MOSCOW—Every now and then I run into Anna Chapman at a nail salon called “Little Fingers” on Potapovsky Avenue in downtown Moscow. One would expect a red-haired, red-lipsticked celebrity-ex-spy, wearing expensive designer dresses that are tight enough to sculpt her curves in high relief, to attract attention. But here in the hip Clear Ponds neighborhood, where at any time of the day women are used to seeing and being seen to be cool, glamour is nothing special. It’s rare that another client would turn her head to look at Chapman, and besides, not many people in Moscow actually know who she is.
Most of the times I’ve seen Chapman, she has seemed upset or moody, locked in her own thoughts. Once I asked her if she'd like to be interviewed. She declined, barely looking up as she leafed through a fashion magazine. With a little grin she said she did not like to give interviews: “Why would I need it? My popularity rating is high enough, I don’t need more publicity.”
That’s a misleading comment worthy of, well, a former intelligence agent. In fact, popularity is something that the television host of Secrets of the World with Anna Chapman and the Ren TV channel, where she works, would be happy to improve. The show has had about a 0.9 percent rating in Russia.
If Chapman was famous in the West as “Putin’s spy” or “Agent 90-60-90” (or 36-23-36 if you measure in inches), here in Moscow the 32-year-old woman born Anna Kushyenko has struggled in her search for popularity, and the headlines she makes are mostly in the West.
Last March, for instance, as Russia was annexing Crimea, Chapman appeared in a 40-minute YouTube video, “Anna Chapman’s Army Diary,” that claimed serving in the Russian military isn’t really the grim ordeal that many people believe. “It’s almost 6 a.m. and 3,000 handsome men are still sleeping,” she purred. “I am very lucky to be at the heart of my motherland’s army. It’s a very special day for me.”
Nobody in Russia paid much attention, but British and American tabloids belatedly discovered the film…this week, and noticed the particular unit with which Chapman fraternized in the film might be one that’s now serving semi-secretly in Ukraine. The New York Daily News declared that “Russian strongman Vladimir Putin has unleashed a weapon of mass distraction.”
If so, the Russian masses are largely immune. It’s been more than five years, now, since Chapman was rounded up with several other Russian agents under deep cover in the United States and deported. Since then she has posed half-naked for erotic photo sessions, created her own fashion collection, started various charity foundations and taken part in pro-Kremlin political events.
In her regular television program, she announces, “I am Anna Chapman and this is Secrets of the World,” then tells us, “Today there will be at least one secret less.” Dressed in a slick black suit, Chapman discovers, say, how people come to be millionaires. But in her show Chapman did not uncover the main secret in today’s Russia: whether there are Russian soldiers, tanks, mortars and missiles fighting in Ukraine.
Instead, last week Chapman opened her own boutique of designer clothes and interviewed famous Russian men about their sex lives, intrigues, and scandals for her new talk show, Anna Chapman and Her Men. But nothing seems to be connecting, quite, with the viewers.One good measure of Chapman’s popularity, or not, is Twitter, where she has a paltry 17,000 followers, as compared with a real Moscow diva, Ksenia Sobchak, who is followed by 988,000.
Chapman tweets nothing but quotes from famous politicians and philosophers on her account. Sobchak, a talk show host with independent station Rain TV, tweets her own independent ideas and her thoughts about current political trends. Indeed, Sobchak has become an interesting figure for Russian intellectuals, who are intrigued by how a former queen of the glamour scene, fashion shows, and debauched parties turned herself into a thoughtful political expert.
Olga Bychkova, a host at the capital’s popular Echo of Moscow radio station, explained to The Daily Beast why there was such scant interest in Chapman’s personality: “There would not be much to talk about with Chapman besides her spy experience, but she is reluctant to talk about her past. Apart from that,” said Bychkova, “Chapman does not seem to have any expertise in any area.”