A Spy in
From the Cold - Sort of . . .
The Pen of Chingiz
by John Boit
in the Christian Science Monitor on March 18, 1999. Reprinted
courtesy of the Christian Science Monitor.
years of clandestine operations throughout Europe, former Soviet
spy Chingiz Abdullayev has traded in his old code names for a
new moniker. Meet "Mr. Detective." That's what fans
of the spook-turned-scribe call Mr. Abdullayev, [pronounced ab-dul-LAH-yev]
who emerged from the inner sanctum of the KGB to transform himself
into one of the hottest novelists in the former Soviet Union.
He's sold 10 million copies of his 40-odd spy novels that have
made him a wealthy man. Each book he writes now earns him more
than $200,000 within two or three years, he says.
writers: Chingiz Abdullayev is standing on the right. Seated
(l-r) Fikrat Goja, Vagif Samadoglu, and Anar. Standing, the late
Yusif Samadoglu and Abdullayev. Courtesy: Anar.
The secret to his success is simple, he says: He writes the truth.
"I write about people we tend to forget after their deaths,"
Abdullayev says from his cavernous office in the Azerbaijan Writers
Union in downtown Baku, a city of nearly 2 million people on
the western shores of the Caspian Sea. "Agents that were
forgotten, agents that were betrayed."
And the person to tell the stories is his main character, known
only to readers as Drongo. The name comes from a small, but brave,
Asian bird that shows no fear of larger birds, Abdullayev says.
"He has no nationality and no real name," he says.
"People in Georgia think he's Georgian, people in Russia
think he's Russian, and people in Azerbaijan think he's Azeri."Armed
with a law degree, Abdullayev began working for the Soviet Defense
Ministry in 1981. He says his role was in "international
law," but his work was far from bookish. He was wounded
twice in the line of duty. He won't discuss details.
A Former KGB Agent
He acknowledges he lived the life of a spy but downplays his
ability. "I think I have a complex like Arthur Conan Doyle,"
he says as he sips a glass of tea. "He wanted to become
a detective, but he started to write books about them instead."
His decision to make writing a full-time career became clear
to him after a fellow Soviet spy was double-crossed in Angola
in 1983. His friend was killed by a shotgun blast to the back
on an Angolan street.
In the mid-1980s, Abdullayev began to write, even though his
government career continued to soar. In 1987, he returned to
Azerbaijan to become the head of KGB operations in Baku's largest
city district. He finished his first novel, "Blue Angels,"
in 1985. It was barred from publication because of the secrets
it revealed about the inner workings of covert operations against
But by 1988 the Soviet foundation began to crumble, censorship
was relaxed, and his book was published. His writing became a
success almost overnight, and he quit the KGB a year later. His
books, now published in nine languages, are not without controversy.
While former Soviet citizens crave his first-hand accounts of
cold-war espionage, his brash use of real characters has earned
him some very real enemies.
Contract on His
He recalls particularly the time the head of security for a high-profile
Russian banker took exception to the way Abdullayev portrayed
his boss. "He decided that I had to be punished, that I
had to be exterminated," says Abdullayev, who calls the
contract on his head a "misunderstanding." The hit
was called off only after an Azeri executive within the bank
intervened on Abdullayev's behalf, he says.
Abdullayev has also managed to upset Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny
Primakov, who bristled at his portrayal as an inept young KGB
agent. Mr. Primakov sent an emissary to the Azeri ambassador
in Moscow to relay his displeasure, Abdullayev says.
And while Abdullayev usually draws on his own experience for
his books, he sometimes forecasts the future.
In "Three Colors of Blood," Abdullayev wrote of an
assassination attempt on Azerbaijan's President Heydar Aliyev.
Two weeks after the book was published, assassins tried and failed
to kill the president, leading some to question just how much
Abdullayev had known of the plot. Abdullayev says it was merely
coincidence, and counts Mr. Aliyev among his loyal readers.
Portly and balding, Abdullayev would have trouble fitting into
James Bond's dinner jacket. But his charm could disarm diplomats
at state dinners and enemy agents in dark alleys. While maintaining
a fierce nationalism about Azerbaijan, Abdullayev has published
only about a half-dozen books here. Publishing in this oil-rich,
poverty-stricken country is difficult, where book shops are few.
Most books are simply hawked from street stalls. "That's
a big tragedy here. There's no market. How do you sell a book
in Azerbaijan? We have 1 million refugees who have no buying
power," says Abdullayev, referring to the one-out-of-every-seven
Azeri citizens displaced by a decade-long conflict with Armenia.
Armenia currently occupies about 20 percent of Azerbaijan. While
the countries have
agreed to an official cease-fire, cross-border shootings are
a near daily occurrence. Abdullayev refuses to earn any money
from speeches or lectures in Azerbaijan, preferring instead to
donate any money he could earn here to refugees who can't go
home because of the unofficial war.
The vast majority of his books are published in Moscow by Exmo,
one of Russia's largest printing houses. His books in the United
States are published by Simon and Simon. Even though his cloak-and-dagger
days are long gone, Abdullayev maintains contacts in the underworld
of post-cold-war espionage. It's all good fodder for the next
When communism fell in 1991 "the whole Soviet Union became
one big detective story," he says.
(7.1) Spring 1999.
© Azerbaijan International 1999. All rights reserved.
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