Saturday, April 13, 2024

24-Year Old Ian Fleming, Special Correspondent to a Moscow Show Trial

From CrimeReads, April 9:

How a 24-year old Fleming's stint as a special correspondent to Moscow helped shape his view of the Soviet state.

In the late 1960s, the screenwriter Jack Whittingham, who had collaborated on the writing of Thunderball, started to write a screenplay based on the life of Ian Fleming. Whittingham’s daughter Sylvan says: ‘He had Fleming as a Reuters correspondent travelling on that train across Russia. Fleming was sitting in a compartment, and this alter ego like a ghost came out of him, and this whole adventure took place. That was how Dad played it – that Fleming had this other life that was Bond.’

The project was aborted, yet it reveals something of Whittingham’s perception of Bond that he saw his origins in Ian’s first important foreign assignment. During his fortnight in Moscow, Ian confronted a system that crystallised in his twenty-four-year-old mind the kind of enemy Bond would take on in the 1950s and 60s.

Ian had been forewarned from reading Leo Perutz that ‘Russia is ruled by an army of executioners’ with the Lubyanka as ‘the headquarters of death’. He understood the truth behind these remarks as he sat for six days in the packed Moscow courtroom and observed from a few feet away ‘the implacable working of the soulless machinery of Soviet Justice’.

In July 1956, after delivering From Russia, with Love, Ian told his editor how it was based on what he had witnessed personally, ‘a picture of rather drab grimness, which is what Russia is like’, and a portrait of state intimidation on a scale that he could never have imagined in Carmelite Street.

During his time in Moscow, Ian formed a hostile picture of the Soviet state that, twenty years later in the context of the Cold War, the rest of the world was ready to gobble up. A system built on fear, routine arrests, the terrorising of innocent men and women in a show trial dominated by a pitiless Stalinist prosecutor, who, in his appetite to break and dehumanise the accused, compared them to ‘stinking carrion’ and ‘mad dogs’.


At 9.45 a.m. on 8 April 1933, Ian’s ornate Victorian-style carriage pulled into Belorussky station. On the platform on this cool morning in late spring was Robin Kinkead. The twenty-seven-year-old Stanford graduate had booked them both into the National and he brought Ian up to speed on their drive to the hotel.

The streets they raced through were in grey contrast to Kinkead’s rented Lincoln. The unpainted and weather-stained houses reminded Ian of the Gorbals neighbourhood in Glasgow. He agreed with one of the British journalists whom he met for lunch at the National, Arthur Cummings, that Moscow was ‘as depressing as a pauper’s funeral’, with long queues outside the bakeries ‘as if the unemployed of half a dozen industrial towns in the north of England had been dumped here and ordered to keep moving’. The faces of the people had the pinched, dead look that came from the malnutrition that had already claimed an estimated five million lives and was provoking tales of cannibalism out in the grain belts. There was nothing in the shops, only busts of Stalin and what Kinkead told Ian were perpetual signs: ‘No Lamps’, ‘No Bulbs’, ‘No Shoes’, ‘No Dresses’, ‘No Cigarettes’, ‘No Vodka’.

The National was situated near the Trades Union Hall, which the Soviet government had chosen as the venue for the trial. Several seasoned hands were among those journalists downing sixteen-rouble Martinis at the hotel’s American bar. In addition to Cummings, political editor of the News Chronicle, there was Walter Duranty, the one-legged Pulitzer winner from the New York Times who had denied the famine; A. T. Cholerton of the Daily Telegraph; Linton Wells of the International News Service; and Kinkead’s secretary-interpreter, Zachariah Mikhailov, ‘a dapper little man of fifty odd’ with a cane and a grey hat, who had a temporary job with Reuters’ rival agency, Central News of London.

Ian was the baby of the pack, the least experienced, yet here he was covering a trial that Cummings told him might prove to be ‘the most spectacular event of its kind in recent years – if not since the trial of Dreyfus’.

The Times did not have a man in Moscow, nor the Manchester Guardian (Malcolm Muggeridge had left a few days before, ‘in a frenzy of frustration’). This meant that a large part of the world was relying on its Russian news from one young man of twenty-four....