The Soviet Spy Thriller

Writers, Power, and the Masses, 1938-2002

by Duccio Colombo (Author)
©2022 Monographs X, 298 Pages


It is commonly held among scholars that there was no mass literature in the Soviet Union during the Stalin years. What should we do, then, with Lev Ovalov’s Major Pronin or with the stories of Lev Sheinin, which began to appear in the mid-1930s? And what about Nikolai Shpanov’s post-war best-sellers? As The Soviet Spy Thriller demonstrates, the Soviet authorities did not like to admit that they published low-quality literature aimed at the uncultured masses, but they greatly valued its propaganda value. These works represented a break with the ‘Red Pinkerton’ tradition of the 1920s: the genre was being reinvented along new lines, with a new seriousness, and documentary pretensions.
The building of a new kind of spy thriller also required a new enemy. Between the late 1930s and the early 1950s, the Soviet spy thriller reflects the shift from an obsession with class to a new preoccupation with nationality, as the Soviet Union constructed a new identity for itself in a rapidly changing world. The same identity discourse underwent another transformation in the post-Stalin years, when the Soviet agent, underground in the enemy camp, became a metaphor for double life of the ‘Soviet man’.
A landmark new survey of a genre little known in the West, The Soviet Spy Thriller shines new light on cultural politics in the Soviet Union, and offers a fascinating counterpoint to the Western spy thrillers that will be so familiar to most readers.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. James Bond 007: Behind the Iron Curtain. Introductory Thoughts
  • Part I: Pioneers
  • 2. Nikolai Shpanov, or the Road to Serious-mindedness
  • 3. Lev Ovalov and Lev Sheinin, or the Enemy Within
  • 4. Aleksandr Avdeenko, or the Empire Moves Westward
  • 5. Roman Kim, or the Writer as Agent
  • Part II: Craftsmen
  • 6. Iulian Semënov, or the Soviet Man as Undercover Agent
  • 7. Ovidii Gorchakov, or the Agent as Writer
  • 8. Vadim Kozhevnikov, or the Reader as Agent
  • 9. Aleksandr Prokhanov: Back to the Future
  • Conclusions
  • Index

←viii | ix→


This book is the result of a tentative exploration in a territory not supposed to exist, that of Soviet mass literature. This exploration took more than fifteen years, starting from my post-doc at the University of Siena (2004–2008): I wish to thank Caterina Graziadei for believing in a then very poorly defined project and for letting me work with no pressure for immediate results.

During this period, parts of the results have been made public. An early draft of chapter 1 appeared as a working program as “Agente 007: Oltre la cortina di ferro. Note per una storia del racconto di spionaggio sovietico,” Europa orientalis 32 (2013), 99–121; a very early draft of chapter 2 as “Nikolai Shpanov and the Evolution of the Soviet Spy Thriller,” CALL: Irish Journal for Culture, Arts, Literature and Language 2 (2017), no. 1; some material from chapter 4 is in “L’identità della spia: classe e nazione nello spy-thriller sovietico,” in Persona, comunità, strategie identitarie, edited by F. La Mantia and A. Le Moli (Palermo: Palermo University Press, 2019), 233–245; an early draft of chapter 6 is “‘Non solo lei, Stirlitz, soffre di nostalgia’: La nostalgia dell’est dell’agente infiltrato e la nostalgia dell’ovest del lettore nel romanzo di spionaggio di Julian Semenov,” in Disappartenenze: Figure del distacco e altre solitudini nelle letterature dell’Europa centro-orientale, edited by L. Banjanin, K. Jaworska, and M. Maurizio (Bari: Stilo, 2016), 85–106; chapter 8 is based on my presentation at the conference New Perspectives on Censorship ←ix | x→under Communism, Oxford University, University College, October 23, 2015 (proceedings unpublished); an early version of the first part of chapter 9 is based on my presentation at the conference Nationalisms in the Post-Soviet Space: Logics, Ethics, Practices, Moscow, RANEPA, October 31–November 3, 2016 (proceedings unpublished), while the second part of the chapter is published as “‘Kto i kogda nachal voinu?’, ili Vozvrashchenie sovetskogo shpionskogo detektiva,” in Kul’t-tovary: Kommertsializatsiia istorii v massovoi kul’ture: Kollektivnaia monografiia, edited by M. Abasheva, M. Litovskaia, I. Savkina, and M. Cherniak (Moskva-Ekaterinburg: Kabinetnyi uchenyi, 2020), 103–113.

Translations from the Russian are my own, except where indicated (that is to say, where bibliographical notes refer to an English-language edition). Russian words are transliterated according to the Library of Congress system; the differences in spelling of the same name resulting from quoting Western texts transliterated according to different principles (Iulian Semënov and Julian Semyonov) are accounted for in the index.

Andris Ozols helped make my poor English readable; financing from the Department of Humanities of the University of Palermo helped make this possible.

There is no space here for enumerating the reasons why I must thank Mariagrazia Mercurio.

This book is dedicated to the memory of my father, Adriano Colombo, 1938–2019.


James Bond 007: Behind the Iron Curtain. Introductory Thoughts

In Louisburg, the imaginary capital city of an imaginary African state, the CIA and KGB are playing an intricate game of chess—at stake is the identity of an American undercover agent in Moscow and, ultimately, the survival of the progressive government in the nearby state of Nagonia (Nagonia obviously stands for Angola, and Louisburg for Johannesburg). According to the rules of the spy game, Colonel Vitalii Slavin and John Glebb enjoy frequent friendly meetings, just as Europeans in a colonial country will do, and they both pretend to believe in the other’s (rather transparent) cover story. Neither, of course, really believes in the other’s naiveté; and, as the game progressively unravels, their conversations become more and more ironic: among these are some of the best pages of Iulian Semënov’s novel.

In one of the novel’s climatic scenes, Slavin is having a drink with Glebb and Glebb’s lover, Pilar; he teases the American alluding to his past misdemeanors in Hong Kong, and compares this story to an adventure novel:

“… do you like adventure novels, Pilar?”

“I love adventure novels,” the woman slowly replied, and again looked at Glebb.

“She loves films, James Bond films especially,” Glebb came to her aid. “About Russian spies who are always on the point of victory, but lose in the end because we are stronger.”←1 | 2→

We? Slavin laughed again. “I didn’t know that your firm was connected with British intelligence. You know, if I was a director, I would make a film. Or not so much make as finish one off. Take From Russia With Love—all I would add is just one more shot! I would put it in just after Bond carried off our coding girl in triumph to London. Just a single line on the screen—‘Operation Implant successful. Over to you, Katya Ivanova’…”1

The writer’s intention is clearly to make fun of the James Bond stories, and to make fun of them for their lack of plausibility. The Soviet agent scores a point in his match against the American, and at the same time the Soviet writer scores a point against the Western one. In order to correctly decode the message, however, the reader has to know about the James Bond film. We should therefore suppose that Semënov’s intended reader, the Soviet reader of 1977 (when TASS is authorized to declare … first appeared), or the Soviet TV viewer of 1984, was familiar enough with the James Bond saga to grasp the irony (in fact, the serial based on the novel, where, in the seventh episode, this dialogue is staged almost literally, was first screened in 1984). How could they have known, when Ian Fleming’s novels did not come out in Russian until 1990, while the films based on them never found their way to Soviet theatres and only began to circulate when video recorders became widespread—that is to say, not before the late 1980s?2

In 1966, Novyi mir published an essay by Maiia Turovskaia, James Bond—Acting Hero. Turovskaia’s collection, when it was republished, and in the words of Valerii Kichin (of whom a negative review of this somewhat heretical book was then requested, a task he finally avoided),

was read avidly by the public, because it lifted the veil on a new, as yet unknown movie legend. That it also announced our own near future, we did not notice: this forbidden fruit was too far out of reach, it looked too unusual, even ludicrous, these tendencies of Western art and of the global community, proscribed for us.3

For a contemporary reader of Turovskaia’s (still interesting) work the attitude of the authorities and, even more so, that of the “avid reading public” might seem surprising. Although she does not pay much attention to the anti-communist tirades in the Bond saga and obviously regards them as non-significant, the author is, nonetheless, strongly critical of the object of her analysis. James Bond is considered here a symptom of a wider tendency, coming at the end of a trajectory along which the genre of the detective novel has abandoned its intellectual quest, by losing itself in a vortex of sheer violence; it has substituted the ideals of justice for cynicism, it has dismissed its lone hero confronting society merely to call in a near-hero who is perfectly at ease in the system. Thus, James Bond, according ←2 | 3→to Turovskaia, is not a new kind of hero, but the return of a stereotype, “‘a negation of the negation’ in place of the painful and hopeless question regarding the ‘antihero’;”4 the total eclipse of logic in these stories is an analogue to the absurd in Beckett’s or Antonioni’s works, or to other tendencies in high culture:

Artists such as Godard, Dürrenmatt or, for example, Graham Greene, raise the “detective genre” to art in order to show the vulgar adventurousness of reality itself. They use motives from the detective stories to “defamiliarize” the power of chance in the modern, strictly planned society.

But the vulgar adventurousness of the Bond Saga, with its partly spontaneous, partly deliberate lack of logic unwittingly achieves the same results. It also “defamiliarizes” reality, which is really weird itself.5

What “contemporary society” is being discussed here? Doubtless, the Western one, although the author does not foreground this and, what is more, she does not compare it to a better Soviet society (this is probably the reason for the authorities’ suspicious attitude). Her point of view is purely Western; all authors quoted are from the West (writers and directors mentioned above; the intellectuals that Turovskaia quotes are Umberto Eco, Kingsley Amis and so on). To sum up, she seems to totally and happily ignore the reality as regards where her work was written and published. Only the book’s introduction mentions the fact that the West is the subject, while in the following parts this is taken for granted.

It could not have been otherwise: a book about mass culture could only refer to the West. The subject had been declared irrelevant for Socialist societies. “The fact that we are speaking about a characteristic phenomenon of the capitalist world is not mentioned in the title of this book—thus Bogomil Rainov, a member of the Bulgarian academy, opened his work on mass culture, translated into Russian in 1979,—because the term ‘mass culture’ itself is bourgeois in its essence and indicates a characteristic phenomenon of bourgeois society.”6 This difference can only exist in a class society:

The fact that in a Socialist society such polarity is unthinkable needs no demonstration, it is absurd to speak about a “mass culture” here, because our culture—the whole of it—is not “mass culture,” but a culture intended for the masses.7

Semënov’s spy novel, and its polemics with James Bond, however, hardly fit into such picture.←3 | 4→

The Genre Issue

Rainov’s argument, from the Soviet authorities’ point of view, is indeed flawless; post-Soviet criticism presents a singular tendency to replicate it, simply turning it upside down in a perfectly specular way: in Stalin’s Soviet Union there remained no separate mass literature, with officially accepted literature as a whole being regarded as middlebrow.8 More specifically: during the 1920s, noticing that the mass reader was not willing to accept the ideologically correct literature with which he was provided, and kept on returning to the pre-revolutionary detective dime novels (known under the collective label of “Pinkertons”), the Soviet authorities promoted the production of the so-called Red Pinkertons, correct Communist adventure fiction. The slogan was announced by Nikolai Bukharin in 1921 and repeated in October, 1922, at the Fifth Congress of the Communist Youth League:


X, 298
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (July)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2022. X, 298 pp.

Biographical notes

Duccio Colombo (Author)

Duccio Colombo (PhD, University of Milan) is Associate Professor of Russian at the University of Palermo and author of Scrittori, in fabbrica! Una lettura del romanzo industriale sovietico (2008).


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