Our Man in Moscow

Paul Greenberg

9/14/2010 4:27:10 PM - Paul Greenberg

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.

Attending a conference in England, Comrade and now Citizen Sutyagin was offered a sweet deal. A firm called Alternative Futures was interested in drumming up investment in Russia -- there were a lot of outfits like that around in the '90s -- and this one was in the market for some expert analysis. It would pay him $1,000 a month, which was more than his day job did, just to read the Russian papers and official government statements, then summarize them. Easy money, right? And who couldn't use a few extra rubles now and then?

Was this company a CIA front or legit? Who knows? To this day Igor Sutyagin doesn't. How would he? He's no spy. And did it matter who was putting up the dough? He wasn't going to do anything wrong. But of course that doesn't matter, either, not in a country where guilt or innocence change with the changing requirements of the state.

Maybe you had to visit the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies back in the '80s and interview its founder, director and reigning apparatchik, Georgiy Arbatov, to realize the depth of Russian naivete about the West. Comrade Arbatov was one of those English-speaking members of the Party who'd made a life's study of this country, learning every detail of the American system and absolutely nothing of its spirit.

At the time, Director Arbatov was warning that the current American president, a B-movie actor and capitalist tool named Ronald Reagan, was going to plunge the world into a nuclear holocaust if re-elected. The experience wasn't unlike reading the New York Times' editorials back then. Or press releases from the Democratic National Committee. It was Clark Clifford, the party's grand old man, who had summed up Ronald Reagan as an "amiable dunce." Well, he got the amiable part right.

But how could anyone have known that this washed-up actor in the White House, far from ending the world, would wind up ending the nuclear arms race -- by the simple expedient of ending the Soviet Union? Comrade Arbatov, the Kremlin's official expert on all things American, was like one of those musicologists who know every note in a piece but can't hear the music. Confident he knew everything about us, he knew nothing.

Igor Sutyagin didn't know much about his own country if he thought Russia was about to change into another Western-style democracy, where he would be free to pick up a few rubles every month just by reading and repeating whatever was in the papers. By 1999, the Russian thaw was ending, a former KGB colonel by the name of Vladimir Putin had become prime minister, and Russia was becoming Russia again.

Soon young Sutyagin was accused of treason. And to be accused in Russia is to be convicted. Even if it took the KGB, now renamed the FSB, three trials to finally get him declared guilty as charged and sentenced to 15 years in the nearest gulag. For heinous crimes like repeating what had already appeared in top-secret publications like the Washington Post and Red Star, the Russian military's official organ. Some secrets.

A decade later, stuck in a labor camp near Archangel, our non-spy was suddenly told to throw his stuff together; he was being transferred to Lefortovo in Moscow, a Russian version of our own country-club prisons for white-collar types. He began to suspect something was up when he was told to change into suit and tie for an official photo. Turns out he was one of the zeks picked to be exchanged for the 10 real Russian spies who'd just been arrested in this country -- sleepers who were supposed to meld into American life. Lucky him.

All he had to do was sign a confession and board the plane. At first he resisted, but, offered freedom, he signed. "I was between a rock and a hard place," he told Peter Baker of the New York Times, "and if I didn't sign, the rock and hard place would have pulverized me." So it was off to London.

Once there, he was given a change of clothes, $3,000 and left on his own. He wants to go back to Russia now that he's been officially pardoned. (Breathes there the man with soul so dead/ who never to himself hath said,/ This is my own, my native land!) But when he asks old friends there if he should return, they have a word of advice for him: Don't. Something tells me he would do well to take it.

There was something vaguely familiar about Igor Sutyagin's saga. After a while, it came to me: "Our Man in Havana." Of course! The comic novel by Graham Greene. It's about a prototypical Englishman, one Mr. James Wormold, who somehow has landed in Cuba, where he's supposed to be a vacuum cleaner salesman. Only the poor nebbish doesn't seem able to sell many Phastkleaner vacuums. When he's offered a chance to make some easy money working for the British Secret Service, he takes it. Who couldn't use a few extra pounds now and then, right?

The catch is, Agent Wormold is supposed to be sending the home office top-secret info, only he hasn't any. After trying to palm off newspaper clippings and such as state secrets, he resorts to sending London drawings of rocket-launching pads he says he's discovered deep in the Cuban jungle. (Somehow they turn out looking like huge vacuum cleaners.) Talk about life imitating art, the book appeared only a few years before the Soviets actually did plant missiles in Cuba.

Graham Greene's comic novel may sound all too realistic by now, but Igor Sutyagin might get a kick out of watching the movie version, which is much better. Maybe because it's got Alec Guinness at his ale-dry best in the starring role. Homesick as he is, Comrade/Citizen/Mr. Sutyagin could probably use a good laugh, which remains the best response to all that is crazy in this world, East or West.