It’s 1973 and Martha has been sent down from Cambridge for distributing left-wing leaflets and doing no work. To escape parental disapproval, she marries her friend Kit, posted to Moscow by the diplomatic service. Kit is gay, but having a wife could keep him safe. In Moscow, Martha struggles to make sense of a difficult but fascinating new world.
Who can she trust? Who can she even talk to? She takes Russian lessons, makes the wrong friends, becomes familiar with a strange and wonderful city, and unwittingly becomes a spy.
Our woman in Moscow: gender and the spy Sarah Armstrong.
In 2016 I started to think about the plot of my new novel, The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt. I had decided that my main character, Martha, would be isolated while living in a communist apartment block in Moscow. Struggling to make sense of this restricted world, Martha is relieved to meet Eva, an ex-British citizen who has renounced her nationality to live in Soviet Russia. My character, Martha, like all visitors to the USSR, is warned about speaking to Russians – but what if the dangerous people don’t appear to be Russian at all?
When thinking about who Eva might be, one of the main images I had in mind was Melita Norwood standing on her doorstep in 1999, admitting to having been a Russian spy. The way she was rendered safe and powerless with the domesticated headline ‘The Spy who Came in from the Co-op’ stuck too. Jack Straw dismissed the threat she posed. She didn’t know anything important, it implied, she was only a woman, and old. More a victim than a criminal, it suggested, something which has been undermined by David Burke’s biography, also called The Spy who came in from the Co-op.
Since then there have been many more spy stories in the newspapers, but very few of them have involved women. Those that have also appear to feed into this old fashioned view of female spies as being largely accidental. Maria Butina, part of the concerted effort to sway the 2016 US election through the National Rifle Association, has recently been presented as a red-headed femme fatale in love. Posing with guns as if straight from a Bond film, it is implied that she used her sexuality to achieve her aims. Putin denies that she is a spy, merely a victim. Neither version allows her much agency. The names of two other women involved in a high level assassination are less well known: Đoàn Thị Hương and Siti Aisyah were, it is alleged, duped into killing Kim Jong-nam with VX nerve agent. Again, more victim than criminal, they claim. They didn’t know what they were doing.
What is most peculiar about acts of espionage now is how much we have seen of the spies, how much has been captured on film. As well as footage of the women mentioned, we watched as two GRU men strolled around Salisbury, carrying the poison they intended for Sergei Skripal and his daughter. We saw the Dutch authorities track and arrest four further GRU men, and read about how they had carried their own evidence on their phones in the form of photographed receipts. Cyberattacks on the Foreign Office, anti-doping agencies, and the Swiss lab investigating the Skripal case were all identified and traced back to the GRU. The spies are under surveillance, visual and electronic, and with these high profile cases it could almost look as if they are losing.
We have handed over the power of our own surveillance willingly in so many ways, from loyalty cards to social media, to make our lives easier – our phones can be tracked, our emails read and our political allegiances altered. It could appear that, if the main object of surveillance is control, then maybe the balance of power now lies with us, the viewer. Yet maybe we just need to focus harder on discovering what we cannot see, the stories which remain hidden.
The Maria Butina story ties in with that of Anna Chapman previously, building a picture of attractive female spies exploiting their sexual power, while the men are active, even if inept. The blunt admission by Melita Norwood will not be repeated. Most importantly, it reminds us that women can be more proficient than men like to believe, and the best ones probably appear to be just like everyone else.
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