The big Russian life of Anna Chapman, ex-spy
It has been nearly a year and a half since the Federal Bureau of Investigation seized Anna Chapman, the Russian spy who had been working undercover in Manhattan real estate. Her arrest along with nine other Russians broke up the largest foreign intelligence network discovered on American soil since the Cold War.
The Illegals, as they were called inside the Department of Justice, had infiltrated American society, nearly all of them going by Anglicized names, passing themselves off as white-collar professionals.
But, long afterward, it's difficult to see what the spies ever learned or did of any real importance while stationed stateside on Vladimir Putin’s orders. Equally difficult to uncover is just how these agents could have fooled anyone, pretending to be American-born while speaking such heavily accented English.
The Illegals incident proved so inconsequential that Washington and the Kremlin arranged a brush-pass of prisoners along a stretch of Viennese airport tarmac and quickly retreated to their neutral corners, never to mention this inconvenience again.
But in the press the episode lived on largely due to the appeal of 29-year-old Chapman, this scandal, like many others, making a pseudo-somebody out of a total nobody. Chapman’s fake red hair and very real body lit up on the web. Her ex-husband, a feeble Englishman who allowed himself to be hoodwinked into marrying the former Anna Kushchenko so that she could get a U.K. passport, sold off a selection of marriage-bed photos, his revenge only making her more famous. The pictures were not great, but they were plenty revealing. Here was a real live Russian honeypot, squirming in the surprise camera flash.
Chapman has been back in Russia since the prisoner exchange, and hardly incognito. She's a national celebrity, one I've managed to meet with several times, watching her navigate her new life as a big Russian name.
In one of those meetings, on an evening in December 2010, I joined Chapman at the Soho Rooms, a Moscow nightclub that is terribly difficult to enter, the doormen protecting the many beautiful women inside from the men who cannot afford them. Chapman handed me a white T-shirt silk-screened with a version of the iconic image of Che Guevara in a beret, with Chapman’s face in the place of Guevara's. The bottom of the shirt read, “Cha.” It was a gift for me. Chapman was enjoying her fame. At one point in the evening she leaned in close against the blaring music and asked me if I knew who I was. I nodded and said that I did.
“I’m still trying to figure it out,” she said, flashing her green eyes.
RUSSIA HAS A NUMBER OF NATIONAL EXPORTS. THERE is oil and there is gas and there are hockey players. Then there are women, without lapse looking their best, engaging in accelerated courtship with the rest of the world. No Russian woman was ever coy. The innocent culture of the West has no defense against the cultural weapon of forthright sexuality. I wasn’t falling for it, though I could see how others might.
I met one of Chapman’s Manhattan boyfriends at the Subway Inn on East 60th Street last January. He was an ex-Marine with some existing level of security clearance, and he was still feeling duped by Chapman, uneasy about what he might have let slip in order to get something from her.
Bill Staniford was instantly recognizable by the red Marines hat he wore. The music coming out of the jukebox was loud. Red and green lights put the room at a Christmas ease. A long touchdown run stretched across the TV.
Staniford and I took seats across from one another in a red vinyl booth.
“I met Anna the second day after she arrived,” he said. “And I hung out with her until she was busted.”
A Marine buddy of Staniford’s had just died in combat in Afghanistan, and he was taking it hard.
“Death is the worst bite,” he said, taking a slug from his Jack and Coke.
Sitting next to Staniford was an attractive young woman of Surinamian descent, Diena Ganesh, whom Staniford said off-handedly was “handling my P.R.”
I later learned that she was an undergraduate student. Ganesh glanced nervously around the bar. “Interesting crowd,” she said.
Staniford said, “It’s a place where people go when they don’t want to be heard.” He looked over his shoulder, then leaned in close to explain his association with Anna Chapman.
Staniford was the C.E.O. of a firm called PropertyShark when Chapman walked into his office in January of 2010. In New York, she fronted an online real-estate listings aggregator, PropertyFinder. She and Staniford ultimately did no business together, their relations instead becoming intimate. He took her to Las Vegas. They spent time at his rambling apartment on the Upper East Side, and at her place downtown, where she had hung pictures of Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, and Frank Sinatra on the walls. They went to nightclubs and restaurants in Manhattan, playing the relationship carefree.
The F.B.I. monitored it all. The Bureau claims to have surveilled Chapman since the moment she arrived in the U.S., focusing particularly on the weekly communications that she sent to the second secretary of the Russian mission to the United Nations. According to F.B.I. documents, Chapman visited various Manhattan locations—Starbucks, Barnes & Noble—where she would establish a local wireless network between her laptop and that of the U.N. official, who was parked in a van nearby. Robert Baum, Chapman’s New York attorney, concedes these facts.
On June 26 of 2010, an undercover F.B.I. agent, posing as a Russian operative, contacted Chapman by phone, and the two arranged to meet at a coffee shop downtown. The F.B.I. agent, who called himself Roman, recorded their conversation. He handed Chapman a fake U.S. passport, telling her that she was to deliver the document to another of the Illegals.
“Excuse me, but haven't we met in California last summer?” Chapman was to say before she handed over the passport, waiting for the confirming answer, “No, I think it was the Hamptons.”
“Are you ready for this step?” Roman asked Chapman. She replied, “Shit, of course,” displaying the heedlessness that caused her to accept the passport, and perhaps even the entire American assignment itself.
Fraudulent document in hand, Chapman left the coffee shop and went to Brooklyn, where she bought a cell phone under the name Irine Kutsov. She carelessly tossed her phone contract into a trash can, from which the F.B.I. retrieved it. Chapman called her father, who now holds a position in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and he presumably advised her how to handle the curious situation in which she found herself.
The following day, Chapman entered the 1st Precinct in Lower Manhattan and handed the passport to police. F.B.I. agents soon arrived, and the Illegals arrests began. Within days, three representatives of the Russian government visited the Metropolitan Detention Center, where they instructed Chapman to accept the deal that Justice was offering.
When Bill Staniford read details of the F.B.I. dragnet, he panicked. It wasn’t only his acquaintance with Chapman that concerned him. Another of the Illegals, Lydia Guryeva, alias Cynthia Murphy, had been his accountant since 2000, the year he mustered out of the Marines. At the time of her arrest, Guryeva was cultivating a relationship with Alan Patricof, who had co-chaired Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. Guryeva lived in sleepy Montclair, N.J., with her husband, Vladimir Guryev (alias Richard Murphy), also an Illegal, eliciting a neighbor’s oft-published remark: “They couldn't be spies. Look what she did with the hydrangeas.”
Staniford clutched a fresh drink, the bar’s lights coloring his glass.
“Obviously I was a target,” he said. “My best guess is that they thought I was going C.I.A.”
In the Marines, Staniford had been a linguistic cryptologist, focusing on Cuba, Colombia, Peru, and Guatemala. His cousin, Gifford Miller, to whom he says is close, was the speaker of the New York City Council and a candidate for mayor in 2010. What made Staniford valuable to the Russian foreign intelligence service? When the F.B.I. called him in for questioning, the agents who spoke with him didn’t know the level of his security clearance, and he wasn’t about to tell them. Throughout our conversation, Staniford made vague allusions and insinuations. “Anna could never have gotten anything out of me because there was nothing to get,” he said. “And you know I’m lying.”
The prevailing wisdom concerning the Illegals case holds that, for all of their efforts, for all of the years that many of them had spent in the U.S., the spies had provided Moscow with nothing of utility. The operation had been a gross waste of resources, a relic of Cold War gamesmanship. However, a counterintelligence probe at the National Security Agency, disclosed by Bill Gertz in The Washington Times, suggests otherwise. The investigation hinges on the assertion that the Russian foreign intelligence service (the S.V.R.) used the Illegals network to support one or more Russian moles who have infiltrated Fort Meade, Md., N.S.A. headquarters.
The Illegals’ “paymaster,” Christopher Metsos (an alias, the S.V.R. agent having assumed the identity of a deceased Canadian), escaped the F.B.I. dragnet on June 27, 2010. Two days later, police in Cyprus arrested him on an Interpol warrant, as he boarded a flight to Budapest. A Cypriot court quickly granted Metsos bail, infuriating U.S. officials, who suspected Russian influence.
The Russian oil and gas giants Lukoil and Gazprom have invested deeply in Cyprus, while as much as $15 billion flows monthly from Russia to the island’s tax-haven banks. The only Communist leader in the European Union, Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias, who had received a Ph.D. in the Soviet Union in 1974, bristled at the suggestion of Russian manipulation. Shortly after making bail, Metsos disappeared from his Cyprus hotel room, leaving behind his slippers, along with a hint of Cold War fidelity.
Staniford realized that he was involved in something more substantial than pillow talk, and at the Subway Inn, he continued checking over his shoulder. He appeared to have something to say. When I pressed him, he balked, ordering another round. “They could kill me,” he said. “They could kill us both.”
It was hard to tell whether he was on the level. I tried to soften him up, offering him another entry point to the discussion. I told him that in Moscow, Chapman had said that she had been in love once during her American holiday.
At that, Staniford’s companion broke in. “She probably used him,” Ganesh said, intrigue sparking her eyes. “Then she fell in love, even though she didn’t mean to.”
Staniford shot her a withering glance.
The night wound down. I got Staniford out of the bar, and he staggered onto Lexington Avenue. Steadying himself against a rack of scaffolding, he grabbed the lapels of my jacket and pulled me close.
“If you bust me, man, I’ll kill you,” he said. “And I’m really good at killing people.”
ARRIVING IN NEW YORK IN 2010, CHAPMAN moved into a 52nd-floor apartment one block south of the New York Stock Exchange. She claimed to run an Internet real-estate firm valued at $2 million. Yet her American activities were principally confined to forging male acquaintances, posting tourist pictures to her Facebook account, and composing the valueless communiqués that she fed weekly and wirelessly to Russian officials while sitting with her laptop in bookstores and coffee shops like any time-killing New Yorker.
Once apprehended, just six months into her assignment, Chapman’s luxurious existence in New York was at an end; it had always been a sham, a cover story with just enough to back it up. The U.S. District Court reviewed her finances, deemed her unable to afford a lawyer, and appointed her a public defender. Things were bad and they were about to get weird. Chapman was wallowing in an orange jumpsuit in Solitary in Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center, when fame, as she told me, “dropped on my head.”
Her New York defense attorney, Baum, delivered her newspapers, including the New York Post, which ran her photo on its front page seven times during her 11-day internment in the summer of 2010. She began to understand that her life was being diverted to a new course.
“I remember this moment,” Chapman told me, “and it’s a very precious moment.”
Following her layover in Austria, Chapman returned to Russia behind a veil of mystery, and has remained unwilling to substantiate or refute the many rumors about her that started proliferating immediately upon her arrest. Did her father run guns in Africa? Was she close to Prince William? Was she a certified marksman?
Chapman calls herself an entrepreneur, and that is indeed what she has become in Russia, the achievement having escaped her in New York. She has been aided in this transformation by her proximity to power, and the transitive desire of others on the make. By the time I first encountered Chapman, she had been back in Russia for a few months, and she had spent her time wisely. When she and the other spies met with Vladimir Putin in July of 2010, shortly after their return, the former K.G.B. middle manager led them in a chorus of patriotic song. (Where does Motherland come from? From the oath that you swear to her in your youthful heart.)
One person who has done business with Chapman told me that she had spent time with the other Illegals at Putin’s Black Sea villa later, but that Chapman alone had been singled out for a ride in Putin’s personal submarine beneath the surface of Lake Baikal. The dear leader had taken a shine to Chapman.
“Anna is Putin’s girl,” the associate told me.
Contrary to conventional belief, the Russians are largely not angry about having lost the Cold War. They like their foreign cars, like traveling to the First World. They really like Louis Vuitton. They don’t experience nostalgia over washing their socks in the sink. Would you like to instigate a ceaseless discussion? Ask them about the ’90s, the period in which the United States NATO-ized the Warsaw bloc, sold Russia on cankerous political and market reforms, bombed brother Belgrade—events that most American citizens, regrettably, comprehend very little.
Once Yeltsin drank himself out of a job, it fell to Putin to avenge this proud country of dwindling millions. What to do with the Illegals, then, their flop telecast across oceans and continents, such a failure hardly suiting the image of a potent state? It turns out that there is an easy fix, as Russian security expert Andrei Soldatov explained to me. Soldatov recently published a book, The New Nobility, a superior tutorial on the unbreakable bonds between the Kremlin, Russian business, and the K.G.B.’s old guard (none of whom, it should be noted, were arrested following the fall of the Communist regime.
“Nobody here thinks the Illegals were a failure,” Soldatov told me over coffee in Moscow. “It’s a victory. Because it shows we can still compete with America. We are a great power. We can do everything we want to do.”
But to make that idea stick, Anna Chapman must be made a success story, even if only after the fact.
“We need to show the American public that Anna Chapman is a hero,” said Soldatov.
“If I want to meet anyone—the C.E.O. of the biggest company—really, I can,” she told me one evening as we walked down a Moscow street together after dinner. “I can just call them up, and they are happy to meet with me.”
So far, despite such confidence, she has shied away from big business, preferring projects that capitalize on her “personal brand.” She is developing a science-fiction cartoon series starring a red-headed girl who is not named Anna. She has released a poker app for the mobile web, talks sometimes about her ideas for an Anna-branded perfume, says she wants to find a ghostwriter to compose a book about business, all the while sifting through the hundreds of requests for friendship that she receives on her Facebook account each day.
Opportunities have also originated from the country of her incarceration. Jessica Alba, the actress, wanted to buy the rights to her story and adapt it for film. William Morris Endeavor, the L.A. talent agency, called Chapman’s attorney, Baum, continuously for several months, seeking the right to represent his client. Vivid Entertainment asked if she was interested in appearing in a pornographic film. And predictably, Playboy called from Chicago, offering several hundred thousand dollars, sources in magazine publishing tell me, to shoot a full pictorial.
But these deals and offers disintegrated when the lawyers started thumbing through Chapman’s plea bargain, which forbids her from profiting from her story. Technically the deal bars her from profiting in Russia, too, but that’s an impossible agreement to enforce; not so here in the United States.
Dismissed from the U.S. with nothing but the clothes she wore, Chapman could have used some of that entertainment-world money. But no matter. She now cruises Moscow in a new Porsche Cayenne, black.
Chapman, born in distant Volgograd and having spent little time in the Russian capital, hardly knew her way around town. Nor did her driver, a good-looking kid from the regions who was perpetually late, lost, and insubordinate, but for whom Chapman displayed a particular weakness.
Everyone in Moscow looks out for everyone else, as long as you’re on the inside. The power vertical decided that Chapman needed a little domestic heft on her C.V., and she got a job at a financial institution in October of 2010, specifically at the fiscal arm of the Russian space agency, Fund Service Bank. The bank has a questionable profile around town. It was involved in an embezzlement scandal with Russian Railways a few years ago; masked police once stormed the office.
The Porsche fits well with what is presumably Chapman’s ornamental role at the bank.
“These guys in the bank told me I can get however much money I need,” she explained to a friend. “I just tell them, and it’s there the next day.”
Yet according to the bank her compensation is well-deserved. She does nothing less than protect the planet from annihilation: “Chapman will address the theme of protecting the planet from asteroids, meteor showers and other factors that affect the civilization of the Cosmos.”
With these celestial credentials Chapman has gotten what amounts to the keys to the country. She appeared at Baikonur, the Russian Cape Canaveral, blessing a cosmonaut crew on a ride through Kazakh cloud cover. She met with President Dmitry Medvedev to discuss involvement in Skolkovo, Russia’s new answer to Silicon Valley.
And so shortly after our first conversations, I understood why it was that Chapman had become too busy to take my calls. I was happy simply to maintain contact, and every once in a while I received text messages from numbers I didn’t recognize but that were clearly sent on instruction by Chapman to steer me to certain parts of the city, where she would appear.
One afternoon, following such a directive, I took a cab to Moscow’s Kitai-gorod neighborhood. Locating the address, I walked through a post-industrial mash-up of tattoo parlors, hollowed-out Soviet factories, and exotic dancing schools, graffiti gripping the walls. On an upper floor of one building, I entered what I presumed to be an atelier, the sewing machines and supercilious expressions giving it away. I pushed aside a curtain and found Chapman trying on a red coat.
“Like the tsar!” she said, air kissing my cheek, then twirling around for the camera crew that was shooting video for her website, which collects pictures of her, news of her charity work, and other Chapmania.
A designer, Kirill Murzin, flipped through his sketchbook, displaying the militaristic coats and shirts and skirts that he planned to manufacture and sell under the Chapman brand, tentatively titled AC. The two had met playing cards, Murzin told me.
“I play poker like an artist,” he said. “But Anna is a very dangerous player. Your first mistake with her will be your last mistake.”
Murzin appeared sincere. Most others I met around Chapman seemed otherwise, drawn by curiosity and opportunity.
Chapman joined me at a drawing table in the center of the room, over which several women swished scissors. I ran my fingers over a dress that had yet to be sewn together, and asked Chapman what kind of material it was. She felt the fabric, looking suddenly crestfallen, having been cornered in her ignorance. “I don’t know,” she said.
When I left the place, Chapman was sitting in her Porsche on the street, uttering for the camera crew the words “Welcome to my line.”
Whenever I raised the topics of her espionage, her arrest, her contact with high-ranking Kremlin officials, Chapman’s face always tensed. Several times, she accused me of being an F.B.I. agent. She was no longer playful once she began to suspect me, and then eventually she was not even suspicious. She was just scared and did a poor job of hiding it, mumbling about how powerful people had advised her to keep quiet.
But what had she ever done in the United States? What did she learn that would be damaging to tell? Nobody seemed to know. Nothing had ever been leaked or even suggested with any seriousness.
After the meeting at the fashion house, Chapman canceled our next appointment and disappeared from my life, for a while.
A YEAR AGO I MET VIKTOR CHERKASHIN FOR LUNCH near Moscow State University. As the K.G.B.’s Washington station chief in the ’80s, Colonel Cherkashin had recruited both Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, the two most destructive U.S. double agents of the Cold War.
I'd first met Cherkashin some years earlier, and have always found his company worth the time. He was raised on Cold War espionage, in an era when clear battle lines gave operatives a strict sense of commitment, allegiance, what was at stake. You could talk to this man and get straight answers, unlike with so many of the current crop of spooks and spies and wannabes, bereft of purpose, unsure of what or whom they are fighting for: The country and its people, or the oligarchs and politicians whom they seem to serve more directly.
Soldatov has asserted that Chapman, like many others in Russian society, had simply used her father's connections (he had been a K.G.B. agent) to bankroll a dream-like, dilletantish life in Manhattan—and had done nothing more.
Cherkashin, on the other hand, believes that Chapman had been at the beginning of a serious, lengthy assignment. He cautioned me not to be deceived by her public demeanor.
“I like her appearance,” he said. “No one suspects her. It means she’s a real professional. She’s very clever. A sober person.”
I was surprised. The security expert figured Chapman for a sham, while the real spymaster admired her tradecraft.
Then, Cherkashin asked me to arrange an introduction to Chapman for himself. (I didn't, precaution leading the way in Russia.)
Standing on the sidewalk after lunch, I sensed that Cherkashin had, in his time-tested, friendly, conversational manner, tried to fleece me.
Last Spring I had a similar feeling when, working from Kiev, I interviewed the agents who headed the case against the Illegals in a Skype conference.
They said they were irritated by the way the media had portrayed the case, as a mere curiosity. Beyond that they said little of interest. Frequently protesting that they were not trying to get information from me about Chapman or Russian intelligence circles for themselves, they gave vague answers to my questions, and invariably ended up by asking more questions of me.
I'll never know why, but a month after that, Chapman resurfaced with a request for a meeting.
“Did I disappoint you?” she asked as she strolled into a steakhouse near her office. We took a table, and she scanned her iPad.
“I’m in the news again,” she said, pretending to be indignant about her resurfacing elsewhere—in the pages of the New York Post after her poker app went live.
She was talking fast, switching from one topic to the next. She relayed the detail of a recent experience, how she had cut the ribbon at a watch boutique opening in the city center. She mentioned a wealthy man she had met. She was finding her life thrilling, and she became visibly excited.
“I have developed my three-part formula for personal success,” she said. “Would you like to hear it?”
I said I would.
“You must be active. You must be positive. And you must bring value. It just came to me. Sometimes I just know. I woke up one day and I just knew. And these three things correspond exactly to who I am. I am active, I am positive, and I bring value.”
From here the relationship picked up again, just as friendly and cheerful as ever. A week after meeting at the steakhouse I went with Chapman to a movie premiere. Elizaveta Boyarskaya, a popular Russian actress, had invited Chapman to her new film, Ne Skazhu. The title (in English, I Won’t Tell) suited the spy, who arrived late to the theater after her driver got lost, and therefore eluded the paparazzi on Nastasinsky Lane. But when news spread she had arrived, photographers snuck into the theater as the movie began. Camera flashes popped, one after another, stunning the dark auditorium.
“Oh, my God,” Chapman said, with nowhere to hide. Several males shouted threats across the hall, and the photographers retreated.
Chapman could not have been as surprised as she pretended to be. She had just appeared on the cover of the Russian edition of Maxim. She was pictured in lingerie, gripping a Beretta pistol in a lace glove. For the inside pictorial, which ran over seven suggestive pages, Maxim had paid her $25,000, according to a former business associate of Chapman's. The accompanying Q&A, Chapman told me, she had written herself.
One question: "Which actress would play her in the inevitable movie about her life?"
“You flatter me,” was the response she gave to the question she had invented. “But if this happens, let’s shoot it, of course. This is only the beginning.”
That is what the power vertical had been afraid of, that Chapman's broad appeal would start to cheapen her, and Kremlin forces strengthened their guiding hand after the magazine feature came out.
Chapman was soon installed as a leader of Molodaya Gvardiya (Young Guard), the youth wing of Putin’s United Russia political party. Among its activities, Molodaya Gvardiya has been accused of intimidating journalists whose reporting strays from the official line. (The group was linked to the November 2010 beating of Oleg Kashin, a reporter for Kommersant, a respected Russian daily. )
Publicly connecting Chapman to the official political movement raised her profile, and helped build the narrative that government took its former spy seriously.
When he came out of his coma, Kashin was still recovering from a broken jaw, a fractured skull, a broken leg, and an amputated finger. It was right around then that Chapman, the newest member of Molodaya Gvardiya’s public council, addressed the group’s Moscow congress:
“I would like us to learn to be more positive,” Chapman told the crowd. “There would be less negativity in society if we all had a smile on our face. Be happy!”
Positivity was one of her qualities. And there was reason to smile. Despite the best efforts of her masters, Chapman had landed her own TV show.
“Secrets of the World with Anna Chapman” began airing weekly on the Russian network, REN-TV, in January of last year. The Russian answer to Elvira, Chapman explains to viewers the mysteries of vampires, black cats, and the apocalypse. (So far, no asteroids.)
As her domestic profile has grown, Chapman, national hero, contemplates national representation, a seat in the Duma from Volgograd. She has become an unavoidable topic of conversation, even in discussions that couldn’t have less to do with her.
One morning in the fall of 2010, a Tupelov jet flew westward to Poland, carrying Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his delegation. As the flight progressed, diplomatic aides and pool journalists passed around the copy of Maxim with Chapman on the cover. Some time later, a source related to me a story about the flight: A reporter took a seat with Lavrov, a close Putin ally, and the two discussed the minister’s upcoming agenda, but talk turned to the Illegals, to Chapman, and the medal that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had recently awarded her.
“Which medal was it?” the reporter asked. “For bravery? Courage?”
The minister shrugged.
“I looked through the magazine,” Lavrov said. “And I didn’t see any medal on her ass.”
CHAPMAN AND I WERE MAKING TIME AT MOSCOW'S Domodedovo airport. A few months later, a man would ignite 11 pounds of TNT near the café where we sat, killing himself and 35 others, contributing to the impression that Russia has more serious problems than asteroids.
We were on our way to Voronezh, a city of nearly a million people in Russia's southwest, not far from the border with Ukraine. Chapman was interested in buying a circus troupe temporarily based in the city.
Picking over our stale, flat food, the spy and I were living under the illusion, which comes to one in the annual lull between terrorist acts in the capital, that the man on the canteen TV had molded Russia into a paragon of stability. Putin was up there, appearing now and again while the waitress limped past.
Domodedovo brought back unsettling memories for Chapman. She had touched down there after her expulsion from the U.S. But on this day she warmed to the image of Putin, who conducted an inspection of military hardware for the television cameras. Trailed by his cortège of bureaucrats and generals, Putin sneered, never grinned, projecting his vast unaccountability.
“How’s your friend?” I asked Chapman. “A good guy?”
“A great guy!” she exclaimed. She was eating sausage. Between bites, she thought to amplify her response, the tone of her voice now appropriately patriotic. “And a great leader.”
“In what way?” I asked.
“In each and every way.”
On TV, Putin stepped into the cockpit of a fighter jet.
“How’s his singing voice?” I asked.
Chapman went sour. “I don’t wanna talk about it,” she said.
The circus troupe was called Krakatuk, or Nutcracker in English. Chapman wanted to turn the company into something like Cirque du Soleil, which would then barnstorm parts of the world from which she was now excluded.
The plane was the kind that felt like it would crash: Cramped, musty, long-used. Chapman was busy stuffing her coat into the luggage rack when a salesman-type in the row behind us tried to make friends: “You’re making me horny,” he said. Chapman laughed it off. She knew how to handle the many stares that were now coming her way.
Once we were in the air, she elbowed me in the side, gesturing to the inflight magazine in her hands. There was an ad for a striptease parlor called Casanova.
“They have some nice girls,” she said. “I like this one.”
She pointed to a squatting brunette. “She has a nice ass.”
Chapman closed the magazine and looked at me, her expression grave. “What do you like better,” she asked, “ass or tits?”
Leaving behind Moscow's excitement, we flew southward into Russia's decreasing opportunity. Voronezh is one of Russia's countless dusky regional centers, and holds little joy but for the circus.
In every Russian city, there is a circus. Here at the circus in Voronezh, acrobats were practicing in their skivvies when Chapman entered the hall with her own series of attractions and amusements. The performers shouted their encouragements to one another, and these voices echoed around the vacant oval interior, which had all the grandeur and decay of a gladiator arena. It wasn't long before they goaded Chapman into slipping her hands through the straps of a pulley system, which yanked her into the air. She dangled 30 feet above the floor, spinning around, before playfully yelling, "Put me down!"
After dinner that night, we hurried through the cold, past people hugging themselves for warmth at a bus stop, past billboard stacks, kiosks selling old medicine. It was a lonesome scene.
I asked Chapman about the fact that most Western countries would no longer allow her entry, that she was for the foreseeable future confined to the former Soviet world.
“Limitations of freedom are painful,” she sighed. “Especially for someone like me. I’m a freedom seeker.”
The lie of modern Russian life is that success is easily attained. One can be a businesswoman without profiting in business, a spy without generating valued intelligence, Putin’s friend for no good reason at all.
“If you can dream it,” Chapman had written on her Facebook page, “you can become it.”
She’s right. The dream is achieved on the inside of a hydrocarbon society bankrupt on nostalgia and a single-party political system, where honest work is for the suckers. I have been on that side of things, and it is a fun party. After a time, it fatigues the soul.
The phone rang the next morning, waking me in my suite. Chapman and I had plans to visit the circus again that afternoon. Afterward, we would catch a flight back to Moscow.
It was Chapman on the phone. Her voice was cozy and suggestive, as though she were warming the sheets, playing me for intelligence. Given more time, I thought, she might have become a useful spy after all.
I rolled over onto my side. I cupped my ear to the secret she was sharing.
“Good morning, honey bunny,” she said. “I had a terrible dream.”