The emerging details about the Russian espionage ring exposed last week have bizarre echoes of classic Soviet-era spy cases.
Of course, the difference is obvious: Most of these 10 sleeper agents were Russian nationals given false American names and identities, rather than native-born traitors. Yet it’s remarkable how, nearly two decades after the fall of communism, ideology was still of vital importance to them.
Take “Juan Lazaro,” a Siberian-born Russian who posed as a Uruguayan national. He had married a Peruvian-born journalist who was also arrested, Vicky Palaez — and both are hard-line leftists.
Last month, Fidel Castro himself quoted favorably one of Palaez’s articles lambasting the United States for “imperialism.” Lazaro taught Latin American and Caribbean politics at Baruch College, where his students said he regularly engaged in diatribes against America.
He even wrote and had published a paper heralding the supposed great work for women’s liberation — by having females engage in guerrilla operations — conducted in Peru by the Shining Path, a Maoist group dedicated to violent overthrow of the Peruvian government.
This fervent anti-Americanism recalls the ideological spies of the 1950s, like Alger Hiss and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. Those communist agents were motivated by their belief that the Soviet Union was on the right and just side of history. The USSR is no more — yet the Russians recruited by the SVR (the new name of the old KGB) seem to regard the spy agency as a vehicle for keeping alive the communist legacy of the old system.
Strikingly, like the Rosenbergs, these spies were willing to sacrifice their own children for the cause they serve, even if it means abandoning them to the care of strangers.
Ethel and Julius Rosenberg built a spy ring for the KGB that, among other work, stole US secrets to save the Soviets years in developing the atomic bomb. After their arrest in 1950, they feigned innocence — claiming to be regular parents with “progressive” views that led them to oppose the Truman administration’s Cold War foreign policy. They insisted they’d been framed by the FBI to scare others out of opposing President Harry S. Truman’s “fascist” warmongering.
Because it did not want to reveal that it had intercepted and decoded vast amounts of Soviet communications, our government could not disclose its most damning evidence against the Rosenbergs. The totalitarian system that the traitors served saw value in having them pose as martyrs — so they did.
To preserve their lie, they were willing to sacrifice their lives and make their sons orphans. In their final letter to their sons on June 19, 1953, Ethel Rosenberg manipulated her children into unknowingly dedicating their lives to serving the lie. “Always remember that we were innocent,” she wrote — pushing the boys to waste the rest of their lives trying to prove that false claim — “and could not wrong our conscience.”
At least SVR agent Lazaro admits that his commitment to espionage for Russia and the SVR is what is important to him. He told the prosecutors, as they related in an affidavit, that “although he loved his son, he would not violate his loyalty to the ‘Service’ even for his son.”
How can parents put “the cause” above their children? Loyalty — to the communist cause then, to the SVR today — defines their lives and gives it meaning. Lazaro, who obviously still believes in the communist dream and anti-Americanism, can serve both masters.
He evidently at first confessed to the FBI, acknowledging that he was Russian and an SVR spy and saying that his wife carried messages for him to the Russians. Yet his new lawyer has advised him to retract his statements and adopt a new stance — recalling the Soviet-era tactic perfected by the Rosenbergs and others: Claim innocence and insist the US government is persecuting you because of your left-wing politics.
Hmm. He — and the other ring members — will have to explain why they all had packages of $10,000 in bills stored at home, ready to use for whatever activity the SVR requested.
Or perhaps he’ll shift back to cooperating with prosecutors. No one is talking about bringing a charge that could warrant the death penalty, after all — the Cold War is over, and the stakes are smaller this time.
So, if history is indeed repeating itself, this time around it appears as farce.