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Spies Like Me

The return of Boris Badenov.

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Illustration by Jacob Thomas  

Watching the current Russian-spy farce unfold like a feckless parody of Cold War intrigue nonetheless makes me wonder, as a Russian-American, what all this is supposed to say for me. By the emerging logic of the media coverage, the only difference between me and a Russian spy is that I don’t spy for Russia. (As far as you know). Let’s see: I have a tangled history that resulted in my using different names at different times; I spent six years stateless; I speak with a noticeable accent that’s not entirely Russian but somewhat Eurovillain; I travel erratically and often and am, in fact, filing this from Ukraine. I have a Facebook friend in common with Anna Chapman! And lets face it, just as Vicky Peláez, one of the suspects, “aggressively criticized the U.S. government and defended illegal immigrants” in her El Diario column (“Her pieces,” adds the Associated Press, “are widely reprinted on left-leaning websites”), some of my Bush-era writing could certainly be construed as anti-American. I could go on, but I already feel like slapping the cuffs on myself.

And I’m not the only one: The entire newish breed of “Global Russians,” Westernized but unwilling to relinquish their identity, is feeling mighty suspicious all of a sudden. “The unpleasant flip side,” writes Andrei Dikouchine, an international M&A expert based in London, on a Russian-language website, “is that we’ll once again have to prove ourselves from scratch. Especially those of us who kept their Russian citizenship, like I did. I’ve already been refused participation in projects that involved potential dual-use technology. Now it’s going to get worse.” You know he’s right when Slate commenters, of all people, start posting things like “I’ve never trusted the Russians, and I never will.”

Being Russian is not quite like being Latino in Arizona or, for that matter, Muslim in any First World airport, but it’s giving me a bit of a whiplash to become part-bogeyman overnight. It feels silly to have to remind anyone that ideology—and generally conforming to apple-pie notions of Americana—has nothing to do with this story. There used to be two reasons to spy for the U.S.S.R.: true faith and avarice. (Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were zealots; Robert Hanssen was out for cash.) It is downright impossible to spy for the modern Russia on any ideological grounds, since the country itself doesn’t have any. Russia may be many things, but it’s no more “left” or “right” than the U.S. It is a state-sanctioned kleptocracy at the top with a redundant quasi-socialist bureaucracy in the middle and free market at the bottom; the oil and gas money flows directly upward and then drizzles down in the form of everything from French bistros to arty online portals. The Russian Dream, inasmuch as there is one, is to be taken seriously abroad—and building a covert network of bumbling airheads is certainly not going to accomplish that. Cash is Russia’s new ideology; cash will undoubtedly prove to underlie the motivations of the suspects. Meanwhile, their bureaucratic overlords were probably just trying to keep their jobs by funding these useless deep-cover adventures. Budget-justifying busywork combined with blinding greed are two things to which we can, unhappily, all relate.

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