How An American Movie Tricked The Soviets Into Creating A New Department

By Nolan Moore on Wednesday, December 9, 2015
Vintage old stripe with a red star on a blue background of the N
“Excuse me, can you help me? I’m a spy.” —Terry Nation as the Fourth Doctor, “Doctor Who”

In A Nutshell

The Robert Redford classic Three Days of the Condor is actually based on a novel by James Grady. Grady invented a fictional job for his protagonist, that of a CIA reader, but the Soviets didn’t know it was just make-believe. Convinced the US was employing real-life readers, they filled a division with top-secret bibliophiles.

The Whole Bushel

In 1975, director Sydney Pollack teamed up with Robert Redford to produce Three Days of the Condor. Also starring Faye Dunaway and Max von Sydow, Condor is the classic of example of the 1970s conspiracy thriller. The plot follows a bookish CIA agent named Joe Turner (played by Redford) whose job is, well, to read books. Really, he’s looking for hidden codes written by spies or possibly new concepts the CIA can implement.

Of course, things take a bad turn when Turner (whose code name is Condor) unknowingly stumbles across an actual plot, and things get really tense when a team of assassins shows up at Turner’s workplace. After finding his coworkers murdered, Turner is forced to go on the run and figure out why somebody is picking off top-secret librarians.

Like many films, Three Days of the Condor is based on a novel. While the overall plot is pretty similar, the book is called Six Days of the Condor, and the hero is named Ronald Malcolm. Like Redford’s character in the film, Malcolm spends his days reading books, magazines, and newspapers, trying to ferret out any potential secrets.

However, Malcolm’s job is completely fictional—or at least it was at the time. Novelist James Grady wanted to write a story about a wimp who becomes a super spy so he needed to come up with an especially nerdy job.

That’s how Grady came up with the idea of a man who reads for a living. But Grady didn’t know that his book would have actual, real-life repercussions. Let’s fast-forward to the year 2000 when a KGB officer named Sergei Tretyakov defected to the US and recorded his experiences in a book called Comrade J. According to Tretyakov, Three Days of the Condor had a major impact on the Soviet intelligence agency.

When high-ranking KGB officers watched the Redford film, they were convinced the CIA was really employing a special division of readers to search for top-secret information. Convinced they needed to compete with the CIA’s literary prowess, the Soviets actually opened their own reading division, where KGB agents pored over everything from the New York Times to Playboy. It just goes to show that when life imitates art, the results can be pretty hysterical.

Show Me The Proof

Comrade J, by Pete Earley
The Daily Beast: The Novelist Who Spied: How Dennis Wheatley Helped Defeat the Nazis
Three Days of the Condor

  • Hillyard

    Getting paid to read? Damn I’m in the wrong line of work.