Craving Cold War

Back in late 2008, when Pajamas Media was still having me write articles on Russia (they’ve since stopped asking, I think, because I wasn’t anti-Russian enough), I noted that Americans and Russians long for the return of the Cold War.  Those were the days when “new Cold War” books were all the rage and Russia and American were engaging in some good old proxy warfare in Georgia and Ukraine.  In America, Russia was evil again and that was a good thing.  In Russia, America was evil again and that was a good thing too.  Americaphobes and Russophobes rejoiced in unison.

Enter Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev.  Two “thaw” presidents in their respective countries looking to reform their respective kingdoms in the wake of economic calamity.  The former called for a “new” America, the latter called for a “modernized” Russia.  Both were simply mimicking what their forefathers had strove to do, albeit in their own rhetorical ways.  On their respective domestic fronts the “new” America and the “modernized” Russia continue to look like the “old” America and the “backward” Russia.

While domestics alluded them, their tone vis-a-vis each other shifted.  The “new Cold War” rhetoric of 2008 quickly went from nostalgia to melancholy with the Obama Administration’s aim to “reset” relations with Russia.  The US was looking for some Russian acquiescence in dealing with Iran, and the Russians were looking for investment from the West.  The lovefest, while lacking much by way of anything concrete, nevertheless provided the kindle for a warmer atmosphere. The moves made Neo-Cold Warriors look as if they were barking at the moon. Obama and Medvedev consummated their matrimony with a couple of burgers and fries.

Love was in the air.  That was until 11 spies were uncovered on the Eastern seaboard.  Ten were busted, one flew the coop.  Their mission was to gather information that according to most could have been found in the press and on the internet.  Most of all, it seemed that the scandal would set the stage for Russia and the US to return to their natural place as adversaries.  The Cold War seemed to be on the verge of being back, baby.  Career Russophobes like Ed Lucas were off to see how often the word “chekist” could be tweeted.  The more zany clocked long hours trying to map the six degrees of separation between Anna Chapman’s Facebook friends as if they revealed some deeper conspiracy.  After a brief respite, the Cold War seemed back.  Bolsheviks were breeding once again, this time at our neighborhood barbecues.

Then Obama and Medvedev pissed on the parade.  The spy scandal was much ado about nothing, the duo assured us; especially since the US Justice Department seemed to not have enough to even charge the ten with espionage.  Even the often demonized spymaster Putin laughed off the affair as business as usual.

Nevertheless, though a Cold War redux was dashed, the two-week reality show proved once again that a cultural desire for it lingered.  For most people the desire wasn’t for the real Cold War taste with all its accompanying political fats and calories, but a more processed, nay, produced version to titillate our imaginations.  For the Cold War gives us something the dreaded Wahabbis never can:  to quote Kramer, “The high stakes game of world diplomacy and international intrigue.” Only other white people can do that, and the Russians are just “white” enough.

For a good week it was like old school James Bond all over again. Sexy spy chicks looking to infiltrate the rich and famous, deep cover agents posing a “normal” Americans, aliases, intrigue, disappearing ink, safe drops, secret cables, and spy vs. spy lingo.  The American media was overjoyed.  Between rerun reporting of the BP oil spill, another Lindsay Lohan meltdown, or the LeBronathon, the spy scandal was a breath of fresh air.

Even the British were eager to jump on the bandwagon. In a desperate move to appear relevant as a nation, the British struggled to worm its way into the performance.  MI5 jumped into the fray with its own investigation into the extent Anna Chapman went to honey trap British officials and elites. The security agency even dropped hints that there were at least 500 spies snooping on British soil.

The real exploiters of the spy scandal were the tabloids.  They immediately latched on to Chapman transforming her from a sweet Slavic cutie who lived on Facebook and hung out in Manhattan clubs to a genuine scarlet harlot.  Former lovers were coming out of the woodwork with tales of hot sex spurred on by pantyless stripteases and the sensual sounds of her Russian accent. All of this quickly culminated in the money shot: Chapman nudie pics.  The Russian redhead was now an international star.  Even Jay Leno and VP Joe Biden couldn’t help but mention the sexpot.  The reinstalled Tonight Show host, better known for bad sickly sweet vanilla jokes, asked the VP on a recent appearance: “Are our spies this hot?” “It was not my idea to send her back. I thought they’d take Rush Limbaugh,” Biden retorted. In all, the Culture Industry couldn’t have orchestrated a better PR campaign to generate interest in Angelina Jolie’s upcoming spy thriller, Salt. A sexy “deep cover” Russian spy plotting to kill the US President?  I’m there.  All of it showed that almost twenty years dead, the Cold War still packed some potential entertainment punch.

As for the rest of the spy crew, after a string of articles about how the enemy lives among us, interest in them quickly faded.  It turns out living a suburban life is pretty damn boring.  The only thing scandalous among the suburban spies was how messed up their kids were going to be now that they found out that mommy and daddy weren’t who they said they were.  To make matters worse, the US government sent the kids back to Mother Russia, which one presumes would only redouble the trauma.  How things have changed! If Russia was still Communist, the young-ins would have been paraded all over the media, igniting a movement not seen since Elian Gonzalez to keep them in the righteous US .  They would have been the figureheads for this century’s equivalent to the John Birch Society. But alas, in these post-Cold War times, you’re left to rot unless you’re wearing a burka, and even then you only get your fifteen minutes if an invasion of your country is in the works or a Western friendly “movement” is looking to overthrow your despotic regime.

In the end, the spy scandal had a rather twisted, metatextual but ultimately anticlimactic narrative.  It was Ian Fleming, Hustler‘s “Hot Letters,” and the Coneheads all rolled into one. The script didn’t work not because of the content–all the necessary subplots and cast were in place—but because of the drama’s principle producers–the US and Russia–just didn’t pull the trigger, at least not one that would generate a captivated audience over the long term.

The trigger that was pulled was not without a Cold War “echo,” however.  The best way for the US and Russia to defuse the situation, put the incident in the past, and move on was to revive a Cold War mainstay: the spy swap. There were over a dozen known spy swaps during the Cold War: actual spies, turncoats, dissidents, and missionaries were traded like baseball cards.  Back then espionage was a serious and respected business with a strong code of honor and pride. The practitioners of spy trades conducted themselves cordially with a high sense of decorum, mutual respect, and even affection for each other. Former spy swapper Jeremy Smith told NPR that the negotiations between him and Wolfgang Vogel, his East German counterpart, was like a “dance of two pens” as they tapped the names on their lists of desired agents to get around the bugs in Volker’s office. Smith and Vogel developed a warm relationship despite their adversary positions. They exchanged gifts and for one Christmas, Smith even brought the tryptophan deficient Vogel Butterball turkeys because the bird was scarce in East Germany.

These echoes quickly go faint in the our world of cost-cutting, productivity and profit.  There is just no time for the finesse of the past.  James Bond would have been downsized a long time ago.  If not, his expense account would have surely been drastically cut. Also, this week’s spy swap just had nothing substantive at stake.  The integrity of both our respective civilizations was not questioned simply because we are now all part of the capitalist brotherhood.  Our differences are mere quibbles compared the world historical duel of the past. The current spy scandal, therefore, was no substitute for the “real” ones of the past even if in our media laden present we are accustomed to mistaking the copy for the real.

Indeed, when it came down to it, the performance of the swap was more important than those being swapped.  Just take two of the most publicly recognized figures: Anna Chapman and Igor Sutyagin, the Russian nuclear scientist convicted of spying for the US in 2004.  The former turned out to be a very bad spy, while the latter was most likely not a spy at all. Nor did the exchange come amid any secrecy or setting reminiscent of the Cold War.  There was no equivalent to the Glienicke Bridge.  The world knew the swap was happening before it even happened.  Sutyagin’s people went straight to the press when it was announced that he would be exchanged.  Someone claiming to represent Chapman announced her impending release on Twitter.

It was no Cold War, though the public seemed happy to relish in the possibility.  But like most media sensations the buzz was a far cry for the real thing.  I even doubt that Americans and Russians really wanted the real thing.  They just like the idea of Cold War. It was exciting and it made our culture, our values, and our nations more important.  The world was split between us, our own personal chessboard on a global scale.  So what to make of this spy scandal on a cultural level?  Was there even a scandal at all?  I think the answer to these questions can be surmised from what will surely become one of its iconic phrases: “99 Fake Street.”