• When a 24-Year-Old Ian Fleming Went to Moscow to Cover a “Show” Trial

    “Russia is ruled by an army of executioners with the Lubyanka as the headquarters of death.”

    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 crystalized 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 terrorizing of innocent men and women in a show trial dominated by a pitiless Stalinist prosecutor, who, in his appetite to break and dehumanize the accused, compared them to “stinking carrion” and “mad dogs.”


    At 9:45 am on April 8 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 neighborhood 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.

    The pressure on Ian to come first with the story was exhilarating. He was back on the athletics track. Twelve years later, when Ian became responsible for news from Russia for the Sunday Times, he privileged “the man from headquarters” over the local bureau chief. “The clear eye and perspective of the special correspondent from London can translate the foreign scene in sharper, simpler colors than the man-on-the-spot who by long residence and experience has become part of that scene.”

    The “so-called trial,” as The Times, relying on Ian’s cables, put it, opened at noon on Wednesday April 12 in a building with Greek-style columns that had once been a gentleman’s club like White’s. Ian had done a recce on Rickatson-Hatt’s advice. He set the scene in a paragraph cabled the night before that The Times reprinted. “As the famous clock in the Kremlin Tower strikes twelve, the six Metropolitan-Vickers English employees will enter a room which has been daubed with blue in the Trades Union Hall and thronged with silent multitudes in order to hear an impassive Russian voice read for 4 or 5 hours the massive indictment which may mean death or exile.”

    Militia patrolled the streets outside to prevent crowds. Two soldiers with bayonets inspected Ian’s press pass. A short flight of red-carpeted steps led him into a high-ceilinged chamber “hung with crystal chandeliers, expensive damask and all the trappings of Czarist days.” The massive electric chandeliers lit up the platform with the prosecutor’s small scarlet-draped table and the boxed-in, low wooden dock with chairs for the seventeen prisoners. The place had a queer, fusty, charnel smell, thought Arthur Cummings, squeezed in beside Ian on the press bench. Next to Ian sat his translator. Ian was fortunate to rely on Aleksei Brobinsky, son of a former count, with a big nose and curly hair, who had learned his English from an Irish governess. Cummings, by contrast, had “a most perfidious police-woman as interpreter who whispered in his ear what she thought best.”

    Bullard wrote in his diary: “England is humming with sympathy for the imprisoned engineers.” In London, two hours behind Moscow, the morning had begun with the BBC offering prayers for the six British prisoners. Ian watched five of them enter in single file—the technicians who had been released on bail. Minutes later, the sixth and last, a club-footed engineer called William MacDonald, limped to his seat in the front row. His fingers twitched over the dark goatee beard he had grown in the Lubyanka, where he had been in solitary confinement for four weeks. MacDonald’s deposition formed the bulk of the Soviet Government’s case against the British company.

    MacDonald was joined in the dock by eleven of the Russians accused, including Anna Kutuzova, Thornton’s secretary and his whispered mistress.

    Peter Fleming, passing through Moscow two years earlier, had reported to his brother on the “startling and universal ugliness of the women.” Yet the abiding memory of Hilary Bray, who had grown up in Russia, “was of girls with bright smiling eyes looking at him out of enormous furs.” According to Alaric Jacob, Ian picked up a Jewish woman from Odessa, “and then discovered that she was supposed to be keeping tabs on him.” Rickatson-Hatt formed the idea that “he got preferential treatment by flirting with the secretary of the chief interpreter.” If so, the evidence has not survived. The only Russian woman Ian wrote about was Anna Kutuzova. She sat directly opposite him for six days, attractive, lively, strong-minded. In her impossible predicament can be glimpsed the first outline of Tatiana in From Russia, with Love.

    She took her place between MacDonald and Thornton and gazed around at the columned walls, the elaborate cornices, with what Cummings described as a look of birdlike intelligence. “She wore a dainty black costume with a broad and spotless white collar, and elegant shoes and stockings and her glossy hair was beautifully waved.” Kutuzova was the prosecution’s star witness.

    Andrei Vyshinsky, the thickset state prosecutor, emerged briskly through a low curtained doorway. Pince-nez, blond mustache, tight-lipped, fifty years old, wearing a blue suit and tie. In 1908, he shared a cell with Stalin, and in 1917 he ordered the arrest of Lenin. His catchphrase: “Give me the man and I will find the crime.” After the Second World War, Vyshinsky would gain fame as a prosecutor in the Nuremberg Trials and then as Russia’s Foreign Minister. In April 1933, his name was synonymous with Stalin’s show trials.

    A clerk in a droning voice read out into a microphone the seventy-seven pages of charges.

    Ian reported two bombshells on the opening day. The first occurred at 3 p.m. when MacDonald was asked if he pleaded guilty. A sensation was caused by his haggard reply. “Yes, I do.”

    The audience gasped. “To all the charges?”

    These included disabling motors by chucking bolts and stones into them, and paying Russian employees to gather military information for British Intelligence.

    MacDonald muttered, “Yes.” Vyshinsky rubbed his hands.

    The court was adjourned. Ian dashed out to write his report in the press room on the floor below. It needed to be submitted to one of the three Soviet censors in a room upstairs and signed and red-stamped before Ian could take it to the central telegraph office two blocks away. He picked up on the general feeling that MacDonald’s confession had been “extracted by OGPU methods’, and was ‘not entirely unexpected: he had been in prison longer than the others.”

    Even so, Bullard wrote in his diary, “MacD’s ‘confession’ was a terrible blow, not merely to the British government but to all of us who believe that British engineers of that type would not commit sabotage . . . it was saddening to think that any pressure could make a man perjure himself so grossly.” The case was “pure fake.”

    “I wish to repudiate this document entirely.”

    The second bombshell occurred in the evening session when Leslie Thornton retracted his confession. In a clear voice, he added, “I always built and never destroyed.” When the judge asked him why then he had signed the deposition, he fumbled angrily with his copy of the indictment: “Because I was nervous. I lost my courage.”

    “When did your courage return?”

    Thornton replied firmly. On 4 April at 6 pm, the hour he was released from prison. Duranty was a veteran reporter of these trials. “This created the greatest sensation the writer has ever seen in a Soviet courtroom.”

    The second day exceeded the first for unexpected drama. The court opened at 10 am when Ian witnessed a further “astonishing development.” Having pleaded guilty the afternoon before, William MacDonald rose stiffly to his feet and said in a loud voice that he was changing his plea. “I am not really guilty of these crimes. I declare this emphatically.”

    Ian wrote: “Standing upright despite a lame left leg, MacDonald denounced in cold and calculated tones the statements contained both in the indictment and the written statement.” His depositions against himself, against Thornton, “were a tissue of lies, signed ‘under the pressure of circumstances’ on the premises of the OGPU.” This “sudden turning of the tables” produced “the profoundest sensation . . . in the midst of which the microphones ‘broke down.’”

    The court was adjourned and MacDonald escorted away by uniformed OGPU guards. When he reappeared for the evening session, pinched and hollow-eyed, Ian was shocked by his “remarkably changed demeanor.” Instead of defiantly maintaining his innocence, MacDonald spoke in a low, almost inaudible voice and admitted to further charges, answering “yes” to every question put to him about wrecking activities.

    What could have happened to him in the interval? Ian listened to the press room speculation. Torture was one theory, hypnotism another—the OGPU had possibly resorted to drugs prepared by Tibetans from herbs and administered in the prisoners’ food to place them in the psychic power of their gaolers.

    The view of the British embassy in Moscow, wrote Bullard, “was that MacDonald made his ‘confession’ to save the families of various Russian friends.” Ian reported that Anna Kutuzova had been broken like this, “by the usual threats in regard to her relatives.” But the censors would never have let him cable the actual details: how she had been kidnapped for twenty-four hours and come home battered; how the OGPU had sat her down back-to-back with Thornton; how the chief interrogator had then said to Thornton, “If you deny what she asserts we will believe you, but citizeness Kutuzova will be shot for perjury.” Thornton had crumpled.

    After that, the trial followed a predictable course. Thornton’s statement that there was not a word of truth in his deposition was supported by his boss, Allan Monkhouse, who was then forced to listen to Anna Kutuzova repeating to Thornton, her lover, after an initial hesitation, “mechanically, in an unnatural voice, as if by heart,” how she remembered Thornton explaining to her that “if a piece of metal were thrown into a turbine, a turbine would fly into bits through the ceiling.” In her weary sing-song tone, she made the claim, which sounded improbable even to the many Russians in the hall, that her lover had plotted in her presence. She said the Moscow embassy had provided 50,000 roubles to hire wreckers.

    One after another, the Russian prisoners in the dock stood up to testify in the same nervous manner: yes, they had received bribes to throw iron into the machinery, also a fur coat, and in two instances, a bottle of eau de cologne and a pair of trousers.

    To all this, the state prosecutor listened with grim detachment, playing noughts and crosses with a stubby pencil, and sipping from glasses of hot tea. Vyshinsky’s winding-up took place over two days, lasted six and a half hours, and resembled, in its exorbitant length, bombastic tone and trumpeting of his world-beating system, not merely the tirades of Sam Slater, Uncle Phil and Eve putting young master Ian in his place, but the speech of virtually every James Bond villain. Ian wrote in You Only Live Twice: “It was pleasant, reassuring to the executioner, to deliver his apologia—purge the sin he was about to commit.”


    Excerpted from Ian Fleming: The Complete Man, by Nicholas Shakespeare. Copyright 2024. Published by Harper. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

    Nicholas Shakespeare
    Nicholas Shakespeare
    Nicholas Shakespeare's books have been translated into twenty languages. They include The Vision of Elena Silves, winner of the Somerset Maugham Award, and The Dancer Upstairs, which was made into a film of the same name by John Malkovich. His nonfiction includes the critically acclaimed authorized biography of Bruce Chatwin. Shakespeare is married with two sons and lives in Oxford.

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