The planned Oliver Stone film about National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden—played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt—and his quest for asylum in Russia, is still being shopped around to Hollywood studios and won’t start shooting for another three months. In the meantime, however, a thinly fictionalized version of the Snowden story just premiered on Russian television as part of an eight-episode spy drama, Where the Motherland Begins. And it has a peculiar twist, which implies that since he was a child, the former NSA contractor was, in a sense, groomed by a Russian intelligence agent.
Most of the miniseries—which aired from Sept. 29 to Oct. 3 on Channel One, Russia’s leading state-controlled channel—actually takes place in the mid-1980s and is a dramatization of that era’s U.S.-Soviet spy wars. But the story of “James Snow,” a fugitive former CIA/NSA contractor who disclosed classified information about U.S. surveillance of telephone and Internet communications worldwide, is the framing device that opens and concludes the main plot.
The miniseries begins in “Hong Kong, July 2013,” with a giant screen showing a news report on the whereabouts of Snow, rumored to be seeking asylum in Russia. Cut to Snow himself, watching the segment on a MacBook aboard a charter jet and looking like a somewhat hotter version of Snowden, right down to the trademark eyeglasses. At this point, there is a detour into a subtle-as-a-brick reference to current events: an expert on the news, introduced as “Oxbridge University” political scientist Jonathan Chadwick (and speaking what is meant to pass for British English), opines that the United States is likely to engineer some drastic distraction by way of damage control after Snow’s revelations. Such as, say… a war in Europe, most likely in a former Soviet republic bordering with the European Union? “I won’t be surprised if Washington attempts to play a tried-and-true card of the ‘Red Threat,’” intones Professor Chadwick while a worried Snow stares at the screen. “The Americans could pull their longtime geopolitical rival, Russia, into a major scandal such as a local military conflict, and then organize and lead a new crusade against Russia.” You don’t say.
This stunning analysis is interrupted by the arrival of a dumpy, unshaven older man in a gray suit—Snow’s curator from Russia’s intelligence service, the FSB, who wants to chat. “Your mom’s name was Vera—Vera Finley, yes?” he says. Snow, played by Lithuanian-born Arnas Fedaravičius and actually sounding plausibly American, looks more startled than he should be. “I see you did your homework,” he replies. Mr. FSB also knows that Vera died in a car accident twenty years ago, when Snow was seven, and that Snow was raised by an uncle, Nick Storm, who turned up about a year later. Hasn’t he ever wondered where Uncle Nick had been until then? “I asked him about it once,” says Snow. “He said it wasn’t the time to talk about it.” Well, now’s the time, says his curator.
The story he tells takes us to a faithfully recreated Moscow of 1986, where the statue of Soviet secret police founder Felix Dzerzhinsky still looms in front of KGB headquarters—and trouble brews behind the building’s massive doors. A rogue CIA officer (“Edwin Miles,” the fictional counterpart of Aldrich Ames) is feeding information to the Soviets, including the names of Soviet operatives recruited by the U.S. “Traitors are coming out of the woodwork,” grouses Snow’s curator-to-be—Yuri Karpenko, head of the “American section” of KGB counterintelligence—to his subordinate, Captain Nikolai Gromov. “That means it’s you and me that will have to clean up this mess.”
The first attempt to clean up the mess and arrest one of the traitors, Oleg Gordovsky, a KGB resident in London hastily recalled to Moscow (his name barely altered from that of his prototype, Oleg Gordievsky), ends in fiasco. Eluding surveillance, Gordovsky manages to get smuggled across the Soviet border while his former colleagues are left to rack their brains over his escape route. The solution is for Gromov to contact the Americans, pose as a would-be traitor, and eventually get himself smuggled out the same way. The operation is almost over when there’s an unexpected glitch: Miles gets arrested, and the KGB desperately needs of a new man in Washington. Gromov’s mission suddenly changes: he is now ordered to stay in the U.S. and infiltrate the CIA.
Gromov is, of course, Snow’s mystery uncle, “Nick Storm” (grom is Russian for “thunder”). What’s the connection? Enter Gromov’s father-in-law Dmitry Dmitriev, a retired KGB general who has been spying for the U.S. He was recruited in 1961, when he worked at the Soviet mission at the U.N. and the Soviets denied his request for $5,000 for lifesaving surgery for his young daughter, injured in a car crash that killed his first wife. (Dmitriev, too, is based on a real person: General Dmitry Polyakov, executed for espionage in 1988. Polyakov first began to work with the FBI around 1960 after the death of his son, for whom the Soviets had refused to authorize treatment in a New York hospital.) The child, Vera—half-sister to Gromov’s wife—is presumed dead; in fact, the Americans paid for her medical care, and she survived and was raised on the other side. Facing imminent execution, Dmitriev reveals this secret to his son-in-law.
Irina Petrovskaya, TV columnist for the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, has semi-facetiously suggested that Where the Motherland Begins was a personal gift to Vladimir Putin. Even its title comes from the theme song of the 1968 Soviet miniseries about heroic spies, Sword and Shield, which Putin has credited with influencing his career choice. (He has played the song on the piano at a charity event and sung it for Russian spy Anna Chapman and her colleagues.) And yet, curiously, the miniseries isn’t quite the ode to the valiant heroes of the KGB/FSB one would expect in Putin’s Russia.
These agents do decidedly unheroic things one would never see in a Soviet film. Karpenko tries to drive a wedge between Gromov and his wife, Natalia, to make Gromov’s American contacts believe his marriage is unhappy. Himself divorced, he sleeps with a young woman caught dabbling in prostitution while also recruiting her to work in a KGB honey trap operation. After the woman commits suicide, a shaken Karpenko tries to tell her mother that she was “serving the country”—but the mother will have none it, screaming, “May you all be damned!” Meanwhile, the traitors seem oddly sympathetic; the gentlemanly Dmitriev, facing doom with quiet dignity, scoffs at the suggestion that he switched sides over a grudge. “Have you ever been there—to America?” he asks Karpenko. “Over there, perfect strangers smile at each other when they meet.”
A strong note of ambivalence is also present in the conflict over love and duty between Gromov and his wife. At first, it’s basically “Mars and Venus meet the KGB”; snuggling with her hunky husband, Natalia muses that men are forever thinking about wars, spies, and grandiose goals, while she only cares about having him in her bed each night. (There ensues some hilariously awful banter about an officer’s duties versus husbandly duty.) But later the clash gets serious, especially when Gromov must arrest Natalia’s father—and then leave his family indefinitely for the mission to America. The film’s sympathies seem to be with Natalia as she implores him to give up his work: “It destroys people’s lives.” When Gromov falls back on talk of duty, Natalia silences him by shouting, “You yourself don’t believe in what you’re saying!”
Yet in the end, the patriotic moral—it’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it for the Motherland—snaps back into place. Natalia comes around after a bit of ruminating to sappy music. While Gromov’s mission might seem bitterly pointless knowing that the USSR’s time is up, Karpenko puts a different spin on it as he urges Gromov to take the job. “The country is going to hell,” he says, warning of unthinkable cataclysms to come; all the more important for the KGB to be on watch.
The miniseries’ split personality may reflect the fact that its original script, written by veteran screenwriter Alexander Borodyansky in 2002, underwent some major rewrites. In a telephone interview with Radio Liberty, Borodyansky said that the earlier version cut back and forth between the Soviet Union and the United States; however, the American part was cut entirely for both logistical and “ideological” reasons. Obviously, the Snow/Snowden story was also a much later add-on—and one that reinforces the ideologically correct message. The Soviet Union may have lost the Cold War, but Gromov’s sacrifice allowed him to raise a surrogate son who struck back at the American empire nearly three decades later.
Indeed, in the miniseries’ final moments, Snow ponders his uncle’s difficult choice—“The country you hold dear, or happiness; such a choice always makes a man unhappy”—and then admits, “He helped me make my choice, too.” As he takes in the revelation that his mother and uncle were Russian, his flight to Russia begins to look like something of a homecoming, or at least a return to his roots.
One can only wonder if Snowden, who called himself an American patriot in a recent interview, has seen the miniseries that turns him into Russia’s prodigal son unknowingly loyal to the land of his ancestors—and if so, what he thinks of it. The recent Radio Liberty discussion of Where the Motherland Begins featured Gordievsky as one of the guests, expressing some amusement at the fanciful retelling of his escape from Russia. Snowden, ones presumes, could not be reached for comment.