Wednesday, 15 August 2012

The Changing Spelling of SMERSH throughout Ian Fleming's James Bond Novels and in the Films

In Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels the Russian phrase Smyert Shpionam (‘Death to Spies’) provides a conjunction to form the name for the Soviet organ of death, SMERSH. A close reading of the Bond novels bears out the fact that the spelling of this Russian phrase varies throughout Fleming’s work. In Fleming’s first novel, CASINO ROYALE (1953) the reader is first introduced to SMERSH through ‘Appendix B, a note on SMERSH,’ which is attached to the file from Head of S for ‘the destruction of Monsieur Le Chiffre.’ This appendix reveals that:

“SMERSH is a conjunction of two Russian words:

‘Smyert Shpionam’, meaning roughly: ‘Death to Spies’.

Ranks above MWD (formerly NKVD) and is believed to come under the personal direction of Beria.”

(‘Casino Royale,’ Ian Fleming, Pan Books Ltd., London, 1965, p. 21)

After Bond was saved from a savage torture and death at the hands of Le Chiffre by a SMERSH executioner, he recalls to his French ally, René Mathis in hospital how the assassin had carved a ‘calling card’ onto the back of his hand:

“‘What’s that?’ asked Mathis. ‘The doctor said the cuts looked like a square M with a tail on the top. He said they didn’t mean anything.’

‘Well, I only got a glimpse before I passed out, but I’ve seen the cuts several times while they were being dressed and I’m pretty certain they are the Russian letter for SH. It’s rather like an inverted M with a tail. That would make sense; SMERSH is short for SMYERT SHPIONAM – Death to Spies – and he thinks he’s labelled me a SHPION. It’s a nuisance because M will probably say I’ve got to go to hospital again when I get back to London and have new skin grafted over the whole of the back of my hand.’” (‘Casino Royale,’ Ian Fleming, Pan Books Ltd., London, 1965, p. 141)

Here Fleming uses the spelling ‘Smyert Shpionam’ which looks more accurately Russian than some of the spellings of the phrase that he later uses.

After successfully completing the ‘Casino job’ Bond, at the wheel of his 1933 4 ½- litre grey Bentley convertible at the start of LIVE AND LET DIE (1954), bitterly recalls that SMERSH assassin who branded him as a spy with a stroke of his stiletto knife in CASINO ROYALE:

“The hand had been fixed, painlessly but slowly. The thin scars, the single Russian letter which stands for SCH, the first letter of Spion, a spy, had been removed and as Bond thought of the man with the stiletto who had cut them he clenched his hands on the wheel.

What was happening to the brilliant organization of which the man with the knife had been an agent, the Soviet organ of vengeance, SMERSH, short for Smyert Spionam – Death to Spies? Was it still as powerful, still as efficient?” (‘Live and Let Die,’ Ian Fleming, Pan Books Ltd., London, 1963, p. 12)

Fleming has made a mistake in this passage by claiming that the scar on Bond’s hand had read ‘SCH’ for ‘shpion,’ when in fact in CASINO ROYALE Fleming tells us that the Cyrillic letters were ‘SH,’ which appears more accurate as these are indeed the first two letters of ‘shpion.’ The next noticeable change to the spelling of the Russian words which form the name SMERSH is that the second word ‘Shpionam’ in CASINO ROYALE has changed its spelling to ‘Spionam’ in Fleming’s second novel, LIVE AND LET DIE. The passage from LIVE AND LET DIE also contains the word ‘Spion,’ meaning spy, but as this is how Fleming has also now spelled ‘Spionam,’ is the reader to conclude that this is an anglicised version of a Russian word which may be more difficult to pronounce with the ‘h’ added to it?

At the beginning of the fourth chapter of Fleming’s fifth Bond novel, FROM RUSSIA, WITH LOVE (1957), entitled ‘The Moguls of Death’ there is another introduction to SMERSH:

“SMERSH is the official murder organization of the Soviet government. It operates both at home and abroad and, in 1955, it employed a total of 40,000 men and women. SMERSH is a contraction of ‘Smiert Spionam’, which means ‘Death to Spies’. It is a name used only among its staff and among Soviet officials. No sane member of the public would dream of allowing the word to pass his lips.” (‘From Russia, With Love,’ Ian Fleming, Pan Books Ltd., London, 1964, p. 27)

The spelling of the Russian words which when contracted form the title SMERSH have changed here again. In CASINO ROYALE the words were spelt ‘Smyert Shpionam,’ then in LIVE AND LET DIE the spelling changed slightly to ‘Smyert Spionam’, and finally in FROM RUSSIA, WITH LOVE it has changed to ‘Smiert Spionam.’ The ‘y’ in ‘Smyert’ and the ‘h’ in ‘Sphionam’ have both been lost gradually through the course of these two subsequent novels. In his ‘Author’s Note’ to FROM RUSSIA, WITH LOVE Fleming writes the following:

“Not that it matters, but a great deal of the background to this story is accurate.

SMERSH, a contraction of Smiert Spionam – Death to Spies – exists and remains today the most secret department of the Soviet government.” (‘From Russia, With Love,’ Ian Fleming, Pan Books Ltd., London, 1964)

Perhaps these changes in spelling can be explained by Fleming either having got the spelling of the name incorrect or by anglicising the name to make it easier to pronounce. Of course, mistakes like this had slipped into the Bond novels before. In DR. NO (1958), for instance, Major Boothroyd replaces Bond’s Beretta .25 with a Walther PPK 7.65 mm pistol, to be worn in a Berns Martin Triple-draw holster. However, in the later novels the holster has become Burns-Martin, a clear spelling error either on the part of Fleming or the publishers.

In Fleming’s seventh Bond novel, GOLDFINGER (1959) there is further confirmation that Fleming has now adopted a new spelling of the Russian words:

“SMERSH, Smiert Spionam, Death to Spies – the murder Apparat of the High Praesidium!” (‘Goldfinger,’ Ian Fleming, Pan Books Ltd., London, 1965, p. 66)

When John Gardner took over the Bond mantle as continuation author, his first Bond novel LICENCE RENEWED (1981) made mention of Bond’s experience with the SMERSH assassin of Le Chiffre in CASINO ROYALE:

“In the back of his mind, he remembered, quite clearly, all the circumstances which had led to the plastic surgery, that showed now only as a white blemish, after the Cyrillic letter Щ – standing for SH – had been carved into the back of his hand in an attempt by SMERSH to brand him as a spy.” (‘Licence Renewed,’ John Gardner, Coronet Books, London, 1982, p. 52)

This clearly implies that Gardner believed that ‘Smyert Shpionam’ was the correct spelling of SMERSH’s full name. It could be said that he was just taking the spelling of the Russian phrase ‘Death to Spies’ from the original spelling given in CASINO ROYALE, however.

In THE JAMES BOND DOSSIER (1965) Kingsley Amis reveals the history of the changing names of the real-life SMERSH in Soviet Russia:

“Between 1953 and 1959 Bond’s opponents tended to belong to, or to work on behalf of, a Russian counter-espionage organization called SMERSH (‘a conjunction of two Russian words “Smyert Shpionam”, meaning roughly: “Death to Spies”’). An organization did exist under this name during the Second World War, but was redesignated O.K.R. (Otdely Kontrrazvedki, Counter-intelligence Sections) in 1946. In fact, thanks to the Soviet passion for renaming bodies while leaving their functions much as they were, both SMERSH and O.K.R. were simply two of the various labels successively attached to what had originally (1921) been founded as Special Sections (Osobye Otdely) of the main U.S.S.R. Internal Affairs apparatus, the Cheka […] The Special Sections are presumably still continuing their work, but this has never been concerned with Western agents outside Russia and the territories she has conquered or occupied. Perhaps Mr Fleming was thrown off by the vague and misleading use of the word shpion.” (‘The James Bond Dossier,’ Kingsley Amis, Pan Books, Ltd., London, 1966, pp. 121-2)

Amis clearly believes that ‘Smyert Shpionam’ is indeed the correct spelling, and perhaps the implication that can be taken from this passage is that if Fleming gave a defunct name and an inaccurately defined function to the dark core at the centre of Soviet counter-intelligence, he may also have become confused about the translation of the Russian words. However, Amis seems to get the feeling that Fleming believed SMERSH was still functioning after the war under that title. SMERSH of course did exist under that particular title during World War II and Fleming accurately described its real-life function in the file on the organisation in CASINO ROYALE:

“SMERSH was next heard of when Hitler attacked Russia. It was then rapidly expanded to cope with treachery and double agents during the retreat of the Soviet forces in 1941. At that time it worked as an execution squad for the NKVD and its present selective mission was not so clearly defined.

The organisation 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” (‘Casino Royale,’ Ian Fleming, Pan Books Ltd., London, 1965, p. 21)

Of course, Fleming was not writing a serious study of espionage services throughout the world when he wrote the Bond novels. As well as SMERSH the functioning role of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), with its attendant ‘OO Section’ is of course also inaccurate and fantastical. It could be said that the OO Section bears some resemblance to Fleming’s ‘Red Indians’ in the wartime Special Operations Executive (SOE), which sent British trained agents behind enemy lines to commit acts of sabotage in Hitler’s ‘Fortress Europe.’ Similarly, the Deuxième Bureau (or ‘The Second Office of the State Major General’), of which René Mathis becomes the head in FROM RUSSIA, WITH LOVE, was at a time the old French army’s military intelligence organisation, but not at the time of Fleming’s writing. The Deuxième Bureau was created in 1871, at the time of the Franco-Prussian War in which France was defeated and the German states unified into the new country of Germany. The Deuxième Bureau was charged with the task of informing the French army about the situation of the enemy troops. The Second Directorate of the National Defence Staff, which combined the formerly separate army, navy and air force specialists, would have been the true successor to the Deuxième Bureau. The Second Directorate was certainly influenced by the traditions and doctrines of the Deuxième Bureau, which was France’s Military Intelligence. General Charles de Gaulle, as the leader of the Free French was partly responsible for the post-war shake-up in French intelligence and counter-intelligence. Collaborative Vichy France had dissolved the Deuxième Bureau during the Second World War. The Deuxième Bureau features in Fleming’s CASINO ROYALE, at the end of FROM RUSSIA, WITH LOVE and is mentioned in passing in THUNDERBALL. THUNDERBALL also mentions that there was a Polish Deuxième Bureau before that country’s defeat at the beginning of the Second World War in September 1939. If Fleming had wanted to be strictly accurate and up-to-date with French intelligence, he would have placed Mathis in the Service de Documentation Extérieure et de Contre-Espionnage (“External Documentation and Counterespionage Service”) (SDECE) which existed from 1947 until 1981, well within the boundaries of the timeline of Fleming’s Bond novels. Colloquially known as “The Pool,” the SDECE was replaced with the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE).  Such inaccuracy and sometimes-deliberate concealment of the real facts is the very nature of fiction. Such considerations aside, ‘the Deuxième Bureau’ has certainly got a much more romantic sound to it. 

In the Bond novels of the 1950s Fleming’s villains tended to be working for SMERSH or on behalf of the Soviets in either a sponsored [i.e. Sir Hugo Drax] or freelance capacity [i.e. Dr. Julius No]. The only notable exception to this general rule in the early novels would be DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (1956) which featured an American crime syndicate (‘the Spangled Mob’), led by the brothers Spang, involved in a diamond smuggling pipeline, which was Fleming’s foray into the territory of American gangsterism. In the Bond novels of the 1960s, however, Fleming averted his focus from the Soviets, as he rightly sensed that there would be changes in the relationship between the Soviets and the Western powers, and he no longer wished to go down that political route. Instead he created the international terrorist organisation SPECTRE (The Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion) headed by Ernst Stavro Blofeld and introduced it in THUNDERBALL (1961). ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (1963) and YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1964) completed the ‘SPECTRE/Blofeld Trilogy,’ with THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1962) in between, being loosely a part of what could be called the ‘SPECTRE/Blofeld Quartet’ as in the chapter entitled ‘Bedtime Story’ Bond relates his last mission in Canada on the trail of SPECTRE to Vivienne Michel, the first-person narrator of the novel.

The subsequent films of the novels, beginning with DR. NO, which was released in October 1962, took their lead from Fleming’s change in the composition of his villains and replaced all of the SMERSH and Russian backed villains of the novels of the 1950s with either SPECTRE membership or independent status. As the Cold War thawed slightly in the post-Cuban missile crisis détente after the events of the ‘13 days’ in October 1962 Russia was no longer seen as being in the ‘doghouse’ so much. The Bond films therefore reflected the new political mood, and made international terrorism in the form of SPECTRE the new villainous threat to the world. 

Despite this, SMERSH and the attendant ‘Smiert Spionam’ made three appearances in the Bond films. Firstly, Tatiana Romanova believes that she is working for the good of Mother Russia when she reports to Colonel Rosa Klebb of SMERSH in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963), but what she doesn’t know is that Klebb has defected to make her services available to SPECTRE instead. Thus, the producers have avoided making SMERSH the villains, as they were in the original novel and have instead carried on from DR. NO where SPECTRE were the villains of the piece. SMERSH next makes an appearance in Charles K. Feldman’s elaborate spoof of Fleming’s first novel and Bond in general, CASINO ROYALE (1967). However, as SMERSH in the film are responsible for the killing of sixteen KGB agents, and Fleming’s SMERSH was of course a Soviet organisation, SMERSH is here presented as a SPECTRE-type organisation under another name. The silhouetted presentation of SMERSH’s leader, Dr. Noah (a.k.a. Jimmy Bond) adds to the attempt to ape Blofeld as he had appeared in silhouette in the film THUNDERBALL (1965) under a half-closed shutter.

The most important mention of SMERSH, however, is made in a film where they have been disbanded for years. In Timothy Dalton’s first outing as Bond, THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS (1987), ‘Smiert Spionam’ makes its only appearance in the Bond films as a phrase. However, the keen observer will note that the spelling of this phrase has again changed, this time surely due to inaccuracy. The KGB ‘defector’ General Georgi Koskov tells M, Frederick Gray (the Minister of Defence) and Bond at the safe house in Blayden that the new head of the KGB, General Leonid Pushkin was the reason behind his ‘defection.’ Koskov maintains that Pushkin has a new ‘secret directive,’ namely ‘Smiert Spionom,’ which Bond explains to the Minister of Defence means ‘Death to Spies.’ Koskov says that this directive will mean the assassination of British and American agents and that murder will follow murder. At his following briefing from M for the assassination of Pushkin, Bond is shown the brown paper tag that was found near 004’s body. An assassin in the employ of American arms dealer Brad Whitaker had killed 004, and slid a tag with the words ‘Smiert Spionom’ written in black marker pen onto the OO agent’s climbing rope before abruptly severing it. Later in the film, in the scene where Saunders is assassinated by being crushed in the path of an automatic door, Bond finds a blue balloon with the words ‘Smiert Spionom’ again written in black marker pen on it, floating towards him. The scriptwriters (Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson in this case) have obviously used the amended spelling ‘Smiert Spionam’ featured in the novels FROM RUSSIA, WITH LOVE and GOLDFINGER but have mistakenly transcribed it as ‘Smiert Spionom,’ replacing the ‘a’ which was in all three versions of Fleming’s spelling of the Russian word with an ‘o.’

When Bond holds Pushkin at gunpoint in his hotel room, Pushkin says, “‘Smiert Spionom’ was a Beria operation in Stalin’s time. It was deactivated twenty years ago.” It is unclear whether Pushkin is here referring to the ‘real-world’ SMERSH or the SMERSH of the ‘Bond universe.’ If he were referring to the ‘real-world’ SMERSH, then as it was deactivated in 1946 and Pushkin is speaking in 1987, it would have been more historically accurate for him to say that it was deactivated forty years ago rather than twenty. However, if he is referring to the ‘Bond universe’ SMERSH of the Fleming Bond novels it is still actually thirty years before 1987. In THUNDERBALL we are told that SMERSH disbanded in 1958 in the list detailing the SPECTRE membership, therefore SMERSH was not disbanded in the time of Stalin’s leadership [he died in March 1953] but during the leadership of his immediate successor, Nikita Khrushchev:

“three former members of SMERSH, the Soviet organization for the execution of traitors and enemies of the State that had been disbanded on the orders of Khrushchev in 1958, and replaced by the Special Executive Department of the MWD…” (‘Thunderball,’ Ian Fleming, Pan Books Ltd., London, 1963, p. 52)

General Pushkin’s comments in THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS about Beria heading the SMERSH operation are true to the ‘Bond universe’ as in CASINO ROYALE Fleming had wriiten in the dossier on SMERSH:

“Ranks above MWD (formerly NKVD) and is believed to come under the personal direction of Beria.”

Lavrenty Pavlovich Beria, whom General Pushkin claims originated the ‘Smiert Spionom’ operation, was indeed the director of the Soviet secret police, a forerunner of SMERSH called the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), from 1938 to 1953, and he played a large role in the purges of Stalin’s opponents. Soon after Stalin’s death in March 1953 Beria, as one of the four deputy prime ministers and as Minister of Internal Affairs, attempted to use his position as chief of the secret police to succeed Stalin as the sole dictator of the Soviet Union. By July 1953 he had been defeated in this aim by an anti-Beria coalition. He was then arrested, deprived of all his government and party posts and convicted of being an “imperialist agent” and of conducting “criminal antiparty and anti-state activities.” He was executed after his trial in December 1953. In Fleming’s FROM RUSSIA, WITH LOVE there is a telling reference made to Beria. Fleming describes the scene inside SMERSH headquarters at No. 13 Stretenka Ulista:

“On the walls are four large pictures in gold frames. In 1955, these were a portrait of Stalin over the door, one of Lenin between the two windows and, facing each other on the other two walls, portraits of Bulganin and, where until January 13th, 1954, a portrait of Beria had hung, a portrait of army General Ivan Aleksandrovitch Serov, Chief of the Committee of State Security.” (‘From Russia, With Love,’ Ian Fleming, Pan Books Ltd., London, 1964, pp. 27-8)

In the following chapter there is more information given on Beria:

 “Serov, A Hero of the Soviet Union and a veteran of the famous predecessors of the MGB – the Cheka, the Ogpu, the NKVD and the MVD – was in every respect a bigger man than Beria. He had been directly behind the mass executions of the 1930s when a million died, he had been meteur en scene of most of the great Moscow show trials, he had originated the bloody genocide in the Central Caucasus in February 1944, and it was he who had inspired the mass deportations from the Baltic States and the kidnapping of the German atom scientists who had given Russia her great technical leap forward after the war.

And Beria and all his court had gone to the gallows, while General G. had been given SMERSH as his reward. As for Army General Ivan Serov, he, with Bulganin and Khrushchev, now ruled Russia. One day, he might even stand on the peak, alone. But, guessed General Vozdvishensky, glancing up the table at the gleaming billiard-ball skull, probably with General G. not far behind him.” (‘From Russia, With Love,’ Ian Fleming, Pan Books Ltd., London, 1964, p. 34)

By providing accurate background information on the various Soviet secret intelligence and military organizations, Fleming can introduce and expand the role of SMERSH as a useful fictional device, and carry his readers along on the fantasy. This fits in with Fleming’s belief in deploying real place names and brand names throughout his novels to make the sometimes more fantastical elements of the plot seem more real. It is a clear sign of Fleming’s skill as a writer that he can use this literary device to invoke such a great amount of verisimilitude. Nikolay Aleksandrovitch Bulganin, mentioned in the quoted passages above, was, for example, the premier of the Soviet Union from 1955 until 1958. The real SMERSH would have fitted into the Russian KGB’s Third Chief Directorate. It had as its chief assignment the maintenance of security within the armed forces and watching for any potential traitors within the military and intelligence services. This was the actual function that SMERSH had carried out during the Second World War, as Fleming rightly noted in the file on SMERSH in CASINO ROYALE. This also fits in with the mention of the ‘secret directive,’ Smiert Spionom of General Pushkin, the head of the KGB, referred to by the ‘defecting’ General Koskov. The KGB, or Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (“Committee of State Security”) was the last of the major Soviet intelligence services created. Its role resembled the American CIA and the FBI combined with the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). The KGB was ordered into three directorates. The First Chief Directorate was charged with carrying out counter-intelligence missions to maintain internal security. Fleming’s description of SMERSH would have probably fitted more aptly into the Second Chief Directorate, as it was responsible for foreign intelligence and had a wide variety of subsections dealing with different geographical areas and specific functions, such as that of psychological warfare. By making Colonel General Grubozaboyschikov (‘General G.’) the Head of SMERSH and Army General Ivan Aleksandrovitch Serov the Chief of the Committee of State Security (i.e. Beria’s old job), Fleming is acknowledging that there was not one centralized Soviet organ of counter-espionage and terror like SMERSH, but actually a competing network of military and secret counter-intelligence organizations under many different titles. Fleming was clearly aware of the labyrinthine nature of Soviet intelligence and the ever-changing series of names for organizations with much the same role as their predecessors. Fleming explained away some of these complexities in Soviet counter-intelligence in his Bond novels by saying that SMERSH ranked “above MWD (formerly NKVD)” in CASINO ROYALE.


As an interesting endnote the new spelling of Smiert Spionom for SMERSH used in THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS is itself actually incorrectly spelt in the section on the film in Virgin Film’s BOND FILMS (2002). In the entry for THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS under the heading ‘In The Real World’ the history of SMERSH as a real-life organisation is briefly outlined:

“Koskov terms his operations against British agents Smiert Spionem, the Russian for ‘Death to Spies’. When questioned General Pushkin claims that Smiert Spionem is an abandoned operation dating ‘from Stalin’s time’.

He is correct, as in 1943 this phrase, contracted to SMERSH, became the new name given to a new Soviet military counter-intelligence service. The organisation was disbanded in 1946, although there are countless examples – including the use of the name on official paperwork – of Soviet personnel referring to themselves as working for SMERSH into the mid-1950s.

SMERSH’s responsibilities included the internal security of the Russian state, and its official duties were roughly equivalent to those of MI5 in Britain, although its unsavoury working methods invite comparisons with the Gestapo. SMERSH became infamous in the West for its actions in the satellite communist countries of Eastern Europe, especially Germany, immediately after World War Two. Ian Fleming used a fictionalised version of the organisation as the main adversary of the literary Bond. SMERSH agents appear in the novels Casino Royale, Live and Let Die, Moonraker, From Russia with Love, Doctor No and Goldfinger.” (‘Virgin Film: Bond Films,’ Jim Smith and Stephen Lavington, Virgin Books Ltd., London, 2002, p. 220)

In the same book in the section on the 1967 spoof version of CASINO ROYALE under the heading of ‘The Opposition’ there is another description given of SMERSH:

SMERSH: SMERSH were the villains of Fleming’s earliest Bond novels, including this one. In those it was – as in reality – a branch of the Russian Secret Service whose name was a contraction of the Russian for ‘Death to Spies’ – Smiert Spionem (see The Living Daylights). Here SMERSH is presented as an international criminal organisation more like SPECTRE than anything else. Presumably SPECTRE was avoided in order to prevent Kevin McClory becoming involved in the murky legal quagmire surrounding this project.” (‘Virgin Film: Bond Films,’ Jim Smith and Stephen Lavington, Virgin Books Ltd., London, 2002, p. 71)

By incorrectly labelling SMERSH as derived from the Russian phrase ‘Smiert Spionem’ instead of the spelling Smyert Shpionam used in the novel of CASINO ROYALE on which the spoof is ‘suggested,’ the writers of BOND FILMS have clearly become confused with the incorrect spelling used in THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS film, namely that of Smiert Spionom, which is evidently derived from Fleming’s later adapted spelling of the phrase, Smiert Spionam, used in the later novels which feature SMERSH, namely FROM RUSSIA, WITH LOVE and GOLDFINGER. The writers incorrect spelling of the Russian phrase is therefore not just a one-off confined to the incorrect copying of the spelling used in THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS film, but also to refer to the spelling of the phrase in Fleming’s novels. This confusion over the spelling of the Russian for ‘Death to Spies’ aptly illustrates the complexities surrounding the phrase’s use throughout the whole literary and cinematic Bond canon, and even in Bond commentaries and criticism.

According to a source on the Internet, the phrase from which SMERSH actually derives its name is, in Russian, “C myert shpionam!” and this was the motto of the NKVD, a forerunner of the KGB, officially known as “Voyenna Kontra Razvedka” (Military Counter-Intelligence). As the poster “Jevez” explains on the file on SMERSH on the Bond website ‘Universal Exports’:

“The word, “shpionam” is both the plural (“shpion” is the singular), and has the case-ending which denotes its use as the object of a preposition. Since no preposition occurs immediately prior to the word “shpionam”, it is understood that the preposition “to” is intended. Hence, the motto has a translation of “with death to spies”. When it is spoken in Russian, it is said so quickly that, to non-Russian trained ears, it appears to sound like “smyert shpionam”, and that is how Fleming wrote it. He wasn’t alone in that, as both our CIA, and the British Ministry of Intelligence listed the radical branch of the VKR by that name. It was a very real organization, until the fellows from SMERSH got a little out of hand and began killing foreign spies in wholesale lots – very much against the typical method of operation of intelligence units on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Both the CIA and the MI began massive retaliations, until Khrushchev kicked up a fuss about it. When told by our ambassadors what was actually going on, he ordered the VKR entirely disbanded, immediately.”

This seems to fit with the theory expounded above that Fleming might have anglicised the spelling of the Cyrillic phrase meaning ‘Death to Spies’. It could also be that he misheard it or read a report in which it was spelt “Smyert Shpionam.”  A Greek monk, now called St. Cyril (who features as a p[lot point in the 1981 film FOR YOUR EYES ONLY) who went over the Caucasus Mountains to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to the peoples there, created the Russian, or Cyrillic alphabet. The monks that went there found that although the people had a well-developed spoken language they had no comparable form of writing. They therefore took the Greek and Roman letters and revised them to represent the different phonetic sounds of the spoken Russian language. This explains why some of the letters in the Russian alphabet look almost identical to the Greek letters. For example, the letter carved by the SMERSH executioner onto the back of Bond’s hand in CASINO ROYALE was the Cyrillic letter for SH – denoting ‘shpion,’ a spy. This letter resembles an inverted M with a tail. As the Russian letter ‘C’ is always pronounced softly and is also a preposition meaning either “to” or “with,” it is easy to see why Fleming mistakenly thought that the three-word phrase “C myert Shpionam!” meaning “With Death to Spies!” was spelt in only two words, “Smyert Shpionam” and meant “Death to Spies.”

Interestingly, Khrushchev’s disbandment of the VKR, which contained the radical branch, called SMERSH at its core, after the reports of the killings of foreign spies, neatly matches Fleming’s passage in THUNDERBALL on the complexion of SPECTRE quoted above where he reveals that SMERSH “had been disbanded on the orders of Khrushchev in 1958, and replaced by the Special Executive Department of the MWD…” It appears that there was a contemporary precedent for Fleming’s decision to disband SMERSH and replace it with the international terrorist organisation SPECTRE, quite beside the fact that Russia was by then (1961) starting to come out of the ‘doghouse’ a little.

Overall then, throughout Fleming’s novels, the continuation novels and the films, there have been four separate spellings of the Russian for the phrase ‘Death to Spies,’ with no real indication as to why changes in the spelling of the phrase were made or which spelling is taken to be the most accurate, although the spelling ‘Smiert Spionam’ turns up most throughout the novels, despite being spelt incorrectly in the film of THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS. All of the confusion over the accurate spelling of the phrase that gives its name to SMERSH may have in fact been down to Ian Fleming’s initial mishearing and misspelling of the words. The history of the spelling of the Russian phrase in the Bond novels, films and film guidebooks certainly reveals some interesting and unexplained inconsistencies. 

TBB Article No. 12

© Brian McKaig, 2007.

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