In July 2010, on the tarmac of the Vienna International Airport, the biggest spy swap since the Cold War took place. Ten Russian undercover agents who had been living in the US, some representing a new era in espionage by using their own names instead of established “legends” (backstory identities) were swapped with four Russian nationals who’d been convicted of espionage for the US or UK and held in Russia. It was a quick transaction as they switched planes, but a historically significant moment between the two countries.
These were the new “illegals” – Russian sleeper agents operating in the US under non-official cover, who had been busted through the FBI’s Operation Ghost Stories (so named because originally the agents often adopted names and identities of the dead — usually dead babies found by the KGB scouring graveyards).
British journalist Gordon Corera’s Russians Among Us is one of the most entertaining, engrossing, and surprisingly educational books I’ve read so far this year. I’ve thought about this book so much since I read it (really more than I should, because how often in your day should you really be thinking about Russian spies). But it’s just so compelling that the answer can become: many times.
I should qualify this by admitting I’m not one for spy nonfiction. I don’t mind a good story that happens to have spy involvement, but as a genre I find it tends to get overly complicated and hard to follow. However, a caveat for the opposite: if you do read a lot of spy books, fiction or non, you might be less impressed than I was because a lot of what I loved learning about was the logistics, how elements of the operations have changed, things like this.
Its difference is worth emphasizing because this was structured and told much more clearly than others I’ve read that get lost in extremely complex details, plots, and machinations. It clarifies how modern spying works, especially versus older Cold War-era methods, and what spies’ work means for US-Russian relations, and how that’s evolved as well.
It’s immensely compellingly written, although does include the occasional cheesy cliffhanger line or melodramatic observation. But overall it functions as an all-you-could-want-to-know contemporary history about Russian spying — not only the biographies and work of these ten, but of their gadgetry, methodology, social considerations, and the psychology behind who’s chosen for this job.
All the fun stuff is here – invisible ink (they still use it!), what happens when married undercovers in bugged houses have sex (the FBI tries to tactfully not listen or fast forward but they kinda do listen anyway), and the intriguing oddity that is numbers stations. (The use of these short-wave radio numbers stations is so eerily fascinating!)
Vladimir Putin, himself a former KGB officer, had been placing heightened emphasis on his version of the illegals program, which shouldn’t come as any surprise. Corera includes a look at Putin’s background and why this matters so much to him, even during the thaw we tried to maintain under Barack Obama’s administration.
Some of the spies had been in the US for years, attempting to infiltrate government organizations and get close to high-level employees in them (one almost made it into Hillary Clinton’s campaign). Their meticulous precautions are detailed, but sometimes their behavior or demeanor still raised red flags (sorry, I couldn’t resist). Nina Khrushcheva had her suspicions about one whom she’d advised in a program at the New School.
The level of detail is impressive, if sometimes questionable — for example, did Putin really angrily throw a bunch of papers into the air when he heard about the deal to swap the spies? I have my doubts, but I do love that image and I hope that he did do it. Corera’s analysis of the delicate diplomacy involved is excellent, and also rife with weird details. Like that when Anna Chapman, the redhead who became the face of the illegals and infamous for her New York party lifestyle, was being interrogated, FBI agents posing as police detectives had to stall and hold her in the station. They couldn’t arrest her until then president Dmitry Medvedev’s plane left North American airspace and they’d gotten an American agent out of Moscow.
He’d been on an official US visit, but the FBI was under orders from the White House, this being the age of the much-touted reset, not to arrest her until he was gone. It ended up disastrous for Medvedev’s standing anyway — and if Corera’s analysis holds, for his respect in Putin’s eyes as well.
Corera covers what’s known about the illegal agents, including the couple dubbed Richard and Cynthia Murphy, who would become the basis for the characters in the TV show The Americans (their own mission being decidedly less sexy, exciting, or successful; it’s drily noted what it must have felt to have given up years of life in one’s own country, risked so much, and accomplished nothing).
Maybe that’s part of why this was such an exciting, fun read — ultimately, these agents accomplished next to nothing. So the circumstances are thrilling minus the guilt of a bad outcome. Of course, some of the side stories told here do involve much weightier topics, like ex-spies and defectors who got on Putin’s bad side, so there’s no downplaying the seriousness of it. But this reads like a thriller and provides immensely valuable insight into the mindset pervasive in Russia’s government today, something that continues to be important to understand as the next US election quickly approaches.
Russians Among Us:
Sleeper Cells, Ghost Stories, and the Hunt For Putin’s Spies
by Gordon Corera
published February 18, 2020 by William Morrow