Russian for “Death to Spies,” it’s the motto of a sinister KGB plot to kill American and British spies throughout the world—at least according to defecting Russian general Georgi Koskov (Jeroen Krabbé) in The Living Daylights. A tag with that phrase on it has already been found on the body of murdered British agent 004 (Frederick Warder) in Gibraltar. In reality, though, the plot has nothing to do with the KGB. It has actually been hatched by Koskov and his partner, arms dealer Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker), to get British intelligence to assassinate KGB chief Leonid Pushkin (John Rhys-Davies). Pushkin strongly suspects that Koskov is up to no good, and with him out of the way, Koskov can fly to Afghanistan and use local Soviet military personnel to consummate a huge diamonds-for-opium deal with the Afghan Snow Leopard Brotherhood.
To further convince the British and Bond (Timothy Dalton) that “Smiert Spionam” is indeed a Russian plot, Koskov’s agent Necros (Andreas Wisniewski) kills the British Secret Service’s Austrian section chief, Saunders (Thomas Wheatley), and once again leaves the “Smiert Spionam” motto near the body—printed on a balloon. When cornered by 007 in Tangier, Pushkin denies that “Smiert Spionam” exists. He refers to it as a Beria operation from Stalin’s time (referring to Lavrenty Pavlovich Beria, Stalin’s feared head of internal security), but insists that it was deactivated twenty years earlier. Bond believes him, and eventually they join forces to go after Koskov and Whitaker.
In real life, “Smiert Spionam” was in fact the motto of Soviet counterintelligence during the Stalin era, and the motto was the source of the group’s Russian acronym, SMERSH. Ian Fleming included a fictionalized version of SMERSH in his original 007 novels; it’s the Russian counterintelligence agency scheming in the shadows of Bond’s early adventures such as Casino Royale and From Russia with Love. Fleming’s later novels replace it with the completely fictional criminal organization SPECTRE. In the film series, though SMERSH is mentioned in passing, SPECTRE is Bond’s chief nemesis from the start.