Real Russian Spies Don’t Live Up to ‘The Americans’

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- “The Americans,” the TV show about Russian agents embedded in the U.S. in the 1980s, has gone out with a bang, winning two Emmy Awards for its final season. It’s getting no prizes from me, though, for its portrayal of Russian spies so implausibly effective and resourceful that I suspect it made it easier for actual Americans to leap to premature conclusions about Trump-Russia collusion. 

“The Americans” was, indeed, unusual for a U.S.-made spy drama about Russians. It’s literally the only one I’ve seen — and, like many Russians, I take a perverse pleasure in watching this sort of thing, so I’ve seen a lot of them — in which Russian-language dialogue is not cringe-worthy. The last three seasons of the series owe a lot to Masha Gessen, the Russian-born author and journalist hired to translate the dialogue.

Gessen took the job seriously, rendering the lines in the idiomatic Russian of the late Soviet era, which is strikingly different from the modern version, heavy with new slang and Anglicisms. Every time I heard my mother tongue, I tensed up out of habit, expecting to be embarrassed, but then relaxed almost immediately: Gessen’s dialogue flowed naturally.

But the attention to detail, what Gessen called a “quest for uncanny accuracy,” has played a trick on the producers and, by extension, on the viewers. A team so professional about covering all the bases probably had to make a series about a spy team of impeccably trained professionals.

The main characters are a married couple with two kids living a seemingly ordinary American life as Elizabeth and Philip Jennings in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Their real names are Nadezhda and Mikhail, and they're masters of disguise, martial-arts killing machines, fail-safe seducers and lightning-quick thinkers. For all their personal insecurities and twisted back stories, they're superspies in a mold traditionally reserved for Western agents. That, of course, was part of the authors’ grand design: Americans, with their ingrained respect for achievement, are more likely to sympathize with leading characters who are top-notch at their jobs. 

It’s also flattering to think that an adversary spares no effort when plotting against your country. The asymmetrical Russian answer to “The Americans” — a series titled “Sleepers,” whose second season ran on state-controlled Channel One earlier this year — plays the same trick on the audience, showing how well U.S. agents in Russia disguise themselves and how efficiently they operate, always keeping the Russian intelligence services a step behind.

The reality is different, and if the real-life events that inspired “The Americans” didn’t make that point clearly enough, their recent echoes should. 

In 2010, the Federal Bureau of Investigation caught 10 Russian operatives posing as ordinary Americans. They never got their hands on classified information or assassinated anyone; they were supposedly working quietly for years to identify potential sources of intelligence in the U.S. All pleaded guilty to “conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government within the United States without notifying the U.S. Attorney General” — the same type of “espionage lite” that Russian gun rights activist Maria Butina stands accused of today. Immediately after confessing, the 10 were flown to Vienna and traded for four people convicted of spying in Russia, including former military intelligence colonel Sergey Skripal.

I’ve met the most famous of the 10, Anna Chapman, who had lived in the U.S. under her own name. I was working for a Russian book publisher when she arrived in Russia and quickly became a darling of all the tabloids both there and in the West, and I wanted to discuss a possible book deal with her. It didn’t work out because Chapman had no compelling story to tell. Not even the FBI knew of her doing anything remotely exciting or successful.

That didn’t stop Chapman, a talented self-marketer, from exploiting her newfound fame as a Mata Hari. She pouted, holding a big gun (not that she’d ever had to shoot one), in ads for an iPhone poker application: “Hey! Wanna play poker tete-a-tete?”

Skripal went on to a different kind of fame in March, 2018, when he and his daughter were nearly killed by a military-grade nerve agent in the U.K. The two men suspected of carrying out the poisoning traveled on passports in the names of Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov. Witnesses say they smoked weed and romped with a prostitute in a cheap hotel before the operation. When they were recently paraded on a Kremlin propaganda channel, they spoke their lines so unconvincingly and displayed such a lack of sophistication that social networks in Russia and the U.K. exploded with ridicule. Of course, the poisoning itself failed, too, unlike the assassinations in “The Americans.”

The indictments of Russians obtained by Special Counsel Robert Mueller in the course of his inquiry into 2016 election interference meant to boost the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump, also point to a degree of bungling, unsophisticated opportunism on the part of alleged Russian spies that would be impossible in the world of “The Americans.”

The military intelligence hackers accused of stealing U.S. Democrats’ emails weren’t particularly careful about covering their tracks or inventive in their hacking techniques. The employees of a St. Petersburg troll farm who allegedly tried to sow division among Americans using social networks didn’t speak or write the accent-free American English of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings. That the spear phishers, unsophisticated hackers and C-student trolls managed to get results, stealing sensitive materials and getting Americans to organize rallies, is humiliating for Americans in the same way “The Americans” flatters them by portraying Russian operatives as super-agents.

While the actual Russian operations — at least the ones that have been in the news — point to a mocking, smirking lack of respect for the adversary on the part of President Vladimir Putin’s intelligence and propaganda apparatus, “The Americans” mapped out swirling, chess-like plots played with flair and technical brilliance. That's what helped shape Americans perceptions of the Kremlin threat.

“It’s so interesting that the show is so much about protecting ourselves and how Russia is getting into our business,” U.S. Representative Scott Peters told the Washington Post. “And on a macro level, it raises concerns about whether we’re doing enough now, and the fear is that we’re not.”

That fear lends credibility to complex theories about collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. In the world of “The Americans,” the president as a Russian agent would be a plausible plot twist. Those waiting for Mueller to unearth a finely honed Russian operation behind Trump's victory are, in effect, hoping for yet another season of the TV drama.

I’m not saying they’re hoping in vain. But the public evidence of Russian intelligence and propaganda work against the U.S. is so far much more prosaic than “The Americans.” The Kremlin is more adept at wielding an axe than a scalpel — and happier at it, too. Imbuing it with sinister genius makes the end product even more fake than bad Russian dialogue would have. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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