Article by Michael Connick
There is no doubt that government officials of the Soviet Union, and especially those in the KGB, viewed Ian Fleming’s James Bond stories as dangerous anti-Soviet propaganda. Both the books and films were banned in the Soviet Union. Komsomolskaya Pravda, the official newspaper of the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League, blasted them by saying,
“James Bond lives in a nightmarish world where laws are written at the point of a gun, where coercion and rape is considered valour and murder is a funny trick.”
However, the Soviets also recognized that spy stories written from a “Marxist-Leninist point of view” might be very powerful in furthering their political philosophy, and in countering the attractions of Bond. They decided to take the offensive against their capitalist enemy in a variety of ways. In this article I’m going to discuss just a few of them.
A Bond-Bashing Novel
The first approach against the Fleming novels was the most obvious. It was a novel that would pit a Communist spy directly against James Bond and have him vanquish that evil imperialist. It would additionally address the unflattering portrayal of the members of Bulgarian State Security in the Bond stories. Ian Fleming regularly characterized them as stupid brutes under the thumb of the KGB.
So in 1965, a Bulgarian writer named Andrei Gulyashki was asked by the KGB to write such a novel. He had already written several novels featuring a Bulgarian counterintelligence officer by the name of Avakoum Zakhov. The KGB wanted Gulyashki to write a novel that would pit Zakhov against James Bond and show him triumphing over Bond.
Gulyashki was given the unusual privilege of traveling to Great Britain in 1966 to gather background material. He even met with the copyright holders of the James Bond novels in London, then known as Glidrose Productions, about the possibility of their handling the publication and sales of his book in the West.
Alas, there he immediately ran into a major problem. Glidrose forbade him to make any use of the name “James Bond”, or even the number “007”, in his book. They threatened lawsuits if he did, and injunctions against any sales of the book in the West. Furthermore, they had no interest in becoming involved in its publication.
So, Gulyashki had to make due with just using the name “07” for his Bond character. That’s the only identification ever used for him in the book, although it’s clear exactly who he is meant to represent. He is portrayed as a “decadent but handsome agent of a corrupt Western power.” In this book, 07 is made to look ridiculous, mean, greedy, and miserable.
The book was titled “Avakoum Zakhov Versus 07” and was published in Bulgaria in 1966. Later that year it was translated into Russian and published in the Soviet Union. It was also translated into additional Eastern European languages and distributed throughout the Warsaw Pact nations.
Then came the problem of spreading this “propaganda bombshell” into the West. Unfortunately, Gulyashki couldn’t seem to find any Western publisher interested in it. Every publisher he contacted thought the book was poorly written, and had a ridiculous and confusing plot.
Gulyashki finally found a publisher in Australia in 1967 who was willing to print and sell the book: Scripts. This was a pretty unusual choice, but it was likely the only one he could find who was willing to do it.
Scripts was the “adult-oriented” arm of Australia’s largest paperback publisher, Horwitz Publications. The Scripts catalog consisted mainly of paperbacks about male prostitutes, bored housewives, and women in prison. Neverthess, they were actually willing to publish the novel, but with one proviso – Bond, excuse me, I mean 07, had to die in the end.
In the original novel, Zakhov completely outwits and humiliates 07, but he doesn’t kill him. Instead, he allows him to escape during a climatic scene in Antarctica in which Zakhov saves a Russian scientist 07 had kidnapped, along with his alluring secretary.
So a new ending was written:
“It was now or never. As 07 drew his foot back and was temporarily off balance, Avakoum rolled forward, away from the crevasse and, as quick as a flash, reached up and grabbed the Englishman’s leg, the one that was still firm on the ground. He tugged it hard, then let go.
Carried forward by the impetus of his kick, 07 seemed to fly through the air. He screamed, a long drawnout scream that faded as he plummetted into the snow-obscured bottomless depths. Avakoum looked over the edge, but he couldn’t see anything. Visibility was only a few feet.”
The Scripts paperback was sold in Australia, the UK, and the US, but is nearly impossible to find today. The only copy available on eBay at this moment is priced at $1,794.05. I think it would be worth that price only to the most obsessive collector of all things even slightly related to James Bond. I’ve read the book, and frankly it was something of an ordeal to finish.
A Competitor To Bond
The next way the Soviets could attack the James Bond stories was by creating well-crafted material portraying Communist spies who were clearly superior to Bond. They had to create a better, and more Soviet, James Bond.
In 1967, Yuri Andropov became the chairman of the KGB, and continued to serve in that role through 1982. While chairman, he launched a campaign to improve the organization’s image. Andropov encouraged the creation of a series of novels, songs, films, and television shows glorifying KGB officers. They focused primarily on those officers serving abroad, thus deflecting attention away from the KGB’s internal security functions. They would also counter negative Western depictions of the KGB. Especially galling to him was the portrayal of the KGB in the Bond film, “From Russia with Love”.
Interestingly, none of the works produced as a result of this effort were set during the Cold War, but take place during World War II. This seems to indicate that this war, in which over twenty million Russians died, was a far more central and traumatizing experience to ordinary Russians than the Cold War ever was. It was also a time in which all of the people of the Soviet Union were clearly united, and made huge sacrifices, in order to defeat Nazi Germany.
The first such work I’ll discuss was a novel by the Russian author Vladimir Bogomolov. He wrote a number of thrillers, the most famous of which, “In August ’44”, was published in 1973. It tells the story of NKVD SMERSH operatives who followed advancing Russian troops. They executed deserters and those suspected of collaborating with the Nazis. It was done in a pseudo-realistic style by presenting the story through orders, telegrams, and reports. It was quite successful, being printed in multiple languages and in over 100 editions. It was even twice made into a film.
Polish state TV produced two mini-series in the 1960’s based the exploits of a Polish spy working under cover in the German army: Stanisław Kolicki. Both were titled “Playing for High Stakes”. The later version, with 18 episodes, is still popular to this day in Poland. Kolicki takes the place of a German Abwehr (military intelligence) officer, Hans Kloss, after the real Kloss is captured by the Soviets. While working undercover, he spreads disinformation and discord amongst his Abwehr colleagues, even causing some of its officers to be falsely arrested as traitors. He succeeds so well in his work that he is actually promoted by the Germans.
As successful as the above two stories were, they pale against the next work. I believe that the most successful portrayal of a loyal Communist spy, equal to or better than Bond, was done in the Russian novel “Seventeen Moments of Spring” by Yulian Semyonov.
Set during the closing days of World War II, the book was written by an already successful author. Once referred to by the Los Angeles Times as “the Soviet Robert Ludlum”, Semyonov was a Soviet journalist and novelist who traveled extensively throughout the world, including the US, Latin America, Europe, and Asia. Because of this, it was widely assumed that he at least had strong connections with the KGB, if not actually acting as an agent for them.
This book reportedly sold thirty-five million copies in the Soviet Union alone. It was also available in the UK, France, and the US. “Seventeen Momement of Spring” is still extremely popular in Russia today. An English translation is currently available through Amazon.
Written in 1969, the novel featured a recurring character of Semyonov’s: Colonel Maxim Maximovich Isaev. This was Semyonov’s third novel to feature him as protagonist. He was far better known by his Nazi cover name: SS Colonel Max Otto von Stirlitz.
Isaev is much more of an intellectual character than Bond, and led a rather monkish existance, so direct comparisons are somewhat difficult. He is, nevertheless, the premiere fictional Soviet spy.
In this novel, he was assigned to foil an attempt by Britain and the US to negotiate a separate peace deal with the Nazis, and then join up in a common front against the Soviet Union. In this book, the Allies are at least as villainous as the Nazis, if not more so.
The popularity of this story really exploded with the production of it as a mini-series on Soviet television. The creation of this show was closely supervised by Andropov’s deputy, Colonel General Semen Tzvigun.
The show was an enormous hit, clearly the most popular TV show ever produced in Russia. Broadcast in 12 episodes, it was so popular that city streets would empty when it was on. Crime even reportedly dropped on nights it was shown, and there was a very noticeable spike in electrical demand due to the huge number of televisions being turned on at the same time. The show was rebroadcast annually in the Soviet Union and throughout Warsaw Pact nations, and is still regularly rebroadcast in Russia to this day.
Leonid Brezhev was a huge fan of the series and reportedly watched it 20 times. It was even claimed that he rescheduled meetings of the Central Committee in order not to miss any episodes. Vladimir Putin has admitted to being a huge fan of the show, and he was so taken by the character of Isaev that he is said to have modeled his own life on him.
One aspect of the story that I personally find fascinating is the relatively positive portrayal of the Nazis in it. In spite of the death and devastation they had brought onto the Soviet Union, and the brutal way they treated Soviet citizens during their occupation of a large part of the country, the Nazis in this story are not depicted as idiotic brutes. That was the usual way they were portrayed in other Soviet films and TV shows. In this story they are all intelligent and even attractive in appearance. Pleasant homes, restaurants, and bars are featured throughout the show, unlike anything that could then be seen in Russia. The Nazis were so attractively portrayed that some even think that the show was responsible for the spawning of a neo-Nazi movement within Russia.
So, the Soviet Union appears to have made some rather serious attempts to counter the huge popularity of the James Bond stories and films. Yet, they obviously failed badly in this attempt. Today, Bond novels and films are more popular than ever, and readily available throughout the entire world, including Russia. The name “James Bond” is likely to be readily recognized by a huge portion of the world’s population.
In comparison, how many people have heard of Avakoum Zakhov or Colonel Maxim Maximovich Isaev?