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Moscow Toasts Suspected Spies

  • James Brooke

An internet user looks at a facebook page dedicated to Anna Chapman in Paris on July 23, 2010

An internet user looks at a facebook page dedicated to Anna Chapman in Paris on July 23, 2010

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sang old KGB songs with them and Anna Chapman's Facebook website page is the most visited in Russia. Russians are toasting the 10 alleged sleeper spies that the United States sent home earlier this month.

The suspected Russian spies have been kept out of sight since they were whisked out of a Moscow airport three weeks ago in vans with tinted windows. But behind the scenes, they are getting star treatment. A few days ago, they had a sing along with Prime Minister Putin, who is a former KGB agent. It was no karaoke, Mr. Putin said, but singing of such agency favorites as "What the Motherland Begins With."

In televised comments, Mr. Putin spoke sympathetically of the difficult life of a spy. He said the 10 people deported from the United States will be well taken care of. "I'm sure they will be offered good jobs," he said. "And I am sure they will have interesting, bright lives."

In response to a reporter's question, Mr. Putin confirmed the group included Anna Kushchenko, better known in the west as Anna Chapman.

An Anna Chapman cult has grown up in Russia, fueled in part by nude photographs provided by her former British husband. According to LiveInternet, a statistics website, Chapman's Facebook page is the now most visited webpage on the social network in Russia. With Russian tabloid newspapers referring her to "Agent 90-60-90," a reference to her figure, the Russian press is feverishly trying to interview Chapman, with offers reportedly reaching $250,000.

New York lawyer, Robert Baum says Chapman is not "shopping" her story. Her plea agreement with U.S. prosecutors forbids her from making money by selling her story in a book or movie form. In the United States, the Internet website is selling three action figure Anna Chapman dolls. One, called "The Spy I Could Love," shows Chapman topless, wearing only a plaid kilt and carrying a large black pistol.

Moscow's rumor mill worked overtime last week with speculation that Chapman would join Angelina Jolie for the Sunday premiere of the Hollywood movie Salt, a Russian-American spy thriller. But the thousands of Muscovites who endured 35 degree temperatures outside the Oktyabr theater on New Arbat street had to content themselves with glimpses of Jolie. She wore a floor length Versace gown in a color she called "Russian red." During the movie's showing, the audience cheered when Jolie's character revealed her Russian identity.

The movie opens across Russia on Thursday, and theaters report that advance ticket sales are strong.

Prime Minister Putin's public identification with the deported spies is part of his image-building strategy, analysts here say.

Alexander Minkin is a columnist for the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper.

"When I heard that he sang songs with the returned, ransomed spies, I really loved it. I really loved it. This is absolutely so much his style. He simply showed everyone who is in charge here. He arrogantly spat on respectability. Russians probably adored that," he said.

In Volgograd, Anna Chapman's hometown, a newspaper has started a song contest in honor of their native daughter. One entry has the chorus, "Hands off our Anya; Freedom for Anya Chapman."

From the other side of the U.S.-Russia swap on July 9th, one of the Russians sent to the West might be homesick. Igor Sutyagin, a Russian arms researcher who rejected accusations of being a spy, wrote a letter to the media last week vowing to return to his homeland.

"I very much want to see my wife, daughter, parents and my brother," he wrote in a letter posted on his website. Referring to his riverside cottage, he promised, "I plan eventually to return to Obninsk and fix the by now completely rickety porch of our little house."

But, at a recent press conference in Ukraine, Prime Minister Putin held out little hope of Sutyagin's return.

"Traitors always meet with a bad end. As a rule, they end up drunk or drugged in a ditch,' he said.'

In response to a reporter's question, Mr. Putin said he knew the names of those who betrayed the spy ring in the United States. Asked whether he planned to punish them, he replied:

"Such questions cannot be decided at a news conference. The special services have their own laws, which all service members are aware of," Putin said

Back in Moscow, U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Beyrle said the larger U.S.-Russia relationship has not been damaged by the spy affair.

"U.S.-Russian relations right now are as strong as they have been for quite some time, and nothing that has happened in connection with this spy exchange has done anything to change that," he said.

For many in Moscow, the spy affair might be remembered as a welcome diversion from the most pressing issue at hand -- a severe summer drought and the hottest temperatures on record.