Most unmasked spies tend to spend the twilight of their lives in quiet retirement, never appearing in public or disclosing their whereabouts. Not so Anna Chapman, the notorious redhead who was part of the Russian sleeper ring busted by US agents last summer. This weekend she was beamed into millions of Russian homes, fronting the first episode of a new prime-time television series, in another sign that she is revelling in her new-found celebrity.
Ms Chapman's debut programme, called Secrets of the World, aired on Friday evening, and was merely the latest venture in her energetic publicity campaign. Previously, she has posed semi-naked for a men's magazine, attended a rocket launch, been presented with a tiger cub on a television chat show, and become a leader of the youth wing of Vladimir Putin's political party.
The hour-long weekly show features Ms Chapman and a team of reporters looking into various bizarre occurrences and unexplained mysteries. On Friday, she was investigating the strange case of a baby born in Russia's troubled southern republic of Dagestan, on whose skin subsequently appeared verses from the Koran. "I'm Anna Chapman," she said at the start of the programme, flicking her famous red hair suggestively and pouting at the camera. "And I'll reveal all the secrets."
One mystery the flame-haired spy will not be delving into, however, is what exactly she got up to in the US, and how successful she was at uncovering any real secrets during her time there. Some security analysts have suggested that she and the other nine spies arrested by the FBI last June and deported to Russia in July were laughably incompetent, failing to uncover anything of useful value. Others say that their roles as sleeper agents would have been about identifying potential contacts and passing them on to other agents, and that it's impossible to say what success they had.
Despite the dubious levels of success in their work, the 10 spies have been feted as heroes in Russia, the President, Dmitry Medvedev, giving them state awards, and Prime
Minister, Vladimir Putin, himself a former KGB agent, singing patriotic songs with them. According to Russian media reports, two of the 10 have been given jobs working as advisers in major Russian oil companies. However, all of them except Ms Chapman have kept an extremely low profile.
Ms Chapman, on the other hand, has revelled in the limelight. She appears to be doing so with the tacit blessing of the Kremlin, keen to salvage something from the disastrous spy scandal. The 10 are believed to have been compromised by a traitor in the ranks of the SVR, Russia's foreign intelligence service, who fled to the US just before the arrests were made.
Despite her high public profile, the former spy has refused to disclose any details about her activities in the US or her arrest. Nevertheless, Ms Chapman gave intriguing hints at her past career during Friday night's programme. While discussing the theory that the child's parents might have faked the Koranic verses using henna, she said, "I've been to Arab countries and I've seen how they do it there." At one point she claimed that "her sources" in Dagestan had told her that the lives of the Koran baby's family were at risk. "They didn't want to speak to any journalists," she said. "But I managed to talk them round."
In reality, though, Ms Chapman's participation in the programme lacked any Bond-girl antics, and her role was restricted to providing in-studio segues between video clips while pouting suggestively. And the programme itself, with its eclectic mix of bearded "experts", melodramatic music, and repeated gruesome shots of bodies covered in stigmata, was more Brass Eye than Panorama.
Future episodes will be dedicated to the fate of the famous Amber Room, looted by the Nazis during the Second World War and subsequently lost, as well as the case of a four-year-old boy from near Moscow who is alleged to have spontaneously combusted last year.
"We'll meet again, exactly a week from now," said Ms Chapman before the closing credits. Having taken a leadership role in Mr Putin's Young Guard youth group, secured this series, and become a regular fixture in Russia's glossy magazines, it seems as if Russians will be seeing a lot more of Ms Chapman in the future.