Published in the Guardian 9 July 2010. Read the full article
The creator of George Smiley looks on as Russian and US agents are swapped in the largest such event since the cold war.
Which Russia did these deluded spy-babies fantasise about when they played under the bedclothes with their top-of-the-range spy toys, cleared their magic dead-letter boxes, dispatched their magic microdots, and lied away their lives to their friends, neighbours and lovers?
Whose great cause did they imagine they were serving, these virtual martyrs who are about to be sent home in disgrace to the breast of Mother Russia? Were the ghosts of Russia’s past whispering to them, or the ghosts of her future? Was it the old, fervent, unawakened Russia that dreams of Josef Stalin’s second coming that they imagined they were serving? The tsars of the Holy Russian Empire brought alive according to the prophecies? Or was it the unholy-Russian-Empire-in-the-Sky that floats above the kleptocratic Kremlin of Vladimir Putin?
Once upon a time spies had motives. There was capitalism and there was communism. You could choose. And all right, there was the money and the sex and the blackmail, and needing to get your own back on your superiors by betraying them when you’d been passed over for promotion, and there was the God-feeling, and playing the world’s game, and the whole familiar repertoire of noble and grubby motives, but in the end you either spied for a cause or against it.
But what in heaven’s name was their cause? Who did they think they were protecting in their distorted, programmed little minds as they tried and tried again, unsuccessfully, to slither up the slippery pole of western society? What was there to choose between Mother Russia and Mother America, two huge continents out of control drowning together in the oily waters of capitalism? Was it really only the name on the lifebelt that made the difference? Mother Russia right or wrong?
I just hope the beleaguered shrinks of Moscow will be able to take the strain as their new patients come pouring through the door: first the frozen children screaming for help, and after them the wise idiots of Putin’s vast, chaotic espiocracy who, immersed in their own archaic fantasies, took it upon themselves to recruit, train, and twist young minds in the image of their own.
Finally, why now, after our own spies have trailed and bugged these incompetent children at play for a decade? And why Vienna?
Is it because, as conspiracy theorists are beginning to whisper, rightists inside America’s innumerable intelligence agencies (which from everything Obama has recently told us are just as out of control as their Russian confrères) have decided to raise the spectre of the cold war at the very moment when the president is deemed to be drawing closer to Russia?
Then might this also be the reason for the theatrical backcloth of Vienna? Are the reactionaries on both sides of the iron curtain that they would dearly love to erect laying on a bumper show for us? As we watch live in glorious Technicolor the greatest spy-swap of the 21st century, and hear in our memories the zither twanging out the Harry Lime theme, do the spies expect us to go scurrying back to our cold war shelters? Is that the cunning plan?
If so, the spies of both sides have screwed up yet again. Harry Lime and his unlovely friends were not engaged in espionage. They were lowlife crooks trading in adulterated penicillin, and their business was poisoning children. So come to think of it, Vienna isn’t such a bad choice after all.