I owe my life to a spy swap of exactly the kind being negotiated today between the White House and the Kremlin. In October 1969 the Soviet Politburo and the British cabinet—after years of negotiation—agreed to swap Peter and Helen Kroger, two senior Soviet spies in a British prison who had enabled the USSR’s nuclear program, for Gerald Brooke, a young British student who had served a five-year sentence in Russia for importing anti-Soviet literature. Because the exchange was so unequal (two top spies for a student!), the Soviet government agreed to throw in three Soviet citizens who wanted to marry Brits as a bonus. One of them was my mother, Lyudmila Bibikova, who had been fighting for six years to be allowed to wed my father, a Welsh academic. On the day that the Krogers were released from Parkhurst prison, the remaining prisoners held a patriotic protest against restoring them to Russia. Meanwhile, at the Soviet Consulate General in London, my father was kept waiting until the Krogers’ plane was safely out of British airspace before the consul handed him the visa that would allow him to return to Moscow to marry his fiancée. I was born in London two years later.
This month, history repeats itself as farce, as Washington and Moscow are haggling over their own exchange of spies who failed, on both sides, to make any real difference in statecraft. Today, the chess pieces are 11 Russian spies caught in America and an undisclosed list of Russian citizens imprisoned over the last decade for allegedly passing information to Britain and America. Superficially, the similarities with the spooks who reunited my parents are striking. At the time of their arrest in 1960, Peter and Helen Kroger had been living lives of apparently impeccable suburban respectability in Ruislip, near London. The Krogers had maintained a façade of innocence by joining the local cricket team and attending garden fetes. Likewise, when alleged Russian spy Cynthia Murphy was arrested last week, her New Jersey neighbors were astonished: “They couldn’t have been spies,” said one. “Look what she did with the hydrangeas.” Both generations of Russian spies had been equipped by Moscow Center with the latest communications equipment, which they hid at home, according to an FBI deposition; the Krogers kept a radio mast up their chimney, the alleged spy Anna Chapman had a closed-network Wi-Fi transmitter.
But scratch the surface and the differences between the great spy scandals of the Cold War and the current case are actually glaring. Back in the day, spies changed the world. The Krogers, for instance, were in reality Morris and Lona Cohen, Jewish-American communists recruited by Stalin’s secret police to act as couriers for the ring of spies who penetrated the Manhattan Project in the 1940s. That spy ring, probably the most successful in the history of espionage, gave Stalin the secrets of the atomic bomb and sparked a nuclear-arms race. The Krogers escaped the U.S. after most of the atomic spies, led by Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, were rounded up, tried, and executed (the Krogers were eventually caught on a later assignment, recruiting agents at the Portland Naval Base where British nuclear submarines were refitted). During the same era, a spy in Russia, Col. Oleg Penkovsky, fed British intelligence vital information during the Cuban missile crisis, which showed that most of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s threats were just bluff, allowing the Kennedy brothers to face down the Soviets’ threat. Penkovsky was subsequently arrested and shot.
Contrast that with the ham-handed antics of the Russian spies in the news today. Not only were they apparently unable to gather enough intelligence to change the course of world history, they couldn’t even manage to get enough to warrant a formal charge of espionage (the 11 members of the alleged spy ring have been indicted for working for a foreign power and money laundering). Similarly, the most high-profile spy the Russians propose to swap for their people, researcher Igor Sutyagin, demonstrated at his 2004 trial that the information he conveyed in a paid report for a U.K. company (on Russian nuclear-weapons deployments) was open-source material. It didn’t help: he was convicted for 15 years nonetheless.
The point is that once, spying really mattered. Now it amounts to little more than national embarrassment. To maintain their credibility for future recruitment, spy agencies have to demonstrate that they’ll look after their people even if they’re caught. Indeed in the Krogers’ case, their London-based KGB handler Konon Molody, alias Gordon Lonsdale, escaped to the Soviet Union and devoted his career to getting his former agents out of prison by hunting for a suitable Westerner or Western-recruited spy to swap for them. The student Gerald Brooke, arrested in 1964, became a hostage against the Krogers’ release. Similarly, the talks going on now between the U.S. and Russia are a kind of mutual housecleaning in which each side brings its boys (and girls) home.
It’s very evident that whatever else may have changed in U.S.-Russia relations, spies continue to operate under Cold War rules. But there are two key differences between now and then. One, unlike during the Cold War, the value of the espionage that these people appear to have conducted seems close to worthless, on both sides. Two, Russian and U.S. leaders are focused enough on diplomacy that they haven’t let these spy scandals poison the chances of building real, constructive relations. Cynthia Murphy’s herbaceous borders and Anna Chapman’s Facebook pictures are great fodder for tabloid reporting—not, thank God, the stuff of international conflict.