Anna Chapman: Agent provocateur

Anna Chapman, the “sultry Russian secret agent” who hit the headlines last year after being exposed as a deep-cover operative in the United States, says she bears no ill will towards the man who betrayed her. And why should she? Since being freed as part of a dramatic spy swap deal in Vienna in July 2010, the flame-haired daughter of a Russian career diplomat has rarely been out of the limelight, taking up a number of lucrative job offers and positioning herself for a move into big-time politics. “It was the start of something great and beautiful,” Chapman gushed on a recent Russian TV show. Or, as she puts it on her newly launched website: “The day I returned to Moscow was my second birthday.”

It wasn’t hard to predict that only good things awaited Chapman once she was safely back in Russia. The country’s all-powerful premier, Vladimir Putin, had said that Chapman and her former comrades would “work in worthy places” and have “bright, interesting lives”.

“Every single one of these people has gone through a difficult time… in the interests of their homeland,” said Putin, the ex-KGB officer. And while a number of her former colleagues have reportedly been rewarded with cushy posts at state-run companies, it is Chapman’s star that has risen by far the highest.

A month after their deportation, Putin joined up with the failed spies for a karaoke-type evening, where they crooned together the Soviet-era song – and unofficial Russian intelligence service anthem – “From Where the Motherland Begins”. After that cosy night out, things moved fast for Chapman. She was awarded a top state honour by President Dmitry Medvedev, posed for erotic – and lucrative – photos for men’s magazines, and was handed her own primetime TV show. She did, however, turn down a role in a porn film, despite being offered a “substantial” fee by the Vivid Entertainment adult-film company.

Chapman has also been made the face of the ruling United Russia party’s youth movement and has been tipped to win a seat in parliament in upcoming elections. On top of all this, she has registered her surname as a trademark; has brought out a poker app and a slew of Chapman-own products, including perfume, watches and vodka, is expected to hit the shops soon. The 29-year-old provincial Russian also has a Max Clifford-type agent to handle “commercial projects”, which include highly paid interviews and photo shoots.

The irony is, of course, that Anna Chapman is being rewarded for doing her job badly. Not only was she duped by the FBI into blowing her cover, but she apparently failed to turn up any useful information for Moscow. Espionage charges were not brought against a single member of the spy ring, as there was no indication that any classified information had been accessed. Prosecutors instead had to settle for charges of “failure to declare foreign agent status” and money laundering. Chapman and the other nine agents were exchanged for just four American spies. As US vice president Joe Biden put it: “We got back four really good ones. And the 10, they’ve been here a long time, but they hadn’t done much.”

Unlike Britain, with its traditional fondness for incompetence, Russia has never been known for its willingness to celebrate defeat. Is Chapman’s unlikely fame an indication of a startling new Russian mindset? Not quite. In an Orwellian feat of reinterpretation, dominant state-run media outlets have portrayed the Chapman saga as a feelgood story, her life held up as something to be envied, aspired to. Over New Year, the Channel One TV station ran a This is Your Life-style tribute to Chapman, described by the host as “without any exaggeration, the woman of the year”. The programme kicked off with shaky home-video footage of the spy-to-be as a Soviet schoolgirl reciting poetry and giggling into the camera before Chapman herself, dressed in a figure-hugging green outfit, strode into the studio to warm applause from the audience. “I have to say, you look even better than in your photos,” the host enthused. During the hour-long programme, Chapman’s childhood friends, grandmother and “first love” were all rolled out to pay tribute, and Chapman had the good grace to blush a red as deep as her hair. “She is worthy of applause because she worked abroad for our nation,” a celebrity guest – Soviet-era TV star Anna Shatilova – exclaimed.

Chapman didn’t give much away during the show, sticking to cliché and aphorism for the most part. When asked about her deportation from the US, she replied: “I believe that everything that happens is for the best.” She did, however, drop a hint about a possible new television role. “Watch your screens next year,” she advised viewers. “I’ll reveal all the secrets.”

This turned out to be her catchphrase as presenter of Mysteries of the World with Anna Chapman, a weekly “investigative” show that launched in January. “The most mysterious woman in Russia presents the most mysterious show,” the programme’s producer Mikhail Tukmachev promised in promo ads.

In the first episode Chapman looked into claims that verses from the Koran had been appearing on the skin of a young boy from Russia’s North Caucasus republic of Dagestan. Not that Chapman actually visited the volatile region, home to more than 50% of terrorist attacks in Russia in 2010. For that a – presumably expendable – male reporter was dispatched, leaving Chapman to pop up on the screen every now and then in an eye-catching red and black outfit. Subsequent shows have seen similar studio-based investigations by Chapman into topics including demonic possession and the fate of St Petersburg’s famous lost Amber Room, which disappeared after being looted by Nazi troops in the Second World War. In case you were wondering, she didn’t find it.

Ren TV, one of the few non state-run television companies left in Russia, screens the show. But producer Tukmachev denies that the appearance of a figure with obvious Kremlin connections is a sign that the channel is slowly losing whatever modicum of independence it may enjoy. “Nothing has changed at the channel since the arrival of Chapman,” he tells me. “As you can see, there is nothing political about the programme at all.

“The idea for the show came about quite spontaneously,” Tukmachev adds. “I was having a meeting with Chapman, and we came up with the theme of mysteries – one that both of us find interesting. She had no previous experience, of course, but she learns quicker than most.”

But why did the show’s glamorous presenter not get out and about and try to uncover the truth herself? Why was she largely confined to a sterile Moscow studio?

“Well, she can’t do everything,” Tukmachev says.

And yet, not CONTENT with conquering the world of show business, Chapman is also carving out a career for herself as a politician. In late 2010 she joined the leadership of Molodaya Gvardiya (Young Guard), the youth wing of Putin’s United Russia. The movement – along with a similar group called Nashi (Ours) – is widely viewed as a potential Kremlin weapon against what officials here nervously call the “orange scenario”, a reference to the street protest-inspired revolution that swept pro-western politician Viktor Yushchenko to power in neighbouring Ukraine in 2004. In 2005 the then-Nashi leader Vasily Yakemenko announced that if such a thing were ever to occur in Russia he would make one call to his “colleagues in the Spartak Moscow FC fan movement”, and they would “assemble 5,000 of their supporters to chase away those who came out on the streets in support of western-backed politicians”.

Moscow remains nervous about the possibility of an Egypt-style uprising. Young Guard was recently instructed by Kremlin ideologist Vladislav Surkov to get ready for the 2011 parliamentary and 2012 presidential polls. “Prepare yourselves for the elections, and train your brains and your muscles,” he told group members at a meeting in Moscow in December. “The polls must be won by Medvedev, Putin and United Russia.” Surkov’s pep talk came shortly after Young Guard had posted images of a number of “traitor” journalists on its website with the words “Will Be Punished” stamped on them.

One of the journalists, Oleg Kashin, who had written extensively about pro-Kremlin and United Russia youth groups, was later beaten almost to death outside his home by unidentified assailants. Young Guard denied any involvement and took Kashin’s photo off its site.

Naturally this unpleasantness was missing from Chapman’s debut speech at a Young Guard congress late last year. A wisp of hair hanging over one eye, a smiling Chapman urged some 2,000 delegates to “transform the future, starting with ourselves”. “If all of us were joyful, we could do something useful and new,” she continued over the low-level buzz of chatter. “There would,” she revealed, “be less negativity in society if every single one of us woke up with a smile on our face.” Chapman declined to reveal how Russians were to put aside the country’s most crippling problems – corruption, alcoholism and rampant police brutality, to name just three – and start the day with a ready-made grin. She made a speedy exit, avoiding waiting journalists with the “deftness of a former secret agent”, as one blogger put it. The speech was much played on Russian TV.

Like her political message, Chapman’s role in the Young Guard movement has so far been unclearly defined. One week she is helping to “educate the youth of Russia” and “increase patriotism”, while the next she is advising on “business issues” or “modernisation”. Young Guard leader Timur Prokopenko dubbed his newest recruit “a hero of her generation”. I call him to clarify. “Well, her biography and everything that has been written about her has made her very popular – a hero – among students and young girls,” he tells me. But did he share their attitude? “As the leader of a youth organisation,” he replies tactfully, “I am obliged to support their opinion.”

Chapman may not be confined to youth politics for long. United Russia has pencilled her in as a candidate for December’s parliamentary polls, and she is expected to stand – and win – in her hometown of Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad. “The party needs young beautiful girls,” senior United Russia official Frants Klintsevich commented. “She can bring more supporters with her. She’s a smart, sharp person.” Or as former newsreader and political analyst Samir Shakhbaz told me: “She’s kind of a role model, and she has lots of fans. She lived the dream of many young people here to be a 007-type figure, or at least the Russian version of it.”

United Russia’s ranks are already swelling with celebrities, from footballers Andrei Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko to a host of domestic pop and rock stars. One famous face Chapman will not be meeting at rallies, however, is former Bolshoi Theatre prima ballerina Anastasia Volochkova, who angrily quit the party last month. “They weren’t interested in any projects I suggested,” she explained. “They just used me to advertise the party. And I have no desire to prostitute myself.” In Chapman – dubbed “Agent 90-60-90” by Russian tabloids because of her centimetre figure measurements – United Russia has a ready-made replacement for the glamorous Volochkova. And one that – for now at least – has no objections to being used solely for her looks and fame.

But despite her ubiquity, it’s arguable whether Chapman is popular among ordinary Russians. As ever in this country, it’s the internet where people’s true feelings find a voice. And Russia’s assorted bloggers and message-board users seem to be unequivocal in their disdain.

“Citizen of the world Anna Chapman is undoubtedly the major hero of our vast country,” writes one user on Live Journal – Russia’s most popular blogging platform. “We all also dream of dropping our knickers abroad and stealing enemy secrets.” “A true symbol of our time!” offers another. “How we need such people! Those ready to join whatever they are told to! To sleep with whomever they are told to!” Other comments are more explicit, involving combinations of the words “Putin” and “whore”.

Ex-spies are supposed to disappear quietly, and Chapman’s lust for publicity has upset many former members of the Russian intelligence community. “No real professional would act like this. It’s a disgrace to see how she is cashing in on her past,” an ex-operative said on the day of her television debut. “After all,” he added, after insisting on anonymity, “it’s not like she did anything she should be proud of.”

It can seem that Chapman has been thrust upon the Russians. But it’s not so easy to fathom why. Is she simply a sharp operator who has skilfully turned disaster into triumph? Or is she being manipulated, willingly or otherwise, by the powers that be? For now Chapman is giving almost nothing away. Not for free, anyhow.

Marc Bennetts is the author of Football Dynamo (Virgin Books) and is now writing a book about Russia’s fascination with the occult