It is no secret that Cold War-era Soviet government officials – especially members of the KGB – considered Ian Fleming’s James Bond an example of dangerous anti-Communist propaganda. Both the books and the movies were banned in the USSR. The official newspaper of the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League, Komsomolskaya Pravda, told readers the books were set in a nightmare world where laws were written at gunpoint, where oppression and rape were portrayed as valor.
James Bond demonstrated to the Soviet regime that stories about glamorous spies, surrounded by femme fatales, high stake table games, and a lot of martinis could indeed advance a political philosophy. The Soviets responded by creating their own spy novels and their own heroes to beat the West’s capitalist superspy at his own game.
The first response to Fleming’s James Bond was a novel that pitted a Soviet spy directly against agent 007. Fleming regularly portrayed Bulgarian state security unsympathetically in his novels, with agents depicted as mindless brutes enslaved by their KGB masters. And so, in 1965, the KGB had no trouble enlisting a Bulgarian writer named Andrei Gulyashki to write a novel about a counterintelligence officer named Avakoum Zakhov who would triumph over Bond.
While preparing the book, Gulyashki traveled to Great Britain to meet with the copyright holders of the James Bond novels, and he immediately ran into problems. Fleming’s publishers forbade him to use the name James Bond or the number 007. To avoid lawsuits, Gulyashki used the number 07 for his Bond character. He portrayed the British spy as greedy, ridiculous, miserable, and incompetent.
“Avakoum Zakhov Versus 07” was published in Bulgaria in 1966. A Russian translation found wide distribution and eager readers throughout the Soviet Union.
Gulyashki couldn’t find any Western publishers for his novel. Every publisher he contacted rejected the book because they found it poorly written with a ridiculous and confusing plot.
The next Soviet strategy was to create better material that would depict Communist spies who were superior to Bond. The goal was to create a better James Bond, this one on the Soviet side.
When Yuri Andropov became KGB chair in 1967, he created a campaign to improve the intelligence agency’s image. Many TV shows, films, novels, and songs were created to glorify KGB officers. The main focus was on operatives who served abroad, and the function was to counter negative Western depictions of the KGB. Andropov is said to have been particularly irritated by 1963’s “From Russia With Love” and its depiction of the KGB.
Curiously, the Communist novels were set during World War II instead of the Cold War. This suggested that WWII was more traumatizing than the Cold War to ordinary Russians.
In 1967-8, Polish state television created two seasons of a TV series based on a Polish spy, Stanislaw Kolicki, working undercover in the German army. Filmed in black and white, “Playing with High Stakes” was a hit in the 1960s and has found renewed popularity in contemporary Poland.
Kolicki takes the place of a German military intelligence officer, Hans Kloss, who has been captured by the Soviets. As an undercover agent, Kolicki spreads disinformation and conflict among his colleagues and even causes some of them to be falsely arrested for treason.
Many Soviet versions of James Bond were somewhat successful with readers and TV viewers. None of the books achieved more popularity than “Seventeen Moments of Spring” by Yulian Semyonov. Reviewers said the book was at least as good as Fleming’s Bond novels. A writer for the Los Angeles Times referred to Semyonov as “the Soviet Robert Ludlum.”
“Seventeen Moments of Spring” is the story of Maxim Maximovich Isaev, who is a bit more intellectual than Fleming’s superspy. The premier Soviet intelligence agent, Isaev leads a monkish life, not the decadent Western lifestyle favored by Bond.
Isaev’s mission was to prevent Britain and the US from negotiating a peace deal with the Nazis and joining in a united front against the Soviet Union.
The novel was so popular that it served as the basis of a series on Soviet television. The show was a huge hit, one of the most popular shows ever produced in Russia.
Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was a huge fan of the show, and he admitted to watching it more than 20 times. Russian President and former KGB officer Vladimir Putin has also admitted to being a fan of the show. In fact, it is said that he was so inspired by the character of Isaev that he modeled himself after the monkish spy.
Although the Soviet Union has tried many times to create its own version of James Bond, none of them ever rivaled the popularity of Ian Fleming’s creation. Today, Bond movies are more popular than ever and are watched all over the world. The famous spy is recognized in almost every country – including Russia.