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Cold War Fever

Red Sparrow plays into today's overheated Russiaphobia

Russia is a land of contrasts. From the subtropical climate of Derbent to the permafrosted ground of Norilsk, Russia—its climate, its people, and its politics—exists on the fringes. It is, one may say, a mystery wrapped in an enigma, coddled and protected by an angry, frustrated bear.

That, at least, is the sinister, quasi-Orientalist image of the country featured in Jason Matthews’s best-selling 2013 spy novel, Red Sparrow, and its recently released film adaptation, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Joel Edgerton. Although the novel came well before the present furor over the #TrumpRussia scandal, it’s nonetheless a spy yarn tailor-made for the Twitter feeds of Eric Garland, Louise Mensch, Seth Abramson, and other self-appointed Western watchdogs of runaway Russian spycraft. In the age of the Steele dossier—the ridiculous, but partially plausible, work of “raw intelligence” that, among other things, describes the now-president of the United States hiring prostitutes to pee on the Moscow Ritz-Carlton’s bedspreads while FSB surveillance looks on[1]—waxing philosophical over sexy spies is cool again.

Red Sparrow, both as a novel and as a film, is but the latest update of the well-worn Cold War spy saga, and like the prior best-selling Russiaphobic works of Martin Cruz Smith and Tom Clancy, it poses as a sober exercise in Great Power moral introspection while wallowing in tabloid-style caricatures of the scheming and amoral Russian national temperament. And like any good vehicle of marketable national paranoia, the film’s release benefits from fortuitous timing, as Matthews himself has cheerfully admitted. “I wake up every morning thanking Vladimir Putin for providing so much content for an espionage writer,” he proclaimed to The Hollywood Reporter on the eve of the film’s release.

Like any good vehicle of marketable national paranoia, the film’s release benefits from fortuitous timing.

Whether we, the citizens of an American media-political order now well and truly mired in anti-Russian paranoia, should feel anywhere near so fortunate, is another question entirely. The depth of official Russian perfidy is made unmistakably in the movie’s plot, which concerns the recruitment of Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) a badly injured former Bolshoi prima ballerina into the elite ranks of Russian espionage. Her creepy uncle, Ivan Vladimirovich Egorov, a high-ranking member of the country’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), puts her in the elite ranks of the Russian state’s sparrow corps. In short order, Egorova and the film’s audience learn to their horror that the breed of sparrow referenced in the title is pimped out for the glory of the Motherland—in order to carry out their appointed missions, these predatory and violently accomplished young espionage agents are trained in manipulating the darkest sexual desires of their targets for the sake of expanding the irredentist ambitions of the Russian state.

Egorova and the other sparrow recruits (who are, for the record, drawn from both genders and appeal to a variety of sexualities) turn tricks for Putin’s Russia and for the greater good of a Russian, not Soviet, nation—a point that only figures mildly into the film’s narrative arc, where Putin isn’t even mentioned by name. (He is, very much by contrast, an oppressively cartoonish villain in the book, right down to the discomfitingly virile appreciation of the Russian leader’s bulging muscles.)

As a work of art, Red Sparrow lands flat on its face: it’s long, didactic, and—for a movie whose plotline is all about sex—sorely lacking for anything remotely resembling erotic chemistry. Yet it also fits neatly into a narrative that, formerly confined to diplomatic and academic circles, has burst out, in appropriately undemanding intellectual form, into the mainstream, as debate over Russian interference in the 2016 election cycle drags on: not only are we in the midst of a new Cold War, but we—as the networked and influential coterie of information warfare experts and defense contractors have long insisted—will, and must, win. It’s a spy tale, and of course fodder for the intrepid Russia conspiracy theorist’s wank-bank, for a very dumb, very conspiratorial age.

After Egorova narrowly survives a dry run assignment effort to set up what appears to be a Trumpian-style kompromat-acquiring encounter in a hotel with a powerful Russian political leader—culminating in her own rape and his murder—she’s dispatched to the great sparrow academy (or as its sinister-yet-generic spyspeak has it, “State School No. 4,” apparently in honor of an academy bearing the same name in the Soviet Union). It’s a crash course in both conventional spycraft and modern “sexspionage” alike. The trainees are forced (at truly ponderous length) to analyze the desires of possible targets, to seduce male and female counterparts, and, at times, to fuck on command and on camera.

Following an attempted rape by a jealous classmate, Lawrence is whisked away by her uncle for her first official mission: find and seduce one Nate Nash (names are clearly not Matthews’s strong suit as a writer). Nash (Edgerton) is a CIA operative who fled Russia around the time of Egorova’s accident. An attractive, bearded long-time spy, Nash is a creature of habit: he swims, he drinks, and in a plot point that is left somehow completely unexplained, he occasionally gets away with paying for sex.

Nash and Egorova hit it off quickly—he’s entranced by her beauty and her transparently bogus cover identity as a low-level Embassy translator; and she by the promise of earning the trust of a heroic Western good guy.

Sexspionage figures heavily into our culture industry’s Cold War mythmaking.

Despite repeated assertions to her Russian counterparts that her mission is going just dandy, Egorova soon morphs into an eager double agent for the Americans. Sure, her roommate’s murder is one catalyst, but given her full-throated defense of her uncle’s decision to force her into sexspionage as the act of a “patriot,” Egorova’s decision seems too good to be true. Yet even in moments of high-stakes and potentially cover-blowing uncertainty, such as a brutal torture scene in which an especially sociopathic SVR asset and Egorova tag-team the interrogation subject Nash, no real dramatic tension builds around Egovora’s choices—in no small part because, like every other Russian character on display, she’s less a recognizably conflicted human being than a hastily assembled array of interchangeable Russian stereotypes. But her status as a Russian schemer straight out of central casting also means she’s ideally cut out for double-agent duty. After all, Russians, Matthews eagerly reminds us in his novel, are “born conspirators” who “harbor secret thoughts . . . [and] are accustomed to it.” Matthews truly understands the nuances of the russkaya dusha.

A botched attempt to foil the delivery of crucial floppy discs containing sensitive military plans by a compromised U.S. senate aid results in Egorova’s arrest; she’s then delivered back to Moscow and dumped into the brutal care of a staid and matronly Soviet-esque torturer. She carries through it all, of course, assuring her uncle “there was no other mission” and that they ought to “finish what we started.” And she does, in the movie’s grand twist—Egorova saves the day by not only saving her own skin, but also that of the CIA’s original mole, by framing her uncle as a traitor.

In the end, she, the injured dancer who likely would have died in obscurity otherwise, does become the pride of Mother Russia—and, of course, of the CIA. It turns out that the sex-peddling Russian apparatchik is actually an archetype of a pet Western patriarchal brand of psychosexual fabulizing: the hooker with a heart of gold. And as such, she embodies a vital new cause for hope in this new geopolitical struggle.

The politics of Red Sparrow, both in the novel and the movie, are heavy-handed in a way that feels all too familiar—and not just because cable anchors and pundits can’t shut up about the dangers posed by Russian spies and their useful idiots. Red Sparrow’s world is one in which, as the matron at “sparrow school” helpfully reminds us, “the Cold War did not end, it merely shattered into a thousand pieces.” Yet again, it is Russia’s turn to challenge U.S. hegemony, for “only Russia is willing to make the sacrifices required for victory.”

Red Sparrow’s reliance on the “honey pot” trope is telling here. From James Bond to The Americans, sexspionage figures heavily into our culture industry’s Cold War mythmaking. Indeed, at the height of the Cold War, one of the most infamous champions of the practice was former East German espionage chief and spymaster Markus Wolf, who launched a program running young, attractive German men in order to seduce and “turn” lonely secretaries on the other side of the wall. (These gallant men were later dubbed “Romeos” by a West German journalist.) Wolf, who yearned to be remembered as “perfecting the use of sex in spying,” embraced a variety of other lurid tactics at the frontiers of psychological manipulation; at one point he even roped in a Stasi officer to pose as a Danish priest in order to urge one female West German asset into the conviction that passing along secrets to enemy governments was no sin.

Of course, the currency of sexspionage in anti-Western espionage initiatives is hardly new in the annals of modern spycraft. As Nigel West explains in The A to Z of Sexspionage, the NKVD—otherwise known as the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs, which was responsible not only for overseeing the Gulag system but all manner of internal Soviet espionage campaigns—managed to infiltrate the American embassy with a corps of mistresses designated to service clerks in exchange for secrets they could hand off to their Soviet keepers.

We’ve got our girl in the Kremlin, and she’s going to bring the tyrannical Russian bear to its knees.

This well-traveled saga of loin-driven Great Power intrigue feels fresh once more in our own hectic age of pee-tape speculation. Beyond all the geopolitical bumping and grinding though, there’s a serious ideological agenda fueling all the cliched brutality and double-crossing in Red Sparrow: the very sexy premise that this shell of a superpower has declared war on the West and poses a viable existential threat. From this alarming supposition, a host of reassuringly familiar Cold War corollaries follow. Chief among them is the notion that it’s now within U.S. interests to restart a global confrontation with the Russian threat—and that, as a seeming law of insatiable psychic compensation, the same ruthless drive to visit retaliatory humiliation is deeply and unalterably embedded within the Russian psyche. As Matthews wrote in 2013, the interior life of the aggrieved Russian leadership caste has been shaped by the country’s “hellish evolution—from Bolshevik rage to Soviet rot and now, even after glasnost, into the Federation’s parasitic greed.” Above all, the world of Red Sparrow is one in which the actions of a small group of morally righteous individuals can change the course of history. Forget sanctions or taking on oligarchs—or even the fact that most Russian political strategists including Vladimir Putin himself have embraced the concept of multipolarity in lieu of any renewal of the late twentieth century’s ruinously binary contest for geopolitical power. We’ve got our girl in the Kremlin, and she’s going to bring the tyrannical Russian bear to its knees.

Egorova is, in other words, the ideal hero for our time—or at least for all the impressionable souls who believe Eric Garland’s “Game Theory” rant represents the salvation of our imperiled, Russian-infected republic. She’s the moral opposite of the cartoonishly evil Putin: upon seeing her nation for what it really is, she reneges on her promise to “serve the state . . . [and] the president” in order to work with the good guys. She’s heroic, sexy, and capable of self-sacrifice—but above all, she’s a triumphant survivor of the soulless, statist evils wrought by Putin’s Russia. At times seeming to sense Egorova’s two-dimensional status as a glorified creature of agitprop, Matthews haphazardly tries to inject nuance into her character, by for instance tethering her initial cooperation with the SVR to her admirable devotion to her ailing mother. But otherwise Egorova is her own empowered woman (YAAAAS QUEEN, SLAY), freed from the shackles of Russian backwardness and covetousness.

Maybe a modicum of nuance is a lot to ask from a spy film—especially when it’s based on a morality play as Clancyesque as Matthews’s novel. But in the final analysis, verisimilitude counts for nothing in any of our present overheated narratives of Russian infiltration and takeover. Details are for nerds; we’ve got Jennifer Lawrence—and more important, a narrative to push here.


[1] The author would like to go on record asserting that the pee tape is, in fact, real.