Book reviews: Stalin’s Romeo Spy | Smersh: Stalin’s Secret Weapon

IT IS not entirely fair to call Dmitri Bystrolyotov a Russian James Bond. Unlike Bond, Bystrolyotov actually existed, was a devoted communist and spent 15 years as a prisoner in the gulag archipelago.

But had they both been real people, they would have had enough in common to swap cynical stories in a neutral language over vodka martinis in some lamplit border crossing. Like Bond, Bystrolyotov was a successful and ruthless spy (the two qualities presumably being inseparable). Like Bond, Bystrolyotov was a dashing and handsome ladies’ man.

And like Bond, Dmitri Bystrolyotov is now a semi-mythological hero in his motherland. In the new Russia Bystrolyotov has been publicly honoured. He is the subject of films, TV series, novels and biographies. The man who crawled half-dead from a Soviet gulag in 1954 is a national icon in the country of oligarchs and KGB-trained politicians.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Unlike Bond, Bystrolyotov is hardly known outside his country of origin. He is a purely Russian phenomenon, lionised partly in response to the west’s idolisation of its own Cold War spies. Look, say the Moscow TV shows and the books to their domestic audience, here’s one of ours. He’s charming, clever and licensed to kill. And he’s real.

In Stalin’s Romeo Spy, Soviet emigrant Emil Draitser attempts to sift the fact from the fantasy in a strange and occasionally baffling biography. Draitser’s was not an enviable task, even though the author met the old spy shortly before Dmitri’s death. Not all of the fiction has been posthumously imposed upon Bystrolyotov. Between his release from the gulags and his death in 1975 he wrote several accounts of his experiences. But in those 20 years freedom of expression in the Soviet Union was, as Bystrolyotov knew better than most, a dangerous indulgence. He had no wish to return to Siberia, and duly sanitised his own life story.

Draitser offers us a curious character, alternatively appealing and repulsive, naive and worldly wise. After an itinerant but privileged childhood, Bystrolyotov was swept away by the tsunami of the 1917 Russian Revolution. At 16 he found himself crewing an armed patrol boat between White and Red Russia.

With the civil war still in progress he stowed aboard a merchant ship to Constantinople, as Istanbul was then still known by Christian nations. For five years he drifted, as did hundreds of thousands of other Soviet emigres, around the Balkans and central Europe, working where and when he could, walking a young man’s tightrope over death and destitution. In 1925 the Soviet Foreign Intelligence in Czechoslovakia signed up this hardened 24-year-old as a spy.

As a former Soviet citizen, Draitser knows that not every Soviet apparatchik was a cynic. Particularly in the 15 years after the revolution, a great many Soviet people believed in the righteousness of their cause and the inevitability of its international triumph. Bystrolyotov was among them. His ideological devotion to the dictatorship of the proletariat was, at least until his later middle age, absolute. Draitser is therefore able to present that eternally intriguing figure: a person who believes that the end is so important that any means of attaining it are justified.

Those means were as bad as you might expect, if no worse than anything that made James Bond so celebrated. For more than ten years Bystrolyotov was planted in many different capitalist countries to serve as a conduit between local informers and his employers back in Moscow.

Sometimes the informers were willing fellow travellers. Sometimes they were not, and persuasion was required. Persuasion included deadly force. It also included sex. On his own wedding night to his fellow agent Iolanta Shelmatova, Bystrolyotov neglected his bride in order to seduce a useful female source. Later, Iolanta herself would be persuaded by Bystrolyotov – for the cause – to sleep with a susceptible French widower. Iolanta did the deed. She then left her husband. She told him that he would one day realise that the “wonderful garden” towards which he was “swimming across a stormy river, risking his own life and drowning those who happen to be in his way” was an illusion. There was no garden. There was only the river.

Bystrolyotov’s code was vicious and amoral, but it also hints at an early, innocent age of espionage. Neither he nor his antagonists had armed Aston Martins, let alone cellphones and computer imaging devices. When Dmitri Bystrolyotov worked abroad, he used false passports and pretended to be someone else.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

There are photographs in Stalin’s Romeo Spy of Bystrolyotov pretending to be someone else. He looks like a cross between Bond and Barbie’s Ken. His film-star good looks – even his centre parting – are unchanged as he puts on the clothes of “Greek merchant Ken”, “Hungarian count Ken”, “Dutch artist Ken” and “English milord Ken”. In the 21st century, Bystrolyotov would never have crossed a border unspotted.

Draitser suggests that his years spent abroad meant that Bystrolyotov was largely ignorant of the growing repression inside the Soviet Union during the 1930s. That would partly explain why he asked to be relieved of duty and sent home in 1936, as Stalin’s terror and purges were approaching their awful climax. This does not hold enough water. Bystrolyotov was an instrument of a repressive state; he read the foreign newspapers which, unlike their Soviet equivalents, told bad stories about the USSR; he talked to diplomats and other agents. He is unlikely to have been completely unaware of what was happening east of Bialystok.

Perhaps he thought that he had paid his dues; it would never happen to him. But it did. Dmitri Bystrolyotov returned home, was rounded up along with so many old Bolsheviks, tortured into signing ludicrous confessions of anti-Soviet activity, and sentenced to 20 years in the gulags.

Here Draitser leads us to the most poignant and illuminating episode in his biography. No modern reader should need to be reminded of the hellishness of those death camps. But almost any modern western reader will be surprised to learn that, when given a good chance to escape from his gulag, Bystrolyotov rejected it.

He did so for the same reason he had been a dedicated spy. He was still an ideological communist. His loyalty lay with the ideal rather than the regime. The latter would pass, but it was important that the former stayed alive. By escaping the gulag he might extend his life expectancy, but he would also condemn himself – if he actually did get away – to a lifetime’s exile from building the shining Soviet city on the hill. Rather than bear such a betrayal, he served his sentence.

Bystrolyotov had 20 years of poverty but comparative peace in civilian life before his death. He deserved them. He rode the Soviet train from glory to horror and stepped off it alive and sane. Tens of millions of his fellow citizens were not so lucky.

Bystrolyotov’s persecutors during his gulag years included an officer in the Soviet counterintelligence directorate known as SMERSH. The word causes the reader a flicker of alarm. SMERSH is, of course, the sworn enemy of the fictional James Bond. SMERSH employed Auric Goldfinger, Mr Big, Rosa Klebb with her poisonous toe-caps.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

We probably should not be surprised that SMERSH actually did exist. A book of the same name by Vadim J Birstein reveals that the organisation was for at least a decade a valued layer in Josef Stalin’s epic pyramid of oppression.

There they all are, dutifully laid out by Berstein, all those knee-buckling acronyms: VCheKa, GPU, OGPU, NKVD, KGB, SMERSH … with their fists, their boots, their smirks, their whips and their unprovisional licenses to kill. Was ever so honourable a cause so quickly dissolved into an ocean of blood

and bile?