was that at the battle of Mühlberg in late April, Charles brought the League to heel, famously (i.e., allegedly) paraphrasing Julius Caesar by saying of his triumph that Vine, vi y venció Dios (“I came, I saw, and God won”).
Aside from its historical context, the cipher itself appears to be a standard, 16th-century, imperial-grade one, almost certainly created for use exclusively between Charles and his ambassador. It has the usual nulls, doubles, and word substitutions, though the introduction of certain marks to represent vowels after consonants shows an Arabic/Moorish influence. Interesting.
(If you’d like to know more about 16th-century cryptographical practice, have a look at the post below.)
Anyway, because Charles’s was a unique cipher it was considered virtually impossible to break. Even with brute-force computer assistance, apparently, it was calculated to require several billion years, at the very least.
Then, the cryptographer Cecile Pierrot approached Camille Desenclos, a French historian, who suggested checking other letters sent to Saint-Mauris. By great good luck, about 500 years ago Saint-Mauris’s private secretary (I presume) had been careless enough, or frustrated enough, to scrawl a crib—a rudimentary key—to the code in the margin of one of the letters. And with that, the portal opened to deciphering Charles’s secret correspondence.
It didn’t happen instantly. As Desenclos told AFP, “It was painstaking and long work but there was really a breakthrough that happened in one day, where all of a sudden we had the right hypothesis.”
Just as importantly, she added, “it is likely that we will make many more discoveries in the coming years.”
Review, The Lion and the Fox
Bragging is such vulgar behavior, which is why I’m posting strictly for informational purposes the following pre-publication review of The Lion and the Fox that appeared in Publishers Weekly:
“Historian Rose (Washington’s Spies) delivers an entertaining chronicle of the battle of wits between a Confederate spy and a Union agent in England during the early years of the Civil War. In 1861, ex-U.S. Navy officer James Bulloch sailed for Liverpool seeking to build a clandestine Confederate navy in order to break the Union blockade of Southern ports. His nemesis was U.S. consul Thomas Dudley, whose “Quaker rectitude, stiff-necked temperance, and remorseless work ethic” provided a jarring contrast to Bulloch’s “designedly aristocratic style.” Tracing Britain’s 1861 Proclamation of Neutrality to the British view that the Civil War “was yet another of their rancorous colonial cousins’ periodic fits of madness,” Rose documents how Bulloch—aided by a well-placed mole in Britain’s Foreign Office—exploited a loophole in the British Foreign Enlistment Act of 1819 to convince Liverpool’s shipbuilders to manufacture the commerce raiders CSS Florida and CSS Alabama. The 1863 Emancipation Proclamation helped turn the tide in Dudley’s favor, however, as Britons came to view the war as “a humanitarian crusade to free the oppressed,” rather than a fight to preserve the Union. Rose’s indelible character sketches and firm grasp of the industrial and political milieu of 19th-century Britain enrich the contest of wills between Bulloch and Dudley. This spy-versus-spy tale delights. (Dec.)
And in other news
Answer: The Times (of London), of course. Ian Fleming mentions it in From Russia With Love.