William Boyd

What the Russians thought of James Bond in the 1960s

The newspaper Izvestiya dismissed the film of Dr No as ‘rubbish’; but Novy Mir had a shrewder, more prescient take on the Bond ‘brand’, James Fleming discovers

What the Russians thought of James Bond in the 1960s
Sean Connery and Ursula Andress pose for a promotional still for the film Dr No in 1962. [Getty Images]
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Bond Behind the Iron Curtain

James Fleming

The Book Collector, pp. 125, £25

Last year I wrote a piece about James Bond for the ‘Freelance’ column of the Times Literary Supplement. All true Bond lovers — of the novels, I mean — know that he lived in a ‘comfortable flat in a plane-tree’d square off the King’s Road’, as Ian Fleming described it in Moonraker. Further internal evidence in Thunderball indubitably established that it was Wellington Square — but there was considerable mystery and doubt about exactly which house contained the Bond apartment. In my article I claimed to have identified it as No. 25, based on a certain amount of sleuthing and, I thought, convincing circumstantial evidence.

No. 25 Wellington Square was the house owned by Desmond MacCarthy, a key member of the Bloomsbury Group, a colleague of Fleming’s on the Sunday Times (where Fleming was the general manager), a fellow Old Etonian (they also had close mutual friends) and a legendary host. There was every possibility that Fleming had been to one, if not several, of MacCarthy’s soirées. There were other clues, based on Fleming’s descriptions of Bond’s flat, that tallied neatly with the house (I myself had actually once been to No. 25). I also remarked that just across the King’s Road was Bywater Street, where John le Carré had situated George Smiley’s London home, at No. 9. What a coincidence!

Thus far, thus so footlingly literary. But to my total astonishment this TLS piece was picked up and commented on globally. The story of the location of Bond’s flat appeared in dozens of newspapers around the world and on countless websites. It demonstrated unequivocally not just that the James Bond myth was alive and well but also that people were still fascinated by this type of arcana in places such as Djakarta, Gdansk and Rio de Janiero.

I cite this experience as a context for James Fleming’s beguiling little book about the reaction to Bond behind the Iron Curtain during the 1960s and ’70s. Nothing much has changed, clearly. The author (Ian’s nephew) looks at specific reactions to the Bond phenomenon in the USSR, Bulgaria, Czecho-slovakia and Poland during the Cold War, and how Bond, and what he represented, despite the obstacle of the Iron Curtain, still managed to penetrate the highly controlled and censored world of these communist states.

The most compelling example is a contemptuous review of the film of Dr No that appeared in the Russian newspaper Izvestiya in May 1962, entitled ‘Love and Horrors’. ‘Who’s interested in this rubbish?’ the reviewer snarls, and then describes Fleming as ‘a retired spy who has turned mediocre writer’. Fleming himself was so tickled by this that he tried to persuade his publishers to run the entire review on the back jacket of his forthcoming book, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service — but in vain. A proof cover was produced, circulated and then rejected by Jonathan Cape for slightly unconvincing reasons. Fleming was extremely disappointed.

James Fleming leads us through the bibliographical labyrinth with great adroitness. However, the extraordinary aspect of this Russian review was that it appeared a whole four months before the film was released in October 1962. Who at Izvestiya had managed to see the film so early — and how? It is an example of cultural espionage worthy of a Bond novel itself.

And, indeed, Bond’s cultural impact on western psyches was subject to a sustained and intelligent analysis in the liberal-ish Russian magazine Novy Mir in 1966, written by one Maya Turovskaya. Excellently translated here in its entirety by Vera Creasy, and though purportedly a critique, it is in fact, reading easily between the lines, a very shrewd and prescient piece of commentary on the Bond ‘brand’ that is as valid today, 50-odd years on, as it was then:

Philistine pragmatism takes over in Fleming’s novels. They tend to be indiscriminate, to combine elements of all sorts of sensationalism — political action and thriller, science fiction and advertising brochure, a fashion magazine and nudist film… This, briefly, is the secret of the genre, of popularity in its modern shape. Still, had it not been for the screen, Bond would have been lost among all the other spy characters out there. A nobody. It was the film industry that made him a myth.

There’s still a great deal of truth in this judgment; and it’s to James Fleming’s credit that these peripheral, hostile observations and samizdat manifestations of that myth that emerged behind the Iron Curtain can now form part of the larger conversation. Perhaps that is, in a way, the best justification for our enduring obsession with Bond and his world. He does hold up a strange mirror to all societies that take him to their hearts. James Bond, paradoxically, can open doors to enlightenment.

Happy New Year, whatever
‘Happy New Year, whatever.’