By Vikas Datta
Spy fiction we have been used to for years had Soviet/Russian agents as the bad, ruthless guys. Though there were exceptions - the KGB chief in Frederick Forsyth's "The Negotiator", in some James Bond films, Ilya Kurakin in "The Man from UNCLE" and even Vladimir Putin (initially), they were in supporting roles. But this situation wasn't for lack of availability - a Soviet super-spy still regales his countrymen, but is virtually unknown in the outside world.
Col. Maxim Maximovich Isayev is more famous as SS Standartenfuhrer Max Otto von Stirlitz, the cover name in his most successful operation - infiltrating the Third Reich's intelligence services, and foiling a range of Nazi machinations, including a separate peace with the Western Allies, while remaining undetected.
Also inspiring a series of jokes, he was the creation of Soviet journalist-cum-author Yulian Semyonovich Semyonov (1931-93), who himself had an exciting life.
After a stint as diplomatic interpreter around Asia, Semyonov became a journalist in 1955 with his stories appearing in leading Soviet newspapers and magazines such as Pravda, Literaturnaya Gazeta and Komsomolskaya Pravda. He was also a foreign correspondent in the next two decades, reporting from hot spots like Afghanistan, Francoist Spain, Allende and Pinochet's Chile and elsewhere.
A pioneer of investigative journalism in Soviet periodicals, he also traced fugitive Nazis and Sicilian mafia leaders, accompanied Vietnamese and Laotian communist partisans into combat, and interviewed former Nazi leaders and soldiers, becoming the first journalist to talk to the notorious Otto Skorzeny, who had led a daring rescue mission to free the deposed Mussolini and was rumoured to lead a mission to assassinate Allied Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower.
Semyonov also began writing fiction in the 1950s with his first works being rather romantic stories. But then came his 12-part Stirlitz series which began in 1966 with the short novel "Parol ne Nuzhen (Password Not Required)", set in 1921 during the Russian Civil War and ended in 1990 with "Otchaniye (Despair)", based in the last years of Stalin, though in the book's internal timeframe, the last one is set in 1967. It is high time that the series are brought back from the 'out of print' limbo.
Isayev/Stirlitz is an engaging character - cold-blooded but not wantonly violent (he killed only once during his entire career), cultured, knowledgeable about wide range of subjects and speaking all European language save Irish and Albanian. Unlike James Bond, he is a moderate drinker (his main use for a cognac bottle is to hit opponents on the head), chaste, declining services of prostitutes by saying: "I'd rather drink some coffee", but equally fond of fast cars.
There is a belief that the series was commissioned by then KGB Chairman (later General Secretary) Yuri Andropov to rehabilitate the security agencies' public image from the effects of the Stalin-era excesses. It is also believed that Semyonov, who had many friends in the KGB, was himself a member, but his close friends deny it.
If this was the intention, the series succeeded beyond expectations right from its third installment "Syemnadtsat Mgnoveniy Vesni (Seventeen Moments of Spring)", 1969, becoming widely popular, especially after it was adapted for TV in 1973.
Dealing with Stirlitz's efforts to sabotage an attempt for Nazi Germany to end the war on the western front so it could turn all focus to fighting Stalin's Russia, both the book and the TV series were distinguished by a realism and nuanced depiction of Nazi characters, including the likes of Martin Bormann, and Heinrich 'Gestapo' Muller.
None of the others in the series or Semyonov's other books, including a police procedural series, could beat this work, whose screen version made the hero, played by Vyacheslav Tikhonov, a popular cultural icon, the archetype for any shrewd, conspiratorial, and very lucky person and owner of a genre of jokes.
These jokes are a parody of Stirlitz's superlogical trains of thought, and close escapes, with the unexpected twists, delivered in approximation of the TV show's solemn voice-overs.
"Stirlitz blasted the door open with a mighty kick and discreetly tiptoed toward Muller who was reading a paper", or "Muller was walking through the forest when he saw two eyes staring at him in the darkness. 'An owl,' thought Muller. 'You're an owl yourself!' thought Stirlitz".
Then "Stirlitz and Kathe are walking through the park. A gunshot rings out. Kathe falls. Blood flows. Stirlitz, relying on his keen instincts, immediately gets suspicious" or "On May Day, Stirlitz put on his Red Army cap, grabbed a red banner and marched up and down the corridors of the Reich Security Office singing the Internationale. Never before had Stirlitz been so close to failure."
They even intrude into the real world. "Stirlitz wakes up in a prison cell. 'Who got me? Which name should I use?' he wonders. 'Let's see. If they wear black uniforms, I'll say I'm Standartenführer Stirlitz. If they wear green uniforms, I'm Colonel Isayev'. The door opens and a policeman in a blue uniform comes in saying: "You really should ease up on the vodka, Comrade Tikhonov!"
(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at email@example.com)