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Russian spy wins adulation at home

Anna Chapman, deported to Russia after her arrest in New York, is sought after by political leaders and businesses and has appeared in Russia's Maxim in just her skivvies. But not everyone's thrilled with the hoopla.

October 22, 2010|By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Moscow — Two weeks ago, she turned up at the launch of a rocket carrying two cosmonauts and an American astronaut to the International Space Station.

On Monday, she appeared at the Kremlin, along with her nine fellow spies deported from the U.S., to receive Russia's highest honor from President Dmitry Medvedev.

And on Thursday, her image graced the glossy cover of the Russian edition of Maxim magazine. She was clad in lacy black underwear, with a big gun in her hand.

Talk about exposure. Anna Chapman, the red-haired, 28-year-old Mata Hari busted by the FBI and returned home with her fellow sleeper agents in July, is not exactly the spy who went back into the cold.

If anything, Chapman, also known as Anna Kushchenko, has become an even bigger media sensation than in the tabloid-tinged days following her June arrest in New York on charges of conspiring to act as an unregistered agent of the Russian Federation.

Moreover, Russia's top political leaders and businesses appear in a headlong rush to capitalize on her celebrity, all but tripping over each other to cozy up to her.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who some believe may run in the 2012 presidential election and seems to be perpetually in campaign mode, sang a patriotic song from his favorite World War II spy movie with Chapman and her secret-agent comrades in July.

"They needed to master a foreign tongue as their own," an admiring Putin said. "Think, speak in it, fulfill the goals of the mission in the interests of their motherland in the course of many years, not counting on diplomatic protection."

Putin went on to express confidence that Chapman and her fellow agents would "find worthy employment and that their life will be bright and interesting."

Among such presumably interesting times was the closed-door awards session hosted by Medvedev. "Top state awards were presented to SVR [foreign intelligence service] staff members in a ceremony in the Kremlin on Monday, including to the intelligence agents who worked in the United States and returned to Russia in July," announced Kremlin spokeswoman Natalya Timakova.

Not everyone, however, is bowled over by the ongoing publicity blitz for a spy who was, after all, caught in the act.

"The Kremlin now wants to present a huge failure of our foreign undercover operations as a tremendous success … singing praise to the spies and bestowing awards on them trying to make the public believe it was a great achievement," Alexei Kondaurov, a retired KGB general said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

Although the Kremlin event produced no photos or television coverage, Chapman did appear in public this month at the Kazakhstan launch of the space-bound trio. She was dispatched to the Baikonur Cosmodrome by the formerly obscure FundServiceBank, which has become one of the most mentioned credit organizations in Russia since it hired her Oct. 1 as an advisor to the bank's president.

"She advises our bank's president on innovations," Yulia Yershova, a spokeswoman said in a phone interview with The Times. "She went to Baikonur to pursue one of her projects on space research."

Chapman enjoys a free schedule at the bank, Yershova added, since "she has her other job too."

Make that jobs.

Her sultry turn in Maxim means that Chapman is the first returned spy ever to appear on the cover of a Russian men's magazine.

"Anna will go down in history as the woman who boldly broke the old stereotypes connected with intelligence agents," Ilya Bezugly, editorial director of the magazine said. "She is doing so much to stir a feeling of patriotism among the male population of Russia."

"No one ever spoke of our spies as cool," he added in a phone interview with The Times. "But as she so open-mindedly poses with a gun in her hand on our cover, the time has come to abandon the Soviet perception of reality and enter a new age."

In an interview that accompanied the photo spread, Chapman posits: "The most negative feeling toward a man I am capable of is pity."

She also says she "doesn't have any bad memories" of her life in the United States and that the most surprising thing for her in America was the fact that "if you pronounce the word 'better' with a British accent, 90% of Americans will not understand you."

Looking toward her future, Chapman said she dreamed of "opening interesting, creative projects, putting the soul in them, helping my teammates realize their talents, make people happy."

But former counter-spy Kondaurov is not happy about the public relations "circus."

"When you have nothing positive to show to your people, you start showing them your muscles, fly planes and sing songs in the company of good-for-nothing spies," he said.

"I don't know what feat of glory or bravery Anna Chapman committed on a mission abroad to be worthy of a high state award, but posing semi-naked on a glossy magazine cover is truly something unique in the history of our intelligence service but very much in line with the new ways of the Kremlin, which turns everything into a circus," Kondaurov said. "I am deeply ashamed and hurt by what they have done to the image of the profession I devoted most of my life to."

sergei.loiko@latimes.com

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