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Passions of the Spies

This week a Russian spy ring was exposed by the FBI after many years of investigation. On Monday they were brought before a court in New York, accused of “failure to register as agents of a foreign government” – an offence that could put them in jail for 5 to 9 years. Is the Cold War back?

According to the FBI the purpose of the agents was to “gather information on nuclear weapons, American policy toward Iran, C.I.A. leadership, Congressional politics and many other topics”. They were also supposed to “penetrate” the ruling circles at Washington DC., hang out with nuclear scientists and recruit other agents.

Spy stories are the most fun and the most exciting legacy of the Cold War. Not many people today are willing to contemplate the meanings and the dangers of worldwide doomsday arsenal (if it is held by “responsible Western” countries and not NC or Iran). But who wouldn’t watch James Bond or some other “undercover agent” stuff?

Cold War espionage was indeed wide spread, and lets remember, exercised by BOTH Russia and the US. Post-Cold War memoirs by agents retired and agents deflected only fed more fuel into the already thriving spy folklore. Often left outside of our popular memory is that the spy-searching also ruined people’ lives, cost them their livelihoods, made them outcasts within their own communities – and even cost lives. Quite often it later transpired that these were false accusation. But hey, better safe than sorry, right?

The spy story is on “the most popular” list of most newspapers. No real damage was done, so it seems, so why not enjoy ourselves a bit? But it seems to me that in this excitement rush into the new real-life spy thriller, even the best media, like the Guardian or the NYT, are forgetting to ask some important questions. It will be up to the FBI to prove their case in court. Here, I just want to raise some (hopefully) reasonable doubts.

The FBI describes a long lasting operation. The agents, they say, were sent to the US in the mid-1990s. The FBI is aware of their activities since 2000. However, it looks like in fifteen years of operation (ten of which they were under surveillance) the spies gathered a rather thin crop. The fact that the FBI is not accusing them in conspiracy to commit espionage, suggests that they were not able to catch them gathering and sending any real state secrets. Moreover, all the “spy-wise useful” acquaintances they’ve made boil down to some retired nuclear scientist, and NYC banker. A banker? Come on! If the purpose of the Russians was to infiltrate the financial world of political ties and donations, an oligarch would have done much better than a middle-class couple from Montclair NJ!

“I’ve been to one world fair, a picnic, and a rodeo, and that’s the stupidest thing I ever heard come over a set of earphones”

Looking at the quotes from communications between the spies and their operators, one is struck by how stupid they are. “You were sent to USA for long-term service trip. Your education, your bank accounts, car, house, etc – all these serve one goal: fulfill your main mission, ie to search and develop ties in policymaking circles in US and send intels (intelligence reports) to C (Centre).”

What is it? Weren’t they told these basic tenets of their mission before their dispatch? Or did they simply need a reminder? This communication don’t even sound like a bad American, but rather a bad Russian spy film!

“Since each man will be required to do prodigious… service along these lines, the women will have to be selected for their sexual characteristics. ”

The spy ring narrative contains familiar Cold War clichés about “Russian character”, like the loyalty to the supervisors and suspension of traditional family values for the sake of the mission: “they can live together and work together in a host country, under the guise of a married couple. Illegals who are placed together and cohabit in the country to which they are assigned will often have children together.” Just like their communist predecessors, these agents would do everything, upon the order of their state.

At the same time, another old Cold War cliché, about “the self evident” superiority of the American way of life raises its head. Apparently the spies were not loyal all the way, and were seduced by the charms of the West, just like a James Bond girl. The seduction is evident by one of the couples’ desire to get themselves a nice suburban house in New Jersey, much to the displeasure of their Russian operators.

“A foreign substance is introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual. Certainly without any choice. That’s the way your hard-core Commie works.”

Another cliche is of course, that of a spy next door. You couldn’t have imagined, dear citizens, that this nice couple next door was a link in a Russian spy chain! And your kids were playing with their kids, you invited them to a BBQ in your yard, and brought them pie when they moved over! Who could have though! Even all these years after the Cold War, the Russian enemies are surrounding us, dear citizens and we all MUST BE VIGILANT!

The biggest cliché of the whole thing is the spymaster: the cold-eyed Russian prime minister. Putin has made little friends in the “western” democracies, and his former career in the KGB, and the Russian-British conflict over the Litvinenko affair didn’t help his international prestige. But the newspapers’ explanation of the “cell” simply as Putin’s interest in raising the international prestige of the Russian Intelligence back to its Cold War menacing statue is a bit ridiculous.

First, according to FBI’s charges, they were dispatched in the mid 1990s when Putin wasn’t yet in the picture. Second, Putin of all people would know that the activities described in the charges are LAME!!! How do you reconcile “coded messages in pictures posted on the internet” with old-school “bags left and picked in pre-arranged locations”? Is the Russian intelligence really that bad? Don’t you think of better ways to pass info if you are running a spy ring?

“Bad former KGB agent Putin” is one of the most important themes in American discussions of Russia in the past ten years, and one that resulted in many misunderstandings of Putin’s politics. I am not a fan of the prime minister myself, but reducing all his activities to “KGB legacies” or “power-hunger” is stupid and smells strongly of Joe McCarthy and other “Russia experts”.

Maybe I am all wrong. The (allegedly Israeli) fiasco in Dubai this year, proved that even one of the most valued intelligence agencies in the world (Mossad) can screw up big time, so why not the SVR? Maybe

“Sir, you can’t let him in here. He’ll see everything. He’ll see the big board!”

I hate conspiracy theories, but this time, I simply can’t pass on the opportunity. The spy cell story came out just as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev finished what has been termed a “successful” trip around the US. Unlike its predecessor, this administration, in general, seems to invest a lot of effort is resetting American relationship with Russia. Obama showed that his Russian strategy involves less lecturing Russia on how un-democratic it is and instead, more dialogue and attempts to reduce the doomsday machine.

Not everyone was eager about these new Russia policies. Several Republicans and members of establishment accused Obama of being “soft” on the Russians, “naïve” as to their “real intentions” and ignorant of the “stab in the back that is sure to follow all the sweet-talking”. Oh guess what, the spy cell story, proves just that. And brought before court only a few days after the conclusion of a visit that could have been another milestone in improving the relationship between the two nations. See, what hypocrites these Russians are? Told you!

Students of Russian-American relations know that this is not a first occurrence of that type. The Soviet-American détente in the 1970s evoked many similar warnings and accusations. Cold Warriors in political and military establishment did their best to undermine the “resetting” of the relationship, and when the talks and the agreements still progressed, they gathered around Reagan and brought him to power. True, the Russians themselves quite often played to the hands of warmongers, by doing something stupid as invading Afghanistan or Georgia, but in many other instances they were truly seeking an improvement.

“I can no longer sit back and allow communist infiltration, communist indoctrination, communist subversion, and the international communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids”

Why would someone try to undermine US-Russia relations now, when the US needs Russia’s cooperation in putting international pressure on Iran? Well, maybe because the FBI (being a domestic agency) doesn’t bring into consideration international politics. Maybe, its against somebody’s interest that the Iran conflict will be resolved through diplomatic and commercial channels. Or maybe, the whole security-industrial complex in America works with no internal coordination, we know it wouldn’t be the first time.

Or maybe well-established old enemies and clichés are difficult to let go. The Red Threat was a living and present danger for most of the last century and is therefore difficult to part with. In the twenty years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, American treatment of Russia has been anything but original. Statements of politicians, and coverage of the press are abundant with Cold War era concepts, assumptions and misunderstanding. The great benefit of an ideology (anti-Russian in this case) is that it allows one to fit all new experiences into a familiar framework. True, there is a new enemy now – worldwide conspiracy of militant Islam, but why can’t we have both? Why should we give up the most precious cliché-legacy of the Cold War – the Spy Who Came from the Cold?

p.s. if you have spare 20 minutes and are bored with the conventional take on espionage, you MUST WATCH this excellent Soviet cartoon called Passions of the Spies. Most of the pictures for this post came from this really brilliant animation. The linked youtube files are with English subtitles. I promise you won’t regret!

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  • Bbell120

    Hey, it is a great point of view, and I certainly enjoyed it. We will talk more about this dubious occurrence. We'll definitely have that chance. Read the books I've sent. if you have not before, you'd like both very much. Best, BB