Like many of you, I’m completely fascinated by the sleeper agent Russian spies recently caught in sting operations across the US. I had wrongly assumed the romance of covert Eastern European intrigue dropped like a lead zeppelin with the fall of the Berlin Wall. In 1989, when the rest of the world celebrated the end of a failed communist ideology, black market cigarettes, bread lines, secret vodka stills in the woods and the birth of free market economy, I shed a bitter tear for the end of the golden age of spy craft. No more microfiche hidden in moles on a strumpet’s beauty mark, clandestine cash swaps in parks, dead drop mail boxes, secret marks drawn in chalk and taped to windows, now all relics of a devious past.
Four years later my parents and I took an infamous road trip across Europe including a much anticipated visit to Check Point Charlie which was epic disappointment. What had once been the epicenter of spy swaps, meticulously planned secret border crossings and daring breaks for freedom was transformed into a giant hole in the ground, a construction site for a shopping mall. The only memorial to a bygone era was a dilapidated beauty salon, “Hairpoint Charlie”. Our chagrin was palatable. My mother and I immediately retired to our hotel for a three day Absinthe bender eventually winding up in Cannes disoriented and in fowl tempers. As women raised on John LeCarre novels and the exploits of Kim Philby and the Cambridge Five, we saw this architectural evolution an abomination, they’d paved paradise and put up a Bed Bath and Beyond. Stick a McDonalds in the basement of the Louver, fine, but this was a bastardization of history, what next, a GAP outlet at the Lubyaka?
With the Red Menace annexed to history books I assumed the Russians had ended their spy craft hijinks. It feels good to be wrong. How delightful to learn espionage is alive and well, though, like myself, relatively ineffective and living in the suburbs. From what I’ve gleaned from the news apparently these weren't very good spies. Instructed to predict movements in American foreign policy and the Obama agenda, the quality of intel they passed along could have been recapped by watching FOX News. Reportedly they weren’t very tech savvy either a son of one of the couples said, “Espionage agents? I had to show them how to access their Yahoo account.” Embracing the part of real Americans they emulated our culture by padding expense reports and tried to shake their bosses down for extra pocket money. And for the most part they fit in, my favorite quote came from a fifteen year old neighbor, “They couldn’t have been spies,” she said jokingly. “Look what she did with the hydrangeas.”
Somewhere along the line they slipped up and I think the femme fatals are probably to blame. Somebody left the CRAFT out of spy craft. Sure they were using invisible ink, hiding stuff in fake rocks but that was gear on loan from Moscow HQ. You want to have a quality invisible ink, the kind the FBI is never going to detect, make it yourself and I’m speaking from experience here. I’ve got hundreds of documents lying around my den of thieves nobody is ever going to decrypt. In fact, they are so good, I don’t even know which ones they are anymore.
Also in all the reports I’m reading, nobody is mentioning hobbies, no knitting, terrarium building, scrabble tile necklaces, if you want to blend in these days you’d better be crafting. If you live in Montclair NJ and neighbor isn’t scrapbooking she’s a Russian sleeper agent, trust me on this. I don’t even like scrapbooking, but I do it to keep up appearances- I’ve taken to embellishing my manifestos, you’ve no idea how charming Mao’s Little Red Book looks with a few Mary Englebreit stickers in the margins.
Any decent bad guy is making a weekly supply run to JoAnne’s. Let’s say I want to whip up a ransom note, back in the day I’d be cutting up magazines one letter at a time and my lines would get all wonky, I’d have inconsistent spacing, the whole thing was a mess. Last month I picked up a sweet square shaped paper punch and the whole process is beautifully streamlined. They have machinist gloves which keep me from leaving the tell all finger prints AND help with my carpal tunnel syndrome. And there are dozens of glues to choose from to stick my letters down, one stop shopping.
As I watch the drama unfold it looks like one of the suspects made his break for freedom- well actually the government of Cyprus let the 11th spy out on a $20,000 bond and he opted not to show up in court the next day. In my mind he’s hiding in the men’s room of an east bound train in some country I can’t pronounce. He’s doctoring up a fake passport MacGyver style with travel glue a zippo lighter and some gum he found on the bottom of his shoe. In the morning he’s going to craft up a convincing disguise using a stolen porter’s jacket and some dinner napkins, that’s what cool spies do, we make stuff.
And another thing, all this talk about the “Lady in Red”, sexy Anna Chapman this and sultry redhead that… blah blah blah, fine, whatever. Once again the media misses the big picture, Mikhail Semenko, that is what a hot spy looks like, you want to come in from the cold baby, I'll give you my number, just let me grab my glue gun and we’ll plan the revolution together.