Thursday, May 16, 2019

MY 3 DAYS WITH A KGB COLONEL ... or was he?

Julian Semyonov, Dennis, and I in the bar
by Gayle Lynds

Have you ever spent time drinking, talking, and brain-storming with a KGB colonel?  Maybe Julian Semyonov wasn’t a colonel.  Maybe he wasn’t even KGB.  Maybe he was “just” the most popular Soviet detective novelist of his time. 

I met Julian in 1986 on the Left Bank in Paris.  A book festival volunteer had come to pick up my husband at the time, Dennis Lynds (AKA: Michael Collins), and myself in a car so small it made a Volkswagen Beetle look spacious.

Out of the front passenger seat uncurled a burly man with a buzz cut and an overgrown Miami Vice mustache and beard.  When he straightened up, we saw he was smoking a Marlboro and cradling a ream of papers tied together with string.  

He jabbed his index finger at the ream.  “Manuscript for next book!” he told us.  The index finger was doing double duty — also pressed against his middle finger to hold his burning cigarette.  “Julian Semyonov,” he introduced himself. “You are Mr. Michael Collins and Mrs. Michael Collins.”  It was an announcement.  And then he grinned.

Book festival poster
Julian Semyonov and Dennis were to be among the international guests of honor at a book festival in Reims – champagne country – northeast of Paris.  Both of us instantly liked Julian, and found him interesting and exotic with his Russian accent and American denim shirt and jeans.  With his heavy shoulders and thick chest, he could’ve stepped out of a Colorado backhoe advertisement.

“Dennis Lynds,” my husband said, giving his real name as they shook hands.

Then Julian took my hand with an Old World gallantry and bowed over it.  “Lady.”  His hand was warm and dry, the large size intimidating.

“We are going to be late,” the driver urged in English.

Dennis and I loaded our suitcases into the trunk and squeezed ourselves into the rear seat.  Once we were inside, Julian started for the front passenger seat, and stumbled on the cobblestones.  He swore.  The manuscript exploded from his hands.  The string slipped off, and the pages flew in all directions, landing on cars and in mud puddles, wrapping themselves around human legs and steel street poles. 

“New book!” he bellowed and ran after the pages.  “Just finished it!”  His terror was palpable.  “My only copy!”

As I chased pages I realized how lucky Dennis and I were – we were carrying our books on disks; we never carried paper anymore.  But Julian might not have a computer or a word processor.  After all, he lived in the Soviet Union, land of technological backwardness.

And so we scrambled for him, snatching up the dirty and crumpled sheets.  Passersby handed us more.  We didn’t try to keep the page numbers straight.  We gave everything to Julian, piled into the car, and were off to champagne country.
Dennis & Julian waiting to go onstage

As we drove, Julian told stories about covering the Vietnamese War for the Communist Party newspaper Pravda, and about describing in his detective thrillers the Soviet Union’s problems with juvenile delinquency, housing shortages, drugs, prostitutes, gangsters, and the rigid stratification of society. 

“I write we need individual labor,” he explained, “we need people to be able to own caf├ęs, businesses, farms, houses, and so on and so on. It is me who publishes it in Soviet press. I do it.”

I was surprised.  “You sound like a Capitalist.”

He grinned.  “Maybe I am.  Is maybe real reason for Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika?  Freedoms!”

“But everyone has work there,” Dennis argued, playing devil’s advocate.  “You never have to worry about getting a job.  People have food and medical care and guaranteed pensions.  Supposedly there's an ideal, a striving for utopia.”

I turned to Julian: “How do you get away with exposing its failures?”  Writers had been sent to the Gulag for far less.

He shrugged.  “Is necessary.”

Dennis & I on hotel stairs
Our hotel in Reims was pretty and modern, with elevators, large rooms, and a downstairs bar.  The bar was important – the gathering place for the writers.  We were already unpacked and sitting in the dim light, breathing the smokey air, and drinking glasses of Stella Artois, when Julian finally joined us.  He was still carrying his manuscript.

He sat, ordered vodka, and apologized for being late.  “I changed rooms.  First thing wherever I go, I change rooms.  The French always bug, and who knows who else?  You should change rooms, too.”

At a party the next day, one of the British authors told us, “Julian says Andropov gave him access to the Soviet secret archives because Andropov was a fan.  Now Gorbachev reads his books, too.  They drink together, I’m told.  Julian has a luxurious five-room apartment overlooking the Kremlin.  Think how impossible it is to get something like that, or maybe it’s just part of the package that goes with being a trusted member of the elite.  It’s said Julian came up through the KGB, and he’s still a colonel in it.  That’s why his books have such authentic backgrounds, and why he can travel – he’s the Politburo’s show horse to prove the lie that the Soviet Union isn’t a totalitarian state.”

We had no way to know whether anything Julian said was the truth, and maybe our new British friend was right – Julian was a KGB colonel.  As the days passed, we asked questions, wondered, speculated, and looked for evidence.  And found none.

As we were leaving the last day, Julian stopped us in the lobby.  He wanted to exchange contact information.  Warm and good-humored, he talked about his publisher in the United States, and that he hoped to tour there soon.

“If I come to California, we must meet,” he said.
Julian, later, the way we remembered him

Over the years, we sent each other cards, and then they stopped.  When we returned to Paris in the early 90s for another book festival, we asked whether Julian was attending, too.

“He died, didn’t you hear?” our British friend told us.  “Yes, he was called in for one of those complete physicals that are really a chance to interrogate under drugs.  He’d apparently finally gone too far politically.”

The official story was that he died September 14, 1993, from a heart attack after being “incapacitated for several years as the result of a stroke.”  He died in the secretive Kremlin Hospital, which was reserved for the Soviet elite – Communist Party bosses, KGB and GRU chiefs, and Politburo members.

Julian had been only 61, young for a writer.  By then he’d published more than fifty novels, sold some 35 million copies within Russia alone, created and edited magazines, written dozens of screenplays, and cofounded the International Association of Crime Writers.  He spoke several languages fluently.

Julian’s loss was sad for us because we’d liked him and admired his work.  At the same time, it was a reminder of the power of the state even as it reeled in the stormy transition from Soviet Union to Russia. 

Maybe Julian Semyonov was just the most popular – and daring – Soviet detective novelist of his time.  Maybe he hadn’t been a colonel.  Maybe he hadn’t even been KGB.

What do you think?

12 comments:

  1. Great story, Gayle! Interesting that he apparently didn't have Soviet undercover thugs trailing him everywhere. He must have enjoyed rare independence! I'd love to read some of his books.

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    1. We saw no evidence of body guards, or that he was being surveilled. He seemed completely free, but then perhaps he was wearing a wire and recording all of us. Who knows! Still, we enjoyed his intelligence, boldness, and good company.

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  2. What a fascinating story! Would love to have been around all you novelists back in the day, but sadly I got into the biz much later in life!

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    1. It was a rare era, Robin, you're right. The sense of the Cold War was everywhere in Paris.... the police carrying semiautomatics in the train stations and around public buildings, for instance. The previous year, 1985, had had more terrorist attacks than in a generation. 1986 was bad, too. And so many of the terrorists were being trained and harbored in East Germany.

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  3. Great story, Gayle. I wondered why Julian had his "only copy" of his book with him when he met with you? Do you think he considered giving it to you to get it published in the US? Later it is tragic that he died under such "unusual" circumstances...obviously the Russians haven't really changed their tactics when it comes to getting rid of citizens they don't like (or come to dislike), which certainly sounds like the case with Julian. by the way - great pic of you and your husband there! Thanks for a great post. Karna Bodman

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    1. I wondered about that, too, Karna ... whether he wanted us to have the ms for publication in the US. But ultimately, no. If it really was one of his thrillers, he already had publishers inside and outside the Soviet Union, and he was known for altering and deleting stuff from his mss that the Soviet authorities didn't like.

      In other words, he apparently cooperated, and he was working under the shield of first Andropov, and then Gorbachev.

      My personal take is that he was a control freak, and he didn't want anyone looking at the ms until he was ready for it to be seen, and if he carried it with him, then he'd more certain it was untouched. Maybe he slept with it under his pillow. :)

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  4. Maybe he told people he was KGB to protect himself in case his writing ticked too many people off...since probably those in the KGB didn’t know exactly who else was in the KGB, they could never be too sure....
    A very interesting acquaintance, certainly!!

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    1. He always deflected questions that he was KGB, but the rumors swirled around him. The KGB kept impeccable records, and NO ONE wanted to be in any of the files. There was an old saying in those days: Just as there are no ex German Shepherds, there are no ex KGB! :)

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  5. That's a great story! Interesting how so many marginal Russian characters die of a "heart attack."

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    1. Yep, you're right, Jamie. One of the rumors was that he was injected with a poison that killed by creating a heart attack ... the sort of thing we write about in our novels. And those darn bottles of poison have no skull-and-crossbones to warn anyone! :)

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  6. Fascinating. I, too, was curious why he carried his ONLY copy of his latest book. The idea that he had gone to far and been sent to the "hospital" to be interrogated under drugs and later died is frightening. It's so hard to know how things were done in the USSR. It makes me wonder how much things remain the same in modern Russia.

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    1. I agree, Chris. That darn ms traveled all around Reims, that and constantly replaced packs of Marlboros. There was a sincerity about him that I liked, and a passion. I think he had learned to work the system by compromising ... he got to write things that others weren't allowed to, while compromising just enough to satisfy censors and himself.

      As for modern Russia under Tsar Putin ... well, you and I know the answer to that. The only thing that's changed is their PR is better.

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