It's got to be the funniest or the saddest spy story of this post-Cold War period, or maybe both. The two, humor and pathos, blend inextricably in Russia. Like good and evil mixing.
But I'm getting ahead of myself, becoming oh-so-philosophical and all too confiding, not to say confusing -- like most of the Russians I would meet on a three-week tour of the old Soviet Union back in 1983. What a country, empire and mystery wrapped in an enigma! My hosts would become quite talkative once the sun had set, the vodka started flowing and confidences were exchanged in a whisper. Or just with a hand signal. As when somebody would point at the chandelier in the middle of the ceiling, meaning: Beware, we're being recorded. The three great pastimes all Russians still seem to share are drinking, talking and secrecy.
Those were the days, my friend, we thought Communism would never end. A succession of geriatric figures sat in the Kremlin and pretended to rule as the whole creaking system began to grind down. But not many noticed much of a difference from the time when Communism was supposed to be in the ascendant, maybe because there wasn't one. Russia, under czar or commissar, remains Russia.
How much Russia has changed even now -- which is all too little -- was illustrated by a brief item in the news just the other day: Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was quoted as warning any dissenters who didn't have government permission to "peaceably assemble," to use a good old American phrase from the Bill of Rights, that they'd keep getting beaten "upside the head with a truncheon." There in brief you have the difference between the Russian and American ideas of due process. What is a right here is a crime there.
After a few weeks in the old Soviet Union back when it was collapsing on itself, you couldn't tell whether you were lost in a tragedy or a comedy, probably both. The only sure thing was that you were lost. Much like Igor Sutyagin himself, the hero and goat of this spy story.
I'm not even sure if I should call his saga a spy story. A non-spy story would be more like it. It begins innocently enough. A researcher who'd been trained at the grandly titled Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies, young Sutyagin had visited the West during the euphoric 1990s, when Communism was pronounced dead and Russia was going to be a free country like any other. Uh huh.