(WATCH the trailer for "Farewell")
NEW YORK -- In the darkest moments of his life, when it was clear that he would be executed, Vladimir Vetrov did not cower in fear. Instead, he asked his interrogators for a pen and paper and wrote "The Confession of a Traitor," a scorching condemnation of the Soviet system.
Vetrov, a Soviet KGB colonel who was executed for espionage in the 1980s, is the inspiration for French director Christian Carion's new film "Farewell," which opened in U.S. cinemas last week.
The film stars the renowned Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica as Sergei Grigoriev, a character based on Vetrov.
While working as a KGB agent in France between 1965-70, Vetrov became disenchanted with the communist system. A decade later he passed over 4,000 highly-classified documents to the West detailing Soviet efforts to obtain high-end technology and software. He also provided a list of 250 key Soviet intelligence officers working under diplomatic covers around the world.
The KGB was not aware of Vetrov’s subversive activities until 1982, when he was arrested and imprisoned for an attempt to kill his girlfriend. While in jail, he carelessly let it slip that he was involved in "something big." This led to the Soviet authorities uncovering his espionage activities.
In concluding his confession, penned in Moscow's notorious Lefortovo prison, Vetrov wrote: "My only regret is that I was not able to cause more damage to the Soviet Union and render more service to France." It was never published but was widely circulated within the KGB.
Sergei Kostin, author of the book "Bonjour Farewell," on which the movie is based, says that, says despite his numerous contradictions, Vetrov was a person of integrity in the end.
“He acted like a man, as we say in Russian. He realized that he’s lost everything, there was nothing more to lose, and instead of begging for mercy, he decided to say openly everything he sincerely believed in,” Kostin said.
Kostin, who spent months with Vetrov’s widow and his former KGB associates while writing the book, said he was fascinated by Vetrov's motivations.
“What captured my imagination for the book was why a person who by the Soviet standards had everything -- he had a secure job, a comfortable life, he had a dacha, a beautiful wife, son, whom he adored -- why was this person staking his all knowing that he was staking not only his freedom but also his life,” Kostin said.
Vetrov, who was tried and executed in 1983, emerges as an unlikely hero in "Farewell," which co-stars Guillaume Canet as the double agent's French handler.
While casting for the film in 2008, Carion traveled to Moscow and met the famed Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov, whom he had hoped to cast in the lead role.
Mikhalkov, who was busy shooting the sequel to his Oscar-winning “Burnt By The Sun," instead suggested the popular Russian actor Sergei Makovetsky to star as Grigoriev (Vetrov).
Makovetsky initially agreed and they began rehearsals. But six weeks before shooting was scheduled to start Makovetsky received an unexpected phone call.
“The Russian ambassador in Paris called Sergei on his cell phone," the director Carion explains. "And he said: “Sergei, you are an amazing actor, the Russian people, they love you and they are right. But the Russian people will never understand why you decided to defend a traitor.'”
The Russian ambassador to France at that time, Aleksandr Avdeyev, is now the Culture Minister. Avdeyev was also among the 47 Russian diplomats expelled from France in 1983 as a result of Vetrov's disclosures.
Makovetsky later called Carion to inform him, in no uncertain terms, that he would not be appearing in his film.
Carion asked Mikhalkov to intervene, but the famed director also appeared to have a change of heart about the film. According to Carion, Mikhalkov said that he wouldn't have a Russian actor to play the lead role, nor would he have the authorization to shoot in Moscow again.
After Carion’s Moscow affair abruptly ended, he sought out Kusturica to play the lead. The Ukrainian capital Kyiv and the eastern city of Kharkiv provided alternatives to Moscow as shooting locations. Kusturica, who knew only basic Russian from his childhood in communist Yugoslavia, worked hard on the set to improve his pronunciation.
When the film was completed in 2009, Carion proposed showing it at the Moscow Film Festival, which is chaired by Mikhalkov. Two lower-level officials on the selection committee wanted it to headline the festival.
But according to Carion, Avdeyev, the former ambassador to France and the newly appointed minister of culture, said "Farewell" would never be screened in Russia as long as he was alive.
Those involved in Vetrov's case dispute the heroic portrayal of him in Carion's film.
Oleg Kalugin, a former KGB general who has lived in Washington since the mid-1990s, was involved in the investigation of Vetrov. He says the KGB had its doubts about him, but initially had no evidence.
Vetrov was recalled from Canada and given a desk job in one of KGB’s research divisions. He was no longer allowed to travel overseas and felt that his dignity had been insulted.
Vetrov also had a weakness for women, Kalugin says, so his superiors decided to hook him up with an attractive young female KGB agent.
“But the romance went beyond the anticipated plan of action -- the girl really fell in love with him. It turned out that instead of the information we were expecting from her, she was selling us crap,” Kalugin says.
Kalugin, who at that time was the first deputy chief of the KGB's Leningrad branch, says that the movie presents Vetrov as an idealistic hero, whereas in reality he was driven by selfish motives.
“They attribute dissident convictions to Vetrov, [suggesting] that he was rejecting the Soviet system. We didn’t observe such opinions while the investigation was conducted," Kalugin says.
"I believe this was an artificially created element [in the movie] to ennoble a personage who was in fact working for the French intelligence service.”
Kostin suggests that in the end it may have been simply professional frustration and vanity that led Vetrov into a life of espionage.
“He was a very promising agent who worked well in France, probably worked well in Canada too and then he was sidelined. His future as a secret agent was written off. At some point he said to himself: 'You think I am a zero, a loser? Well, I’ll show you who I am,"" Kalugin says.
Jan Runov from RFE/RL Russian Service contributed to this story