Saturday, August 21, 2010

Spies Like Us

Back in July, ten Russian spies working under deep cover for many years were arrested and expelled from the country. They admitted to attempting to collect information on everything from nuclear weapons to the gold market and to personnel changes at the CIA. They used cold war techniques such as buried drops and "brush pasts" in local parks, as well as newer ones such as posting pictures on the internet that had text buried in them and laptop computers connected with each other to transmit encrypted information.

No matter: the authorities had detected them a decade ago and were watching the watchers. They decoded messages, did convert searches for forged documents and set up fake agents with whom the spooks interacted. However, turns out that the ten were as much Mr. Bean as Kim Philby. Officials recovered a bag that still contained the receipt for a mobile phone bought by an agent who went by the American name of Anna Chapman: it was made out to Irene Kutsov and the address was registered as 99 Fake Street.

Perhaps this all helps a little to explain the process we are personally enduring right now. With our youngest heading to St. Petersburg to study for the fall, it presented the perfect excuse to visit Mother Russia. We did this same kind of trip when our oldest was studying in Paris: it not only assuaged our apprehension about his situation, but we got to travel and see a bit of the world.

Having been overseas for both personal and professional reasons, I'm no stranger to the preparation a trip like this can take. True, some places are easier than others: if you want to go to Spain or Japan, all you need do is get on a plane. Conversely, if you want to go to Indonesia or Egypt, some forms are required. Still, in most cases, getting the required paperwork in order is routine: fill in your travel dates, passport number and local contact info, and they hand you a drink with an umbrella in it.

Not so with Russia. Just as the spies among us were still using techniques and trolling for information as if they were in a classic Eric Ambler thriller, so too does the Russian visa form reveal the apparatchik's skills at its best. Not content to merely ask name, rank and serial (or in this case, passport) number, the whole process plumbs the depths of your life and memory, the better to route out the sleeper agent that you didn't even know you were.

To be sure, it includes requests for the usual info: the dates you're traveling, the reason for your visit, other family members traveling with you. It also includes some questions designed to ferret out those that might become a burden on the state: if you have insurance, who is paying for your trip, an official agency and hotel that is authorizing your visit. Perhaps a little overbearing, but in these economic times, maybe not too far out.

It hardly stops there: they ask your present employment or status, your educational level and institution, as well as the names of your spouse (even if divorced) and both of your parents, living or dead. Maybe it's a way of seeing if there's a chance you're Anastasia, or maybe it's just curiosity. They also request the last 2 jobs you've had before the current one, along with the contact info for your supervisor, or as they affectionately refer to him or her, your "chief." And they want to know every country you've ever visited over the last ten years, along with the date. Not that a trip to Chechnya will knock you out of contention, but maybe it means you bear a little more watching.

Finally, a round of yes/no responses is required. Have you ever served in the military? Have you ever been involved in an armed conflict? Have you ever been arrested? Have you ever been refused a Russian visa or deported? Do you have any specialized training in nuclear, biological or chemical devices? In light of recent events, one wonders if they're playing it safe, or perhaps recruiting.

And that's all on top of the official invite you have to secure, the checks you have to cut, and the onsite registration you have to go through once you get there. It's not quite the Berlin Wall, but it's doing as much to keep people out as to let them in.

Still, we've sent it all in, and hope there's no nyett in our future. In any case, it will be an adventure, and they'll be more in this space as it unfolds. In the meantime, we'll be studying our tsars, practicing reading Cyrillic and working on our taste for borscht. Pozdnyee!


Marc Wollin of Bedford is both excited and a bit nervous about their trip to Russia. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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