Why you should care
Because watching your p’s and q’s is not as easy as it might seem.
Rebecca Strong is a writer and a novelist.
I had become a liability.
“Yes,” Steve answered.
“And you were assigned here? With her?”
“She is an American citizen,” my husband said, “and has been for a long time.”
“Doesn’t matter,” the RSO responded. “I’ll need to run some checks and will call to speak to her tomorrow.”
We landed in Moscow in July 2005 — days before this conversation and 16 years after I first left the city. My parents and I immigrated to America when the red flags still flew over the Kremlin. We had a small family, and virtually everyone had left after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Those who stayed were now causing havoc for my husband’s superiors.
“Which of your relatives still live here?” the RSO asked when he called the next day.
I named an aunt whom I’d last seen at my grandmother’s funeral in 1989. Once we left the USSR, we’d lost touch, and I knew nothing of her life or whereabouts.
“She could be approached or hassled,” the RSO said, “and forced to get information out of you.”
“By rekindling the connection — maybe even befriending you.”
Before we’d left for Russia, I’d attended a security briefing specifically for the spouses of diplomats going to countries deemed problematic by the State Department, and it was run by a short, balding man.
“Blackmail,” he said. The PowerPoint slide showed a man standing at a bar, drink in hand. “People do stupid things when they are drunk.” He clicked to the next slide, a photo of a young woman who looked to be in her 20s. “She is 15,” he said. “What do you think happened after he slept with her?”
“They will find your weakness and they will exploit it,” he said. “If you’re in debt, they’ll know it by checking your bank more often than you do and offering financial relief in exchange for information. If alcohol or drugs is your Achilles heel, they’ll know that, too. And if your wife is on holiday and a young blond woman shows up at your door, for Pete’s sake, do not let her in.”
No mention of forgotten family members reappearing to gather classified information. So after the session was done, I put everything he said out of my mind. Our finances were healthy, our alcohol intake limited and I trusted my husband.
“Don’t worry,” Steve said when I got home. “If you are not in touch with your aunt, the FSB [Federal Security Service] cannot really bother her, now can they?”
He had a point. With no interest in finding my aunt, I was more or less relative-free. Until my mother called from Virginia.
“I forgot about this when you were leaving,” she said, “but remember your grandmother’s cousin, your great uncle Vadim?” The name sounded familiar.
“He died a couple of years ago in a car accident in Canada. But his daughter, I believe, still lives in Moscow. Maybe look her up?”
Months had passed since my conversation with the RSO, and except for a couple of phone calls with silence on the other end, I’d noticed nothing suspicious. My aunt never got in touch with me, hadn’t quizzed me about American nuclear warheads, and the embassy no longer seemed bothered by where I’d been born. What did I have to lose?
While I was on an extended vacation in the United States, the FSB had chosen to make their move.
I found Natalia — the daughter of my grandmother’s cousin — and invited her for tea the following week. She arrived at our apartment with her daughter, Irina, and granddaughter, Sveta, in tow.
Irina was five years my junior, and her 5-year-old daughter was just a year older than mine. The two girls connected immediately and so did we. From then on we exchanged dinner invitations, visited their summerhouse and took the girls to the theater. Irina’s husband owned a car repair business, which helped whenever we had car trouble, and during mushroom season, we foraged Moscow’s forests like any normal extended family.
Then two men showed up at the playground behind Irina’s apartment building. Dressed in dark coats and wearing blank facial expressions, they clearly did not belong amid the swings, slides and giggling children.
“Sveta,” Irina cautioned her daughter as she climbed a ladder. “Be careful. It’s icy.” When she turned back to look at the men, they were standing right next to her.
“Hello,” one of them said. They resembled mobsters she’d seen in movies about the Russian mafia.
“We’d like to ask you something,” the other man said. “Is this a good time?”
“What is it?”
“We’d like you to lure Steve into a hotel room with you.”
While I was on an extended vacation in the United States, the FSB had chosen to make their move — only not by sending a long-legged blonde to our apartment but by trying to recruit my cousin instead. Shocked and unsure of what to say, Irina asked why they thought he would agree. They smirked and said, “We’ve seen him in interaction with you.”
Months after Irina recounted this story to my husband and he reported it to the RSO, I was contemplating using it for the novel on Russian security services I was writing. But then suspicion sprouted. According to our briefing, Russian spy machinery excelled at spotting and exploiting weaknesses. Had they seen what I hadn’t — my husband’s attraction to my cousin?
I replayed every instance when our families had been together, and every past interaction between Steve and Irina took on a salacious cast. Every smile carried a double meaning, every conversation crossed the line from familial warmth to too familiar and I couldn’t help notice that the amount of attention he paid her outweighed what he paid me.
“Did you have an affair with Irina?” I finally asked.
“Did I what?”
“I don’t think FSB makes their approach without ground.” I stared him down.
He rolled his eyes. I stared harder.
“I didn’t, OK?” He shot back, too anxiously for my liking.
“Then why did they come to her? They wouldn’t have done it without something to steer them.”
He sighed. “Look, I may have flirted with her. But that was it, I swear.” Clearly, Russian intelligence was way ahead of me when it came to knowing my husband.
It took months for him to soothe my suspicions and regain my trust. And I’ll never know if damaging our marriage and the trust between us had been the FSB’s objective, but for the time we were on their turf and under their gaze: mission accomplished.