Breaking cover: how the KGB became Russia’s favourite TV heroes

Breaking cover: how the KGB became Russia's favourite TV heroes

A proliferation of TV series in which the heroes are Soviet secret police highlights a new status in Putin’s Russia for former agents as a sort of post-Soviet nobility, writes Mark Lipovetsky

30 April 2014
Text Mark Lipovetsky

Long before it became universally accepted that “Crimea is an ancient Russian land”, contemporary politics in Russia was closely intertwined with the question of the interpretation of history, and particularly of Soviet history. The clearest expression of this link has been the proliferation, since the late Noughties, of TV mini-series based in Stalinist or late Soviet times. A prominent trend within a trend are the series in which the heroes are so-called “Chekists”, agents in the Soviet secret police in all its different incarnations: Cheka, GPU, NKVD, MGB, KGB and finally FSB.

This new interest in the historical representation of the secret police goes hand-in-hand with the KGB’s new status in Putin’s Russia: former agents, including the president, have managed to not only secure themselves the status of a sort of post-Soviet “nobility” (to use the title of Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan's book) but also to accumulate significant political and economic power. And now, largely thanks to these TV series, this power is accompanied by a new narrative of the secret police — one that doesn’t explicity seek to excuse the agencies’ past, but rather to act out that justification through drama.

The rise of the KGB on TV is clearly not the product of a single top-down command. Rather it’s evidence of a spontaneous resonance between such diverse factors as TV ratings, the professional preferences and a specific “political correctness” indicative of the Putin period. But the political meaning of these productions cannot be overestimated, considering the paramount role of passive TV consumption in post-Soviet society.

Seventeen Moments of Spring (1973) dir. by Tatyana Lioznova

The sub-genre was born with Sergei Ursulyak’s hit mini-series Liquidation (2007), in which a cop cleans up a post-war Odessa rife with Nazi collaborators and gangsterish ex-cons, never once overstepping his jurisdiction or deviating from the agency’s political brief. This was followed by a run of shows with espionage thriller plots and big-name stars: The Apostle (Apostol; 2008), Breakout (Otryv, 2011), Major Sokolov's Hetaeras (Getery mayora Sokolova; 2014). What’s more, all the heroes are ideological ambiguous diamonds in the rough. In this respect these shows clearly differ from Soviet films which depicted Chekists as knights in shining armour: every show includes scenes of brutal interrogation beatings or grisly gulags — clear acknowledgements of the horrors of Stalinist repressions.

However, with surprising regularity the violent guards and their victims belong to the same glorious organisation. This seemingly inconsequential detail is not historically improbable, yet its persistence suggests a key to the emerging historic narrative. Especially illuminating in this respect is the moderately enthralling spy show, The Apostle. During the Second World War, Pyotr Istomin is recruited by the NKVD to pose as his dead twin, a seasoned criminal and graduate of a German spy school. Istomin is “reforged” to act and speak like his brother, then, after a series of brutal tests, is sent to the spy school in order to locate and kill its mysterious director, Heldrich.

“Former agents, including the president, have managed to not only secure themselves the status of a sort of post-Soviet “nobility” but also to accumulate significant political and economic power”

The plot of The Apostle is fairly unexceptional, save for a few curious details. First, when the motherland calls on Istomin, he is in exile in the notorious gulag island of Solovki. In order to be useful, he must change from being a stereotypical member of the intelligentsia into a merciless murderer, while still keeping his mathematical mind. Second, while Istomin is out on his complicated assignment, his obedience is secured by the fact that his wife is imprisoned and his son are held captive — a situation almost identical to that endured by his boss Khromov. Third, at one point Khromov is accused of being a German spy (it turns out that he’s an ethnic German): he is arrested and severely beaten but eventually released. Finally, Heldrich, who Istomin does eventually kill, turns out to be the hero’s father.

Thus, the secret policeman, exemplified by the unwilling yet talented Istomin as well as his keeper and double Khromov, presents a unified character who is both servant to and victim of the system. A considerable number of the historical mini-series that came in the wake of The ApostleIsaev, The Spy, Breakout, The Owl's Scream, The Bomb and others — present a secret service hero who manages to magically integrate incompatible historical narratives — those of both Soviet officialdom and the dissident intelligentsia, of émigrés and patriots, liberals and authoritatians. The key thing, however, is that this hybrid guarantees the triumph of the state over its enemies (who may well be indistinguishable from it).

The Apostle (2008) dir. by Yuri Moroz and Ivan Ivanov

This logic continues to absorb new variations and nuances, both thematic and structural. Isaev (2009), by Liquidation creator Sergei Ursulyak, is a prequel to the legendary Soviet-era series Seventeen Moments of Spring (dir. Tatiana Lioznova, 1973) about a fictional Soviet spy Max von Stierlitz (aka Maxim Isaev) who worked undercover in the upper echelons of the Nazi regime in 1945. Stierlitz became a cult figure among viewers because he manifested the double bind of the Soviet intelligentsia: while serving a (Nazi) system which he hated and tried secretly to undermine, he simultaneously enjoyed western comforts, which, even in the straitened times of the last days of the Third Reich, were still impressive to Soviet viewers.

Ursulyak's Stierlitz/Isaev, played by the aristocratic Daniil Strakhov, continues his prototype's double game, but brings it to a radical new level. Young Isaev, the Stierlitz-to-be, fights thieving Russian émigrés but is also himself a loving embodiment of the kitschy romanticisation of émigré culture as the sole remnant of the “true Russia”. Neither the series' creators nor its viewers register the ultimate contradiction: apparently, because Isaev is a Chekist he can be convincing both as an émigré and as a Soviet agent.

These films don’t necessarily obscure historical truths … nevertheless by fusing together incompatible “truths”, they effectively neutralise the historical tragedy

All contemporary TV Chekists are descendants of Stierlitz. His double life made him a unique phenomenon in late Soviet period. As for his post-Soviet descendants: they are not unique, and their contradictory nature is not presented as such. Rather, it is performed as wholesome and “natural”.

A 19th-century Russian critic famously called the poet Alexander Pushkin “our everything”. This formula can be repurposed for today's TV Chekists, who are presented as the sum total of incompatible life scenarios born of the Soviet catastrophe. These films don’t necessarily obscure historical truths and typically are generously peppered by meticulously reproduced period details (Roland Barthes would recognizs here his definition of realism). Nevertheless, by fusing together incompatible “truths”, they effectively neutralise the historical tragedy, replacing it with artificial adventures and melodramas cleansed of any residue of Soviet ideology. The Chekist here is the embodiment of a phantom construct — a common historical destiny, one supposedly shared by executioners and victims alike, the rulers, the ruled and those who resisted.

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