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Spy Vs. Spy: A Former MI5 Director On Loving James Bond

Stella Rimington was the director general of MI5 from 1992-1996.
/ Courtesy of Jamie Hughes
Courtesy of Jamie Hughes
Stella Rimington was the director general of MI5 from 1992-1996.

Stella Rimington writes spy fiction and is the former director general of MI5. Her most recent book is The Geneva Trap.

I first discovered Ian Fleming's From Russia With Love in the early '60s, before I knew that I would join MI5 and become part of that mysterious world myself, and before James Bond had become a worldwide phenomenon through the films.

In those days, for a nicely brought-up young lady, it was a book to be read in a brown paper cover, a guilty pleasure, a tale of sex and violence rooted in the Cold War battle between the Soviet Union's KGB and Britain's MI6, one of the arms of British intelligence, together with MI5.

In Moscow, a group of uniformed yes men, Soviet counterintelligence officials, meet to determine how to strike a fatal blow at the enemy. They decide to kill MI6's agent, James Bond, in circumstances so compromising that the reputation of MI6 will be destroyed for good.

About 30 years after I first read the book, as the Soviet Union was collapsing, I found myself, then deputy head of MI5, in the headquarters of the KGB in Moscow, making the first formal contact between the intelligence services of Britain and the USSR. I recalled Fleming's description of the office on the second floor of the building in Moscow from which the Soviet counterintelligence agencies, SMERSH (an acronym of the Russian "Death to Spies"), was directed. To my slightly fevered imagination, it was all there — the long conference table, the desk with four telephones and the row of men with inscrutable faces on the other side of the table.

There were no women to be seen, so there was no opportunity to discover whether Colonel Rosa Klebb was somewhere in the building. Klebb, head of SMERSH's Department of Operations, one of Fleming's most disgusting villains. A toad-like figure with yellow eyes and pale moist lips below nicotine-stained fur, she scuttles through the corridors, clutching a low stool on which she sits to look into the eyes of her victims, so she can best decide which form of agony will break them. When she is seen returning to her office, her smock freshly bloodstained, all who see her know that the torture has been successful.

Rosa Klebb, with the poison-tipped knives in her shoes, became the archetypal figure of female intelligence officers on both sides of the Cold War divide. When my appointment as the first woman to head MI5 was announced in 1992, a British journalist told me that he had expected me to be a version of Rosa Klebb. Sadly, it hadn't occurred to him that I might be like the glamorous Tatiana Romanova, another KGB officer who ensnared Bond with her body and her Spektor code machine.

It is perhaps not surprising that in 1956, when Fleming wrote the book, he could imagine only two roles for women in the intelligence services: torturer or seductress. But it is a testament to his abiding influence that even in the '90s, his was still the popular image. The idea that women like me might be leading investigations, running sources or even running entire intelligence services was unimaginable.

But this book isn't about reality. With its exotic scenes in Istanbul, its struggle to the death with a psychopathic killer on the Orient Express, it is sheer escapism. And reading it again, even now, when I know so much more about how things really are, I'm with JFK in thinking this is one of the best of the Bond books.

My Guilty Pleasure is produced and edited by the team at NPR Books.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stella Rimington