Later on in his career Stirlitz almost dies at the hands of his own government when he is arrested by the dreaded Beria in 1952, only to be saved by news of Stalin’s timely death. Such plot twists borrowing from recent history were a signature feature of Semyonov’s writing and helped to rehabilitate the public image of the Soviet intelligence worker at a time when the population was coming to terms with the horrors of the Stalinist regime for the first time. With this firmly in mind it is no surprise that Stirlitz was made to be so damn admirable. Modest and business-like, cultured and well-rounded, he speaks almost every European language and prefers to use his intellect more than physical violence. Notably, unlike other trigger- happy spies, Stirlitz only kills once in the whole series, and then reluctantly.
There is also very little action in Stirlitz movies, with the plot revolving around suspense and, as we have noted, real-life events.
The popularity of the series has spawned a million and one Stirlitz jokes, which together form a whole genre of their own. Much of the humour revolves around the spy’s famed intuition and cunning or references to traditions of the Soviet Union. In one popular joke set in the cafeteria of the Reich Security Office Himmler and Bormann are surprised to see Stirlitz push in ahead of them in the queue. What they don’t know is that Heroes of the Soviet Union have the right to go straight to the front! Anyone interested in reading up on Stirlitz jokes will find ample websites dedicated to the genre on the internet, the collection growing daily.