Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          

17 MOMENTS OF SPRING. Gorky Film Studios, USSR, TV Mini-Series, 12 x 70m episodes, 1973. Original title: Semnadtsat mgnoveniy vesny. Vyacheslav Tikonov, Oleg Tabakov, Rotoslav Plyatt, Yekterina Gradova. Narrated by Yefim Kopelyan. Screenplay by Yulian Semyenov, based on his own novel. Director: Tatyana Lioznova.

   A man and an elderly lady stand in the wood and discuss the beauty of nature and the glory of spring after a long winter. We are in Germany, outside Berlin in February 1945 in the last days of WWII and it has indeed been a long winter.

   The man, Mr. Bolyan, is also Standartenfuherer Otto Von Stirlitz, a decorated and trusted intelligence officer in the SS who has the ears of Walter Shellenberg a popular and important officer with ties to Hitler, the general staff, and Reichmarshall Himmler of the SS. Darkly handsome and Nordic, Stirlitz seems the perfect Nazi and for six years he has been. For six years he has buried his real identity as Colonel Maxim Isayev of Soviet Intelligence while working in German intelligence and rising to an important position in SS intelligence.

   So begins the low key Soviet spy drama from 1973 that brought to life the adventures of Stirlitz, the creation of novelist Yulian Semyenov in a twelve part mini-series that rocked Soviet television and popular entertainment to its core. Power shortages happened whenever 17 Moments of Spring aired because ninety percent of television sets in Russia were tuned to Stirlitz’s adventures. Even today Stirlitz jokes are common in post Soviet Russia (and simply don’t translate into English — I tried) mostly drawing on the dour deliberate Stirlitz glacial resolve to show no emotion whatsoever and his plodding ways.

   Yulian Semyenov was the Russian Ian Fleming, like his British counterpart a journalist with intelligence ties from the war and well known by his superiors. His creation, known as Stirlitz rather than Isayev, is no James Bond however. Stirlitz is stoic, sexless, dour, brooding, self sacrificing (at one point he sees his wife he has not seen for six years and cannot reveal himself and we are treated to three minutes of baleful sad eyes), and there is precious little violence in his adventures.

   That isn’t to say Semyenov was unaware of Fleming and Bond. One of his novels about Stirlitz is called Diamonds for the Revolution of the Proletariat, in which the young Isayev is assigned to find the jewels of the Royal family that have gone missing after their execution and which are needed to fuel the new Soviet Republic, you have to wonder since that Republic certainly wasn’t forever, about the Fleming influence.

   Some of the novels were even printed in English, at least one as by Julian Semyenov even getting into an American paperback edition, but far and away 17 Moments of Spring is the best known of his works and Strilitz adventures, covering, as the title suggests, in semi documentary style, seventeen days in early spring 1945 as Strilitz strives to uncover transcripts of talks between the Western allies, England and the United States, with the crumbling panicked Nazi elite, Soviet paranoia under Stalin at least providing the McGuffin for a deliberate but fairly fascinating documentary style spy drama populated with a spate of historical characters on both sides.

   The project came into being during the period of detente, when things loosened up considerably and even a James Bond film or two got into the hands of Soviet elites. While there is a clear implication the West is not always up to any good in relation to the Soviets (and that was a two-way street in reality) the real bad guys are the Nazis and it takes a surprisingly soft middle ground stance on the role of the West, certainly giving credit where it is due despite the McGuffin about possible Western double dealing (in truth, by that point the West would not have settled the war with anything but unconditional surrender, but you have to give a spy story it’s McGuffin — nonsense or not — certainly there were those in the West arguing to save what was left of Germany to turn against the Russians). In short, the propaganda isn’t noticeably intrusive.

   Vyacheslav Tikhonov as Stirlitz and Oleg Tabakov as Shellenberg are the stand out performances here, a subtle cat-and-mouse game underway as Stirlitz falls under suspicion and the inevitable end of the Reich puts every nerve on edge as rats either try to desert the sinking ship or fanatics refuse to see the truth. Shellenberg is presented as a charming ruthless Nazi who nonetheless sees the writing on the wall and that it is increasing late to save anything including his own neck.

   While Semyenov and Stirlitz are pretty much it for Cold War Soviet spy fiction from Russia for something livelier, you might seek out the adventures of Boris Stolitzy, a smart charming hard drinking and womanizing KGB agent whose Cold War adventures were penned by a Finnish writer and who bore a resemblance to later 007 outings in that his adventures never really seemed to pit him against the West. Since the fall of the Soviet Union mystery and thriller fiction is somewhat livelier than before with writers like Boris Akkunin, but still far from well known here.

   Currently BBC 4 Extra is airing The Soviet James Bond, a half hour documentary about Semyenov and Stirlitz, and the complete series of 17 Moments of Spring can be seen on YouTube with English subtitles. It’s worth watching one episode just to see how the other side did it, and in its quiet way it is surprisingly like a John Le Carre tale crossed with early spy dramas like The House on 92nd Street and Walk East on Beacon Street. Actually it is considerably less leftist than Le Carre to be brutally honest resembling one of those politically uneasy WWII flag-wavers where the Soviets are reluctantly embraced as Allies.