I Was a Landlord to a Russian Spy, and He Was a Total Slob
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The slightly dilapidated red-brick Rahill apartments, where I live, occupy a prime tract of Arlington, VA, real estate just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. The National Mall is a short bike across the Roosevelt Bridge; Georgetown is an even shorter walk across the Key Bridge going north. Despite the proliferation of swank townhomes and high-rise condominiums mushrooming up all around my building, there is still a clear view from my third-floor window of the Washington Monument and, beyond that, the U.S. Capitol.
So coveted is this address that when I used Craig's List to find someone to sub-let my apartment last year, I was inundated with phone calls from interested parties within an hour of placing the ad. Fatefully, I rejected the flood of Craig's List candidates and instead went with word of mouth to locate a tenant. A Russian acquaintance who was running a local travel agency recommended to me a friend of his who was planning to move to the area. That friend was Mikhail Semenko (pron. Sem-YEN-ko), a 27-year-old student working on his master's degree in international relations at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. In less than a year, Semenko would be charged, convicted and deported for the crime of conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of a foreign government.
Who'd-a-thunk? At the time, the unassuming Semenko seemed like salt of the earth, and a perfect fit for my apartment. Arlington leads the nation in well-educated twenty-somethings who wear their baseball caps backwards and start sentences with the word "dude." This trendy young Russian would be right at home. I went to Iraq to teach at a nascent American university, with utter confidence that my hovel would survive the spate of keggers my tenant was likely to host.
This was not my first experience teaching overseas, or entrusting my property to someone else for an extended period of time. In 1999, a decade prior to going to Iraq, I made the mid-life-crisis decision to trade in an insurance career for something slightly more meaningful, which is to say anything else. The notion of joining Peace Corps occurred to me as out-of-the-blue as any thought I've ever had. I went to Peace Corps headquarters on Wilson Blvd. in Arlington and asked if they had need of a bored, guilt-ridden insurance man. My hope was to get assigned an adobe hut somewhere in central Africa and begin my second career as a gruel ladler in abject, self-abnegating style. It would be the perfect penance for all those years reposing behind a desk and perfunctorily denying claims by phone.
Peace Corps, however, had a different plan for my life, one that would eventually culminate in the June 28, 2010 search and seizure by federal investigators of my home. Terry, my Peace Corps program coordinator, had just finished a two-year stint in the Primorsky Krai region of the Russian Far East and recommended it highly. Primoria, just above North Korea, is blisteringly cold and relatively desolate. But the rewards of working there, Terry assured me, were vast. All the volunteers dispatched to Primoria were provided host families to facilitate cultural assimilation, and trained to work as English teachers. They served at secondary schools and universities that wanted an American on their teaching staff. A sizable percentage of those volunteers worked in Vladivostok, the capital of Primoria and home to Russia's Pacific naval fleet.
At 40, I had never traveled outside the United States, unless you count a brief road-trip to Canada. The idea of spending two years getting mocked by impudent Russian kids in an unheated, Soviet-era classroom terrified me. But continuing a pointless existence as a desk jockey terrified me even more. I asked Terry for an application. At his behest, I wrote a one-page Mission Statement that outlined my personal plan for helping Russia out of its economic funk by creating lessons with "can do" messages. Since I knew absolutely nothing about Russia, economics, or creating lessons, I kept my statement nice and vague. It could have been distilled down to four words: "Caring is the answer." Terry ate it up. I was in.
In the summer of 2000, I embarked on a two-year teaching junket to Russia with 39 other Peace Corps volunteers. I quickly realized what Terry meant about the "vast rewards" to be found in Primoria. I had never before seen such an impressive concentration of jaw-dropping pulchritude in my life. Eastern Russia is a bachelor's paradise, a place where, due to a vast gender imbalance, even mediocre men are highly prized by the most winsome women. The effect is magnified in Vladivostok, a college town where the overwhelming majority of students is female. Professors gaze out over classes containing a dozen statuesque, genetically-gifted co-eds. It was like lecturing at the Ford Modeling Agency.
Not surprisingly, teaching in Russia agreed with me. After my two-year obligation to Peace Corps was satisfied, I was offered full-time employment by Far Eastern State University, where I had already been "working" (we'll call it) as a volunteer. By this time, President Putin had severed ties with the Peace Corps. Still peeved about President Clinton's 1999 bombing of Kosovo, Putin had sent all American relief workers home, under the ruse that they were security threats. With so few Americans in Primoria to compete with, my stock rose considerably. I was now quite possibly the foremost authority on the English language in all of Vladivostok, a city of 700,000 strong. Plus, my Russian was improving by the day, honed by a host "mother" who wouldn't pass the bread unless I asked for it flawlessly. A virtually unmarketable commodity in the U.S., I was suddenly a triple-threat guy in Russia -- skilled in two essential languages and armed with a make-up-for-lost-time attitude.
In addition to teaching, I found gainful employment with an upstart on-line English-language newspaper called The Vladivostok News. My job was to take stories furnished by Russian reporters and translate them into English for a global market. Soon, word got out to Vladivostok's small expatriate community that an American wordsmith who had an easy working relationship with Russians was in town. A local New Zealand businessman lured me away from The Vladivostok News with an intriguing offer. He wanted to create a print newspaper, done entirely in English, which advertised to foreign visitors and reflected a Western take on Primorian news of the day. This trailblazing capitalist asked me to edit his paper and assemble a staff of competent reporters, photographers and ad people that would sustain the project. In a town drenched in intellectual resources, that wasn't hard for me to do. By January, 2006, The Vladivostok Times was available at every hotel and coffee shop in the city. It was hard juggling newspaper work with teaching, but I was having the time of my life.
Meanwhile, a third of the way to Lake Baikal in the sub-Siberian town of Blagoveschensk, the future "illegal," Mikhail Semenko, was preparing to come to America to get an advanced degree. As an undergrad, Semenko had studied government at Amur State University. His best practical training in this field had been imparted to him by volunteers from the U.S. Peace Corps, who taught at ASU and oversaw the local chapter of the international student organization Model United Nations.
By 2006, I had gotten acquainted with a number of the brainy Anglophiles in the Vladivostok branch of MUN. Through them, I had also heard about some of the up-and-comers from other towns in the Russian Far East. Semenko was one of those first-rate academics whose reputation had reached my ears from a thousand kilometers away. I hoped he and I would somehow cross paths before he went overseas to work or study like so many of his peers in MUN had already done. It seemed to be the dream of all the best English-speaking Russian students to, at least temporarily, live in America.
As for me, I may have remained in Russia indefinitely had I not been denied a visa extension in summer 2006 by Russian Immigration. I never learned the reason for this rejection. Russian Immigration isn't disposed to explain why certain individuals are designated "undesirable." It's usually pretty arbitrary. That said, the Russian government has always had an uneasy relationship with the press, and I was the most loathsome type: foreign. I was not permitted to take my laptop, my computer disks, or any of my papers with me when I was summarily dismissed from Russia. Untold potshots aimed at the seamier side of Primorian culture were lost to posterity.
I returned to America and soon moved into the Rahill apartments in Arlington. I resumed my work as an ESL (English as a Second Language) instructor, now at a private school for foreign students in Arlington. There I remained for three years before spotting an Internet ad for openings at a new university in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. I responded to the ad and was accepted for a teaching position at the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani (AUI-S). I loved my apartment too much to relinquish it altogether, so I decided to sub-let it for the nine months I would be in Iraq. That's how I finally met Mikhail Semenko in the flesh, in August, 2009.
Semenko was known to friends and family as "Misha," the common Russian diminutive for the given name Mikhail. From my days in Russia, I remembered hearing him described as a good-natured guy with a genius for languages. I was glad to learn that he had moved to America, and was in the market for an apartment. Misha instantly became the frontrunner in my Rahill tenant-search lottery. One weekend that summer, I placed a call to him in New York, and in no time this kid was careering through my apartment like a frantic shopper sizing up sale merchandise a minute before closing time at the mall.
Misha's frenetic manner was in sharp contrast to my reserved one. His restlessness, I thought, accentuated his youthfulness. He seemed a lot younger than 27. He had a boyish charm that's usually a mark of innocence in a man. I didn't sense one iota of guile in his nature. Through both word and action, Misha conveyed earnestness and a contagious joie de vivre. But Misha's most salient quality was his intelligence. I had been told he was a polyglot, and prodded him to show me some sleight of tongue. Reluctantly, Misha demonstrated to me his astonishing mastery of four dissimilar languages. Not to be too outdone, I replied with a few phrases in quotidian Russian. Misha generously praised me for linguistic skills that fell pathetically short of his own.
My first impression of Misha was so positive, I skipped right over the silly formality of asking him personal questions ("Do you think free-market capitalism is a good thing or a bad thing?"). Instead, probably in by-the-book spy fashion, he interviewed me. He asked if I had any problem with his Ecuadoran girlfriend moving into the place with him. I didn't. Primarily, Misha was interested in knowing about cable and Internet access. He asked if my apartment had wireless, and was pleased to hear it did.
While on the topic of high-tech gadgetry, I gave Misha special instructions for the care and maintenance of my frightfully low-tech 10-year-old Compaq P910. These included, "Please press the on button every few weeks to keep the 'innards' from 'freezing up.'" I'm sure spy masters in Moscow are having a good laugh about that right now. I added that Misha was welcome to use my desktop computer while I was away. In retrospect, I suppose a techno-savvy secret agent would have no more use for my prehistoric Compaq than a brain surgeon would have for a sledge hammer.
In short order, Misha declared the place suitable for his purposes (whatever those were) and was pressing me for a move-in timetable. Misha and I jointly signed a sub-lease agreement that I prepared a few days later. We sealed the deal in the Russian tradition: over shots of vodka. Those couple of brief encounters were basically all the truck I ever had with Misha. Why bother? The stakes were acceptable. If this guy turned out to be a slob, I'd spend my first week back in the States scrubbing chocolate syrup out of my frayed, pre-stained sofa cushions. No big deal. Little did I know, Misha was a spy who had simultaneously stumbled upon the patsy of his dreams and an ideal base for Washington-targeted skullduggery. (My apartment is equidistant from the White House and the Pentagon.) My new tenant was probably the envy of his far-flung co-conspirators.
When I took off for Iraq on Tuesday, September 15, 2009, I was plagued by no premonitions that almost everything in my home would be gone when I returned again nine months later. That's why you could have knocked me over with a hummingbird feather when I came back from two arduous semesters at AUI-S to an apartment in which there was almost nothing but a Search and Seizure Warrant. Furthermore, I was mortified to see that the warrant listed so many of my possessions! My financial and personal-history records had been removed from the premises. All of my personal writings (I'm a prolific cataloger of my own addled thoughts) as well as works in progress that I hoped to shop to publishers had been confiscated. A half-finished, coffee-stained manuscript with the alarmingly dark title More Notes from Underground was among this hodgepodge.
Other items extracted from the apartment seemed even less useful as evidence against a Russian spy. For instance, framed photos of my nieces were yanked from the walls. Every book I owned was taken - short stories, Bibles, the Great Books collectionall of it. So was my stereo system. A long-retired telephone answering machine and electric typewriter had been hauled away, too. I have no idea why the FBI felt that my collection of Carpenters cassette tapes could help them convict anyone of anything other than being a hopeless nerd. The warrant left plenty of room to speculate just who was being investigated here - the prepossessing young Russian with the puppy-dog eyes or the rheumy-eyed pedagogue who had mysteriously traveled in and out of remote parts of Russia and Iraq. In my ten years of teaching, I had collected all the trappings familiar to teachers of foreign students: good-bye cards; letters; posters; foreign coins; little flags, refrigerator magnets and such token gifts as these. There were photographs of me with students from every corner of the earth. My home was a monument to international relations. Secretary of State Clinton would be proud. I feared, though, that the feds would view my private little cultural museum differently. Seen through more cynical eyes, my eclectic collection of global trinkets might appear a bit sinister. Particularly those items related to Russia.
Most of the Russian books and letters listed on the warrant belonged to me, not Misha. On the walls of my bedroom were maps of the Primorsky territory of Russia and Vladivostok - both mine. I had framed quotations of the Russian writers Dostoevsky and Pushkin flanking a mirror hanging over my dresser. I owned a copy of the 20th century Russian novel The Master and Margarita, in which I had scribbled copious marginalia. The FBI, quite sensibly, confiscated all of these items, as well as everything I had written by hand. To this day, my place looks like the home of an illiterate.
Misha's and my possessions blended together in the apartment so seamlessly, the feds eventually gave up trying to sort out what belonged to whom. A month after the raid, I was asked to come to FBI headquarters on 4th St. NW in D.C. and identify my personal belongings from among dozens of boxes in a storage room. I was incredulous at the sheer volume of dusty old junk that had been taken out of my apartment. And this wasn't all of it, either! I later discovered that investigators, adding insult to injury, had retained for their own purposes many items that they must have deemed suspicious: photographs, magazines, a hilarious "George Bushisms" quote calendar - all thoroughly innocuous things. My two slightly less innocuous computers have yet to be returned to me. While I fumbled through box after box of ancient love letters and evidence bags containing my personal mail, the agent assisting me repeatedly apologized for the inconvenience. A dupe to the end, I kept assuring him that this contretemps was the fault of the Russian government, not our own.
In fairness to the FBI, they must have their hands full with Arlington. It's a big town with a disproportionate population of aliens -- legal and otherwise. Russians are everywhere. While the feds probably feel they've sent a signal that foreign agents can't hide, there must be lots of us who wonder if this klutzy krew of Keystone Kopskies isn't just the tip of the iceberg. Russians pride themselves on their resourcefulness, cultivated by generations of being hung out to dry by their own government. Is it possible that some of them are the match of our intelligence community? It's been said about Russians, "They're playing chess while everyone else in the world is playing checkers," -- an eerie reminder that the U.S. doesn't have a monopoly on brains just because our well-funded institutions are draining other countries of theirs.
Years from now I might be able to see the fairly obvious humor in all this. My final words to Misha before I left for Iraq were, "Please don't let anyone take anything out of the apartment." When I returned, I discovered that someone had taken everything out of the apartment, including Misha himself! My home feels really creepy now. I can't get over the fact that two clandestine and almost equally distrusted entities - a Russian spy and the U.S. government - recently had unfettered access to my tighty whities and amateur poems for the whole nine months I was away. Burglary victims can no doubt relate.
Concerning Misha, my feelings are ambivalent. Naturally, there's anger. He cozened me as skillfully as a snake-oil salesman deceiving a geriatric naif, and was, by any measure, an irresponsible tenant. He broke the door of my refrigerator, left a rancid pool of stagnant dishwater in the clogged kitchen sink, and damaged my dresser and (somehow) the toilet seat. Flouting the U.S. Constitution was a cardinal breach of renter's etiquette. It would be un-American of me to not be a little resentful.
Yet I'm gratified that my final encounter with Misha was genial. The last time I ever saw him -- Sunday, December 20, 2009, when I returned from Iraq for a brief Christmas visit - was in the rearview mirror of my car as he was shoveling me out of a snowdrift. I suppose that's the image I'll always remember of Misha. He was a crummy spy and a complete slob, but such a nice kid. I'm glad he was deported back to his own country in the No Illegal Left Behind spy swap of July 9. The prodigal son can start a new life in Mother Russia. It won't be quite so easy for the feckless "mark" (I think we're technically referred to as "stooges" in espionage parlance) whose home Misha used as a springboard for launching undercover salvos at Washington. His expulsion from the U.S. has not ended the FBI's investigation. A shadow of suspicion still hangs over my apartment. It is still Ground Zero of an international incident. Federal investigators have retained much of my property, even mail clearly addressed to me. Maybe it's permanent state's evidence. Maybe the FBI is searching among my grammar books for modern-day "pumpkin" papers. Frankly, I'm afraid to call them and ask.
Meanwhile, I'm considering talking to my apartment manager about opening my home to tourists. I think Rahill would make an intriguing new branch of the Spy Museum. It's near enough to D.C. that a double-decker tour bus or one of those ludicrous "duck" boats could easily convey a gaggle of vacationing Kansans over for a peek at the notorious Mikhail Semenko's famous Ruusky spy lair. I'll cook up a pot of borsch and put on the soundtrack from Dr. Zhivago to get the mood right. I'll photoshop an alluring picture of Anna Chapman so she appears to be wearing a cloak and brandishing a dagger, and arrange it casually on the coffee table beside a bottle of Stoli's.
The guided tour will feature all the hot spots: the kitchen where agent Semenko felt no inclination to wash dishes after meals; the bathroom where he unleased his insatiable anti-American ferocity on my toilet seat; and the bedroom where he apparently used a chainsaw to open dresser drawers in the morning because, after all, danger was his game. And I'll show those speechless, photo-snapping sightseers from the Heartland my piece de resistance: the bedroom window that provides a breathtaking glimpse of the most powerful city in the world to anyone looking out in bemused thought at the austere white-marble buildings of D.C. - whether he be a past-his-prime ESL teacher devising a new stratagem to escape the boredom of existence, or a green-as-grass technophile trying not to botch his first assignment in a promising espionage career.