Bolsheviks, Borscht, and Baccarat: The Origin Stories of Tintin and James Bond as Anti-Soviet Crusaders
Below is my final paper for my HIST 243 class, “Europe Since 1945”, taken in Fall 2012 at the College of William & Mary and taught by Professor Laurie Koloski.
The spirit of youth and optimism trying to shine forth the light of truth in a dark world; the cruel, callous antihero dealing with love and loss on the gritty backdrop of espionage in the 1950s. The two characters described above could hardly be more different, and yet they are both timeless icons of Cold War-era popular culture, whose popularity and fame vastly outstripped any expectations and have not only outlived their creators, but are still popular today. Nearly everyone in Western Europe and the Francophone world knows and loves The Adventures of Tintin and the eponymous boy reporter, with a new film making him accessible to an American audience at last; James Bond just celebrated his 50th birthday on the silver screen. And yet, their original incarnations would seem heavy-handed and alien to anyone familiar with the mature versions of these characters. In a modern world, worrying about the looming threat of communism or villains who play baccarat seems quaint, but when these two icons of European popular culture were first introduced to the world, communism was seen as an existential threat to the Western way of life, and the West needed heroes who would defend it against the looming terror that was the Soviet Union, heroes who could be beaten and bruised by the Russian Bear, but at the end of the day emerge from their temporary defeat stronger than ever.
Tintin actually made his debut in newspapers in January of 1929, over fifteen years prior to the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War in earnest; however, this first album, The Adventures of Tintin, Reporter for “Le Petit Vingtième” in the Land of the Soviets, is integral to understanding the Belgian attitude towards communism at the time. The paper that Tintin’s creator was working for at the time, Le Vingtième Siecle, was run by Father Norbert Wallez, and hewed to a distinctly nationalistic line (Peeters, Tintin and the World of Hergé, 11). Wallez was a great admirer of Mussolini, and had even been granted an audience with Il Duce himself in 1923 (Peeters, Hergé, Son of Tintin, 27). As such, the first Tintin adventure was little more than anti-Soviet propaganda, meant to both stir up fear of the Bolsheviks and educate the children whose parents subscribed to Le Vingtième Siecle about the dangers of communism. Tintin’s adventure began on January 10, 1929 in Le Petit Vingtième, the children’s supplement of the newspaper (Peeters, Tintin and the World of Hergé, 14).
Tintin’s creator, Georges Remi – better known to the world by his pseudonym Hergé – had always seemed destined to make his living with a pen and paper (Peeters, Hergé, Son of Tintin, 8). An avid scout during his youth, he enlisted for military service when his work bored him as a young man. Unfortunately, military life was nothing like scouting, and he faced the issue of being bored in a barracks versus being bored in an office (Peeters, Hergé, Son of Tintin, 21). This restlessness made its way into the character of Tintin after Remi returned to civilian life and was granted a position on the staff of Le Vingtième Siecle as a “photographic reporter and cartoonist” (Peeters, Hergé, Son of Tintin, 27). Tintin was forever unhappy unless he was on some sort of wild adventure; boredom was anathema to character and author alike. There was little reason to be bored, as Wallez insisted that Remi create a story of his own – and if he could use this story to expose the evils of communism, then so much the better (Peeters, Hergé, Son of Tintin, 32, 35).
Tintin in the Land of the Soviets is heavily based – at Wallez’s encouragement – on the book Moscou sans voiles by Joseph Douillet, which painted a starkly unflattering picture of communism, characterizing the entire system as “intrinsically and completely bad and perverse” (Peeters, Hergé, Son of Tintin, 35). In some places the comic seemed to be little more than an illustrated adaptation of lines from the book; a scene in the book where a Soviet “election” is held by brandishing guns at amassed citizens to coerce them to vote for the Communist ticket is replicated nearly word-for-word in the comic strip (Remi, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, 36; Peeters, Tintin and the World of Hergé, 26). In the strip, receiving any food from a bread line for the children of Moscow is contingent on one’s affirmation that they are a communist, and Party meetings are about forcing kulaks to give up their grain in order to fulfill the propaganda the Soviet Union is exporting (Remi, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, 78; 81). Tintin even stumbles upon “the hideout where Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin have collected together wealth stolen from the people,” a ham-fisted bit of exposition and anti-Soviet sentiment that would go down well for the strip’s intended young audience (Remi, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, 104). The expedition to the USSR is not just rife with ideological victories for Tintin; he gets in a fair share of scraps with Russian ruffians as well as the local wildlife (Remi, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, 91; 96). This makes him into a real hero against the scourge of communism, not just somebody who can come back to the West with tales of evils done by the Bolsheviks to their own people, but someone who can also win fights with the Russian secret police – and vodka-stealing bears – by sheer pluck.
Tintin’s adventures in the Soviet Union proved to be so popular with his young readers that the newspaper staged the return of the young reporter to his homeland, picking a boy to play the part of Tintin and arriving in Brussels by train with Remi. “I was convinced that we would disembark to an empty station,” Remi said when later interviewed. “But, to my great amazement, there was a considerable crowd there. Clusters of children gathered at the carriage carrying the reporter’s ‘double’. There was tremendous excitement. It was then that I realized that Tintin had really taken off” (Peeters, Tintin and the World of Hergé, 15).
Not only had an icon of European pop culture been born, the anti-communist message of the strip was, if perhaps a little over the heads of the majority of the young readership, surely not lost on the parents who purchased it and read their fears of Bolshevik Russia coming to life in a series of line drawings. Fear of the Soviet Union was only stoked by this comic strip, with the correct way of life never stated but implied to be not only that of a Belgian, but that of a Belgian with a strong anti-Communist (read: fascist) bent. The next Tintin comic would then go on to extol the virtues of Belgium’s colonization of the Congo, a political opinion that has not stood the test of time and did not affect the readership half so closely as this allegedly unveiled look into the heart of the communist unknown. Indeed, the anti-communist tone of this establishing work experienced a resurgence of popularity in the early 1980s, and when the comic was published in a facsimile edition of the original, over 100,000 more copies were sold than expected within the first few months (Peeters, Tintin and the World of Hergé, 27). Tintin had moved beyond Belgium; now in his earliest adventure he was fighting the Evil Empire of communism all over the world, fifty years after he had started.
While James Bond was also portrayed as a staunch anti-communist crusader, his world is different from the jaunty, morally-monochromatic one that Tintin inhabited, due in part to the intended audience (adults) and the political climate that had been so altered since 1929. In 1953, when Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale was first published, Europe was still in the process of recovering from a long and brutal war, with Germany divided and the United States providing Marshall Plan aid to Western Europe to rebuild their nations and shore them up against a potential communist invasion. While the Soviet Union had been the wartime ally of the United Kingdom, with the defeat of the Nazis and fascism at large, communism was now the only competitor to a democratic, laissez-faire system of government and economics that two out of the three wartime Allies had espoused. Not content to fight this battle with mere rhetoric, both sides turned to espionage, dark and dirty work done in the shadows to advance the cause. It was a world that Fleming was familiar with, as he had been personal assistant to Admiral Sir John Godfrey, Director of Naval Intelligence, during World War II (Kastan, Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, Volume 2, 328).
The threat of communism to Great Britain was perhaps more acute in 1953 than Belgium’s fear in 1929; Fleming began writing Casino Royale six months after the story of the Cambridge spies made the press, showing that the Soviet Union’s reach was far indeed if they could even corrupt men of “the right sort” such as Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean (Cork and Scivally, James Bond: The Legacy, 12). Fleming then set out to create Bond as “the other side of the ‘old boy’ network,” a spy who begins his literary existence doubting the very process of the Cold War’s battles and ends his first book a man who should by all rights be broken by his love’s treachery and suicide and his own torture at the hands of Soviet agents, but instead is more determined than ever to “go after the threat behind the spies, the threat that made them spy” (Cork and Scivally, James Bond: The Legacy, 12; Fleming, Casino Royale, 181). Tintin never went through such a crisis of faith; he began his first album as a Belgian Catholic boy scout, and that is who he returns as, with no change in character. Bond is unusually dynamic in Casino Royale, reflecting the uncertainty of a changing post-war world. Fleming’s vision for Bond, however, was much the same as the role that Tintin had fulfilled; “a modern-day St. George battling the global dragons who threatened Britain,” a “mythic figure who stood above the law” (Cork and Scivally, James Bond: The Legacy, 14).
Casino Royale is very much a product of its time. When Bond loses all of the money he has been given to play baccarat against the villain Le Chiffre, his CIA colleague Felix Leiter gives him thirty-two million francs, cheekily calling it “Marshall Aid” in reference to the Marshall Plan, and Bond speaks to his companion Vesper of “the gale of the world,” and makes a passing reference to Yugoslav Marshal Josip Broz Tito (Fleming, Casino Royale, 79; 59). That temporal immediacy did Fleming quite a few favors; nothing like Casino Royale or his subsequent Bond novels had been seen before in the world of espionage literature. He soon had such high-profile fans as Prince Philip and John F. Kennedy, which speaks to not only the appeal of Bond but the influence of the spy for the new era. (Cork and Scivally, James Bond: The Legacy, 15) Bond does not confront the Soviet Union as a whole, unlike Tintin; instead, he goes after individual agents and the organization SMERSH, a Soviet counter-intelligence organization and stand-in for the KGB, whose agent brands Bond’s hand with a Cyrillic “Sha” – the first letter of the Russian word for “spy” (Fleming, Casino Royale, 123-4). Bond has an idea who he is fighting, but he is clearly marked as an enemy to all who care to look; this is perhaps a reflection of the communism scares at the time, as the communists knew precisely who they were after and it was impossible to identify one just by a glance. The influence of the discovery of the Cambridge spy ring and the threat of communism taking hold in Greece and China, as well as the Iron Curtain, can be very clearly felt in the early Bond novels. The world is uncertain; Western victory in the Cold War was never a sure bet.
Popular culture is an important lens to view society through, and serves as a way to analyze not only what a writer or artist was thinking, but what people like them, their contemporaries, were thinking as well. Beloved characters formed at a time of transition may change with the world, like James Bond, looking for relevance in a post-Cold War world and finding it in the grit and darkness of human nature that Fleming first wrote about; they may stay stuck in time, like Tintin, lovingly rendered with the newest 3D technology to bring his adventures to new generations while still retaining the same innocence and pluck of the crude line drawings seen in Le Petit Vingtième over eighty years ago. These new renditions will act as their own indicators of the present day fifty-odd years down the road. Skyfall’s focus on cyberterrorism speaks more to the modern audience than high-stakes games of baccarat for Soviet counter-intelligence money (Mendes, Skyfall; Fleming, Casino Royale). These two texts, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and Casino Royale, both speak to contemporary fears about communism and its dangers; while Tintin has to go specifically to confront the Soviets on their own turf, Bond finds out that a Soviet agent has been next to him for his entire mission. Communism was still somewhat of a distant threat prior to World War II, and one that was easily identifiable. In the wake of the Iron Curtain, the threat became both more immediate and more easily obscured. No longer was the world a simple dichotomy of black and white, and Fleming had to write Bond to account for that – even if at its heart, the character is an agent of good fighting against a sinister evil.
Peeters, Benoît. Tintin and the World of Hergé: An Illustrated History. London: Little, Brown and Company, 1988.
Peeters, Benoît. Hergé, Son of Tintin. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012.
Remi, Georges [Hergé]. The Adventures of Tintin, Reporter for “Le Petit Vingtième”, in the Land of the Soviets. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1929.
Fleming, Ian. Casino Royale. London: Jonathan Cape, 1953.
Kastan, David S., ed. The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature. Vol. 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Cork, John, and Bruce Scivally. James Bond: The Legacy. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Incorporated, 2002.
Purvis, Neil, Robert Wade, and John Logan. Skyfall. Theatre. Directed by Sam Mendes. 2012. Metro-Goldwyn Mayer, Columbia Pictures.