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Russia Welcomes Home Its Spies — So What Now?

6 minute read
Simon Shuster / Moscow

Whatever their failings, the 10 Russian agents kicked out of the U.S. earlier this month must have done something right to win the adoration of Russia’s most famous former spy, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. In a rare bit of candor about his private affairs, Putin described on Saturday, July 24, how he had personally welcomed the agents home with a pep talk and a patriotic sing-along. But some of his comments left experts scratching their heads. Why was he piling such praise on a group of spies who were, by most accounts, not very good at spying? And what exactly is the bright future he promised them now that they are comfortably back in Russia?

According to two veterans of Russia’s foreign-intelligence service, most of the things Putin mentioned, including the serenade to Mother Russia, fit into the process of reintegration that spies normally undergo. When asked by a reporter at Saturday’s press conference what the spies would do now, Putin said curtly, “They will work. I’m sure that they will have good jobs, and I’m sure that they will have interesting and bright lives.”

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This could mean different things for different members of the spy ring, says Mikhail Lyubimov, a retired colonel of the KGB and a renowned Cold War spy. The ones who kept a lower profile through the scandal could be given new identities and moved up within the ranks of the secret service, although it is unlikely that they would be sent back into the field, Lyubimov says. But those who have been more conspicuous, like Anna Chapman — who was dubbed the femme fatale of the group after naked photos of her were leaked to the media — should not hold out hope for a career among the warriors of the secret front.

“Some of them have just been too deeply compromised,” Lyubimov says. It would be too dangerous to have them hanging around with other agents when fans are chasing them for autographs and pornographers are asking to feature them in their movies, as happened with Chapman last week. “So they will be offered jobs in government banks or other private firms controlled by the state,” says Lyubimov. “This would be the normal practice.”

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Yet Chapman, for one, does not seem destined to melt back into obscurity. Last week, Angelina Jolie sent her a personal invitation to the Moscow premiere of Salt, a thriller in which Jolie plays a Russian spy. Although Chapman did not show up, a friend of hers, Cordelia Donovan, who lives in New York City and has been corresponding with Chapman via e-mail since her deportation, tells TIME the ex-spy had been very tempted. “She’s a normal young woman. Why wouldn’t she want to be on the red carpet?” Donovan asks. Even more tempting might be the chance to go into politics. The Liberal Democrats, a nationalist party, are considering a place for her on their ballot in the next parliamentary elections. “We’ve been discussing how we can bring her on board,” party official Ivan Kosenko tells TIME.

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Indeed, little seems more valuable in the arena of Russian politics than a background in espionage. Scores of ministers and deputies in the Russian parliament have had ties to the secret service, and Putin himself served as a KGB agent in East Germany during the Cold War. In his time in office, first as President and now as Prime Minister, he has worked to restore the prestige of Russia’s intelligence agencies to make them more attractive to new recruits and less ominous to the everyday Russian.

For some observers, this helps explain the nostalgic pleasure Putin seemed to take in welcoming the spies back home. One of the songs they sang was an unofficial anthem of the secret services called “What Does the Motherland Start With?” It’s the theme song from an old Soviet TV show that was almost as whimsical in its depiction of spies as Putin was on Saturday. “Just imagine,” he said to reporters. “You have to learn a foreign language as if it was your native tongue. You have to think in it, speak in it and execute all the tasks set by the Motherland … Your own children don’t even know what you do!”

(See why the spy swap is a sign of strong U.S.-Russia relations.)

Such praise for Chapman and her cohorts came as a surprise to Oleg Nechiporenko, a former KGB colonel whose cover was blown in 1971 when he was accused of supporting leftist radicals in Mexico. Nechiporenko says the spies he worked with then were of far higher caliber than those busted by the FBI last month, and many former agents have publicly said that some of the slipups exposed by the FBI were downright humiliating. In perhaps the most famous example, Chapman registered a cell phone using a fake Russian name and the address 99 Fake St., then threw the receipt into a public trash bin, where the FBI picked it up, according to the bureau’s affidavit.

Despite the mistakes, Nechiporenko says, some kind of reception would still need to be part of a spy’s reintegration. “For me, there was a banquet, there were medals, promotions, and of course I got a raise,” Nechiporenko says. “This is all part of the tradition if you’re exposed by no fault of your own.” Part of the reason for the festivities, he adds, is to smooth a spy’s path up the official hierarchy and make everyone aware that he or she deserves respect.

Yet Lyubimov says Putin went further than usual in this case. To have the most powerful man in the country sing songs and celebrate with a group of agents and then discuss it publicly, “that is something new,” he says. “That shows a new respect for the role of the foreign-intelligence service that I haven’t seen before. And it probably indicates the attention and care these individuals will get now that they’ve returned to the motherland.” Whether this means the ex-spies will have new careers in politics or spycraft, Putin seems to have taken a personal interest in making their futures as cozy as possible.

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