The Soviet James Bond
And why there isn't one. . .
Some years ago, the comic-book writer Mark Millar released Red Son, a series based on the clever conceit that baby Kal-El landed not in the United States but in the Soviet Union, consequently becoming a Superman who stands not for truth, freedom, and the American way but for “Stalin, socialism, and the international expansion of the Warsaw Pact.”
The switcheroo worked because there’s nothing inherently, necessarily American about the Kryptonian, who could as easily have grown up on a Ukrainian collective as on a Kansas farm, and who works for Pravda rather than the Daily Planet, and still be the same character: modest, honest, self-sacrificing.
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But you can’t do the same for James Bond. As conceived by Ian Fleming, he simply cannot exist in a Communist system. Trying to fit him into a Soviet context would be, as the philosophers say, a category error.
The jetsetting glamor, the exotic locations, the glittering casinos, never mind the Turnbull & Asser shirts and the Bentleys and the Rolex Explorer and the 1953 Château Mouton Rothschild and the custom-made Morland cigarettes—Fleming’s Bond was an incredibly attractive advertisement for capitalist consumption.
If all this was catnip to Fleming’s chilblained readers in grim, gray 1950s Britain, where a banana made a nice Christmas present and holidays were endured in rainy, stone-beached Blackpool, then it was some kind of unimaginable fantasy to those confined to the still grimmer, grayer USSR.
It was also a very dangerous one, politically speaking. Any journeyman thriller writer had to have his work assessed by the KGB for doctrinal error, and the censors would have instantly vetoed some 007 of the Politburo’s Secret Service luxuriating in the decadent fleshpots of the West, gambling away workers’ collective funds on baccarat, and driving anything sleeker than a Volga Automotive Plant-made Lada.
Bond In His Native Habitat
Still, there was no denying that Commander Bond was an extraordinarily potent propaganda tool and cultural touchstone, especially after the movies started coming out in the early 1960s. (This isn’t the place to debate which one’s best, but it’s obviously 1983’s Octopussy. As the Dothraki say, “It is known.”)
As time went on, the films would fumigate Bond of his anti-Communism, and it can be startling to encounter in the original books. For instance, in the 2006 film of Casino Royale, Daniel Craig’s first outing as 007, the villain Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelson) is a very post-9/11 private banker who finances international terrorism and profits by shorting airline stocks, betting that they will tank when a bomb goes off.
In the 1953 book, however, Le Chiffre was the paymaster for a Communist-controlled French trade union who unwisely invested in a chain of brothels and lost Moscow’s money. MI6, which is worried that Moscow-backed trade unionists will sabotage the French rail network in the event of a Soviet invasion, sends Bond to bankrupt Le Chiffre, who’s at the casino trying to win back his lost funds, in order to force him to defect to Britain and betray his KGB masters.
In the second book, Live and Let Die, Mr. Big is an agent of Soviet counterintelligence who’s smuggling gold coins into Harlem and Florida to finance a KGB operation intended to provoke black liberation groups into revolution. He eventually gets eaten by ravenous sharks, courtesy of 007.
All of these embarrassing losses and humiliating portrayals particularly irked Yuri Andropov, who became chairman of the KGB in 1967. Incensed that the martini-swilling imperialist Bond and his CIA running-dog Felix Leiter were constantly making his operatives look like idiots, Andropov desperately wanted a bestselling secret agent of his own to combat the baleful influence of the British superspy.
Whatever else he was, Andropov stipulated, this Soviet hero could not be a Bond clone because the official view of 007, as expressed by Yuri Zhukov in Pravda in 1965—the year of the movie, Thunderball, and the book, The Man With the Golden Gun—was that he:
“lives in a nightmarish world where laws are written at the point of a gun, where coercion and rape are considered valor and murder is a funny trick ... Bond’s job is to guard the interests of the property class, and he is no better than the youths Hitler boasted he would bring up like wild beasts to be able to kill without thinking.”
For Andropov, a truly Soviet 007 would be a proletarian thinking man, not a wild beast; he would be cleverer than his antagonists and dedicated to a cause, not to protecting the interests of the rich. He would do more with less, because that was the Soviet way.
Now, Andropov didn’t come up with this idea himself. One of his inspirations was the now-forgotten spy writer Roman Kim, born in 1899 to wealthy Korean parents. In 1916, he was drafted into the anti-Bolshevik White Army, but owing to his fluency in Japanese he joined military intelligence.
A few years later, with the Reds victorious, Kim was swept into OGPU, the Soviet state security service and forerunner of the NKVD and KGB, and transferred to Moscow to spy on Japanese nationals after the USSR and Japan established diplomatic relations in 1925.
He garnered the Order of the Red Star in June 1936, but it all came crashing down when Stalin’s mad purges began. Less than a year later, he was arrested for espionage on behalf of Japan and was dragged to the Lubyanka, the notorious NKVD headquarters. There, where the basements were bathroom-tiled and a gutter ran along the sloped floor to aid in cleaning up the blood from prisoners shot in the back of the head, Kim was tortured into confessing his sins.
Most victims were then executed, but Kim had the innovative idea of telling a lie so preposterous it made him look like an extraordinarily valuable asset. He was not some garden-variety spy, Kim insisted, but no less august a figure than Tokyo’s station chief in Moscow and the illegitimate son of the former Japanese foreign minister. Whereas everyone else in his department, as well as the NKVD officer who’d signed his arrest order, was shot, Kim survived.
That didn’t mean he was released, though. He was jailed under harsh conditions, obliged to work as a Japanese translator, and not freed under December 1945.
Understandably reluctant to re-enter the intelligence game, Kim turned to literary pursuits and became an expert on British and American detective novels.
This being the Soviet Union, everything was political and Kim’s work was directed towards propagandistic purposes in the brewing Cold War. He was particularly disparaging towards American writers of the “hard-boiled” school. Ellery Queen, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, all these hacks cranked out sensationalistic stories geared towards generating tawdry thrills in their readers, he wrote.
Their books, Kim sniffed, amounted to little more than decadent “orgies of whiskey and blood” designed to produce profit for the exploiters of the proletariat. As a whole they inculcated cultural decay and moral impoverishment within workers, and were thus inappropriate for a Soviet audience.
He had a lot more time for the sedate English tales of Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, whose heroes relied on reason, cleverness, and logic to solve their cases. Marxism prided itself on its modern, rational, scientific approach to organizing the economy and society, and Kim felt Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, despite their regrettable bourgeois backgrounds, exemplified these principles.
For a time, Kim toyed with the idea of creating a Soviet detective story, but the release in 1946 of Fritz Lang’s Cloak and Dagger, in which Gary Cooper paid tribute to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during the Second World War while stoutly biffing Nazis, gave him a brilliant idea. Why not a Soviet spy novel that would instil the correct Marxist attitudes within its readers?
There followed a succession of books featuring upright Soviet agents outwitting corrupt American spies, fighting alongside their gallant North Korean allies, helping humane Marxist-Leninist guerrillas overthrow evil British-backed regimes in Africa, etc.
Poor old Roman Kim had the misfortune of dying (1967) just as Andropov was seeking candidates to kickstart a KGB-approved series featuring a Soviet anti-Bond. Kim had been the front-runner, but in the end the lucky recipient of Andropov’s largesse was Yulian Semyonov, a moderately successful novelist and protégé of Kim’s who in No Password Required had recently created a character named Maxim Maximovich Isayev, a Bolshevik secret policeman during the Russian Civil War.
It was the beginning of a long and beautiful relationship. Andropov opened the KGB archives so that his star could base his works on the real-life successes of Soviet intelligence, and in return Semyonov spun gold from the paper files. His huge bestseller was Seventeen Moments of Spring, which came out in 1969.
While George Lazenby was dealing with Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Telly Savalas) and massacring legions of his hapless henchmen in that year’s Bond release, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Semyonov’s Isayev in Seventeen Moments was quietly infiltrating German High Command in the closing stages of the Second World War.
As far back as 1927—such brilliant foresight by Moscow!—Isayev had established himself as a mole in Germany named “Max Otto von Stierlitz” and had since burrowed his way into becoming a SS-Standartenführer (the equivalent of a colonel) in the foreign intelligence department.
Stierlitz transmits all his top-secret intel back to Moscow, plays intellectual cat-and-mouse with cunning-as-a-fox Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller (in real life, not so bright a guy), and sabotages the V-2 rocket program for good measure. Most importantly, he thwarts peace negotiations between the Nazis and the Americans (you can never trust either) taking place in Switzerland that were intended to cut Stalin out of his deserved reward for defeating the Germans in the Great Patriotic War.
As propaganda, it’s fantastic stuff, just as good in its way as the traitor Kim Philby’s “memoirs,” My Silent War, also written under the aegis of the KGB. They had appeared in 1968 as part of Andropov’s “brand enhancement” campaign, and painted a cartoonish picture of bumbling British spies and venal American officials invariably outwitted by the likes of Philby and his KGB handlers.
Over the next several years, Semyonov churned out numerous novels featuring Stierlitz, including 1974’s Diamonds for the Dictatorship of the Proletariat (admittedly, he didn’t quite have Fleming’s flair for titles). What never changed, though, is that as a cerebral, methodical loner who spends most of his time waiting, watching, and smoking, Stierlitz’s a very far cry from 007 with his cool cars, hot babes, and nifty gadgets. But he was exactly what Andropov conceived as the perfect Soviet spy.
The Real Stierlitz?
After Andropov made a call, production was instantly greenlit on a Seventeen Moments mini-series. When it was broadcast on Russian state television in 1973, between 50 and 80 million people tuned in over twelve consecutive nights. It was rebroadcast every year well into the 1990s.
Even if its pacing is too ponderous for modern audiences—a common problem with 1970s dramas; you try getting anyone under 30 to sit through the entire Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy BBC series—to this day every Russian over a certain age knows who Stierlitz is.
One in particular certainly found inspiration in him. In 1992, the up-and-coming deputy mayor (a former intelligence officer in East Germany) of St. Petersburg commissioned a filmmaker to shoot a documentary about himself. At one point, the politician suggested that he re-enact the famous ending of Seventeen Moments when Stierlitz potentially sacrifices his life in order to serve the Motherland by driving back to a devastated Berlin.
The documentarian thought it a clever wheeze and so we see, driving his GAZ Volga, with the Seventeen Moments theme playing in the background, a then-obscure Vladimir Putin literally acting as his own Stierlitz—Andropov’s dream of the ultimate KGB man dedicating himself to Mother Russia’s anti-Western struggle finally coming to life.
Further Reading: J. Black, The Politics of James Bond: From Fleming’s Novels to the Big Screen (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005); E. Jens, “Cold War Spy Fiction in Russian Popular Culture: From Suspicion to Acceptance via Seventeen Moments in Spring,” Studies in Intelligence, 61 (2017), 2, pp. 31-41; F. Kovacevic, “The FSB Literati: The First Prize Winners of the Russian Federal Security Service Literature Award Competition, 2006-2018,” Intelligence and National Security, 34 (2019), 5, pp. 1-17; F. Kovacevic, “Ian Fleming’s Soviet Rival: Roman Kim and Soviet Spy Fiction During the Early Cold War,” Intelligence and National Security, 37 (2022), 4, pp. 593-606; A. Kulanov, “Roman Kim: The Ninja from the Lubianka,” The Historian, 80 (2018), 1, pp. 9-33; C.T. Nepomnyashchy, “The Blockbuster Miniseries on Soviet TV: Isaev-Shtirlits, the Ambiguous Hero of Seventeen Moments in Spring,” Soviet and Post-Soviet Review, 29 (2002), 3, pp. 257-76.