The Spy who loved Media

Spies in movies are suave, drink martinis (well, not martini actually, but a vodka and gin cocktail, called Vesper). They are martial arts experts if they are men; and they are mysterious, speak many languages, are gorgeous and glamourous if they are women. Movies are movies, of course. Reality is much more mundane. A spy could be anyone from a scientist to a teacher; and it could be argued that most embassy employees everywhere are -to some degree- spies, due to the very nature of their job, although their salaries certainly can’t buy an Aston Martin. When caught, spies can be sometimes swapped for other spies, as if they were merchandise. Real spies are also not necessarily very good agents.

The Russian group arrested in the US last year was apparently made up of not very successful sleeper agents. In a highly-publicized swap, however, they were exchanged for accused American spies held in Russia, who were probably not very good spies either. The Russians were flown together, rather unglamorously, to Vienna, before being sent from there to Mother Russia.

This year it has been revealed that the reason American secret services decided to act and arrest the amateurish Russian spies was that one of them -widely believed to be Anna Chapman- had actually gotten a little too close to one of Obama’s cabinet members.

Times have changed, and failed secret agents are not necessarily sent to Siberia anymore. After the 10 men and women returned to Russia, it was President Dmitri Medvédev himself who gave them top state honours, and they even sang patriotic songs with Prime Minister Putin, once an intelligence agent himself. Not exactly old school.

The network, called the Illegals Program by the US Justice Department, is said to have used very amateurish tradecraft, in some cases downright embarrasing. And in fact they were uncovered before they even started doing any serious spying. That didn’t stop the Russian government from receiving them as heroes.

At least one of those spies has become an instant celebrity. Anna Chapman was clearly different from the rest. She actually looked like one of those secret agents we love to see in films. Not incredibly successful as a spy -despite being the daughter of a once high-ranking KGB officer- Anna Vasil’yevna Kushchyenko (the name on her Russian passport) has proven to be more than successful with the media. Not only has she posed as a Bond girl for the Russian edition of Maxim magazine in Agent Provocateur lingerie, she was also hired as an advisor to a Russian bank, she has been appointed a leader of the Molodaya Gvardia, the youth branch of Vladimir Putin‘s political party, she has participated in fashion shows of designers Ilya Shiyan and Yana Rudkovskayaand her name is being used to advertise anything from watches to clothing, beer or vodka. She is writing a book, she has just launched a poker game and an iPhone app. She has even registered her name as a trademark in Russia.

Angelina Jolie reportedly personally requested that Anna Chapman attended the premiere of her 2010 movie Salt, where she interprets a Russian spy. Apparently Angelina’s agents tried to get a hold of Chapman, but were unable to trace her.

International media also seems to love Anna Chapman. Agent 90-60-90, as the Russian press calls her, for example, returned to the US, in the form of nude photos, in the January 2011 issue of Playboy. These photographs were made public by her British ex-husband Alex Chapman.

Also in the US, herobuilders.com has created action figure Anna Chapman Spy Girl “The Predator” and “The Spy I could love”, which are sold online for $29,95. She has reportedly received an offer to pose for Playboy as well.

Is Hollywood next? Wouldn’t it be deliciously ironic to see femme fatale Anna Chapman incarnating a Russian secret agent in the next James Bond film, using all her charm to try to extract secrets from Daniel Craig. Bet Daniel won´t mind.

(If you want to read the original version of the article, The Spy Who Loved Media, including photos)

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Cum Grano Salis

The English language expression “with a grain of salt”, which means to be skeptical or not taking something literally, appears for the first time in Pliny the Elder‘s Naturalis Historia. When Gnaeus Pompeius defeated Mithridates in 65BC, he found a recipe for an antidote for poison in his private cabinet. The recipe was: two dried walnuts, two figs, and twenty leaves of rue; pounded all together and taken with a grain of salt. If a person took this mixture fasting, he thought, he would be protected from all poisons that day.

If anyone knew about poisons, it was Mithridates. After his defeat he fled to Crimea and attempted to organize a new army against the Romans but failed, his eldest son, Machares, was unwilling to help (and so, was killed) and another of his sons, Pharnaces II, led a rebellion against him. Seeing his loss of authority, he attempted suicide, but failed; because throughout his life -obsessed with assassination by poison- he had gained immunity to many of them taking tiny doses of all available poisons. He had to order his bodyguard and friend Bituitus to kill him.

That last part of Pliny’s translation of Mithridates’ handwritten recipe was adopted in the English language, no doubt, when classical scholars studied the Ancient Greek texts. It has been in use in English at least since the 17th century, when John Trapp, the English Anglican Bible commentator, said that the Old and New Testaments had “to be taken with a grain of salt”. But it has always meant to have common sense and a certain skepticism in Italy, where “to have salt in your pumpkin” (avere sale in zucca) means to have personal judgement and not believe things literally.

This cathedral, in Zipaquirá, a town in Cundinamarca, Colombia, was not built but carved within the tunnels of an underground salt mine. The “Salt Cathedral” is a popular tourist destination. Although mass is celebrated in it, the church has no bishop assigned, so it has no official status as a cathedral in Catholicism. The church visited today is not the original one inaugurated in 1954, dedicated to Our Lady of Rosary, Patron saint of miners, however. Due to structural problems a new one had to be excavated, 200 feet below the old sanctuary. Still, some of the galleries used today were originally excavated by the Muisca people, who already exploited salt, at least since the 5th century. Alexander von Humboldt described this mining during his visit to Zipaquirá in 1801.

An surprising and original endeavour, this cathedral. But, like most things surrounding the holy Catholic church, and like religion itself…it must be taken with a grain of salt.

(To read the article on my magazine, in PDF format, published today: Cum Grano Salis)