In Yulian Semyonov's Thrillers the Villains Are Cia Types—and Some Say the Author Works for the Kgb
In 1950 Josef Stalin’s secret police arrested Yulian Semyonov’s father for the second time. A longtime Bolshevik deeply committed to the Party, Semyonov senior was yet another victim of the Soviet dictator’s infamous purges. “I struggled for my father,” recalls Semyonov, who had just entered Moscow’s prestigious Institute of Oriental Studies. “I wrote a letter each month to Comrade Stalin. I’m afraid something might have happened to me if Stalin hadn’t died in ’53, because I was expelled from Komsomol [the Communist youth organization] and from the Institute. Some people told me, ‘You have to announce that you are against your father.’ I answered, ‘No, I am for my father.’ ”
Semyonov escaped arrest, and his father was among the millions who came out of the gulag under Nikita Khrushchev’s general amnesty in 1953. Stalin’s terror was repudiated, but those bloody years have proved an ambivalent legacy for the man who by all official measures is the most popular living writer in the Soviet Union. The hero of Semyonov’s second novel, In the Performance of Duty, for instance, is a North Pole pilot whose father was executed during the Stalinist purges of ’37 (when Semyonov’s father was arrested for the first time). It was published in 1962, the same year as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s explosive book about Stalinist labor camps, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Many of the writers who in the 1960s spoke out against Stalin’s terror were later persecuted, and some, like Solzhenitsyn, hounded into exile. Semyonov, however, has risen to the pinnacle of the Soviet cultural elite. For Solzhenitsyn, Stalinism seems an inevitable outgrowth of Soviet Communism. For Semyonov, Stalinism was a historical aberration. “Some people cannot forgive,” says Semyonov, who speaks good English. “Perhaps this experience was necessary for my father, for me. Tragic experience; perhaps it’s an especially Russian point of view, but sometimes it’s necessary. Because when you have tragedy in the past, you have the possibility to be more careful in the future.”
Semyonov’s story has been anything but tragic since, and he has been well rewarded for his loyalty. As a “best-selling” author of crime novels and spy thrillers with 35 million copies in print worldwide, a globe-trotting Soviet correspondent and a prominent member of Mikhail Gorbachev’s entourage at the Geneva Arms Talks, he enjoys wealth and privileges that have earned him the somewhat cynical moniker “Million” Semyonov. He is a consummate insider, an operator, and there is speculation that his lofty status may also have secret underpinnings. Though Semyonov is no orthodox, hard-line Communist, his insider portrayals of Soviet espionage (his villains often are CIA agents) and his passport full of visas have led some to conclude he works for the KGB.
A ruddy-faced bear of a man with hazel eyes and soft, full lips, a closely cropped gray beard and bristly crew cut, Semyonov styles himself after Ernest Hemingway, a lifelong idol. He talks with generous gestures of his big, thick-fingered hands, elbows propped on the table in front of him, a billow of cigarette smoke around his head. His ashtray is a piece of an American cluster bomb, a souvenir he picked up during four months as a Pravda correspondent with the Vietcong in 1967. “Any writer has two possibilities,” Semyonov says of his curious position in Soviet culture. “To do all he can possibly do to support the real and useful things in his people, his society, or to become a messiah—shouting, ‘I know what to do!’ I prefer the first one.”
At 55, Semyonov has published a book for every year of his life, and virtually every one has been filmed for the movies or TV. “He is doing his job rather well,” says Russian writer Vassily Aksyonov, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1980. “I would compare him to Robert Ludlum.” Semyonov’s thickly plotted novels treat taboo subjects in Soviet society—such as organized crime, Hitler’s final days, Stalin and the KGB—with some realism. His books (usually 100,000 are printed) sell out so quickly that would-be readers sign waiting lists at public libraries or buy them on the black market.
Semyonov’s most famous creation is the Soviet superagent Isaev, alias Stirlitz, who appears in eight novels to date. In Seventeen Moments of Spring (published in the U.S. as The Himmler Ploy), double agent Stirlitz, placed high in the ranks of Nazi intelligence, foils a plot by Hitler’s cronies to negotiate a separate World War II peace with the Western allies and form a capitalist-fascist cabal against the Soviet motherland. The tale—and the wildly popular TV series drawn from it—trumps up a few actual events into a fantastic Western conspiracy to suit the Communist Party line, and it has helped persuade a generation of Semyonov’s avid young fans that a figment of Soviet paranoia is a historical truth. On the other hand, Semyonov breaks with traditional Soviet propaganda by humanizing his Nazis, and his portrayal of Hitler’s dictatorship sometimes hints at pointed parallels with the Soviet police state. “I like history,” says Semyonov of the Stirlitz books. “And we have a lot of dark places in Soviet and international history, unfortunately. With the assistance of my hero, I am crossing these darknesses in history.”
He also has had a helping hand from the KGB. “He must be considered in some ways a KGB author,” says Aksyonov, a member with Semyonov of a rebel group of writers gathered around Youth magazine in the ’60s. “He has never been a stool pigeon or that sort of thing, but he definitely was receiving some of their offers and their tasks, and he was doing something for them, no doubt about that, especially abroad. I don’t have any proof of this, but it looks that way.”
Semyonov freely admits he has been given access to KGB archives. “When I wrote Tass Has Authorized Us to Report,” he says, “if I asked Mr. Andropov to give me materials, of course he liked my books, and he will give me these materials.” For realism, Semyonov interviewed some KGB operatives. “And I asked, ‘Comrades, I do not want to see a single page of documentation,’ ” he says. ” ‘I want to ask you what you drank, your relations with your children, with your wife. And then explain to me dramatically the whole situation.’ ”
He vehemently denies, however, that the KGB ever put him up to writing a word. “Look, a writer is like a dog,” he says. “Both a dog and a writer do not like a collar. It’s absolutely impossible to invite me to the Kremlin and tell me, ‘Comrade, you have to write a book about the KGB.’ I’ll answer, ‘Auf Wiedersehen! I do not want!’ ”
Whatever his sources, there’s no doubt that Semyonov has turned them to profitable use. Although he disclaims the label of millionaire, he admits to cash assets in the hundreds of thousands of rubles (including hard currency from foreign book sales on which he claims he is taxed “like a Rockefeller—95 percent”). His five-room apartment lies a hammer’s throw across the Moscow River from the Kremlin. That’s the Soviet equivalent of Park Avenue. He also maintains an atelier in the city and a dacha on the outskirts. Most Russians have to wait years for a domestic car; they could wait forever to get a mustard-yellow Volvo station wagon like Semyonov’s. Asa member of the board of the Union of Soviet Writers for 15 years, he has privileges at the House of Writers, with its palatial dining hall serving the choicest caviar and food unavailable on the open market. If Semyonov wants to travel to Paris to interview the widow of writer André Malraux (as he did), he has the number to call for a visa.
But the jewel of Semyonov’s possessions lies about 800 miles south of Moscow in the Crimean village of Mukhalatka on the Black Sea. There, perched above the jade-and-violet water, in a setting worthy of a James Bond flick, is Semyonov’s home away from home. His visitors must drive an hour out of Yalta, their car scrabbling up twisting, semipaved goat tracks until, when it seems impossible to climb higher, there appears a green iron door set in a high wall. Expecting guests, Semyonov leans over the top of the wall with Rizhi (“Red Head”), a snarling German shepherd that turns wimpish after a sniff or two. Semyonov has turned the land above the house into a terraced garden where he grows fruit trees. There’s a chicken coop, and two goats roam on the upper slopes, along with pheasant, hare and even wild boar.
Semyonov stays in his villa from November through April, writing by a window with a view of the Crimean Mountains and the sea. He works up to 15 hours a day at a desk piled high with his eclectic sources, including Lenin’s diaries, a biography of Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, the Bible and Thirty Years of Treason, a history of the McCarthy hearings. “The first 100 pages for me, it’s nothing,” says Semyonov, who mills out a 700-page draft in two months. “I am writing, writing, nothing, nothing, nothing, and suddenly I see my friends, my personalities. I listen to their voices, and I see a movie, and I have to write everything they show me. And I hate interruptions.”
The Hemingway touches abound in Semyonov’s retreat, from the Browning automatic shotgun in one corner to the framed note on the wall: “To Yulik Semyonov, best luck always from his friend Ernest Hemingway.” The bookshelves hold a forbidden paperback of Hedrick Smith’s The Russians, a Dallas postcard of the Kennedy assassination scene (Semyonov theorizes that the Kennedy family is a victim of right-wing conspiracy) and a Polaroid snapshot of Semyonov posing with Andrei Gromyko. The pile of videocassettes by the Blaupunkt VCR, a rare possession in the U.S.S.R., includes The Verdict, Starman and The Terminator, which are rarer still.
Semyonov’s real name is Lyandres, and his father was born in Ilitsino, Byelorussia, of mixed French, Jewish, Lithuanian and Byelorussian descent. Semyonov’s Russian mother, Galina, 79, came from the Bolshevik citadel of Ivanova-Voznesyensk, where her brother, Ivaniv Nazdrine, became chairman of the local soviet, only to be executed under Stalin in 1938.
Semyonov’s mother eventually became a teacher and his father secretary to Politburo member Sergo Ordzhonikidze, whom Stalin reportedly drove to suicide in 1937. The couple lived in a one-room apartment where 3-year-old “Yulka” slept in a suitcase. One day, recounts Semyonov, the ceiling fell in, slamming the suitcase shut on top of him. “I was shocked, crying,” he says. “My father later told me, ‘You became a writer because of this shock.’ ”
His professional writing career began when the journal Ogonyok assigned him to visit a new factory and a collective farm in Tadzhikistan. He ended up spending three weeks with some tiger hunters instead. His first novel, Diplomatic Agent, was published in 1958. In 1964, after spending three months with Moscow detectives, he wrote Petrovka 38. The gumshoe thriller, gritty stuff for its day, made Semyonov’s name. He served as West German correspondent for Literaturnaya Gazeta, and his reporting jaunts have taken him from the U.S. to Nicaragua and Afghanistan.
Semyonov’s 1956 marriage to Natasha (“Katya”) Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky linked him with a powerful literary-artistic clan. Katya’s great-grandfather was painter Vassily Surikov, and her mother, Natalya, is a poet and essayist. Her father died in one of Stalin’s prisons, but her stepfather, poet Sergei Mikhalkov, sits on the Supreme Soviet and, as head of the Writers’ Union, reportedly led the campaign to expel Solzhenitsyn. Interestingly, one of Katya’s brothers, Andrei, now lives in Hollywood and directed the 1985 hit film Runaway Train.
Semyonov’s tumultuous union with Katya included a divorce and remarriage, followed by separation in 1963. “Perhaps the only woman whom I ever loved really was Katya,” sighs Semyonov. “That is why I do not divorce.” One of his personal secretaries has been a longtime companion, and he jokes about rumors of a romantic link with pop diva Alia Pugachova.
Semyonov has two daughters, Durya, 28, and Olga, 19. A promising artist, Durya has exhibited in Moscow and Leningrad as well as in Paris. Olga is a student at the Shchukin Theatrical Academy and already has appeared in several films. “When we get out of our shells, we are confronted with so many problems,” says Durya of their privileged status. “As an artist, I can get a passport, but my friend who is a worker cannot. There is a lot of envy because of it. You see, there is an elite that can do anything, and then there are the common people whose lives are quite different, more restricted.”
When Semyonov’s father came out of prison in 1954, he brought with him a pocketful of coins and gave them to the secretary of his Party organization: 20 kopecks a month, his Party dues for four lost years. He died of cancer in 1968, still a committed Communist. For father and son, as for many Russians, love of country outweighed dissent. “Let me be Soviet,” says Semyonov. “I know our tragedy better than you can imagine, but it’s my country. My daughters were born here and they also love this country. They understand all the bad and all the good which we have here. It’s also a Russian complex. Some Americans can’t understand it. But I am living here, I understand it perfectly well. I have to do my best for my country, my people, my society. I have to. If not me, who else?”