Wednesday, March 6, 2013

When Julian met Graham

Julian Semyonov was the Soviet Union’s most famous spy novelist. A bearded, burly Hemingway-esque figure of a man, he was best known for his Second World War-set thriller Seventeen Moments of Spring. A bestseller in the Soviet Union on publication in 1969, Semyonov adapted it into a 12-part television series four years later, and it became an indelible part of Soviet culture. It’s regarded in Russia to this day with roughly the same degree of reverence as Brits have for the BBC adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

I was looking at Semyonov when researching my next book, Dead Drop, because I realized there were incidents in one of his later novels that closely echoed the real events I was writing about. Semyonov died in 1993, but his official website is crammed with information, including interviews he both gave and conducted (Semyonov was a journalist as well as a novelist). And buried in this website is this remarkable interview he did with Graham Greene.

In early 1989, Semyonov travelled to Antibes to meet Greene in his home there. He had tried to contact him before, in Moscow in 1985, although Greene doesn’t seem to have been aware of this when he mentions it. Greene, who was 84 at the time and would die just two years later, initially seems a little stiff, but soon seems to forget that he’s being filmed, and the interview feels very much like eavesdropping on a private conversation. It’s also fun to catch a glimpse of how Greene lived – if you look very carefully, you can spot a Scrabble box in the background!

This conversation between two of the great spy novelists of the 20th century runs at around an hour and a quarter, and there are several gems in it if you’re interested in the Cold War or espionage. The two men happened to meet at a crossroads in history when, finally, they could speak relatively openly with each other, although there are some guarded moments. Semyonov is by turns solicitous and pushy, while Greene occasionally seems a little lost: despite the almost tangible end of the Cold War – the Wall would fall within a few months – the gulf between their worlds is still palpable. Semyonov repeatedly mentions Greene’s books, and even offers to buy one to translate into Russian (Greene suggests his 1934 novel It’s A Battlefield), but only refers to one of them by title, and doesnt ask a single question about their content. 

Similarly, Greene seems either unaware or disinterested in the fact he is talking to one of the Soviet Union’s most prominent writers. When he relates how a book of his had sold some 14,000 copies in Czechoslovakia despite a decree forbidding it to be reviewed or advertised, Semyonov lets him in on a secret about the Soviet literary scene: a book often sells more if it hasn’t been reviewed or publicised, because word-of-mouth is much more valued by readers than state approval. Later in the conversation, Semyonov asks if Brits can immediately distinguish shades of sense of humour, such as ‘Eton humour’, ‘Cambridge humour’ and ‘Oxford humour’. Greene visibly squirms. Both writers were masters at delineating the idiosyncracies and nuances of their own countrymen but, perhaps unsurprisingly, seem to have had much less of a grasp of each other’s cultures.

Greene talks at length about his close friendship with the Panamanian leader Omar Torrijos, the subject of his book Getting To Know The General, and both men say they disbelieve that his death in a plane crash had been accidental – Greene even points to who he feels is the most likely person to have masterminded a plot to assassinate him! The culprit, he is sure, was Colonel Dario Paredes del Rio. 

He also discusses how he ‘detested’ Ronald Reagan, his hopes that the newly elected US president, George Bush Snr, will be more progressive, his time in Czechoslovakia, and reveals his thoughts on Russia and Afghanistan – the latter being a topic both men knew well (Semyonov was fluent in Pashto).

They also discuss censorship, which was something Semyonov was very familiar with: his father had been the editor of Izvestia, but had been arrested by the NKVD and spent time in the gulags. Semyonov talks about how he too had been summoned to the Lubyanka, by Yuri Andropov shortly after he had been appointed head of the KGB in 1967. But rather than being put in a cell, Andropov had wanted to help him with his novels – in a 1987 interview, Semyonov revealed that this included being granted access to KGB operational files. Semyonov tells Greene how Andropov had advised him on avoiding the censors pen, by simply adding three lines to any potentially controversial scene setting out the other side of the argument. This technique is a hallmark of Semyonov’s work, and it’s fascinating that it was suggested by the head of the KGB.

Semyonov played both sides of the fence like this throughout his career, praising the KGB in his books but doing so in such a way as to almost shame them, by making them conspicuously nobler and more empathetic than their real-life equivalents. His characters often eloquently condemn precisely the sort of narrow-minded behaviour that plagued Soviet bureaucracy as ‘anti-Soviet’, and there are ambiguities galore in Seventeen Moments of Spring.

Greene doesn’t seem to have been aware of any of this, and rather peculiarly seems to have seen Andropov as a reformer who paved the way for Gorbachev’s reforms, something Semyonov agrees to. But Greene had also mentioned, almost in passing, how he had blocked all Soviet translations of his work as a result of the Daniel-Sinyavsky trial in 1966, a restriction he had only lifted a couple of years earlier. Andropov had hardly been a saint in that affair, as Greene must have known. Both men seem to dance around the other’s politics, anxious to please and not offend. Safely ensconced in the era of glasnost, Semyonov reveals he felt the Soviet invasions of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan were mistakes, but he also shows a lot of inside knowledge, and one wonders if it crossed Greene’s mind that Semyonov knew a great many people in the KGB, and that their meeting might well be discussed back in Moscow. At one point Semyonov asks Greene to sign some books for Raisa Gorbachev, which he duly does. The entire Gorbachev family, he rather unconvincingly claims, are fans of Greene’s work. It seems more likely this would have been a totemic gift for Semyonov, who was a wily networker.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the discussion comes about halfway through, and revolves around Kim Philby. Greene had known the KGB agent well during the war, when they had both been in MI6, and had (controversially to many in the West), written an introduction to his memoir My Silent War (British first edition image courtesy of Existential Ennui). Semyonov is keen to get his sense of the man, and Greene talks about how fond he was of Philby, and how they had gone to the pub together during the Blitz. He says that he had sometimes asked himself what he would have done if Philby had indicated to him, ‘in an unwise moment’ over such a drink, that he was a Soviet agent. Greene felt he would have ‘given him twenty-four hours to leave the country and then I’d have reported him. In other words, I’d have given him twenty-four hours to get away!’

Perhaps enlivened by the discussion of his old friend Kim, towards the end of the interview Greene suddenly perks up, and he starts to  prepare a gin and tonic for the camerawoman, commenting as he does on his most recent (and, it would turn out) last novel, The Captain and the Enemy, which he reveals he wasn’t fond of, as he felt it had too many echoes of other books’, and that at one stage he had even abandoned writing it. 

And there the footage suddenly ends, with two of the great espionage novelists from either side of the Cold War looking as if they are about to get a little drunk together, in a flat in Antibes in 1989.

You can watch the whole interview here.


  1. Wow, great article! Greene's comment on Kim Philby is particularly interesting. I read about a rumor once that Ian Fleming met with Philby prior to Philby's departure for the USSR, and it makes me wonder if maybe he shared the same sentiments. The betrayal of a friend and colleague is something spy fiction is rife with, but I don't think we've ever seen it on a genuine human level, where the good guy is willing to let his old friend have 24 hours to get away rather than turn him in immediately. Would that have made Greene a traitor too? There's a novel waiting to be written about that. I tried to write about that in my book Show No Mercy, but I don't think I quite grasped it.