The word just sounds sinister. It instantly conjures up an image of the Soviet Union, the Cold War and, of course, James Bond.
Many presume that the organisation was invented by Ian Fleming, but SMERSH really existed – albeit in a somewhat different form than that described in his novels. Fleming never revealed precisely where he learned about SMERSH, although according to John Pearson's biography, he first came across it in ‘a magazine article soon after the war, and he embroidered on what little information he had about the organization and introduced it melodramatically into Casino Royale.’
Pearson noted that experts on Soviet affairs were quick to point out that ‘SMERSH was really a body which worked very largely with the Red Army during the war, rounding up German spies and saboteurs and Russian traitors, that it was a mistake to think that it had operated outside the borders of the U.S.S.R., that it was never a counter-intelligence unit in the sense that it worked against enemy secret services, and that in any case it had changed its name at the end of the war. Fleming, who always knew a good thing when he met one, took no notice and continued to base himself on his outdated conception of SMERSH.’
It's not hard to see why this would have appealed to Ian Fleming – for an aspiring thriller-writer, a 'new supersecret counter-espionage elite' must have been like manna from heaven. As an experienced journalist, Fleming was constantly scouring the world around him for tidbits of information he could process and transform into gold. In his article How to Write a Thriller, published in Books and Bookmen in May 1963, he revealed a little of his methodology:
'You must know thrilling things before you can write about them. Imagination alone isn't enough, but stories you hear from friends or read in the papers can be built up by a fertile imagination and a certain amount of research and documentation into incidents that will also ring true in fiction.'When Fleming started writing Casino Royale in early 1952, Mondich's book was the only account of SMERSH's activities to have been published anywhere in the world. However, he may also have had his own sources for information on the organisation: as the assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence during World War Two, he was well-placed to hear of counter-intelligence activities. Fleming also established 30 Assault Unit, an intelligence-gathering commando group that followed the Allied troops into Germany, Austria and elsewhere searching for documents and equipment left behind by the Nazis late in the war. SMERSH were active in the same area at the same time, hunting down suspected traitors to the Soviet Union – members of the National Alliance of Russian Solidarists, for instance, as well as Latvian and Ukrainian nationalists who had joined the Waffen SS and the Nazis' mobile killing squads. SMERSH screened over five million people during this time, including Soviet prisoners of war – many were transported to the gulags and died.
But even with Fleming’s war work, it seems highly unlikely that he would have had the level of detailed knowledge about SMERSH's structure that is depicted in Mondich's book – especially as a study of it reveals that Fleming seems to have drawn his material in Casino Royale directly from it.
Mondich omitted the fact that SMERSH was no longer operating under that name by 1950 – it was disbanded and all its duties handed over to the Main Administration of Counter-Intelligence (GUKR) of the MGB in 1946 – presumably because any mention of this would have greatly lessened his book's impact. Casino Royale also features a still-active SMERSH, albeit with the proviso that it has been reduced in size. Mondich provided the basic background material on the organization, but Fleming made sure he adapted it to make it more thrilling.
In Chapter 6 of his book, Mondich gave a complete rundown of the organization’s structure:
‘SMERSH counter-intelligence, I learned, was divided into five departments.’When it came to writing MI6's dossier on SMERSH in Casino Royale, Fleming followed these pages very closely:
‘The organization itself was thoroughly purged after the war and is now believed to consist of only a few hundred operatives of very high quality divided into five sections.’According to Mondich, the First Department was attached directly to the front, where it monitored political trends inside the Red Army. Fleming rendered this as:
‘Department I: In charge of counter intelligence among Soviet organizations at home and abroad.’This is both broader and vaguer in scope. Perhaps the idea of a super-secret elite working in ordinary uniforms as informers at the front didn’t seem as thrilling.
Fleming adapted the other departments' roles into similarly concise and exciting prose. The Second Department, according to Mondich, was Operations, which was responsible for seeking out ‘organised enemies of the system'. Anyone suspected of committing a crime against the Soviet Union ‘must die’. Fleming neatly summarised this as:
'Department II: Operations, including executions.'Mondich claimed the Third Department was Administrative, but that he knew little about it, that the Fourth was the Investigation Department, and that the Fifth was the Prosecuting Department. Confusingly, he then mentioned two further departments, the Personnel Department and the Finance Department, which makes seven, not five. Fleming got round this by adding Finance to Department Three and Personnel to Department Four:
‘Department III: Administration and Finance.Mondich also claimed that SMERSH's headquarters were in Moscow. Perhaps this seemed too predictable, because Fleming placed them in Leningrad instead, with a sub-station in Moscow (although he would change this in From Russia, With Love). He also attributed Trotsky's assassination to the organisation, even though it took place a year before it was formed (a mistake many subsequent writers have repeated). And instead of being 'Stalin's secret weapon', Fleming wrote that it was 'believed to come under the personal direction of Beria'. (Fleming would refer back to this in Live and Let Die because – in events that would seem almost too fantastic for a James Bond novel – Beria was arrested at the push of a secret button at a meeting of the Praesidium in June 1953, and executed, possibly on suspicion of being a British agent, shortly after.)
Department IV: Investigations and legal work. Personnel.
Department V: Prosecutions: the section which passes final judgement on all victims.’
One thing Fleming did not alter from Mondich’s book was its trumpeted information about the meaning of the organization's name:
'SMERSH is a conjunction of two Russian words: 'Smyert Shpionam', meaning roughly: "Death to Spies".'As John Pearson noted, Ian Fleming knew a good thing when he met one.
Fleming's use of SMERSH in Casino Royale was a master-stroke: right at the start of the Cold War, he stole a march on the legions of thriller-writers who would follow him, almost all of whom would use branches of the MVD or the KGB as the enemy. By settling on a little-known Soviet intelligence group instead, Fleming invested his work with an aura of originality and inside knowledge that would 'ring true in fiction'. At the same time, he put his own stamp on the genre – nobody else could use SMERSH after him without seeming unoriginal.
Fleming also cleverly – and unusually for a thriller-writer of his era – ignored the crude propagandistic elements of his source material. In Chapter Nine of Casino Royale, we learn that in order to join the prestigious Double O Section of the British Secret Service James Bond assassinated two men, one of whom was a double agent. The elimination of treachery, then, is something that MI6's Double O Section has in common with SMERSH'S Department II, which seeks out 'organised enemies of the system' and kills them. (Coincidentally, the Russian phrase Osobyye Otdeli, meaning 'Special Departments', which was used for the group of organizations that preceded SMERSH in the Cheka, was commonly abbreviated to 'OO'.)
But Fleming didn't stop there: although Bond casually tells Vesper Lynd over caviar and hot toast that he has killed in cold blood, after he is tortured by the villain, Le Chiffre, he reappraises the situation, admitting to Mathis that the Norwegian traitor he killed 'just didn't die very quickly', and agonising over 'the nature of evil', as the chapter title puts it:
'Take our friend Le Chiffre. It's easy enough to say he's an evil man, at least it's simple enough for me because he did evil things to me. If he was here now, I wouldn't hesitate to kill him, but out of personal revenge and not, I'm afraid, for some high moral reason or for the sake of my country.'
'I declared war upon the men who could commit such sacrilege, and above all upon the man who has given them their creed. How ridiculous that one person should declare war upon a nation! That was another reason I hid from myself what I was doing. My war was a futile cause to me, to be smiled at sympathetically just as I used to smile at her enthusiasms. Yet in fact my war is anything but futile. Its cost in lives and human suffering is low. Seek out and destroy the main body of the enemy – and I should have destroyed it but for a change of wind.'This theme is echoed in the final chapter of Casino Royale, in which James Bond vows to go after the men who engineered the death of his lover, Vesper Lynd:
'SMERSH was the spur. Be faithful, spy well, or you die. Inevitably and without question, you will be hunted down and killed.
It was the same with the whole Russian machine. Fear was the impulse. For them it was always safer to advance than retreat. Advance against the enemy and the bullet might miss you. Retreat, evade, betray, and the bullet would never miss.
But now he would attack the arm that held the whip and the gun. The business of espionage could be left to the white-collar boys. They could spy, and catch the spies. He would go after the threat behind the spies, the threat that made them spy.'Such nuanced delineations are rare in espionage thrillers written so soon after World War Two, and the popular perception of Fleming as a gung-ho patriot often fails to address these moments in Casino Royale. This is partly of Fleming's own doing, though, because in his second novel, Live And Let Die, he discarded the hard-earned lessons Bond had learned in the first book. And just as the scar on Bond's hand is erased, so too is the research of the first novel: SMERSH did not employ foreign gangsters. In Live And Let Die, Fleming moved his depiction of the organization from broadly reflecting the role it played in reality – the hunter of enemies of the Soviet state – to a more amorphous, if still gloriously sinister-sounding, 'red menace'.
The very whisper of death
SMERSH is only tangential to the plot of Live And Let Die, but for its next appearance in a Bond novel it took centre-stage. In From Russia, With Love, Fleming brought all his skills to bear to create perhaps the most famous depiction of a villainous organisation in fiction. Fleming now used the Russian word 'Otdely' instead of Department, and heading up Otdely II – memorably described by Tatania Romanova as 'the very whisper of death' – he introduced the fearsome Rosa Klebb (pictured as played by Lotte Lenya in the 1963 film adaptation).
'The next year was spent, with only two other foreign students among several hundred Russians, at the School for Terror and Diversion at Kuchino, outside Moscow. Here Grant went triumphantly through courses in judo, boxing, athletics, photography and radio under the general supervision of the famous Colonel Arkady Fotoyev, father of the modern Soviet spy, and completed his small-arms instruction at the hands of Lieutenant-Colonel Nikolai Godlovsky, the Soviet Rifle Champion.'Quite apart from switching all this to SMERSH, Fleming adapted Spiro's text in such a way that even if it had been true, it could no longer be. Spiro listed judo, boxing and so on as being taught to beginners, with only graduates moving on to Kuchino. Perhaps because the details of the beginners’ course were more compelling and more concrete than the much vaguer description of the graduate course, Fleming listed the beginners’ activities as being taught at the graduates’ school. In doing so, he got all the authentic-sounding material in – all the activities taught, the names of both instructors, the menacing name of the school and the place-name – even though it meant contradicting his source.
Fleming’s aim was not to describe the inner workings of Soviet espionage accurately, but convincingly. He was writing novels, not non-fiction, and he used artistic licence as and when he saw fit. The details he used sound authoritative, and lure us into believing we are in the hands of a true espionage insider.
Fleming also built cleverly on the true circumstances. Khokhlov was a genuine agent, but he had defected before completing his assassination mission. In Red Grant, Fleming created a rather less squeamish opponent for Bond:
'SMERSH has made one or two mistakes lately. That Khokhlov business for one. Remember the explosive cigarette case and all that? Gave it to the wrong man. Should have given it to me. I wouldn't have gone over to the Yanks.'Khokhlov did not work for SMERSH, of course, but when he defected he brought with him an array of weapons, including a cigarette case that fired dum-dum bullets through the tips and an electrically fired miniature revolver that could be hidden in the palm of a hand: it was a propaganda coup the Americans fully exploited, showing off both the would-be assassin and his paraphernalia at a packed press conference at the American High Commission in Bonn on April 22, 1954.
Spiro commented on the case as follows:
'It was said that if a popular writer of thrillers had invented a tale of disguised secret agents carrying such weapons to kill their victim in the centre of a European city, even ardent readers would say the story was incredible. But, in fact, these things have been done, and done successfully, by Cheka agents before.'Such a sentiment must have been almost a provocation to Ian Fleming! Not only did he give Red Grant an even more fanciful weapon, hidden inside a copy of War and Peace, he took Spiro's line and ran with it. In How to Write a Thriller, he wrote that his plots were ‘fantastic, while being based upon truth’:
'They go wildly beyond the probable but not beyond the possible. Every now and then there will be a story in the newspapers that lifts a corner of the veil from Secret Service work. A tunnel from West to East Berlin so that our Secret Service can tap the Russian telephone system: the Russian spy Khokhlov with his cigarette case that fired dum-dum bullets; "The Man Who Never Was" – the corpse with the false invasion plans that we left for the Gestapo to find. This is all true Secret Service history that is yet in the higher realm of fantasy, and James Bond's ventures into this realm are perfectly legitimate.'The idea of using a tunnel to listen in on the Russians also made its way into From Russia, With Love, incidentally, albeit on a much smaller scale than the technical feat that was Operation GOLD: Darko Kerim and James Bond eavesdrop on a Soviet meeting with a submarine periscope while standing in Istanbul’s sewers. Kerim mentions that Q Branch are trying to find a way to wire the periscope for sound.
Fleming’s insistence that his work was 'based upon truth' and ‘not beyond the possible’ is nevertheless intriguing. Firstly, Spiro's book was not the truth, and Fleming, an experienced journalist, must have suspected that. Even if he took it all to be true, Spiro only mentioned SMERSH once in his book, where he said it no longer exists. Fleming either didn't read Spiro's introduction or disregarded it, feeling that the defunct SMERSH sounded more exciting than the real MVD - and as he had already used it in Casino Royale, it was his organization, in a way.
A more ingenious example of the way Fleming used research is evident from Grant's cover identity, Captain Norman Nash. Grant posing as an English gentleman and repeatedly calling Bond 'old man' appears to be a further reference to Rogue Male and 'Major Quive-Smith'. Fleming took his surname from the glossary of terms in Spiro's book:
'“Nash”: “Ours”, Cheka description for a sympathiser or potential informant.'Fleming has Tania tell Bond this, presaging the revelation that 'Nash' is not all he seems:
''What did you say his name is?'Tatiana Romanova does not appear to have any direct historical counterpart, but much of her background is also taken from Spiro's book; it contains a chapter on the Central Index, where Tania works, which we are told mostly employs women. This is also where Fleming found the information about the Russians' files, zapiski, the Russian for 'top secret', and many other details. But while most thriller-writers research to make their fiction as realistic as possible, Fleming was concerned if it was interesting first, and plausible second. He also used his research material as a jumping-off point for ideas. As well as providing a lot of authoritative-sounding jargon, Spiro's book seems to have triggered plot ideas. In a passage about the use of mercenary spies, Spiro wrote:
'Nash. Norman Nash.'
She spelled it out. 'N.A.S.H.? Like that?'
The girl's eyes were puzzled. 'I suppose you know what that means in Russian. Nash means "ours". In our Services, a man is nash when he is one of "our" men. He is svoi when he is one of "theirs" – when he belongs to the enemy. And this man calls himself Nash. That is not pleasant.'''
'The conflict of the hot and cold war ideologies since 1939 has resulted in the eclipse of the professional "free lance" spy, beloved of the pre-war thriller writers – the Mata Haris and the glamorous blondes of the Orient Express.'There were indeed many thrillers predating the 1950s that featured beautiful female agents and the most famous train in the world – but perhaps this was the trigger for Fleming to write his own variation of the form.
A few lines later, Spiro discussed the exploits of the Switz Gang, a syndicate of spies who trapped leading French officials into revealing defence secrets, which they then sold to both the Nazis and the Soviets:
'It was as romantic as any thriller lover could desire. A few blonde hairs adhering to a roll of camera film, which fell into the hands of the Deuxième Bureau, was the clue that led counter-espionage agents, with the help of Scotland Yard, to Mrs. Marjorie Switz.'As well as the echoes of the photo blackmail plot in From Russia, With Love, the Switz Gang also appears similar to the mercenary terrorist syndicate S.P.E.C.T.R.E. introduced in Thunderball.
A higher realm of fantasy
Fleming cheekily prefaced From Russia, With Love with a note insisting on the accuracy of the information about SMERSH contained within the novel. Apart from sheer bravado – the organization had been disbanded over a decade earlier – this may have been because he was helped with his research by the Russian rocket scientist Grigori Tokaev, who had defected to Britain in 1947. Tokaev – who later took the name Tokaty – was the only Soviet official to defect to Britain between 1945 and 1963. But while he had some knowledge of Russia's intelligence structure, he had never been a member of SMERSH; he also spent much of his time in Britain assisting the Information Research Department, a secret group within the Foreign Office that created anti-Communist propaganda.
Fleming was happy to chop and change information as it suited him. The truth was a starting point, and it was always more important that it sounded like it could be true than whether it was. And a little note at the start would be enough to convince most people that it was the truth, and that they had been given an insider's glimpse into the espionage world. As we can see, that was hardly the case. Far from being an accurate description of the workings of SMERSH, the 'most secret department of the Soviet government', as Fleming claimed in his Author's Note, From Russia, With Love in fact gives an exciting but rather inaccurate representation of the workings of another Soviet organization entirely, the MVD, based on a publicly available account that itself was dubious, even before he attributed its methods to the long-defunct SMERSH.
Regardless of historical accuracy, From Russia, With Love established SMERSH as spy fiction's greatest villains to date. Considering the wealth of projects that exploited the success of Bond in the '60s, it seems surprising that there weren't more books about SMERSH during this period. One reason, of course, was the difficulty in getting hold of first-hand information.
One book claiming to offer this is Nights Are Longest There: SMERSH From The Inside by A.I. Romanov, which was published in English in 1972. ‘Romanov’ – a fitting pseudonym – writes that he was recruited into Department I during the war, meaning that we get lots of insight into life on the front-lines, as well as a thorough history of the organisation. It's a world away from Fleming: Romanov spent most of his time questioning people about garrisons and troop movements in hutments, occasionally being dragged out to a forest with his comrades to witness an execution. And where Mikhail Mondich verged on the hysterical, Romanov takes understatement to excess:
'In Poland... I witnessed the execution of one of our officers, who had raped a young Polish girl in her parents' home. The order of sentence in this case was widely publicised, both to our forces and the local population. Later, in Budapest, I was present when a group of leaders of the Hungarian pro-fascist party 'Crossed Arrows' was hanged. All these scenes left me with an impression that can in no way be described as pleasant.'
Ian Fleming only used SMERSH once again: Auric Goldfinger is its treasurer. But here, as in Live And Let Die, this was more a convenient prop to explain Bond's interest in the mission than anything else. And in his next novel, Thunderball, Fleming finally did away with SMERSH altogether, replacing it with the wholly fictional SPECTRE. In an interview given to Playboy shortly before his death, Fleming gave his reasons: