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Death Of A Beloved Double Agent

Vyacheslav Tikhonov playing Maksim Isayev playing Max Otto von Stirlitz.
Vyacheslav Tikhonov playing Maksim Isayev playing Max Otto von Stirlitz.
The world has lost a true Soviet hero. Vyacheslav Tikhonov, the Russian actor who indelibly portrayed perhaps the greatest of all fictional Soviet spies, Stirlitz, died today in Moscow at the age of 81.

Tikhonov's depiction of Stirlitz in the 1973 television miniseries, "Seventeen Moments of Spring," is nothing short of a cult classic -- shot in striking black and white, with a cool, jazzy soundtrack and the mother of all plots, in which Maksim Isayev, a devoted Soviet agent, masters his German accent and infiltrates the Nazi elite as Max Otto von Stirlitz during the final months of World War II.

Stirlitz is urbane, cunning, steely-nerved, and above all loyal -- in one of the most famous scenes in the series, all of which can be found on YouTube, he sits in agonizing silence in a crowded village bar, gazing across the room at his wife, who has been smuggled by his Soviet colleagues into Germany for the briefest and most heart-rending of conjugal viewings.

Tikhonov's distillation of a dashing man of derring-do is so revered that even Kremlin image-makers admitted to designing an entire media campaign presenting then-President Vladimir Putin as a modern-day Stirlitz. But above all, Stirlitz is beloved as the punch line of innumerable jokes that depict the flawless spy in the unlikely role of a bumbler.

One favorite: Stirlitz wakes up in a jail cell. He is disoriented, and can't remember what country he is in. He drills himself: if a German guard enters, he is Stirlitz. If the guard is Soviet, he is Isayev. A Russian policeman walks into the cell. "You shouldn't drink so much, Tikhonov," he says.

-- Daisy Sindelar

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Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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