Seventeen Moments in Spring

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

Television viewers were glued to their sets through the prime viewing months of 1973, watching Iulian Semenov’s Seventeen Moments in Spring. The tale of Soviet spy Maksim Maksimovich Isaev, who had infiltrated the highest ranks of the Hitler’s political intelligence agency (SD) as Standartenfuhrer von Stirlitz, the series tracked his efforts to avert a conspiracy of German and American intelligence chiefs to forge a separate peace in the waning months of the war. Semenov, an experienced writer of police procedurals and spy novels who was rumored to have high connections himself in the intelligence community, was retailing old Cold War myths of American treachery in Seventeen Moments. Yet he also managed to portray Nazi leaders with a sympathy unknown to Soviet viewers, and to use Nazi Germany to offer a sly critique of Soviet society.

Memories of the Great Patriotic War were still powerful and deep for Soviet citizens. Whereas most western societies that had fought the war had put the experience behind them by 1973, and the war had become distant history for most young people, the war remained for Soviet citizens of all generations a source of trauma and pride. It was the one undeniable accomplishment of their country united, the one that had somehow remained unsullied by the pomposities of propaganda, the last time that the entire country had functioned in unity and honor, and the last great achievement of the Soviet state. The war effort provide the Communist Party with its last and most vital moment of legitimacy.

Because it had reshaped the country so profoundly, and because few Soviet citizens had not lost a relative in the war, the memory of the war was veiled by a reverence that made critical examination of the legacy very difficult. Lessons and stories of the war taught to children in Soviet schools depicted their own side in unnuanced shades of good and glory (as happened in other societies that had fought the war). Humor in treatment of the war bordered on blasphemy, so much so that the writer Vladimir Voinovich was excluded from the Writers’ Union in 1974 for having written The Life and Amazing Adventures of the Soldier Ivan Chonkin, the beloved tale of a not-too-bright Russian soldier as he survives the brutal war. The modesty and good humor of the piece contrasted sharply with the bravado of Leonid Brezhnev’s own wartime memoirs, Little Earth.

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