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In Search of Russia’s Spies


A recurring theme in Russian literature is the protagonist who is persecuted by all those around him. As a first time visitor to Moscow in April I felt much the same way.  

I had to learn to celebrate the place by recognizing its paradoxes.
The world’s most efficient subway system connects a town where it can somehow take all day to book a hotel room. Hit men take out ads in newspapers. Russians love to tell you bluntly what’s wrong with their country; then, moments later, they’ll be crying in patriotism for their motherland and her elusive, high brow, disciplined ways.

Muscovites are hostile to one another in public; but fawningly friendly in private. Businesses are often grossly overstaffed but long lines are the norm. The list goes on and on.

A Moscow casino

On Easter day I was in Moscow’s Red Square, the center of Russia both politically and culturally. I watched bewildered as Russians attended religious services at the kitsch confection that is St. Basil’s Cathedral, only to walk next door and enter the boxish austerity of the mausoleum of Vladimir Lenin, who outlawed religion.

An experience I had here seemed to me typical of modern Moscow. When I tried to follow a group into the mausoleum, a soldier stopped me and asked to look in my bag. I was prepared to give him my camera to hold, as I had heard it was against the rules to take inside. Instead, the man gestured to some fellow soldiers, who pushed three movable metal blockades around me.

“Trouble, trouble- no camera,” he said, pointing to me, shaking his head and adjusting his AK-47. “Passport,” he said. I offered it up, he checked my visa affixed inside, then handed it back. “Ten American dollars,” he said. I slid him a ten dollar bill and he let me in–with my camera, even. 

I was whisked by the waxy body of Lenin, who is so well kept he looks like he’ll open his eyes at any moment and start directing a new revolution, now that his last one has been watered down into mere social reform, as he had feared.

Two teenage boys who were behind me in line at the entrance to the mausoleum followed me afterward.   

“Cool country, cool country,” they said over and over again, when they found out I was from America. Apparently they thought it was admirable that I could buy off the cops. A half an hour later I finally had to look up the word in Cyrillic for “go away,” to get rid of them. They looked hurt and walked away.

Despite an unprecedented level of new construction, Moscow still has an overwhelmingly industrial feel, from the long years where pragmatism was valued heavily over aesthetics–and even fashion clothing stores can have all the charm of a steel mill. Soot covers everything: the streets, cars, buildings and even the numerous stray dogs.

Most Muscovites still live in the endless blocks of  “Kruschites,” the bland, housing projects built under, and nicknamed after, Nikita Kruschev. I found an odd comfort in all the institutional sameness and the routineness of people’s lives that reminded me of high schools in America. 

When you see color on the street scape, more often than not its one of the city’s thousands of casinos, where Russian workers drop their rubles into American-made slot machines.

Another element of this city that stands out is the beautiful and efficient Soviet-era subway, with its chandeliers, stately cornices and a train every 90 seconds. It supposedly was originally part of a grand plan to build an underground labyrinth for elite Muscovites in the event America dropped the bomb.

I was surprised to learn that Russians are still required to carry internal passports.

When I took an overnight train to, and then from, St. Petersburg, I was asked to leave my Moscow hotel because I hadn’t known to get a visa stamp while in St. Petersburg.

Fortunately the U.S. embassy recommended the Hotel Belgrad, where I spent the rest of my trip, and where they are less stringent about visa requirements. Russians put up with this nonsense their whole lives. It was hard to imagine myself living happily in a society with such ways, under the old soviet ethos of: “if you’re not working, you shouldn’t be there.” What about reverie and open minded exploration? 

It made me worry anew about the expanded surveillance powers of the U.S. government under the Patriot Act, and the possibility my government may begin issuing citizen identification cards and fingerprint checks.
Moscow is a dangerous city: street crime and political assassinations alike go unpunished by the slow and corrupt government and police bureaucracy. While I was there in April, Sergei Yushenkov, a member of the State Duma, the Russian legislature, was shot dead outside his Moscow apartment. He was the ninth Duma deputy to be killed since 1994. Arrests have been few, convictions fewer. 

It’s not as if such anarchy is smiled upon, however. Despite the fact that it’s nearly impossible to have a drink at a bar in Moscow without being offered sex for sale, the public was significantly outraged when a videotape surfaced of its married mayor cavorting with two prostitutes in a hotel that is once sure ascendency to national politics was just as surely over. Not so different from the public’s response to the Bill Clinton debacle; a point of similarity between our two nations. 

For me, Moscow felt familiar, not just from old James Bond movies, but in more subtle ways. One day as I looked at the ramparts and gates of the Kremlin from across the Volkhov River, I recognized the view from a painting in the back room of an independent book store near my college campus, back when Marxism was threatening and it found sympathy in these places–where well- worn copies of “Ten Days That Shook The World,” could be found.

Though there are far less of these independent bookstores in America today, it occurred to me that the bohemian elan of those places lingers on as an affectation in the chain stores. Earlier this year I purchased a Penguin Books edition of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” at Barnes & Noble, and was surprised to see a passionately pro-Bolshevik interpretation of the play included as a forward to the text. 

As wrong headed as some of it was, there hasn’t been anything to come along and replace that hungry consumption of dangerous, underground ideas that once made book stores in America so exciting. That’s the Internet now, and as I checked my email at one of Moscow’s few online cafes one day, I was ironically amused to see young Muscovites eagerly devouring The New York Times the way I used to see college-age idealists devour Marx.

People watching in Russia is both interesting and monotonous. Almost everyone is Caucasian, black clothes are de rigeur and virtually no one wears anything but dress shoes. My white New Balance running shoes yelled “tourist” to everyone I passed.

Muscovites walk the streets of their city with a brisk, smoldering intensity; it’s no wonder method acting was birthed here. As a group they don’t tolerate indecisive body language or lissomeness of any sort. At museums, the stern-mannered Babushkas jostle you to the next room if you linger between paintings. I felt like a child whose mother had never taught him to sit up straight or match his socks to his shirt.

Russians also have no compunction about drinking in public; kiosks that are everywhere sell an array of beers and vodkas. I even saw a young woman vomiting on the Kremlin walls. The average life expectancy of men in Russia is 59 years, and health officials blame the low number on chronic alcoholism. 

It was fun for me to watch everyone line up at the McDonald’s in Red Square, especially as the company’s American stock drops. Here, it’s still the hip place to eat and be seen; and is seen as a connection to the West.
I even started to eat the salt- drenched McDonald’s food again myself while visiting Moscow, but this was because I found, much to my dismay, my digestive system couldn’t handle the borscht, chicken Kiev, potato wrapped hot dogs and even the “bottled” water. The teenagers in the McDonald’s in Red Square like to discuss world events: a group of youths told me, quite seriously, they thought the film “Starship Troopers,” Paul Verhoeven’s sci fi satire about a war against foreign bugs, was the most insightful movie ever made about American foreign policy.

There are hundreds of cultural attractions in Moscow, the museums, the ballet, and so on. Most of these travel extensively so I tried to visit unmovable attractions.

By far the most interesting place that I visited was the Hall of Federal Service of Security of Russia, known commonly as the KGB Museum, which traces Russian espionage from the 14th century, but focuses mainly on recent history.

The headquarters of the former KGB

It’s located at 12 Ulitsa Bolshaya Lubyanskaya, at metro Kitai-gorod, just behind the infamous Lubyanka building where the KGB was headquartered.  I defiantly shot a photograph of the building, as this was once a jailable offense. No cameras allowed inside the museum, however. Once for spies- in- training only, the museum is now open to tour groups. I was able to organize one through Patriarshy Dom Tours at 501-095-0927.
Inside is a passport supposedly used by Peter the Great when he was traveling around Europe to learn ship building, a skill he used to build the famous Russian Navy; and a photo of current Russian president of Vladimir Putin when he was a KGB cornel. 

There are also displays of the early uniforms of the Cheka, the secret police created by Lenin, which eventually became the KGB, and now called the FSB, or External Intelligence Service.   

It’s impossible to say how reliable the exhibits are, but included is at least some of the gory history of the organization. There’s even a martyr’s gallery of photos of secret policeman who were ordered killed by Stalin, including one man just because his wife was British.

As the KGB’s reputation grew bloodier, people would continue to join the organization because “they didn’t think it would happen to them or that they were smarter,” explained the tour guide from Patriarshy Dom.  
There is little analysis of the millions killed, tortured and starved under Stalin, particularly in “The Great Terror,” where neighbors would turn on one another, and in forced collectivization schemes in rebel states like the Ukraine; and I learned later that several critics, including one with The Economist, say this museum’s purpose is to “rewrite history.”

The fellow who oversees the tours for the FSB, Cornel Valery, who refused to give his surname, spins the organization as if it too was once a victim of Lenin, Stalin and others and now engaged in legitimate service to the state, “like the American CIA or FBI.”

Probably the best spies are those we’ve never heard about. At the museum they have the stories and accouterments of the ones who got caught; many of them American. We now know that the Russians knew everything that was going on in Washington during the Cold War, while we knew everything that was going on in Moscow.

There’s a photo of American spy Martha Peterson being captured in the 1970s, valiantly karate kicking one of her arresters in the crotch. Peterson now reportedly teaches at CIA spy school in Virginia. 

There’s a piece of thread from a rug that pilot and spy Gary Powers wove while in Soviet custody. The real life story of Powers, who was flying a U2 surveillance plane over Russia when he was shot down, traded after two years for a Soviet spy, only to be shunned by the CIA upon his return because he didn’t destroy the experimental plane and kill himself instead of being captured, was lifted for the opening of “Die Another Day,” the last James Bond movie. 

Also on show are two passports: one real, one a forgery. The difference is obvious. The Russians used iron staples that rusted onto the passport pages, whereas foreign forgeries were made unwittingly of stainless steel, that doesn’t rust. No rust? Arrest ’em.

There are also clever decoding devices on display, a National Geographic Magazine with hidden messages, and a phony tree stump with radar used to track radio transmissions and/or plane payloads.  

The spies that operated in the early years of the Soviet system were particularly dedicated, willing to sacrifice any notion of personal happiness for the benefit of the state.

Such was the lot of Dimitri Bystrolyotov, a brilliant young man who could speak 22 languages and was trained as a doctor. He went undercover in Switzerland, Germany England and France, among other countries, even marrying an Italian duchess as a cover. But when he returned to Russia, Stalin sent him to the Gulag for years to “purify” him from foreign influence. He died there. 

There’s even a report to Stalin on display from one his spies in Hitler’s General Aviation Staff warning him in advance the Nazis would attack. Stalin refused to believe the report and wrote on it “F*** you mother, your source of information is the source of disinformation.” When Hitler invaded, Stalin had a nervous breakdown and his generals had to take over until he recuperated a few weeks later.

Included also is a photo gallery of  Manhattan project scientists, one or more of whom allegedly leaked the atomic bomb recipe to the Soviets “because they were afraid of the world having only one superpower,” according to the Patriarshy Dom guide. 

The tour also offers a crash course in Russian foreign policy. The agency currently busies itself with the countries it considers Russia’s chief enemies: China, Israel and both North and South Korea, according to the Cornel.
But Russian children are also taught English. “That has great significance for us – before [World War II] we learned German,” said the Cornel.
“But we fight together now,” the cornel said, shaking my hand after finding out I was American.

The agency is also kept busy with drug traffickers and “terrorists” from Chechnya.

Resident diplomats who coerce information out of sympathetic insiders are now the prime method the US and Russians use to keep an eye on each other, Valery said, and both countries routinely eject diplomats they suspect of spying.  

I flippantly asked the cornel how many spies Russia had currently within United States intelligence services. “Twenty-eight,” he replied stoically. I still don’t know if he was kidding.

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