On February 23rd, Christine Evans, (Assistant Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and a scholar of Soviet culture, mass media, and plays) gave a lecture on the popular 1973 Soviet TV miniseries Seventeen Moments of Spring. Her lecture, entitled “17 Reasons To Get Along with the Secret Police: Tatyana Lioznova’s ‘Seventeen Moments of Spring’ from the Soviet 1970s to the Putin Era,” was a sociological study of the show, and its reflections of Soviet culture and thought. It was a case study of some of the work that Evans had done to argue that the Soviet culture of this time was dynamic and vibrant, even though it was in a kind of stagnation along with the Soviet system in general.
The miniseries follows the fictional narrative of Maxim Isaev, a Soviet spy in Nazi Germany during the final days of World War II operating under the name of Max Otto von Stierlitz. Depicted by Vyacheslav Tikhonov, Stierlitz works to disrupt negotiation efforts between the Nazi and US governments for a separate peace. Evans focused on how the show’s recurring themes spoke to the trends of the 1970s Soviet society under Brezhnev.
One such recurring theme is that of questioning what is seen. Many times on the show, documents profiling Nazi officers and other characters are featured. These documents mention the crimes and horrible actions of the Nazis they name. However, these same Nazis are later portrayed as quite human characters when they are on screen. They are shown drinking, laughing, talking, and engaging like everyday people. The viewer is left questioning how such atrocities could be done by people who seem so human and normal, and a general sense of moral ambiguity prevails throughout the show.
This, Evans argued, resonated with the Soviet Union of the 1970s. Many Soviet people knew that their state had done terrible things; yet, they also knew that the people in their government were still human, and that they had done much good for others. They, too, were morally ambiguous in a way.
In another parallel, German officers and intelligentsia are intensely loyal on the show to the Nazi regime either by suppression or fanaticism, just as Soviet officers and intelligentsia were loyal to the USSR for the same reasons. Stierlitz always does his part to work loyally within his authority structures—his spy networks and his taking orders from other Nazis while undercover—while at the same time, acting independently enough to do what he needs to do. In this way, the show comments on the loyalty that many Soviets felt to their regime and the need they felt to do their part to make it work. Stierlitz’s independence and authority of action, devoid of any considerations beside his tasks, hearkens to the shadow of Stalin that hung over the Soviet Union in the 1970s.
Evans explored many other themes of the show in this way, also discussing the reactions and reviews of film critics in the Soviet Union and the notes of the producers of the show. Her extensive study of Seventeen Moments of Spring was a compelling testament to the values of sociological analysis as a tool for the historian or anyone who wants to further their understanding of Eastern European, Russian, and Eurasian societies and cultures.
Nick Goodell is a sophomore at UIUC, double majoring in History and Philosophy. He also speaks weekly about history on the radio show that he co-hosts, “The People’s History Hour with Grant Neal and Nick Goodell.”