MOSCOW—It’s been called “the Russian spy look” for women: long red hair (natural or dyed), pale skin, high cheekbones, and perhaps a certain something in the eyes. Possibly it’s just a coincidence, but three ambitious Russian women who tried to make careers in the West, and who fit that description, have been accused as agents working at the behest of Russia's president (and spymaster) Vladimir Putin.
Anna Chapman and Maria Butina in the United States, Jelena Knorr in Germany: Theirs was a look the tabloids in Europe and the United States just couldn’t get enough of, until they could. They weren’t just alleged agents of a foreign power, they were stars. But when their moment of fame had passed, the women were left largely to their own devices.
Vyacheslav Vaneyev, Butina’s former deputy in an organization called Right to Bear Arms, would have us believe these women are victims of prejudice, of a Western romanticization of beautiful mostly red-haired Russian spies that dates back at least to the early James Bond movies. More recently, the Russian agent in the Marvel Universe (Scarlett Johansson in the Avengers movies) may be called Black Widow, but for most of her imaginary career she’s been a redhead.
Russophilia or Russophobia? The Kremlin plays these cases both ways.
A public campaign in support of the three flame-haired women refers to them as Putin’s Trio: “They were accused of espionage for the color of their hair, for their gender and nationality,” proclaims a video supporting them. “Butina’s Russian roots are the fundamental part of her espionage accusations.”
That line comes straight from the Kremlin’s playbook. At the international economic forum in 2017, the Russian president compared American Russophobia to anti-Semitism, and Dmitry Kiselev, the Kremlin’s leading state television propagandist, massaged the idea: “Russophobia is like a contagious disease, it is a weapon used against Russia.”
But the Kremlin’s also aware of the fascination factor. “Americans even made a film called Red Sparrow about a Russian lady spy,” Vaneyev told The Daily Beast. (FWIW, Jennifer Lawrence in the lead wore multiple wigs.) But, as Vaneyev noted, “When the fire of scandals burns down, they are left mostly alone with their own problems."
Today, if we consider the ineptitude of the men alleged to be Russian spies in England, with Novichok nerve agent in a Nina Ricci perfume bottle, or in the Netherlands, parking their car outside the global watchdog agency for chemical weapons and trying to tap into its WiFi, it’s clear those guys are never going to be celebrities.
The role of espionage superstars is reserved for women, even if it's the result of blatant objectification rather than intelligence triumphs, and even though it brings them little benefit in the long run.
The first of the redheads to capture the public imagination was flame-haired Anna Chapman in 2010. Then in her twenties, she was arrested along with nine other sleeper agents—older men and women (brunettes and blondes) whose names nobody could remember even at the time. The whole group was exchanged shortly afterward for four spies held by Moscow, including Sergei Skripal, who became the target of the Novichok attack in Salisbury, England, last spring.
Chapman, for a while, was built up in the Russian media as much as in the Western tabloids, and recently garnered a bit of fresh attention calling Skripal a traitor. But today, aged 36, she is working for a low-rated television channel, drifting off into obscurity, offering commentary that carries no weight in the Motherland.
On one recent broadcast, titled “Who Rules Us?,” Chapman appeared in a tight pink dress, squinting as she told Russian viewers about President Donald Trump’s personality. It has provoked psychological changes in American society, she said, including “bursts of uncontrolled fury.” The show then aired archive video of Adolf Hitler shouting from a stage in the early years of Nazi Germany.
In truth, the famous spy appears to have accomplished little in the espionage business apart from losing her cover, but at least it was clear after the prisoner exchange that she was part of a real network run by the Russian Federation’s foreign intelligence service, known as the SVR.
The case of Maria Butina, 29, is not so well defined. She was indicted last summer as a Russian agent of influence working through the National Rifle Association as the voluptuous gun-toting voice of the Russian wannabe equivalent, called Right to Bear Arms. She is now awaiting trial in Alexandria, Virginia.
Given the huge role the NRA played funding Donald Trump's election as president, and allegations that Russian money was funneled through the NRA for that purpose, Butina's role came under special scrutiny by the Feds. But her “Russian spy look” may have swayed them as well. Initially they accused her of offering sex for access. They have since dropped that salacious allegation.
But efforts in Russia to drum up popular support for Butina, and money to defend her in court, have not met much success. Very few have contributed to the fund created by her sister last month. So far it has managed to collect just a few hundred dollars, barely enough to pay an American lawyer for a couple of hours.
Meanwhile Butina’s Right to Bear Arms “movement,” which once counted among its membership hundreds of men doubtless inspired by images of a cold-eyed twentysomething with an assault rifle in her hands, has all but vanished.
One of the charges against Butina in the United States is failure to register as an agent while in fact working for a Russian government official. The man in question, Alexander Torshin, has all but vanished from public view since Butina was arrested.
“Nobody wants to pay to help her, we managed to collect a tiny sum for Maria, this is the result of confusing messages by our authorities,” Vaneyev, the current head of Right to Bear Arms, told The Daily Beast. “They appreciate your spirit, activism, leadership qualities, use you and then give up on you” Vaneyev said.
The head of RT (formerly Russia Today), Margarita Simonyan, was one of very few people who contributed her money in support of Butina. “Lots of Russia’s rich sons have not found a kopeck to save an unfairly jailed compatriot,” Simonyan wrote in her blog.
Earlier this month, Novaya Gazeta reported that Moscow was ready to exchange Ukrainian movie director Oleg Sentsov, who’s been on a hunger strike in Russian prison for more than 140 days, for three Russian citizens kept in American prisons: Butina, arms dealer Victor Bout, and a pilot named Konstantin Yaroshenko who is serving 20 years for smuggling drugs to the U.S.
“If this intention true, it is more than strange to ask to exchange a Ukrainian prisoner for people arrested in United States,” Alexander Cherkasov, chairman of the Memorial Human Rights Center, told The Daily Beast.
Much less well known than Chapman or Butina is 35-year-old Jelena Knorr, who for the last three years has been organizing pro-Putin rallies in Germany and says she has been “persecuted and accused of espionage” by her former employer, the German politician Matthias Büttner—a member of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.
The hard-right AfD has long drawn on support from among Germany’s four million Russian-speaking citizens, and nationalist politicians in Moscow. In the run-up to the German elections last year, fake stories about crimes by Middle Eastern immigrants were used with the Russian-speaking community specifically to whip up anger against Chancellor Angela Merkel and support for the AfD.
Knorr has been active organizing pro-Russian demonstrations and, for whatever reasons, Büttner grew uncomfortable with her activities. He reportedly told prosecutors that he believes Knorr is a Russian spy and a traitor to the state.
When contacted by The Daily Beast, Büttner said, “Unfortunately, I cannot comment on current proceedings.” But then he sent us a racist Twitter post by Knorr: “White power;” and added, “I am against of all forms of extremism.”
Of the three redheads Vaneyev is trying to support, Knorr is the only one who speaks Russian with an accent. She has spent most of her adult life in Germany. But that did not stop Knorr from building a public career as a Russian patriot there.
In May, Knorr organized what are called Immortal Regiment marches for the Russian national patriotic movement in Berlin, Hamburg and Cologne. The movement was founded in 2014 in memory of victory over Hitler’s Nazism. Putin took part in the march in Moscow.
Knorr declined to speak with The Daily Beast on the record, apparently hoping to sell her story one day. But she did confirm that she has been under investigation, providing The Daily Beast with a copy of a document she said she had received from German prosecutors. It said: “There is an initial suspicion in regarding the agent’s activity or activity of an intelligence group. In accordance with articles 98 and 99 of the criminal code, it should be registered and investigated.”
Vaneyev claims the biggest problem in the Knorr case is that “there is no information.”
Zvezda TV is the Russian channel run by the ministry of defense. On a Zvezda talk show on Sept. 1, Vaneyev accused the Russian embassy in Germany of not giving enough support for Jelena Knorr. Since then, he said, “The Russian embassy in Germany put pressure on Russian television channel Zvezda to stop covering Knorr’s case—this is not normal.”
“When I spoke with the Russian embassy about Knorr,” Vaneyev said, “they were laughing at me—these kind of diplomats, who demonstrably do not care about Russian nationals, show a bad example to our society.”