Monday, April 19, 2010

Creating Klebb

Rosa Klebb was one of James Bond's most ruthless enemies, and one of Ian Fleming’s most memorable characters. Jeremy Duns reveals some surprising truths about the real secret agents who inspired her creation

In his 1957 novel From Russia, With Love, Ian Fleming created one of the most loathsome villains in the thriller genre, the ‘toad-like’ Soviet counter-intelligence officer Major Rosa Klebb. An ogress with poison-tipped daggers concealed in her shoes, this ‘dreadful chunk of a woman’ was memorably played in the film adaptation by Lotte Lenya (pictured above right). But the character was in fact a composite of three real Soviet agents, filtered through Fleming’s prodigious imagination.

Major Tamara Nicolayeva Ivanova was one of Soviet intelligence's 'few female high officials' and 'an over-worked nervous spinster', according to Soviet Spy Net by E.H. Cookridge. Cookridge was a pseudonym for former British agent Edward Spiro, and this book, published in Britain in 1955, is a highly coloured account of the activities of Russian intelligence agencies around the world – Fleming used it as the background source for several novels. Ivanova was an instructor of Nikolai Khokhlov, the Soviet agent who defected to the Americans in Germany in 1954, claiming he had been sent to assassinate an anti-Communist activist in Frankfurt. The Americans wasted no time in showing the world press the would-be assassin’s equipment, which included a gold cigarette case that concealed an electrically operated gun capable of firing cyanide-tipped bullets. In Fleming’s From Russia, With Love, the fearsome assassin Red Grant tells his masters at SMERSH that they gave Khokhlov's mission to the wrong man: 'I wouldn’t have gone over to the Yanks.'

Fleming was also inspired by Emma Wolff, an apparently hideous NKVD agent based in Vienna who had dyed red hair. Fleming had been told about her by Rachel Terry, who wrote thrillers under the name Sarah Gainham and who was married to Fleming’s friend and colleague Antony Terry.

The third inspiration for the character was more unusual. In Fleming’s novel, Klebb is a member of the deadly SMERSH. This Soviet organization was real, although Fleming sensationalized many of its working methods and responsibilities. He had first written about it in his debut novel, Casino Royale, published in 1953, but his interest was reignited by the case of the Russian cipher expert Vladimir Petrov, who defected to Australia in 1954. Discussing the case in his Sunday Times column Atticus, Fleming brought in his knowledge of SMERSH agents – or Beria's 'messengers of death' as he called them – and also mentioned a mysterious 'Madame Rybkin', who he thought might be the most powerful woman in espionage; according to Fleming's biographer John Pearson, this sowed the seed of Klebb.

Colonel Zoya Rybkina (right), operating under the alias 'Madam Yartseva', was the head of the German section of the NKVD – the predecessor of the KGB – throughout the Second World War. She was responsible for the selection, organization and training of Soviet sabotage and reconnaissance groups, selecting radio operators, translators, skydivers, and skiers for her agents.

She also did her own spying. In May 1941, she attended a reception in Moscow for the German ambassador Werner von Schulenburg. While waltzing with von Schulenburg, Rybkina, 'an elegant figure in a velvet dress', noticed that a neighbouring room in the embassy had had paintings removed from the walls. Coupled with a glimpse of some suitcases and overheard remarks from the surrounding German diplomats', she realized that the Nazis were intending to invade the Soviet Union. On June 17 1941, five days before Operation Barbarossa began, she delivered a report to Stalin to warn him. But Uncle Joe did not believe her, thinking he was being fed disinformation.

After the war, Rybkina's career took a surprising turn: under the name Zoya Voskresenskaya, she became famous throughout the Soviet Union as a children's writer, penning a series of best-selling stories following the adventures of Lenin as a boy, two of which were made into successful films. Between 1962 and 1980, over 21 million copies of her books were in print. Another wartime intelligence officer who became a children’s author, of course, was Ian Fleming, who wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, published in 1964.

Rybkina died in Moscow in 1992. It seems unlikely that she ever learned that she was the inspiration for one of James Bond’s most fearsome villains – or that Ian Fleming ever knew about the second career of the real Rosa Klebb.

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