“From Russia With Love” by Ian Fleming (to be published by Penguin Books in June 2024)

007 read by John F. Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald

Of the 14 James Bond books written by Ian Fleming from 1953 to 1964, “From Russia With Love” in 1957 was the fifth and very nearly the last. Writing it had been excrutiating for Fleming, extending his talents to the utmost. He was sick of keeping his hero “spinning through his paces”, and told his wife Ann “I have got so desperately tired of that ass Bond”.
10. March 2024 5:18

Fleming was a World War Two naval intelligence officer, and had already plundered the bullion of his inside knowledge for the four novels. Now it was running out, and his fear that he didn’t have much left in the vault increased each January when he arrived for his annual getaway at his Jamaican home, Goldeneye, with his Royal typewriter and 200 blank foolscap pages. Come 1956, he could hardly face hammering out yet another in the tropical heat.

Also, respected American author and friend Raymond Chandler had bluntly told him that the Bond books were declining because of the curse of the “series character”, causing the writer to “always… go back to where he began” rather than try for something higher.

Fleming’s disenchantment saw him write to Chandler: “My muse is in a very bad way… I am getting fed up with Bond and it has been very difficult to make him go through his tawdry tricks.” Still, he managed to return to London in March 1956 with a 228-page first-draft of “From Russia With Love”, though he then altered it more heavily than any of the earlier books.

Significantly, he rewrote the climax in April, with Bond poisoned by Colonel Rosa Klebb, of the Soviet counterintelligence agency SMERSH, a contraction of Smiert Spionam (Death to Spies). And so the series could end with 007’s death if Fleming’s discontent continued.

Also, sales of those first Bond books, “Casino Royale” (1953), “Live and Let Die” (1954), “Moonraker” (1955) and “Diamonds Are Forever” (1956), had been modest, and Fleming overheard friends of his wife disparaging them. What rescued Bond was the Suez Crisis of 1956, indirectly giving Fleming his first burst of popularity in the depressing wake of what 007 himself later told Japanese agent Tiger Tanaka in “You Only Live Twice” (1964) was “one of the most pitiful bungles in the history of the world, if not the worst”.

British Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s health had broken down under the immense stress of government during the country’s most serious post-World War Two drama. In July 1956 Egypt’s President Gamal Abder Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal Company, the joint British-French enterprise that had owned and operated the vital waterway since its construction in 1869. British, French and Israeli troops then landed and occupied the canal zone but quickly withdrew under Soviet, United States and United Nations pressure.

Britain was humiliated, its colonial decline exacerbated. Ann Fleming offered to lend Goldeneye to Eden to recover his health, and he and his wife Clarissa stayed there for three weeks at the end of 1956. He didn’t heal and had to resign in January 1957, but the visit brought Ian a welter of beneficial publicity that considerably boosted his status and sales.

Hundreds of readers wrote to Fleming begging to know what was happening with 007, and the author changed his mind about killing him off. He wrote to reassure one reader that all was fine and Bond was merely temporarily hors de combat. At the opening of book six, “Dr No” (1958), Bond had recovered from the poison and been sent by his boss, M, on a simple mission to Jamaica to look into the disappearance of Commander John Strangways, the head of MI6’s Station J in Kingston.

“Dr No” began a run of some of the most successful 007 novels, including “Goldfinger” (1959) and the Ernst Blofeld trilogy of “Thunderball” (1961), “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (1963) and “You Only Live Twice”, a year before Fleming’s death in 1965. “For Your Eyes Only” (1960) had five short stories, “The Spy Who Loved Me” (1962) was considered a poor departure from the format, and there were two posthumous books, “The Man with the Golden Gun” (1965) and “Octopussy and the Living Daylights”, with two short stories (1966).

“From Russia With Love” made Fleming and Bond’s reputation, completely developing the character now embedded in literary, and filmic, history. Here emerges the fully formed heroic secret agent universally recognised as 007. All the elements of a true Bond escapade are finally present and correct: the beautiful beddable girls, innovative life-saving gadgets, exotic locations, the evil organisation up to no good and the wild action of a compelling plot.

When Fleming delivered the book to his editor in July 1956, he said it was based on what he had witnessed personally as a Reuters correspondent when sent to Moscow in April 1933 to cover a Stalinist show trial of six engineers from British company Metropollitan-Vickers. They were found guilty of espionage and sabotage. Two received jail terms but were soon deported, one was acquitted and three were expelled from the country.

Fleming saw a system built on fear, routine arrests and the terrorising of innocent men and women in a trial dominated by a pitiless prosecutor who, to break and dehumanise the accused, compared them to stinking carrion and mad dogs. He took the opportunity to write to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to seek an interview. The request was unsuccessful but Fleming was amazed to receive a personally signed note of apology.

The trial was his first major assignment and it earned him an invitation to report his impressions of the current Soviet situation to the Foreign Office, which surely marked his name on records for the future intelligence work that begat Bond.

As an officer in the Royal Navy’s Naval Intelligence Department during World War Two, Fleming devised a number of schemes worthy of an 007 novel, some successful and some too wild to carry out. One of his priorities was to obtain a German Enigma coding machine to allow the British codebreakers of Bletchley Park to decipher top-secret enemy messages.

In “From Russia With Love”, Bond is lured to Istanbul to meet Corporal Tatiana Romanova, a beautiful young Soviet cipher clerk whose looks remind of Greta Garbo and who claims to have fallen in love with the photos of Bond in his secret file. If he will come and help her defect to London, his prize will be a Spektor code-breaking machine, much sought by the British secret services.

Of course it is a trap to disgrace and destroy 007, and M and Bond are well aware but they want the Spektor. Bond meets Romanova, and on the Paris-bound Orient Express train he tangles with SMERSH’s prize assassin, Donovan Grant. Of course, we know who comes out on top in a savage fight to the death. There are no “spoiler alert” apologies here at The Budapest Times – if you haven’t read the book or seen the 1963 film, where have you been?

Bursting with action and intrigue, this is one of the best-loved books in the Bond canon. Interestingly, the first part is a long section in Moscow evolving the plot to kill Bond, and he doesn’t make an actual appearance until quite late on.

The Bond books got their biggest boost and really took off in the US after President John F. Kennedy, a voracious reader, named it as one of his 10 favourite novels in an article in Life Magazine in March 1961. The endorsement prompted Fleming’s publishers to mount a major advertising campaign, and by the end of the year Ian had become the largest-selling thriller writer in the US and Kennedy perhaps the most famous James Bond fan of all.

After the assassination of the President in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963, investigators searching Lee Harvey Oswald’s boarding room found two of the four Bond paperbacks he had borrowed from a library, which included “From Russia With Love”.

Leave a Reply