Stirlitz – the Soviet James Bond

In the atmosphere of mutual distrust that prevailed during the Cold War, spies often took up the place reserved for soldiers in popular lore on both sides of the confrontation. However, while the West created a whole myriad of spy-heroes from James Bond to the Man from U.N.C.L.E., it wasn’t quite so easy for a totalitarian state such as the USSR to produce a likeable secret agent for popular consumption.
Their response was Standartenfuhrer von Stirlitz, a Soviet spy operating in Nazi Germany at the end of WWII. The character was such a hit and remains such a cult hero that even today the huge lexicon of Stirlitz jokes continues to grow. It is even said that crime rates drop when Stirlitz films are broadcast, with people glued to their TVs instead of out on the streets up to no good!
Stirlitz is the creation of Moscovite writer Julian Semyonov. His first Stirlitz novel, ‘Seventeen Moments of Spring’, appeared in 1968 and was an immediate success, leading to the production of a film version. In total there are twelve Stirlitz titles covering the agent’s fictional ‘career’, which spans from 1918 to 1967 and includes service in Shanghai and Paris as well as his famous role undercover in Nazi Germany. While in Hitler’s Third Reich, he infiltrates the SD (political security police) and exposes a plot by England and the United States to conclude a separate peace with Germany to then open up a new united front against the Soviet Union.
Stirlitz only kills once in the whole series, and then reluctantly

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.

Many have called Stirlitz the ‘Soviet James Bond’, and while comparisons are both tempting and inevitable, Stirlitz is no Bond, although they do share some common characteristics. Both enjoy fast cars, for example, but Stirlitz is no gadget man in the manner 007 is famed for. The Russian agent simply likes to drive his trademark Horch car at high speed because Stirlitz believes that flirting with danger facilitates clear thinking. Neither is Stilitz a ladies man, once turning down the chance to indulge with a bevy of prostitutes with the line, ‘I’d rather have a cup of coffee’. 
There is also very little action in Stirlitz movies, with the plot revolving around suspense and, as we have noted, real-life events.
How Semyonov created his hero
Semyonov was a qualified historian and would research events in great detail before weaving Stirlitz plots round them. He flew all over the world to meet key people and gain information for his books, even going so far as to arrange a sit-down with famed Nazi Otto Skorzeny, the SS Special Mission Commander who liberated Mussolini from Gran Sasso. He subsequently popped up in a number of Stirlitz capers. As well as wartime personalities, Semyonov was also on good terms with many KGB men of the time. Rumours persist that he himself was a KGB officer, but these are most probably fanciful.

Stirlitz jokes

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.

Semyonov was a prolific writer and put out tens of titles, both factual and fictional. As well as his writing he also found time to serve as President of the International Association of Crime Writers, but inevitably he will always be remembered as the creator of Stirlitz, Soviet superspy and the source of a million and one jokes.
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