The West is out to get Russia by concluding a deal behind its back and conducting secret negotiations. A ruthlessly efficient intelligence service sets out to subvert the move. The hero is a man who rarely shows emotion, speaks in clipped, concise tones but can act with immediate decisiveness and even brutality when needed.
In the context of recent tensions with the West, which have escalated to levels not seen since the Cold War, this sounds like a narrative fed by the Kremlin’s modern-day propaganda machine under President Vladimir Putin. But this is, in fact, a summary of a hugely successful Soviet television series whose hero bears more than a passing resemblance to Putin. It remains wildly popular and influential in Russia to this day and watching it can, arguably, teach us more about Russia’s modern psyche than reading any number of classic novels.
“Seventeen Moments of Spring” (“Semnadtsat Mgnoveniy Vesny”), a 12-episode series first broadcast in 1973, is set in the final months before the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. Soviet intelligence agent Col. Maksim Maksimovich Isayev, after years of successful covert work, has successfully implanted himself in the higher echelons of the Nazi secret service, the SD, under the cover name of Standartenführer Max Otto von Stierlitz. None among the Nazi hierarchy, at least until now, has suspected Stierlitz is a Soviet spy.
One night at home, he decrypts a message sent in code through the radio from his bosses in Moscow telling him to disrupt nascent talks between Western allies and Nazi officials on finding a separate postwar peace that excludes the Soviet Union. He must succeed in this mission — which we are told is essential to the future peace of Europe — at a time when doubts are growing among his colleagues over who he really is and the arrest of a fellow Soviet agent puts him in mortal danger.
“Seventeen Moments of Spring” is one of the greatest achievements of the Soviet screen and a series still intensely watched and talked about. Even today, Russians quote famous one-liners from the series with a wry grin. The artistic achievement overseen by director Tatiana Lioznova is immense and the daringly long-breathed scenes — filled with long pauses and sometimes minutes-long sections with no dialogue — have an intensity few Netflix series dare match today. Among many fictional spies, Stierlitz (as Russians commonly refer to him) stands out; he’s more introverted than James Bond, more emotionally ruthless than George Smiley and less internally troubled than Malotru of France’s “Le Bureau.”
A 1999 poll in Kommersant showed that out of all Russian film characters, Russians saw Stierlitz as having qualities they most desire in a leader, citing his honesty. And it’s hard to escape the impression that Putin and Stierlitz, as played by Vyacheslav Tikhonov in his iconic performance, sound unmistakably similar. It’s the tone of talking that sometimes is no louder than a murmur and the “ah-has” of assent, combined with the streams of analysis and occasional, but utterly decisive, ruthlessness that resonate. Did Putin, a former KGB spy who was himself famously posted in Germany during the final years of the USSR, model himself on his illustrious fictional predecessor? “Work in Germany, devotion to the Motherland, shedding a tear on Soviet holidays. This is Maksim Maksimovich Isayev,” the Kommersant Vlast magazine wrote back in 2000 as Putin consolidated his grip on power, in an article titled “Stierlitz — Our President.”
After recently rewatching all 12 episodes, I find that Putin sounds uncannily like Stierlitz, even down to the occasional sharp intakes of breath. But the Russian strongman has never publicly commented on the influence.
What is in no doubt is that Stierlitz epitomizes the qualities envisioned for a Russian spy: courage, calmness and total readiness to sacrifice the self in favor of the greater good. Perhaps the most famous scene in the whole series shows him in flashback 10 years before the main action, watching his wife enter a Berlin cafe in a wordless meeting arranged by the KGB. Their eyes meet for several minutes across tables, her minder sips a drink at the bar, and when the time is up, he guides her out. Stierlitz’s eyes fill with tears, but he doesn’t flinch. The scene has become a symbol of the self-control and sacrifice of a Russian agent.
“Spain [the civil war] lay ahead of him. He did not know. But Moscow knew. So they arranged a meeting with his wife,” says the narrator.
Almost all the main characters in “Seventeen Moments” are men. That silent meeting is the only moment Stierlitz’s wife is referred to, apart from a brief moment of reflection at the end. The exception is the character of Kat, Stierlitz’s fellow undercover agent in Berlin, who helps him with radio transmissions back to the center. In the pulsating performance by Ekaterina Gradova, Kat is the emotional heart of a drama where feelings are often suppressed. Her German partner Ervin, who is also working for the Soviets, is killed in a Western bombing raid on Berlin, and she is left carrying their unborn child. She arouses suspicion by screaming in her native Russian language while giving birth and is then closely tracked by the Nazis. “Will you phone the Gestapo or shall I?” one of the nurses asks a colleague after the birth.
Much of the dramatic tension of the series comes from the fear that Stierlitz could be uncovered and face inevitably merciless retribution. The first suspicions come from the savage Ernst Kaltenbrunner of the SS, who sets Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller on the case, although Müller sees no reason to distrust Stierlitz. But in the face of these threats — and knowing that being unmasked would be fatal — Stierlitz remains unflappable, the perfect model of a spy retaining cover under pressure. When he finds out he has been awarded the Soviet Union’s top decoration, Hero of the Soviet Union, Stierlitz receives the news without so much as raising his eyebrows, emitting little more than a mutter of approval. Given the chance to end his mission safely while in Switzerland (and finally reunited with his wife), he chooses to head back to Germany and keep up the increasingly dangerous game of maintaining his cover. “Peace had not yet been won. So Col. Maksim Maksimovich Isayev is going to Berlin. He is going to work,” says the narrator.
The series was commissioned by then KGB chief and later USSR president Yuri Andropov in a bid to improve the image of the organization after World War II. It had high-level help — the credits give its “chief consultant” as one “S.K. Mishin” who was in fact none other than then-Deputy Chief of the KGB Semyon Tsvigun. While the Gestapo are shown using brutal interrogation techniques on detainees, there is no sense of irony over the fact that the Soviet intelligence services had used — and were even still using — the same methods of torture themselves. The organization is shown being both morally superior and extremely capable. This is part of the reason for its appeal in Russia’s nationalist society today. Its agents, like Stierlitz, are described as “honest and polite people” (“chestnie i skromnie ludi”), an echo of Moscow’s “polite people” (vezhlivie ludi) characterization of the elite military forces that carried out the operation to annex the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in 2014.
Stierlitz’s mission is a moral crusade — to stop a deal between the West and Nazi Germany “za spinoi” (behind the back) of Moscow. This idea has immense resonance in modern Russia, where Putin repeatedly claims Russia has been stabbed in the back by the West without consultation, notably over NATO’s eastward expansion. Western observers often underestimate sentiments of victimization in Russian society. It is the world’s largest country by land mass, but with a relatively thin population, there is a dislocation that creates a sense of vulnerability often overlooked by outsiders. The series portrays Moscow countering this anti-USSR Western plot asymmetrically through its brilliance in espionage.
We live in an era where Russian espionage is entrenched in the Western imagination like at no time since the Cold War. It stands accused of using the most chilling methods to eliminate dissidents like former agents Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei Skripal and most recently the dissident Alexei Navalny. Agents roam the Middle East thanks to Russia’s involvement in the Syria conflict. Russia is blamed for rampant cyber espionage and interference in elections including the 2016 U.S. presidential election that brought Donald Trump to power. If Russia is engaged in an asymmetric struggle with the West, then espionage plays the crucial part.
But as well as brutality, the modern-day Russian intelligence service has also earned a reputation for clumsiness. Its agents leave enough information dangling in the public sphere to be traced by open-source investigators like Bellingcat. Skripal survived the attack, but an innocent woman lost her life after contact with the poison discarded by the assassins. The two alleged operatives gave a widely mocked interview to Russian TV where they claimed to be mere tourists who traveled all the way to England to see Salisbury Cathedral. Navalny even managed to phone one of the agents linked to the plot to kill him and then post a recording of the call on social media.
One of the attractions of “Seventeen Moments of Spring” in modern-day Russia is that it offers an image of their intelligence services, in all their incarnations from the Soviet Cheka, NKVD and KGB to the Russian FSB, SVR and GRU, that is a comforting antithesis of this present-day reality. Its goals are morally pure, and it always succeeds, a characteristic all the more meaningful as Stierlitz has to overcome constant setbacks like the arrest of Kat. “He perfectly understood that he was on the verge of failure. But he considered this to be one of the most successful days of his life,” says the narrator. Stierlitz is able to extract himself from every situation with his analytical skills, achieve the goals set by Moscow and keep his cover, even as suspicion grows. He is the perfect secret agent, and it would be hard to imagine him blundering around England’s Salisbury like those who tried to kill Skripal or allowing Bellingcat to find out his real name.
Of course, the idea that the NKVD, the KGB’s predecessor, could have had a double agent so far up in the Nazi apparatus is pure fantasy. The idea of such superhuman intelligence capabilities provided Soviet viewers with a romanticized conception of what it could do. In the early years of World War II, the NKVD did run an agent within the Gestapo, a German communist named Willy Lehmann. He provided Moscow with warnings of the precise date of the Nazi invasion of the USSR in 1941, which Stalin defiantly paid no heed to. Such blatant disregard of valuable intelligence by the Soviet leadership is, needless to say, never mentioned in “Seventeen Moments of Spring,” where Stalin appears briefly in two scenes as a genial leader in supreme control. Lehmann was eventually uncovered and shot dead in 1942.
As the series advances, troubling questions mount. What kind of atrocities would Stierlitz have needed to overlook, or even be complicit in, so as to win the unwavering trust of his superiors as a loyal party cadre and promotion to the top ranks of the SD? Never is this so much as alluded to. And the series’ greatest blind spot concerns the Holocaust, which, as far as I have noted on two complete viewings of the series, is never even mentioned. Couldn’t Stierlitz have used his high rank and influence to save Jews and other minorities? But it’s clear he has simply one concern — carrying out the orders of Moscow as a loyal NKVD soldier. The removal of any reference to the Holocaust in a series dealing with Nazi Germany set in 1945 is all the more troubling — and even less surprising — given prevailing antisemitic attitudes in the USSR in the 1970s. Soviet Jews were restricted from emigrating to the West, despite their compulsion to leave, yet persecuted for as long as they remained in the USSR. The memorable soundtrack, still hummed by Russians to this day, is sung by the Jewish singer Iosif Kobzon. But his name does not appear in the credits.
Indeed, the series rarely takes time to focus on Nazi outrage, although we are made aware of a vast subterranean prison system where inmates are routinely tortured. One exception — and one of the most memorable moments in the series still stenciled into the minds of Russians — is when Gestapo officer Jürgen Rolf subjects Kat to emotional torture after her arrest as a suspected Soviet spy. In freezing weather, he takes her baby to the window, strips it and threatens to let it die of hypothermia unless she reveals the names in her network. Incensed, the German soldier helping to guard her, Helmut, produces his service pistol and shoots Rolf and the female guard Barbara dead. Kat can then begin her route to escape. But even this scene carries the whiff of the ideology of the time. Care is taken to give a good image of Germans — particularly those in East Germany, then a Soviet satellite, which is where much of the filming took place. Helmut falls into the classic archetype of the so-called good Nazi, and it’s no coincidence his part is one of the very few played by a German actor (Otto Mellies).
Watching “Seventeen Moments of Spring” almost half a century after it first aired has an added poignancy given that all the major cast members have now died, several of them in recent months. Gradova died in February this year. The actor who played Nazi negotiator Karl Wolff, Vassily Lanovoi, a giant of the Russian stage who also gave one of the greatest onscreen portrayals of Vronsky in the Soviet adaptation of “Anna Karenina,” died in January. Tikhonov died in 2009, Lioznova in 2011. Fifty years on it’s amazing how gripping the series remains and how rewarding the unhurried pacing is. In 2009, at huge expense, a color version of the black-and-white original was released, with considerable cuts, in a bid to appeal to a modern audience. But the loss of the crisp, black-and-white images and the rhythm of the original make the updated version pale in comparison.
Yet the discomfort remains. The great Soviet actors playing these Nazi murderers are too good for the men they are portraying and provide them with an emotional depth and humanity they do not deserve. Oleg Tabakov (here in one of the first roles of a glittering career that only ended with his death in 2018) even received letters of gratitude from relatives of SD chief Walter Schellenberg for bringing him back to life through a portrayal that sometimes borders on the affectionate.
For me, the best performance in the series is by the Kyiv-born actor Leonid Bronevoi as Gestapo chief Müller. Never predictable for a moment, Bronevoi portrays Müller as prissy, vulnerable and self-doubting but at the same time vicious, ruthless and decisive. The most celebrated scene in the series — which takes up almost an entire episode — is his interrogation of Stierlitz in the Gestapo torture cells, where he directly accuses him of being a Soviet “rezident,” a foreign spy. Playing on Müller’s gullibility and vanity, Stierlitz manages to survive. Müller, possibly not fully convinced but too tired to go on, lets him go. But how can Müller, a figure central to the planning and execution of the Holocaust, merit such a nuanced screen portrayal?
Successfully exfiltrated, Kat breaks down in uncontrollable tears in the back of the car. Showing no emotion himself, Stierlitz nods at her baby and says: “You need to think about the future.” Kat replies: “Without the past there is no future.” It is a line with huge relevance in Russia today, where the Kremlin has made sure that the USSR’s victory over fascism is celebrated as the nation’s greatest historical achievement. But it also reminds how under Putin, Russia has consciously turned a blind eye to the darkest aspects of its Soviet past. It has in the last months pressed ahead with moves such as labeling individuals and NGOs “foreign agents” or seeking to ban the rights group Memorial that are reminiscent of the darkest episodes in Soviet history. Without confronting the truth of the past, there can be no future. “Seventeen Moments of Spring” takes its inspiration from the past but one that is mythological rather than real.