A spy in from the cold, sort of
BAKU, AZERBAIJAN — After 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 here of the spook-turned-scribe call Mr. Abdullayev, 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.
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 to 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 innerworkings of covert operations against drug smugglers.
But by 1988 the Soviet foundation began to crumble, censorship was relaxed, and his book was published. His writing became an almost overnight success 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.
A contract on his head
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 Rus-sian 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 Heidar Aliev. 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. Aliev 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 1 out of every 7 Azeri citizens displaced by a decade-long conflict with Armenia.
Armenia currently occupies 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 novel.
When communism fell in 1991 "the whole Soviet Union became one big detective story," he says.