Anna Chapman: The spy who came into the wrong restaurant...
She is Russia's super-agent pin-up, or so the story goes. But on a chaotic rendezvous in Moscow, Shaun Walker finds her a hapless – if charming – date
The videos and documents released this week by the FBI from the absurdly named Operation Ghost Stories reminded me of the lunch I had back in March with Anna Chapman, the most recognisable of the 10 "deep cover" Russian spies to be deported from the US last summer. Organised with extreme difficulty, and strictly "off the record", the flame-haired spy met me in a posh Moscow restaurant, and ever since, we have been sporadically in touch by email.
Chapman has refused to break her silence about her activities in the US, the deportation last summer and the spies' subsequent patriotic singalong session with Vladimir Putin, Russia's Prime Minister, but the way she interacts has often left me wondering just how on top of things she really is.
In contrast to the quiet lives that disgraced spies normally lead, Chapman has been promoted as a new kind of Russian hero since her return, making public appearances, giving speeches at universities, and joining a pro-Kremlin youth organisation.
But things have not always gone smoothly for her, and this week's revelations have further reinforced my own feeling that she may not be fully on top of things in the face of the FBI releases plus new allegations that a patriotic column she wrote for a Russian newspaper about the poet Alexander Pushkin had been crudely plagiarised from the writings of a controversial political spin-doctor.
I wrote to Chapman on Monday evening, asking for some comment on the Operation Ghost Stories release, that had been strangely timed for Hallowe'en. "You must have seen these videos and documents today," I asked. "Any comment?"
"No. Where?" came the reply. She apparently had no idea what I was talking about, even though the disclosure had been the top story on several Russian news websites for much of the day.
The videos show Ms Chapman and some of the other Russian agents performing covert handovers, burying packages and attending clandestine meetings. Some of the agents sent back to Russia were clearly professionals, such as Mikhail Vasenkov, who for several decades had lived as a Uruguayan named Juan Lazaro and supposedly concealed his real name and nationality even from his wife, even though he was spying for Russia the whole time.
But Ms Chapman cuts a slightly less impressive figure from reading the documents. She confirmed her identity to an FBI officer pretending to be a Russian agent and proposing to hand a faked passport to her. When she bought a temporary sim card to make a call to Moscow that could not be traced, the FBI found she had registered the purchase at the address "99 Fake Street". Not exactly Bond-like cunning.
My own encounter with her was bizarre to say the least. After an email exchange that dragged on interminably, I finally got her to agree on a time and a place for lunch; a restaurant just near Moscow's Olympic Stadium. When I arrived at the appointed time, I sent her an email telling her I was at the restaurant, and she wrote back, "Look for me. In the corner. In brown." It was a small, one-room restaurant, and there was a woman in the corner wearing brown. It was not Anna Chapman.
Feeling like a complete fool, I walked up to her and asked, "Were you... sent by Anna?" I wondered if the woman would divulge a further secret location where I should meet the spy, but instead she looked at me with a mixture of confusion and annoyance. There was no Le Carré plot: Chapman had simply got confused and gone to the restaurant next door.
We talked for a couple of hours, though it was all off the record. Chapman speaks fluent English with the lightest of accents, and is a good conversationalist, though she seemed to have a surprising lack of knowledge about various aspects of Britain and British life for somebody who had spent several years living in the country.
And as much as I wanted to dislike her, there is no doubt that she is possessed of a surprising warmth. The disarming good looks and coquettishness are matched with a charm that comes across as very genuine, and it is not hard to see how she might have helped Russian intelligence by, um, enticing her male targets into divulging information.
How successful she will be at her new, possibly Kremlin-directed, career as a patriotic symbol, is unclear. From meeting her, I got the distinct impression that she admires the UK and US deeply and misses living in the West. Her public persona is a little different, with her speeches full of patriotic exhortations. The fact that she has to copy them from elsewhere, as revealed with her column this week, speaks volumes for the sincerity of the sentiments.
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