Monday, 19 March 2018

The return of SMERSH?

It’s well known that when Ian Fleming made SMERSH the arch-enemy of the British Secret Service in the James Bond books, beginning with Casino Royale in 1953, the Soviet Union’s counter-intelligence organisation had been disbanded for over ten years. As a literary device, though, the conceit was a good one, and it also proved attractive to EON, who alluded to the organisation in The Living Daylights (1987) in the form of a plot code-named Smiert Spionam (‘Death to spies’), the phrase that gave SMERSH its name and its motto.
 
Smiert Spionam - a scene from The Living Daylights (1987)

To most people, SMERSH exists firmly in the realms of fiction and is as real as SPECTRE, the criminal organisation that replaced it as Bond’s nemesis. However, recent events in Salisbury – the poisoning of the former Russian double agent, Colonel Sergei Skripal – has reminded journalists and commentators about SMERSH, its activities, and its connection with James Bond.

In an article for The Guardian, Jamie Doward, Marc Bennetts and Kevin Rawlinson write of the implicit threat that Skripal is likely to have faced since coming to Britain in 2010 after being released from prison in Russia as part of a major spy swap. “Many in the FSB [the successor to the KGB] are fond of quoting the motto of SMERSH, Stalin’s counter-intelligence unit: ‘Death to spies.’” 

Owen Matthews, writing in Newsweek, similarly writes about the sense of betrayal that Russian agents are likely to have felt: “As a convicted double agent, [Skripal] certainly betrayed the Russian secret world’s honour code of ‘death to spies’ – the actual name of the Soviet wartime counterintelligence service, SMERSH.” (I'm reminded of Gogol's words to Max Zorin in A View To A Kill: "No one ever leaves the KGB".)

Writing for The Conversation website about the history of state-sanctioned assassination, historian Dan Lomas places SMERSH as one of a number of Russian security agencies, from the Soviet Cheka to the current SVR, that have resorted to targeted killings, particularly those regarded as traitors.

In an article in the Daily Record, Torcuil Crichton writes of the message that the poisoning was designed to deliver – that “Britain is a dangerous place for enemies of the Russian state,” and reminds readers that ‘death to spies’ is the phrase associated with SMERSH.

The Bond connection is recalled by Eric S Margolis, writing a piece published in various media outlets, including Malaysia's Sun Daily and Germany's Contra magazine. He describes ‘Death to spies’ as the special unit formed to liquidate traitors and turncoats, adding that “readers of James Bond books will recognise SMERSH.” 

James Bond is also mentioned in an article on the Skripal case published in Paris Match. “The years pass, the style remains,” Pauline Lallement writes. “SMERSH, the sworn enemy of James Bond, can still be recognised.” The article concludes with the words, “Bons baisers de Russie”, the French title of From Russia, With Love. 

Benoît Rayski’s piece in the French-language news website, Atlantico, reinforces the Bond connection with a photo of Sean Connery as Bond (of Never Say Never Again vintage). He writes, “Forty years ago [sic] in a series of famous films, James Bond faced agents of SMERSH, the armed wing of Moscow. It was at the time of the cold war. Today we are witnessing a fairly successful remake. Out of necessity for a happy ending, 007 always won. But this time?"

The events in Salisbury has brought an organisation that has long been consigned to history and is largely known outside Russia through the Bond books back to global attention. In the note prefacing From Russia, With Love (1957), Ian Fleming wrote: “SMERSH, a contraction of Smiert Spionam – Death to Spies – exists and remains today the most secret department of the soviet government.” Perhaps Fleming’s words weren’t so far from the truth after all.

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