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Tass Is Authorised to Declare...”: American Spies, Lonely Writers and Other “Traitors”

« Tass est autorisé à déclarer… » : espions américains, écrivains solitaires et autres « traîtres »
Sergei Akopov


Cet article combine deux approches : les études sur la sécurité ontologique et l’analyse intertextuelle des films et séries télévisées d’espionnage. Il explore les résonances intertextuelles entre les représentations cinématographiques des angoisses de la politique étrangère soviétique de la fin de la guerre froide et la gestion politique de la sécurité ontologique dans la Russie contemporaine. L’article se concentre sur les représentations de l’espionnage sous la forme d’espions américains et de traîtres russes dans la série télévisée « Tass est autorisée à déclarer... » (1984) dont le scénario est basé sur le roman de Yulian Semenov portant le même titre, et sur la façon dont ces représentations ont été soudainement revitalisées dans le discours officiel russe contemporain après le 24 février 2022.

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The author acknowledges the insightful comments provided by the anonymous reviewers, Valery Kossov (University Grenoble Alpes), Kathy Rousselet (Sciences Po, Paris), Vera Ageeva (Sciences Po, Paris), and Philipp Casula (University of Fribourg).

1. Introduction and theoretical framework: intertextual analysis of espionage and Soviet ontological security

1This article explores the intertextual resonance between cinematic representations of late Cold War Soviet foreign affairs anxieties and the political management of ontological security in contemporary Russia. On the methodological level this article uses abductive approach, grounded theory and interpretivism to explore how representations of espionage in popular Soviet television series reproduce specific picture of political reality, reanimated in Russian foreign policy discourse today. I particularly focus on representations of espionage in the form of American spies and Russian traitors in the television series “Tass Is Authorised to Declare…” (1984), based on the book and screenplay by Yulian Semenov, and how these representations have suddenly been revitalised in contemporary Russian official discourse after 24 February 2022.

2In my theoretical framework, I combined two overlapping approaches—ontological security studies and an intertextual analysis of espionage in popular films, pioneered by James Der Derian. According to ontological security theory, in international relations (IR) states do not merely seek physical security but also security of the state’s self-identity. Consequently, during the Cold War, the Soviet state was not just interested in physical survival but also in the continuation of ‘the soviet self’, i.e. the confidence that this soviet identity would prevail in the international order. Such ontological security is often constructed through popular fiction and media narratives which tackle the problem of existential anxiety rooted in the human awareness of the indeterminacy of the social world (Kinnvall & Mitzen, 2020). We can define such narratives about the Russian political identity as master narratives of the collective self, earlier described within Philipp Hammack’s “theory of master narrative engagement”.

3Hammack describes master narrative engagement as the process by which individuals engage with competing storylines of history, collective memory and identity perceived as socially compulsory (Hammack, 2011: 312). He defines master narrative as a collective story which is so central to the group’s existence “that it commands identification and integration into the personal narrative” (ibid.: 313). In Hammack’s logic, an individual is destined to navigate herself/himself through “the discursive waters of these master narratives” and make decisions about which aspects of them to appropriate and which to repudiate (ibid.). This, I suggest, can also be true about Russian political elites and Russian president who, according to my vision, can reproduce in modern foreign affairs master narratives he had appropriated from popular fiction during his youth. Such master narratives in popular fiction can also include music and Netflix TV shows (Shapiro, 2009), photography (Zalewsky, 2013), poetry (Bleiker, 2000), literature (Dauphinee, 2013), and, most importantly for this article, the intertext of popular spy cinema (Der Derian, 1989a).

4In 1989, James Der Derian published International/Intertextual Relations: Postmodern Readings of World Politics, which included the chapter “Spy vs Spy: The intertextual power of international intrigue”. Three years later, already after the end of the Cold War, he revised his text, explaining that states take popular culture seriously, even if it is fiction or film, because media can foreshadow real world events:

[F]rom the giddy days of the first and through the most morbid moments of the Second Cold War, the popular culture, journalism, and academic study of international intrigue has been an important intertext of power and play in world politics. This intertext represents a field of ideological contestation where national security strategies, with their endgames of impossibly real wars of mass annihilation can be played and replayed for mass consumption as a simulation of war in which states compete, interests clash, and spy counters spy, all in significant fun. (Der Derian, 1992: 41)

5Der Derian wrote that an intertextual approach investigates how the ‘fictive’ literature of international intrigue and the ‘factive’ literature of national security and espionage produce meaning and legitimate particular forms of power and espionage in their relation to each other (Der Derian, 1989a: 168). I embrace in my framework this poststructural approach to IR which understands language as a script embedded into the inner logic of interaction and inherited by individuals (Huysmans, 1997: 362). If the script of American espionage and Russian traitors is part of such intersubjectively constituted and inherited language, then it must have what Der Derian called “genealogy”—the origins and conditions which generated particular “regime of truth” (ibid.: 365)—and “normalisation”, which enabled the shaping of a meaningful corpus, canon, and the so‑called an ensemble of sacralised texts, rules, and power (Der Derian, 1987: 70). It is for this method of genealogy and for the search for the origins of contemporary discourse on American enemies, spies and traitors in modern Russia that I first engage in a critical investigation of cinematic discourse in late Cold War Soviet films, and particularly 1984 television series “Tass Is Authorised to Declare…”.

2. Case selection and the idea of the genealogical analysis of Russian discourse

6I have adapted for this research an abductive strategy of the analysis and research design from grounded theory (Charmaz, 2006). According to Norman Blaikie, abductive logic of inquiry can be used to produce scientific accounts of social life by drawing on the social actors’ accounts of their everyday activities, including the symbolic meanings, motives, and rules that orient their actions (Blaikie, 2019). The abductive logic is often associated with such research paradigm in IR as Interpretivism. It is used to generate theories that are grounded in everyday activities and in the language and meanings of social actors we chose to study. For example, Blaikie developed this research strategy by drawing heavily from the work of social constructionism: hermeneutics, phenomenology, symbolic interactionism, existential sociology, and even ethnomethodology (Ong, 2012: 418–19). The idea to analyse political representations in the specific television series “Tass Is Authorised to Declare…” came to me after I conducted a word cluster analysis of three speeches by Russian president Vladimir Putin in February and March of 2022. My abductive approach theory suggests that the meaning of several concepts that Putin uses to talk about Russian national security can be traced back and grounded in similar meanings of security from USSR Soviet spy films that influenced Putin’s worldview formation while he was young. The evidence of such influences was provided by Putin in his own interviews.

7I used KH Coder text mining software to perform a digital word cluster analysis and reveal the most frequently mentioned groups of words based on a common theme. Table 1 shows the most frequently used word clusters from three speeches by Putin on 21 February, 24 February, and 16 March (2022). These three texts were selected for analysis as crucial for understanding Russia’s new—post 24/02—political realities under sanctions and geopolitical isolation from the West.

Table 1. – Most frequent word clusters from Putin’s 21, 24 February and 16 March 2022 speeches.

Table 1. – Most frequent word clusters from Putin’s 21, 24 February and 16 March 2022 speeches.

8On Table 1 we can clearly see that “US” and “Western countries” occupy leading place in Russian discourse about its identity, its past (mentioning of “Soviet Union” and the “Russian Empire”) and Russia’s need for the “special military operation”. Another frequent Putin’s frame reference concerns “outcomes of the WWII” (“Great patriotic war”) and “fifth column”, contextualized within “Soviet era” opposition to the “(neo)Nazi” and their supporters among the modern “Kiev regime”. The abductive logic hints that similar frames can be frequently found in popular Soviet era 1960’s–1980’s prime time spy TV series.

9When looking at most popular clusters, I came up with a grounded theory hypothesis that the logic of Putin’s speeches can be largely shaped with the frame of mirroring—a phenomenon described by Bo Petersson (2012: 11). Petersson pointed to the centrality of the Russian Self/US Other nexus in velikaya derzhava (“great power”) and mythological identity construction in Russia, particularly under the historical periods of social instability—the so‑called Times of Troubles (in Russian language called smuta).

The centrality of the Self/Other nexus in identity construction, be it on an individual or collective level, is a universal phenomenon. In contemporary social theory it has often been argued that conceptions of Self tend to mirror the practices of significant others over time. […] Only through this mirror image can a view of the national Self be properly discerned. […] The stereotypical images of the US are not only antagonistic, however; typically they communicate envy and contempt at the same time. This complexity makes it even more interesting to follow and analyse the development of Russian images of the US. The images of the both envied and denigrated superpower of the United States is not only interesting in itself, but is also essentially revealing for the understanding of contemporary Russian self-identity. (Petersson, 2021: 13–14)

10Mirroring the idea of responsibility to protect (R2P) human rights that justified the West’s military interventions into Kosovo, Libya, and Iraq, in 2022 Russia insisted on R2P when supporting its own military campaign in Ukraine, accusing the West of double standards (see Allison, 2013). This rhetoric is not novel for Russia. Putin himself, it occurred to me, could have inherited this ‘script’ from the period of Cold War when the Soviet Union was in a competition with the US, “mirroring” foreign policy of America. The same went for “Soviet and American spies”. I suggest that usage of the NATO term “Spec Op” (“special operation”), in 2022 could have also been non-accidental.

11In any case, if that ontologically insecure narrative, built around antagonism with the US, was borrowed by current Russian elites from Cold War times, I had to test this idea by choosing something that could have shaped the “lifeworld” of the Russian president since his youth. In his first book of interviews, Putin described why he decided to become a secret service agent: “Books and films like ‘Shield and Sword’ did their job. What struck me most of all was how small forces, literally the force of one person, can achieve what entire armies could not do. One scout decided the fate of thousands of people” (Gevorkyan, Timakova & Kolesnikov, 1999).

12However, the film “Shield and Sword” (1967) is not about the USSR–US confrontation, nor is television series “Seventeen Moments of Spring” (1973). Putin’s logic that “if US/NATO internationally renowned did that in Iraq why cannot we do the same in Ukraine” reveals, in my view, a certain Soviet intergenerational wounded masculine pride that fuels Russian exceptionalism in world politics today: “Quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi” (“What is permissible for Jupiter is not permissible for cows”). To investigate the roots and origins of the currently revitalised Cold War political narratives in Russia, I combine Der Derian’s approach with my previous feminist research on narratives of Russian ontological security (Akopov, 2023) to explore representations of Soviet fears and anxieties in a more relevant for our topic late Cold War TV series “Tass Is Authorised to Declare…” (1984).

13In his “international as intertextual relations”, Der Derian often asked why to undertake an intertextual approach to espionage? In answering this question, he liked to quote Jacques Derrida that there is nothing outside of the text and Roland Barthes’ view that intertext is “a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash” (Der Derian, 1989b: 6). I agree with Der Derian, that the popular culture of espionage is a playful intertext of power politics. I see why narratives absorbed under the Cold War can shape the mentalities and decision-making of Russian politicians 30 or 40 years after they incorporated these narratives through the consumption of Soviet TV or cinema.

14What unites Der Derians approach with ontological security studies (OSS) is their focus on the phenomena of “alienation” (transplanted by Der Derian into poststructural IR from Hegel and Sartre). The practices and representations of espionage in Cold War pop culture exploit human fears that beyond national borders—the world is alien, too complex, and practically incoherent. For the viewers of spy films, the world outside secure national states is an enigma which can only be deciphered and controlled by the spy or the national security expert. Der Derian shows how the popular literature and cinema of espionage privileges a very particular narrative of state security. Elements of such a worldview are the Realpolitik of superpowers (the US or the USSR), permanent vigilance, and constant preparation for war. In the logic of nuclear deterrence and the ideology of the Cold War, spying was the continuation of limited war by covert means (Der Derian, 1989b: 171). While spies were competing in three dimensions of power: the Power of Alienation, the Power of Surveillance, and the Power of Speed and Acceleration (ibid.: 168).

15In ontological security studies, routines and narratives play important roles as they sustain the self-identity of the state. Routines are performative automatic reactions that are rarely reflected upon. They provide a sense of continuity and certainty in an international environment of constant change and uncertainty (Mitzen, 2006). Furthermore, narratives of time and space are essential for a state’s self-identity because they justify actions and give meaning to the state’s behaviour. Through narratives, states link behaviour (for example, humanitarian aid or foreign aggression) to the understanding of the collective self (Steele, 2008: 10). Films, and particularly prime time television series, can play the role of the political mythmakers (Weber, 2001) when they help to establish in the collective conscious and subconscious such secure routines, even if those “regimes of truth” are what Der Derian sometimes called “simulacra” and “hyperreal” (Der Derian, 1989b: 7). Moreover, as I show below, another secret aspect of the pop culture representation of espionage is hidden in its silently gendered and narcissistic nature. The cinematic representations of super agents, like James Bond 007 or the Russian Max Otto von Stierlitz, “insert the fascination with the foreign into the sordidly routine world of Realpolitik” (Der Derian, 1989a: 164). They allow viewers to narcissistically associate themselves with those who have control over insecure life routines (Hagström, 2021), often playing with distinct masculine (see Kinnvall, 2017), even phallocentric, positionalities and the “male gaze” (Mulvey, 1999: 836).

3. Semenov: biographical anxieties of a “macho” Soviet writer

16If we start Der Derian’s genealogical deconstruction of social positionalities in the texts, we will have to start with the origins of these positionalities in the biography of their author. Before we get to the analysis of representations or characters in the film, it is necessary to perform a biographical analysis of its scriptwriter. Semenov (1931–1993) was a Soviet and later Russian spy fiction and detective writer, and the scriptwriter for several films and prime time television series like “Major Whirlwind” (1967), “Seventeen Moments of Spring” (1973), and “Confrontation” (1985). Those films and TV series have largely shaped and mirrored mutual fears and anxieties of Soviet citizens in relation to the West. Their scripts also reveal fears deeply hidden in the life routines of the writer himself. To unpack these insecurities, I use the method of the biographical analysis of “epiphanies” developed by Norman Denzin. In his book Interpretative Biography (1989) by “an epiphany” Denzin understands a moment in an individual’s life experience, which leaves a profound mark and changes the structure of his or her fundamental meanings (Denzin, 1989: 7). I would like to emphasise three of such epiphanies in the life of Semenov, that I see as resonating with the anxieties of characters in his novel, and later in the television series “Tass Is Authorised to Declare…”.

17Pivotal for Semenov’s early life experience was his international childhood spent in post-WWII Berlin (May 1945) and the arrest of his father—Semyon Alexandrovich Lyandres. Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the Izvestia newspaper, Semyon Lyandres was arrested in April of 1952 on charges of “assisting the Trotskyist saboteur Bukharin” probably based on a political denunciation by a colleague about the plan of Lyandres to publish texts of the American journalist and communist activist Anna Louise Strong. That story impacted the life of young Semenov, because he was asked by the KGB (then called MGB) to publicly denounce and abandon his father. After Semenov refused to do that, he was expelled from the prestigious Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies and made his living as a professional boxer in illegal boxing fights. He used the money from boxing to send his father prison parcels, and his father’s story had a strong impact on Semenov’s worldview (Kuzovenkov, 2006).

18Semenov’s second epiphany was his fascination with the life and work of Ernest Hemingway. All his life, Semenov aspired to an international career as a traveller, interpreter, and Soviet political journalist abroad in France (meeting George Simenon in 1985), Germany, Japan, the US, Latin America, etc. Semenov was at the centre of many important political events from the 1960s to the 1980s—in Afghanistan, Francoist Spain, Chile, Cuba, and Paraguay. As a pioneer of Soviet investigation journalism, Semenov took part in the combatant operations of the Vietnamese and Laotian partisans in 1968, he was tracking down Sicilian mafia and drug dealers, tracing the Nazis who were avoiding punishment for the Amber Room stolen during the WWII from Catherine’s Palace. From Hemingway, Semenov also borrowed a love for dangerous adventures: one time he was at a polar station, another at a diamond pipe opening, a third in the taiga with tiger hunters. A dramatic accident (“epiphany”) occurred once with Semenov while hunting in Moscow Region in November 1962, when one of hunters was accidently shot. No one for sure knows whose fault it was, but for Semenov it was a very painful experience. He believed that he was innocent, but he still received a suspended criminal sentence, and some say it was eventually lifted not without the help of his friends from the KGB (Smilga, 2011). I believe his fascination with Ernest Hemingway influenced the images of the journalists and writers Stepanov and Paul Dick in the TV series “Tass Is Authorised to Declare…”. Semenov’s daughter keeps Hemingway’s personally signed book “always from his friend” as a precious artefact in her father’s museum. She says that the two writers were very alike: both very hardworking, both started as journalists, both liked Spain, leftist ideas, women, alcohol, guns, and hunting. Both were disliked for their independent and critical thinking, for their truth-seeking, and “militant pacifism” (Tolkunova, 2011).

Picture 1. – Yulian Semenov reading and travelling ‘with Ernest Hemingway’ in his office (Efremova, 2021).

Picture 1. – Yulian Semenov reading and travelling ‘with Ernest Hemingway’ in his office (Efremova, 2021).

Photo: RIA Novosti / Alexander Cheprunov. 26 July 1969.

19Thirdly, to understand the worldview of Semenov, it is important to discuss the nature of his relationships with the Soviet secret services and the purpose of his (at least two) personal visits to Yuri Andropov, that started with unexpected telephone invitation from the head of KGB in summer of 1967 (ibid.). Was Semenov a Soviet agent or just an agent of Soviet influence?

20The former secret service generals in a documentary film after the death of Semenov witness that Andropov used Semenov as an agent of influence to improve the image of secret services in Russian society and abroad (ibid.). Yet there was probably some price that Semenov had to pay for his mutual co‑existence with the Soviet secret services. This, of course, put Semenov in a difficult situation: he used his friendship with Andropov to obtain permission to travel and get access to archival work for his books, however, he experienced a lot of anxiety about the need to get permission from his KGB patrons. According to his friends, from a political point of view Semeonov “beautifully walked on the edge of the knife” (Tolkunova, 2011). He never joined the Communist party, yet in 1985 he supported Mikhail Gorbachev during his meeting with Ronald Reagan (ibid.). One can even find some feminist intonations in that 1985 Semenov’s self-reflective interview that he gave to American journalists in Geneva: “I am not a politician. I am a writer. Writers’ emotions are greater than other people’s emotions. They remind me of women’s emotions. That is why it is possible for me to analyse the situation from the other side. That’s why I am absolutely open minded” (ibid.). At the same time, during a 1983 meeting with his readers, Semenov publicly announced the opposite—that “a writer is inevitably a politician” (Vstrecha v Koncertnoj, 1983).

21The life of Semenov in the USSR was full of anxieties and political double games he tried to play with the regime. His daughter Olga hinted that Semenov always felt a special insecurity about someone trying to hurt his children “in revenge” (Tolkunova, 2011). Based on biographical evidence we see why Semenov’s dependency on the Soviet system and its censorship could make him experience significant what I would call “loneliness anxiety”. He himself called such unfreedom from the Soviet government “a life in golden handcuffs” (Smilga, 2011).

22By the 1970s Semenov became particularly famous as a scriptwriter about Soviet secret agents operating in Nazi Germany during the WWII. However, much remains understudied in his films about “American” spies and significant others during the late Cold War. Images of the latter are reflected in such films and TV series as “Night at the 14th Parallel” (1971), “The Big Game” (1988) and particularly “Tass Is Authorised to Declare…” (1984), the later was awarded a special KGB prize and The USSR State Prize. For the reasons explained above, the “Tass…” TV series is the focus of my analysis in this article.

4. Two cinematic representations of ontological security master narratives in “Tass Is Authorised to Declare…”

23“Tass Is Authorised to Declare…” (1984) was directed by Vladimir Fokin and based on a real story. The series is set in Cold War era and portrays the struggle of Soviet and American intelligence agencies. Vyacheslav Tikhonov, who played the role of the stereotypical Russian WWII spy Max Otto von Stierlitz in the cult spy series “Seventeen Moments of Spring”, by 1984 had been promoted to KGB general, Konstantin Konstantinov.

24Konstantinov is the protagonist of “Tass…” whose task it to find and arrest Trianon, a mole for the Americans, who is providing his CIA handlers in Moscow with information on Soviet supplies to the fictional African state of Nagonia which he obtains through his well‑placed job.

Picture 2. – Actor Boris Klyuyev (right; “Tass...”, 1984) plays the role of American mole Trianon Alexander Ogorodnik (left; Suvorova, 2020).

Picture 2. – Actor Boris Klyuyev (right; “Tass...”, 1984) plays the role of American mole Trianon Alexander Ogorodnik (left; Suvorova, 2020).

25According to the plot KGB counterintelligence painstakingly identifies and neutralizes Trianon after he kills his fiancée who raised suspicions on his double life and then attempts to commit suicide when arrested, but the KGB come up with the original idea to find him a double. Meanwhile in Nagonia, Soviet counterintelligence agent Slavin (played by Yuri Solomin) risks his life assisting in the identification of Trianon and preventing local CIA resident Glabb from staging a coup d’etat in the country by the pro-American General Ogano against the ruling socialist and “progressive” President Grisso. Several foreign whistleblowers providing Slavin with information are killed on Glabb’s order. In the end, as the result of a successful KGB operation, the TASS state news agency issues a sensational bulletin exposing the CIA plot, while the Spec Op in Nagonia is suspended (“Tass…”, 1984).

26Before we get to two key political representations of ontological insecurity master narratives in the TV series that resonate with Semenov’s “epiphanies”, I would like to explain what type of alienated Soviet identity we are dealing with here. To show that particular alienation, in terms of Der Derian’s model—the Soviet identification that the former head of KGB Antropov was probably interested in promoting and popularising—I will use my own conceptual model of four dimensions of political identity. My model is constructed out of the answers to four questions: 1) How do we understand and label ourselves as “we” community? 2) Who do we consider to be our significant “Others”; 3) What are the principle narratives that shape our collective political memory; and 4) What are our perceptions of the political Space? (Akopov, 2015). In other words, “Tass…” largely illustrated Der Derian’s thesis how popular films about spies can facilitate further power alienation and the normalisation of state Realpolitik narratives about the US and the USSR as superpowers in constant geopolitical competition and preparation for war—the narrative that we see reproduced by current Russian elites after 24 February 2022.

27Film director Fokin answered my all four identity construction questions by offering to the Soviet viewers in “Tass…” master narratives and visual representation of the following geopolitical worldview. 1) “We” understand our Soviet political community as organised through the binary ideological contestation of great powers of the USSR vs the US. 2) The significant “others” within such a propagandistic model of political identification were recognisably represented in the series as traitors (agent Trianon) vs the honest Soviet journalist (Dmitry Stepanov). 3) Collective political memory was constructed through representations of WWII heroes vs (neo)Nazis. Positive “others” also include patriots and repentant former traitors because the KGB learns about the recruitment of “Trianon” from Aven Beliu (Ivan Beliy)—a repentant former Nazi collaborator. Finally, 4) representations of the political space were organised around images of impenetrable Cold War borders and the CIA’s “special operation” of General Ogano vs the ruling pro-Soviet “progressive” President Grisso in Nagonia.

28Considering all of the above, and based on the OSS of popular culture and Der Derian’s approach of espionage in cinema from seven intertextual perspectives (spies, signs, surveillance, speed, simulation, sex, and death), I came up with two mirroring representations of ontological insecurity in “Tass Is Authorised to Declare…”. The first cinematic representation is rooted in existential anxiety and appeals to binary of the all mighty and devious “American enemy” opposed by the Soviet investigative journalist allied with the KGB. “American enemy” as a hypocritical and cynical spy is represented by, for example, CIA resident Glabb (played by celebrity Soviet singer Vakhtang Kikabidze) and his mistress Pilar Suares, who uses sexual liaisons to recruit new agents for the CIA. The “mirroring” cinematic representation, I claim, is reflected by images of strict KGB general Konstantinov and, in a much milder form, the Soviet investigative journalist Dmitry Stepanov. Stepanov agrees to help the KGB, and particularly Konstantinov (perhaps, based on Andropov himself). It is therefore logical to suggest that Dmitry Stepanov is one of the “alter egos” of Semenov himself—as a patriotic writer, but also a brave and inquisitive Soviet investigative journalist. This first master narrative I would label as corresponding and matching Der Derian’s Realpolitik power politics paradigm.

29However (see Table 2), even more interesting to me is a second “mirroring” representation of ontological insecurity which, in my view, is articulated through the voice and narrative of the friendly creative American “colleague‑journalist” Paul Dick. With the latter the well-educated Soviet counterintelligence colonel, Vitaly Slavin (based on a close friend of Semenov, KGB head of the department of counterintelligence, Vyatcheslav Kevorkov), constantly engages in philosophical and literary discussions about Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Hemingway, and who importantly tries to protect Slavin in the American press against the “nasty” and treacherous CIA. Paul Dick’s image, I suggest, was inspired directly by Ernst Hemingway himself. In this line of logic, Semenov in his novel tries to give a voice to “good”, which is a more cosmopolitan and critical thinking American, like his father, who was repressed in 1952 for an attempt to publish texts of the pro‑Russian minded American journalist Anna Strong. This second master narrative I would label as matching a more transnational view of Russian-American relations, where political friendship is still possible. Paul Dick, drowning his writer’s talent in a glass of whiskey and tired of US–USSR political strife, seems to me a second “alter ego” of Semenov.

Table 2. – Competing cinematic representations and master narratives about “American spies” in Semenov’s “Tass…” series contextualized within the Hammack’s narrative engagement theory.

Table 2. – Competing cinematic representations and master narratives about “American spies” in Semenov’s “Tass…” series contextualized within the Hammack’s narrative engagement theory.

30Therefore, I interpret “Tass…” as a novel and TV series where Semenov had to “sit on two chairs”, navigating his way and engaging with at least two competing master narratives. On the one hand Semenov’s alter ego is clearly read through courageous attempts of the journalist Dmitry Stepanov to help Konstantinov and thus become a “Soviet agent of influence”. On the other hand, Semenov transcends just an “obedient Soviet writer” when he intellectually flirts with Paul Dick. Here Semenov’s cosmopolitan habitus goes beyond a Soviet agent of influence and approaches someone whom I have elsewhere called “a transnational intellectual” (Akopov, 2016). In other words, Semenov reproduces the official USSR master narrative of the American enemy, but alternates it with a different narrative of potential friendship with a positive American “other”. Thus, friendship is not directly linked to sharing the same ideology, but rather a common transnational habitus, modelled from the mindset of people like Ernst Hemingway and personified with friendship of KGB counterintelligence agent Vitaly Slavin and American journalist Paul Dick with the latter becoming a Bakhtinian dialogical figure for Semenov’s life story and biography itself.

5. Conclusion. So what is “Tass Is Authorised to Declare…” to us today?

31Interestingly, today, in 2022–2023, almost fifty years since the Spec Op in Nagonia, the term “special military operation” occupies one of the central places in Russian political discourse. It was not invented in Russia. I can suggest that this term “Spec Op” was borrowed by Vladimir Putin and Russian elites from somewhere else. Putin himself hints us of the nature of his “inspirations” when explaining that Russia only repeats precedents created earlier by his significant Others—NATO, for example, the US in Kosovo (1999) or in Iraq (2003). On 24 February 2022, we heard that a Russian “Spec Op” was heavily related to anxiety about Russia’s sovereignty: “The question is not about NATO itself. It merely serves as a tool of US foreign policy. The problem is that in territories adjacent to Russia, which I have to note is our historical land, a hostile ‘anti-Russia’ is taking shape”, explained Russian president of his decision to start the Spec Op in Ukraine (, 2022). Of primary importance in the latter quote are two things: first that the NATO precedent for Putin is “normalised” (Michel Foucault), “goes without saying” and second that Putin narcissistically projects NATO (“a tool of the US”) as what he calls “anti‑Russia”.

32However, I suggest that this discourse of mirroring the US goes even beyond Iraq (2003) and Kosovo (1999) cases “but all the way” to positionalities of the Cold War articulated in full voice and normalised through “Tass Is Authorised to Declare…”.

33Our cluster analysis revealed that among the most frequently mentioned groups of words in the February–March 2022 speeches of the Russian President, there were mentions of Russia’s negative significant “Other”, personified by “the US”, “NATO”, “Western countries”, etc. Our genealogical analysis has shown that this type of alienation of “the foreign world”, beyond the secure national borders and national state, resonates and, perhaps, echoes representations of espionage in late Cold War Soviet pop culture films. Building on the research of Der Derian, I have shown that such Soviet cinema of espionage encapsulates a very particular “narrative of Soviet state security”, based on a worldview about permanent vigilance and constant preparation for war between the US and the USSR (now Russia). Among the limitations of my research is the lack of strong evidence about any causal connections between Putin’s elites watching films about spies in the 1980s and reproducing a similar worldview in the Russian Realpolitik in 2022.

34At the same time, by way of problematising this discussion, I can suggest that Putin’s new 2022 narratives exploit similar ontological insecurities that were popularised and reinforced by the “Tass…” series, commissioned by the head of the KGB, Yuri Andropov, to writer, Yulian Semenov (Semyonov, 1988). A distinguished French scholar, Anne de Tinguy, in her recent book, compared Russia with “le géant empêtré”—the entangled giant (De Tinguy, 2022). What is it that entangles this “Russian giant”? I suggest that modern Russia can also be entangled in historical, psychological, and religious narratives that further entrap Russian elites in narcissistic self-centredness and self-isolation. Like how “Soviet personality type highlighted the sense of Soviet exceptionalism” (Sharafutdinova, 2023: xii), Russian exceptionalism today, in my view, can be harboured by deeply hidden mechanisms of Russian ontological security, that reproduce self-narrative genealogically, going back to the Cold War (and perhaps even further). This narrative, which suggests the sacrifice for the sacred Motherland—Russia has a distinct narcissistic flavour. It also elevates the ‘Russian nation’ above its multiethnic and multifaith specificities and facilitates a distinction between ‘them’ and ‘us’, “The Sacred Russia vs The West”—as well described in the book by Kathy Rousselet (2022).

35Interestingly enough, what unites “Tass Is Authorised to Declare…” by Yulian Semenov, and 2022 official Russian foreign policy narrative, are at least three things. Firstly, The Russian (USSR) narrative contains US/NATO as its most important negative “significant Others”. Secondly, it justifies against this “significant Others”, the Russian (Soviet) right for having spheres of influence and interventionism in world politics (whether this is imaginary Nagonia or real Ukraine). Lastly, Russian narrative uses the threat of US/NATO as a discursive power strategy to defend feminised (Mother-Russia) nation from national traitors and foreign spies by means of who are called “helpful hero-soldiers” (see Wegner, 2021), including KGB agents who serve the masculinised Russian state.

36If you open the original novel by Semyonov, you will see that almost all the key protagonists’ roles are given to men and masculine characters (1988). Olga Vronskaya, Olga Vinter, or Emma Glabb play only secondary roles of wives or mistresses to illustrate the myths of Man as “Just a Warrior” (Elshtain, 1995) and masculinised construction of “the sacred”, when the nation is imagined as a mother (Elshtain, 1991: 402). While Pilar Suares, a CIA spy who seduced the Russian diplomat, Sergei Dubov, reminds me of a combination of the so‑called “military base women” (Enloi, 2014: 125), and Carmen Miranda from the cover of Cynthia Enloi’s feminist book Bananas, Beaches and Bases. I would suggest that there is only one main role left for women both in the 1984 “Tass…” television series and in contemporary Russian foreign policy discourse: the role of a feminised Mother-Russia and its victimised security in need for protection by spy vs spy, or by “obedient writer” against “disloyal traitor”.

37This is what “Tass…” tells us in 2023, despite Yulian Semenov’s hopes that friendship between Soviet and American intellectuals (Vitaly Slavin and Paul Dick) is possible. Yet, as shown in Table 2, the presence of contested cinematic repertoire and competing representations of “American spies” in Semenov’s “Tass…” series still leaves us with some theoretical avenues, marking that an engagement with alternative master narratives of political friendship is not inherently impossible.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Table 1. – Most frequent word clusters from Putin’s 21, 24 February and 16 March 2022 speeches.
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Titre Picture 1. – Yulian Semenov reading and travelling ‘with Ernest Hemingway’ in his office (Efremova, 2021).
Crédits Photo: RIA Novosti / Alexander Cheprunov. 26 July 1969.
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Titre Picture 2. – Actor Boris Klyuyev (right; “Tass...”, 1984) plays the role of American mole Trianon Alexander Ogorodnik (left; Suvorova, 2020).
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Titre Table 2. – Competing cinematic representations and master narratives about “American spies” in Semenov’s “Tass…” series contextualized within the Hammack’s narrative engagement theory.
Fichier image/jpeg, 138k
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Sergei Akopov, « Tass Is Authorised to Declare...”: American Spies, Lonely Writers and Other “Traitors” »ILCEA [En ligne], 53 | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 février 2024, consulté le 26 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Sergei Akopov

Research Fellow (DFG, Walter Benjamin Program), Cluster of Excellence “Contestations of the Liberal Script”, Freie Universität Berlin

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