Russian spies have traditionally faded into obscurity, embracing the aura of mystery surrounding the KGB. But not those deported from the United States earlier this year in a classic Cold War spy swap.
They were awarded top state honors Monday in a ceremony at the Kremlin, just days after one of them, the red-haired Anna Chapman, launched an iPhone application that allows users to play poker against a "virtual" Anna. She has had no shortage of high-profile appearances in recent months, singing with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, posing for the Russian edition of Maxim, christening a space launch, and going to work for a major domestic bank.
"A ceremony took place in the Kremlin [Monday] to hand top state honors to a number of Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) employees, including the spies who were working in the United States and returned to Russia in July," the Interfax news agency quoted presidential spokeswoman Natalya Timakova as saying. It was not clear if all 10 former spies were at the ceremony.
They were arrested in June after living for years in cities across the United States. All 10 pleaded guilty in federal court to spying for a foreign country and were deported in exchange for Moscow's release of four people accused of spying for the West.
The refusal of these former Russian spies to fade into obscurity has generated skepticism about whether they were actually spies. The Christian Science Monitor's Moscow correspondent Fred Weir noted how Ms. Chapman, in particular, "made a mockery of the old KGB dictate that retired spies should fade away into anonymity, leaving nothing but a glorious public myth behind."
"All those so-called spies were just buffoons, and never carried out any real functions. It just gave our special services a pretext to ask for more money, and therefore I would term it as corruption," rather than espionage, Stanislav Belkovsky, head of the Kremlin-connected Institute of National Strategy, told the Monitor.
"There are plenty of signs that Chapman wasn't a real spy," Valentin Velichenko, president of "For Spiritual Revival, Honor and Dignity," a public organization of former diplomats and intelligence workers, told the Monitor recently. "Perhaps she was some sort of trainee. But even her youth testifies that she couldn't have done anything significant."
Because it's not just Chapman whose getting into social media. On Monday, RIA-Novosti reported that President Dmitry Medvedev became the first Russian to accrue more than 100,000 followers on Twitter.