Russian history and culture, from a historian in Cambridge
James Bond is faced with a unique Russia question in Ian Fleming’s fifth 007 novel, From Russia With Love, published in 1957. Does Tatyana Romanova really want to defect from the Soviet Union because she fell in love with a picture of him in a secret file? The Soviet intelligence operatives who devise this entrapment surmise correctly that Bond will find it an entirely plausible scenario.
Jonathan Cape first edition; cover art by Richard Chopping
From Russia With Love is a wonderful read and an intriguing historical source. It creates a world of heroes, heroines and villains, of dreams and vulnerabilities, of the exotic — dawn over Istanbul — and the atmospheric — the night-time Iron Curtain border crossing on the Orient Express, and the safe house in Belgrade. It sets up a psychological and physical duel between two completely different types of Englishman, the lower-class psychopath recruited by the KBG, and the independently wealthy spy with a bachelor pad off the King’s Road and a ‘treasured Scottish housekeeper’.
But as Simon Winder points out in his cultural history of the Bond phenomenon, 007 sometimes doesn’t sound so much like an international man of mystery as Ian Fleming mouthing off at the golf club after his third martini. Twenty-first-century readers will make up their own minds about Bond’s asides on class, gender, and sexuality, which range from the baroquely offensive to the historically interesting.
When it comes to the Soviet Union, Bond occasionally resorts to some of the cliches of his time, and of any time. But the novel spends 125 pages energetically imagining Moscow, its institutions, historical persons like Ivan Serov, chairman of the KGB, and fantastical villains, especially the now-world-famous Rosa Krebbs. The novel’s principal villain is an Englishman. And its most sympathetic character is the female spy who tries to entrap Bond, and she is Russian.
Most intriguing for the Russia-watcher is what Bond makes of Russian history. Although individual Russians are no better or worse than most foreigners, their past and present are equally explained by violence. ‘Basically they’re masochists,’ Bond suggests. ‘They love the knout. That’s why they were so happy under Stalin. He gave it them.’ Fleming was writing around the time of the Secret Speech, the first international travels of Khrushchev, and the unpredictable but plainly world-historic process of de-Stalinization. ‘I’m not sure how they’re going to react to the scraps of carrot they’re being fed by Khrushchev and Co,’ Bond wonders. He might be a man of the world, but his view onto international politics comes straight from the 1950s saloon bar. ‘As for England, the trouble today is that carrots are all the fashion,’ Bond goes on. ‘At home and abroad. We don’t show teeth any more — only gums.’