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Russians lap up the tale of a shadowy spy couple

Even though little has been disclosed about the missions of Mikhail and Yelizaveta Mukasey -- a.k.a. Zefir and Elza -- the longtime agents who traipsed the world are now heroes at home.

December 31, 2009|By Megan K. Stack

Reporting from Moscow — For five years, as the world convulsed with war, the unassuming Soviet couple rubbed elbows with the likes of Walt Disney and Orson Welles. They took in a private screening of "The Great Dictator," at the invitation of Charlie Chaplin.

Their son's earliest memories are set in Los Angeles -- the yellow house nestled in flower beds with a view of the Griffith Observatory; the animal crackers bought with the proceeds of a sidewalk lemonade stand; the author Theodore Dreiser drinking so much vodka that he crawled under the table.

Their handlers called them Zefir and Elza, and from Los Angeles they went on to roam undercover through dozens of countries, from Israel to Czechoslovakia, Soviet spies all the way.

Lost for decades in the shadows of Cold War spookery, the tale of Mikhail and Yelizaveta Mukasey has been blasted over state-controlled media this year. Yelizaveta's death this fall, as a 97-year-old widow, gave Russian officials the chance to trumpet the derring-do of the two star agents.

The story has found an eager audience. If there's one thing Russians love, it's a spy thriller, especially one that conjures up the proud days of the Soviet Union and the fading glory of World War II. Add a touch of Hollywood stardust, and so much the better.

"They are our pride, they are our glory," gushed one of many Russian commenters thrilled by an online account of the Mukaseys' exploits. "We should bring up our kids after their example."

Despite the surge of interest in the couple, hard facts are scant. Anatoly Mukasey, their 71-year-old son, says intelligence officials told him it would be 150 years before the Russian state would divulge the full extent of his parents' missions. All that remains now are the stories they told their children, and the fragmentary memories they eventually set in print.

"I don't know much about their work, and most likely I will never know," Anatoly Mukasey said, sipping tea in a crammed Starbucks near his Moscow flat. He paused. "I don't think I'd like to know all of it."

During the years of their parents' undercover operation after they left Los Angeles in 1943, he and his sister, Ella, grew up without them in Moscow. They were told nothing of their parents' whereabouts, only that they were abroad, and very busy. Meanwhile, the children lived under the care of the Soviet system.

There was their nanny, Tanya, who lived with the siblings. And then there were the men known as "monitors," who dropped by to oversee the development of the children's morals and philosophies.

"It was hard, and I was always missing my parents," Mukasey said. "They didn't say anything to us when they left. We were too little. They just went."

Sometimes, with no warning, one or both of the parents would appear at the edge of a playground or walk in the door of the flat.

"They were very short visits," Mukasey said. "I remember that they looked like my parents, but their Russian was very, very bad because for years they hadn't spoken a word of it."

Like good Soviet children, he and his sister sensed that it was better not to ask too many questions.

"We began to understand because we received typewritten letters from Mom and Dad, and every year or three, a parcel would arrive in which our parents would send us some gifts," Mukasey said. "And we understood that these were foreign things, and that they can't write a letter in their own hand, and that this is part of the work. The work is dangerous."

His parents' lives would always be shrouded in secrecy.

Even the story about the couple's first meeting, in a student canteen in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad), is so heavily adorned with idealized Soviet details that discerning fact from myth is difficult.

Nikolai Dolgopolov, deputy editor of the Russian newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta, is cited by intelligence officials as the best source of information on the couple. Dolgopolov has researched and interviewed the Mukaseys extensively, and his admiration is palpable. This is the story he tells of their first meeting:

The year was 1932, and they were both students, poor and far from home. He was the son of a Jewish family in what is now Belarus -- "a guy from a little place where every dog and kitten was killed during the fascist occupation, and he spoke five or six languages," Dolgopolov said.

She came from a family of peasants in central Russia. "She was very beautiful," Dolgopolov said. "Even when I met her she was old, you know. But very beautiful."

The young Mukasey, the story goes, caught sight of a pale slip of a young woman across a crowded lunchroom. He approached and asked where she was going. She was headed onto the streets to march in support of the international workers' holiday of May 1, she replied.

You shouldn't, he protested, you look ill. Correctly surmising that she was hovering on the edge of starvation, he bought her something to eat -- and they were together for life.

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