The Spy Who Came in by Amtrak

Why is Russia spying on Khrushchev's great-granddaughter?


The recent story of the Russian spies sent to infiltrate the highest reaches of American society — starting in Montclair, New Jersey — has once again confirmed the old maxim, "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce." The 12 Russian agents sent by the former KGB’s international branch, now the SVR, seemed to have spent more time on Facebook than uncovering secrets. Like Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase in the old spoof Spies Like Us, these real-life Karlas are a bit goofier than their imaginary Cold War precedents.

I speak from my own experience with a spy who came in from the cold — from the chilly streets of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, that is. For three years, Richard Murphy (a.k.a. Mikhail Kutzik, a.k.a. Vladimir Guryev), a part-time student of International Affairs at the New School, came to visit me in my offices there. We weren’t exchanging state secrets or whispering in corners about "ferrets," "wheel artists," or other long-forgotten spy jargon — instead, I was his academic advisor. We discussed his courses, his progress, and his interests. At first, I thought of him as a student like any other, but there was something odd about this man, with his strong Russian accent and his Irish-American name.

Richard Murphy was clearly a Russian. Beyond the basics, there was the fact that he complained constantly: about his grades (which were fine), his papers, everything, no matter what I tried to say to soothe him. He had the alertness to injury of a Muscovite used to getting cut in line, not like my other optimistic, eager-to-impress American grad students. Moreover, despite the fact that we were both Russians, he never tried to speak Russian with me, and he never asked me any questions about my great-grandfather, Nikita Khrushchev, though that would have been natural for someone from his part of the world.

Still, I never pried. I assumed that he had some good reason to want to keep his private life private. He graduated in 2005, and I forgot all about him.

Ironically, it’s probably because I myself have become less Russian — that is to say, less suspicious and paranoid, more respectful of privacy — that I didn’t ask the questions that might have allowed me to blow his cover five years ago. (Not that the FBI needed help with those incredibly inept spies, who were under surveillance almost from the moment they arrived in America.) Instead, I heard along with everyone else about the spy ring and slowly put the pieces together about my former advisee.

It’s a humorous anecdote now; but the truth it reveals is less than funny. If spying offers any reflection of a nation’s character (and it should — like a shadow to a body), the latest case has cast into light former KGB spy Vladimir Putin’s darkest secret: The old formulas he relies on to improve Russia’s standing in the world — spy training included — are now completely out of date.

Moreover, the spy game that the two superpowers have played for years, which was so breathtakingly described by Ian Fleming, Tom Clancy, and John le Carré, has outlived its ideological value. These days, there is barely any political competition between Russia and the United States, and we coexist peacefully — and not just in the sense of the Cold War platitudes. So the new spies, lacking any ideological motivation (when everyone, communists and capitalists, are equally bourgeois, there’s no need to prove who’s better) post photos to Facebook instead of sending classified information to the Motherland.

The SVR bosses may still believe the Cold War is upon us, but in reality we are no longer enemies. And the Russian spies themselves seem to have no idea what they were sent to do. Hence the farce of Spies Like Us, the Russian version.

Nina L. Khrushcheva, author of Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics, teaches international affairs at the New School in New York.