How Russia's Answer to James Bond Helped Propel Vladimir Putin


In the early 1990s, former KGB officer Vladimir Putin was working in the St. Petersburg mayor's office when he had an idea.

He was involved in a documentary about the city government and told he director he wanted to stage a scene of himself driving. But the music would be key. It had to be the theme song from an enormously popular Russian television miniseries from the early 1970s called "Seventeen Moments of Spring."

The drive would be an homage, a recreation of a famous scene in the series, which originally showed its protagonist, Maxim Maximovich Isayev A.K.A. Max Otto von Stierlitz, driving to Berlin after his final mission. Putin had cast himself as Stierlitz. It was something of a stroke of political genius.

"This 'homage' to Russia's most beloved fictional spy both announced Vladimir Putin to the nation as a former KGB officer and helped launch his national political career," according to an analysis in the latest unclassified edition of the CIA's Studies in Intelligence journal. 

"Throughout the 1990s, Putin would continue to benefit politically from the stream of media comparisons to Stierlitz," says the analysis, written by Erik Jens, chair of the Department of Transnational Issues at the National Intelligence University’s College of Strategic Intelligence.

In the fictional miniseries, which first aired in 1973, Stierlitz is a Russian intelligence officer working undercover in Germany to disrupt secret, nefarious peace negotiations between American and Nazi officials at the end of the World War Two. As opposed to James Bond, who had by then become a cultural phenomenon in the West, Stierlitz was described as a studious, patient, moral, almost father-like figure. As one magazine reportedly put it, Stierlitz kept one step ahead of his enemies "by cunning and rhetoric, not an ejector seat."

Stierlitz was created as the Russian counterpoint to Bond and to improve the public perception of Russian intelligence agencies. Both the miniseries and the novel upon which it was based were produced with KGB approval and support and were met with incredible success.

"Every evening the streets were deserted and people rushed home from work to watch the latest episode and to find out what would happen next," said Eleonora Shashkova, one of the stars of the series, according to the BBC.

Putin reportedly first saw the series when he was 21 years old and has "often credited the show as a primary influence in his joining the KGB," Jens writes.

"What amazed me most of all was how one man’s effort could achieve what whole armies could not," Putin said of the show, according to one biography cited in the analysis.

Putin joined the KGB in the mid-1970s and worked as a case officer, mostly in Germany, until he reportedly left the service in 1990. He returned to St. Petersburg and began a political career.

Jens wrote that's where Putin's positioning himself as a new Stierlitz in the documentary was the beginning of a strategy that paid off years later, when Putin won the 2000 presidential election. Putin had been plucked from relative obscurity in 1999 by then-president Boris Yeltsin to serve as prime minister, but Jens wrote that early in Putin's presidency, the "Stierlitz phenomenon" already had become a cliche in Russian media.

"The KGB veteran's public image of quiet, reassuring professionalism played into popular angst about Russian political and social instability and the 'public longing for a real-life Stierlitz who could deal with any crisis calmly and efficiently,'" Jens writes.

Jens doesn't attempt to analyze whether the description is actually applicable to the image-conscious Putin -- who has managed to stay in power in Russia for 17 years and may stay on for much longer -- but Jens does note the power of high-quality, popular media in influencing public opinion. (It's a lesson the U.S. intelligence community knows well.)

"In our era of rapidly increasing, politically driven, and often highly successful 'fake news,' increasingly abetted by high-tech fakery, it is worth remembering that carefully crafted, low-tech misinformation can be at least as effective, even after several decades," he writes.

Jens suspects Putin is well aware of all the popular television show has done for him. In 2003, he awarded 75-year-old Vyacheslav Tikhonov, the famous Russian actor who originally portrayed Stierlitz, with the Order for Service to the Fatherland, Third Class.

At the time, Russian media reported Tikhonov wanted to meet Putin "to shake his hand and thank him for all the big and good things he is doing for the country."

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