The American spy incident is beginning to accumulate details. These details are comical; it is not the American film “Terminal,” in which a person gets stranded in an airport, nor is it our film of old, “The Adventures of Italians in Russia.” In that story, a passport-less treasure hunter becomes a sort of Flying Dutchman, wandering among countries. In this case, a spy has gotten stuck in Sheremetevo because his American passport has been canceled — who would’ve thought? — and he has no Ecuadorean papers — which is really strange.
The story is getting interesting mainly due to its comic nature. However, the spy theme in popular culture is supposed to be tragic. Femmes-fatales, poison, shooting — and, of course, death. Everything takes place, if not under cover of darkness, then under cover of secrecy. It chills the blood and all that. But in this case everything is public, with a throng of journalists crowding onto a plane only to find that the main attraction is not on it. And so, journalists around the world are trying to guess where he will disappear: Spain, Ecuador — or will he just stay in Russia?
It’s all somehow terribly gauche.
But, you see, the average citizen’s knowledge of espionage — i.e., the activities of the secret service in general — is based on cinema. It is namely the filmmaker who forms the [average citizen's] notion of "how everything's supposed to work": how they steal information and how they protect it, how specially trained people change countries and continents, how they kill and how they save lives.
When the average citizen runs into reality, it often evokes his irritation: When hostages die in the process of their liberation, he is indignant. After all, in the movies everything is different — they kill a few characters, and the rest are rescued by the hero or heroes.
But in real life, some gloomy people who don’t know how to spin things make it known that the hostages are for all intents and purposes dead, that it’s nearly impossible for the guard to stop the sniper and that most of the information is being mined from open sources by their tedious coworkers.
I'm beginning to get the impression, moreover, that in times past pop culture was modeled on the example of intelligence officers and spies, but now spies and intel officers themselves follow the [example of] the movies. How else to explain their collective singing of “Where the Motherland Begins” from the film “The Shield and the Sword,” and their love of Stierlitz*? Strange as it may seem, the most important thing here is not the immediate success of the intel service, but finding a favorable spin.
Among the many stories of intelligence officers is the story of the famous Rudolf Abel. After the exchange with Powers, Abel wasn’t allowed anywhere, but he was occasionally consulted on complicated cases. A certain man — this story was told by some turncoat — caught Abel in a terrible mood. It turned out that they had called him for advice when they had to snuff a colleague abroad. He asked him: “What’s the matter, ya feel sorry for him? Ya knew him personally?”
“No,” answered the upset Abel, “but just look what they’ve come up with — entering a cabin disguised as a steward, wrapping a dumbbell in a towel and whacking him on the head. He’s at fault, so ya gotta snuff him, no question. But the style of it all — the style!”
And so it is here. The public’s consciousness, brought up on heroic and tragic spy films, tries to put seriousness back into the subject. People are starting to talk about a trade between the Russians and Americans for Snowden, finding in it some kind of explanation. We need to bring out the heavy artillery: President Putin himself, standing on Finnish soil, said that there was no talk of an exchange, that none of our people wanted to recruit an American and that in general he could leave Sheremetevo for wherever he likes.
Toward the end, however, everything returned to comedy — thanks to the president’s comment on shearing a piglet. Of course, he didn’t mean that an American spy is similar to a piglet. Rather, that “the incident with Snowden is similar to another: the incident with Assange. They both consider themselves defenders of human rights and declare that they are fighting for the dissemination of information. Ask yourself: Is it necessary to extradite such people so that they land in prison? One way or another, I’d prefer not to deal with such questions; all the same, it’s like shearing a piglet — you get lots of squealing, but not much wool.”**
At any rate, in the example of the lost American it is evident how espionage style is drifting from that of James Bond films to that of the famous French “The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe.”
*Translator’s Note: Stierlitz is a fictional Soviet spy hero.
**Translator’s Note: This quote is in reference to a Russian fairy tale, also made into a cartoon, roughly equivalent to “Much Ado About Nothing.”