James Meek · Russian Spy Drama
The story of Russia’s deep cover suburban spies in America is the perfect pitch for a 13-part TV series. It’s The Wire (illegals v. law enforcers), The Sopranos (aspirational lifestyles and typical middle-class problems among people living dangerous secret lives) and V (aliens among us) rolled into one. Lost? They do seem to have been.
Like Nigerian email fraudsters, whose sensational Moll Flanders-like tales of inheritances and warped morality suggest their talented authors would make more money bashing out African soap opera scripts than they ever would ripping off naive northerners, the easiest way for the Russian taxpayer to get back the money wasted on this loony espionage venture would be to deport the spymasters responsible to Los Angeles with a contract for a 50 per cent cut of whatever the going Screenwriters Guild rate is these days.
You’re struck less by the quaint technical details of spycraft (so one of them had a fake British passport – who doesn’t these days?) than by the diversity of their deep coverness. Not for these adventurers the easy fallback of anonymity and greyness. It was a stroke of brilliance for Vicky Peláez and Juan Jose Lázaro to conceal their alleged loyalty to the Kremlin beneath a veil of outspoken left-wing views. Who would have guessed, as they championed those notorious Washington-baiters Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez, that Vladimir Putin was their true idol?
Usually the world of narrative art and the world of practical government policy produce very different outcomes. Novels can’t drop bombs on people and bureaucrats don’t issue love stories. Life doesn’t often remind us how close the origins of fictional narratives are to the plans of civil servants: in the seed of ‘what if?’
Yet if you look back at Russia’s post-Soviet history, it is scattered with moments like this – episodes which seem superficially like acts of rational goverment, but whose actual impact is restricted to the resonance they create in the minds of spectators with other, weightier events. They are not exactly government acts, but narrative semblances of things other governments once did, or that the government who sanctions them would like its people to think it might dare to do for real one day, or that bored, daydreaming bureaucrats imagine is the kind of thing they are supposed to be doing.
When the Russian air force sent one of its nuclear bombers close to the British coast a couple of years ago, evading and hence embarrassing the Royal Air Force, it wasn’t because Russia wanted to attack Britain. When in 1999 a handful of Russian troops obstructed Nato’s efforts to take over Kosovo by squatting at Pristina airport, it wasn’t with the intention or ability to start a third world war. Rather it was the enactment of the idea of starting a third world war – a kind of performance art.
I fully expect to be watching that HBO series, Deep Cover, in a couple of years time. And perhaps the SVR officials soon to be wrestling with the problems of story arcs and snappy dialogue were influenced by the great Soviet TV series of their childhoods, Seventeen Moments of Spring, about a Russian spy in Nazi uniform at the heart of Hitlerite Germany. I fear that artistically, they will never surpass the performance work of their actual agents.