Viewpoint: Life after spying

A car believed to contain deported Russian spies leaves Moscow's Domodedovo airport
Image caption Russia's spies were whisked away from a Moscow airport

In the bad old days, homecoming spies could expect heroes' welcomes in Moscow, their faces on commemorative postage stamps and lifelong adulation.

But that, of course, was when they were fighting evil empires, rather than living the suburban American dream.

Today's returning spies seem to have done little hard work - or at least little work for the Russian state.

The glamorous Anna Chapman, for example, appears to have spent more time flogging private planes to Russian oligarchs.

But they have all been offered a Moscow flat and a $2,000 (£1,327) state pension - the sort of riches plenty of Muscovites can still only dream of.

Dull by comparison

The Russian press are treating the entire episode with a mixture of humour and disdain.

Image caption Our Man in Havana, James Wormold, passed off mundane details as secrets

One commenter observed: "It reminds me of Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana where the spy convinces his Centre that a diagram of a vacuum cleaner is the blueprint for a new secret weapon."

The radio station Ekho Moskvy has announced a cartoon contest on the topic of the returning spies.

But there are plenty of Russians who say the spies "just weren't up to the job".

With the exception of the redheaded Anna Chapman, who will doubtless soon be offered a talk show and a column on a British tabloid, they do look like a dull lot compared to their Soviet forerunners - who were very good indeed at their jobs.

The old Soviet-era spies tended to be a cheerful lot, full of joie de vivre - it is perhaps their capacity for jollity that made them successful.

Mikhail Lyubimov, who spied in London in the 1980s, once told me that former spies should form an international association aimed at promoting international understanding.

"With our experience, we are by far the best equipped to work towards bettering understandings between nations," he said, only semi-seriously.

A former colleague, who was kicked out of Japan for spying, went on to have a successful career writing books that opened Japanese culture to Russian readers.

Difficult to cope

Nevertheless, it cannot be easy to come home after years of exile.

Russia has changed a lot in the last 10 years: the rouble rate is confusing, cars are different, the metro works in a different way, attitudes have changed.

Image caption Soviet spy Gordon Lonsdale, otherwise known as Konon Molody

And let us not forget that these spies have, between them, eight children who were born in the US.

Since their parents were pretending not to be Russian, they probably do not even speak a word of the language.

Although they will be allowed to settle in Russia, will they want to?

Even in Soviet days, some found it difficult to cope with life after a spy swap.

The Koechers, who returned to Czechoslovakia following a swap in the 1980s, never properly re-integrated, nor did the Russian spies the Krogers/Cohens, who were flown to Moscow in 1969.

Despite being awarded a dacha and numerous state honours, they never recovered emotionally and lived isolated lives, refusing even to learn Russian.

Gordon Lonsdale/Konon Molody, swapped during the Cold War, suffered from depression after his return to the Soviet Union and died mysteriously during a mushroom-picking expedition.

The manner of this latest swap had all the fun of the Cold War - you could almost hear the opening strains of the Third Man, watching the aeroplane ballet on the Vienna tarmac.

But although the spies will not be paupers, their lives may not be easy.

Alexander Anichkin, a Russian journalist and blogger, is a former correspondent for Izvestia newspaper and the Tass news agency

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