Cloak & Dagger
The Russian Spy Run by Dumb and Dumber
Zhenya Buryakov, a Russian spy convicted this past month of espionage in the U.S., had the misfortune of having comically inept handlers from Russian foreign intelligence.
Zhenya Buryakov lived a quiet Bronx existence with his wife and two children in Riverdale, an affluent neighborhood, working at a state-owned bank by day. He moved there, his wife would later say, because he wanted his children to speak perfect English, and two nuns next door would even pet-sit the family’s bird.
But by night, Buryakov met with his handlers at SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service, and passed along information his bosses in Moscow hoped to use against his host country.
That bucolic life was interrupted when Buryakov was arrested by the FBI in January 2015, and charged with being an unregistered agent of a foreign government. Unlike his handlers, whose sloppy conversations may have led to his arrest, Buryakov was only allowed to be in the United States as an employee of a foreign firm. A year later, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 30 months in prison, in a case that garnered relatively little attention coming on the heels of the 10 Russian “illegals” arrested in 2010.
But Buryakov’s arrest and sentencing serves as a firm reminder that despite the end of the Cold War, covert Russian espionage in the U.S. is prevalent and ongoing.
“Russia never gave up espionage against the West, and the United States remains the prime target of Russian intelligence,” former KGB spy Oleg Kalugin told The Daily Beast. Kalugin, now 81, served as a general in the KGB, but was found guilty in absentia of spying for the West by a Russian court in 2002.
Spies, broadly, come in three categories. Some are in deep cover, like the band of “illegals” busted in 2010. They create alternate personas, delete their Russian identities, and try to blend in as ordinary citizens, ideally passing unnoticed by intelligence agencies and ordinary citizens alike. Others work for governments under diplomatic cover, which gives them immunity from prosecution.
A third category work for foreign businesses while carrying out their secret spy missions. In intelligence jargon, they operate under “non-official cover,” gathering information and recruiting intelligence assets while reporting to an office for grunt work.
Buryakov was such an NOC, prosecutors said. He reported to Vnesheconombank, the state-run Russian Development Bank, for work Monday through Friday, but his after-hours supervisors were Igor Sporyshev and Victor Podobnyy, operatives for SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service. The duo were somewhat protected because of their official diplomatic posts, but were nonetheless charged for their involvement in running Buryakov. They fled the country before they could be arrested.
Buryakov, whose full first name is Evgeny, was accused of posing as an employee of Vnesheconombank without registering with the U.S. government as a foreign agent. Sporyshev and Podobnyy tried to recruit New Yorkers as intelligence assets, oversaw Buryakov’s activities, and reported back to the motherland on what he found.
Over the course of two years, the FBI surveilled Buryakov meeting with his handlers more than 50 times, sometimes doing covert handoffs like passing a bag or magazine to Sporyshev.
“Notably, despite discussing on approximately one dozen occasions the need to meet to transfer ‘tickets,’ [Buryakov] and Igor Sporyshev, the defendants have—other than one occasion where they discussed going to a movie—never been observed attending, or discussing in any detail, events that would typically require tickets, such as a sporting event or a concert,” the complaint against them read.
His handlers’ careless craftsmanship may be what landed Buryakov in prison.
Sporyshev and Podobnyy lamented to each other that their spy work mostly involved massaging the egos of potential recruits, and not the glamorous shootouts they’d expected after seeing movies like James Bond, according to the criminal complaint against them. They discussed how Directorate S—the SVR program that oversaw the Illegals program, and likely also Buryakov—was the only branch doing “real intelligence.” While they met Buryakov in public spaces that made eavesdropping more difficult, their own conversations evidently took place indoors, with little concern about what might happen if they were overheard. “Even his boss didn’t know that Zhenya was undercover,” Podobnyy told Sporyshev in one conversation about Buryakov’s previous posting. The boss suggested they take a visiting SVR supervisor out to dinner, at which point the supervisor revealed Buryakov’s dual role to his boss.
“Apparently guys were not properly trained,” Kalugin, the former KGB spy, said. “We always kept our mouths shut.”
Most of the Sporyshev and Buryakov’s covert actions appeared to be recruiting young women as intelligence assets, particularly those who were college students and working for financial firms. The efforts weren’t always successful.
“I have lots of ideas about such girls but these ideas are not actionable because they don’t allow to get close enough,” Sporyshev told Podobnyy. “And in order to be close you either need to fuck them or use other levers to influence them to execute my requests. So when you tell me about girls, in my experience, it’s very rare that something workable will come of it.”
The male assets weren’t much better. One “went to Moscow and forgot to check his inbox,” Podobnyy told Sporyshev.
“I think he is an idiot and forgot who I am,” Podobnyy added. “Plus he writes to me in Russian [to] practice the language. He flies Moscow more often than I do.”
The man wanted attention and money—one of which Podobnyy was happy to provide.
“I will feed him empty promises,” he said.
Buryakov’s exact role remains unclear, and some of his plea documents remain under seal. Kalugin, the KGB defector, told The Daily Beast the Russian government has an obsession with getting numbers other than the ones publicly released. “It’s typical of the Soviet mentality,” he said. “Because publicly, the statistics are lies. And the real statistics are kept secret.”
Once, Sporyshev called Buryakov up to ask him to feed stock exchange-related questions to a state news agency “that is sometimes used by Russian intelligence to gain access to and gather intelligence under the cover of the news media,” according to the complaint.
At another time, Sporyshev asked Buryakov to research “effects of economic sanctions on our country,” the complaint says. Not a very good spy or economist, Buryakov somehow allowed his computer to be searched during a meeting at a Manhattan bank’s office, revealing internet searches for “sanctions Russia consiquences” [sic].
Kalugin told The Daily Beast this type of research is not uncommon. During his posting in the U.S. during the Cold War, he often sent information that would be published in American newspapers just a few days later, but it was treated like gold by the bosses back home.
“[Kalugin’s boss] said, ‘You know like it’s funny—You guys report what is published in the western media, but you do it a little earlier,” Kalugin recalled.
Maybe that’s why stories of spies like Buryakov, Sporyshev, and Podobnyy, who worked office jobs and reported back information that gave bosses back home incremental information rather than a huge coup, are less titillating than those of The Illegals. In one of the most famous cases from that bust, brothers Alexander and Timofei Vavilov (formerly Foley) had no idea that their parents were Russian agents rather than Canadian immigrants.
Another of their fellow arrestees, Anna Chapman, had a less elaborate backstory—she used her real name—but captured international attention for her looks and relationships with apparently-oblivious men. Her reward for her service was a TV show called “Secret World,” where Chapman promotes outlandish conspiracy theories one hopes she doesn’t believe herself. In one episode, she suggests that American bacteriologists released a deadly flu strain from a Ukrainian laboratory. In another, an expert suggests that allergies are “one of humanity’s greatest threats,” while others say humans are being infected with them.
Buryakov’s defense, in contrast to these summarily-deported cells, was that he was not a NOC agent since working for Vnesheconombank was, in essence, working for the Russian government. After all, “VEB’s supervisory board is chaired by the Russian prime minister, and the chairman of the bank is appointed by the Russian president,” his attorney, Scott Hershman, argued. It also performs “quintessential government functions,” like repaying and collecting debts.
The U.S. government, in contrast, argued that not only did Buryakov’s visa only identify him as an employee of a foreign business, but he “stated repeatedly, under penalty of perjury, that he was not entering to try to engage in espionage.”
“The information Mr. Buryakov was obtaining as a spy was not being funneled to his superiors at the bank in New York; it was being funneled to a trade official, an attaché to the Russian ministry,” Assistant U.S. attorney Adam Fee argued. “Other spies with whom he had no other reason to be channeling this information.”
Andrey Saratov, Buryakov’s boss at Vnesheconombank, wrote a letter in support of lenient sentencing to the court. (He did not respond to a request for comment sent to his company e-mail address.) “Evgeny is good-natured and is very supportive of his friends and colleagues,” Saratov wrote. “By way of an example, once I needed a medicine which was not available in Russia but could be brought from New York. Evgeny immediately volunteered to help and got the medicine to me very quickly, although he was tied up with many assignments at work.”
The judge didn’t buy this defense and he was sentenced to 30 months in prison in March. His family wrote pleading letters begging for leniency, though Kalugin said Russia, like the former USSR, takes care of the families of its men.
In one submission, the children Buryakov supposedly tried to give the gift of perfect English wrote a handwritten letter about their dad. “Our father is a very good human,” his son Pavel wrote. “He always teached me to be honest, equitable, strong and kind man.”