Ghost Stories

After a series of FBI raids in the summer of 2010, federal prosecutors accused eleven people of being part of a Russian spy ring, living under false names and deep cover in Manhattan and Yonkers; Montclair, New Jersey; Arlington, Virginia; and Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was a slow-cooking scheme to penetrate America’s elite “policy-making circles.”

The event ricocheted around popular culture for quite a while, inspiring the FX series The Americans and catapulting to stardom the Sex and the City spy, Anna Chapman, back in the motherland.

The New York Times story breaking the news made an impression on me because of what a teenage neighbor had to say about two of the accused, a husband and wife in suburban Montclair: “They couldn’t have been spies. Look what she did with the hydrangeas.”

I thought a lot about this news because the Cambridge spies lived at 35 Trowbridge Street. I knew that house! In fact, I knew practically every house on Trowbridge Street. They were the ones you could never afford—the antithesis of eight-bedroom McMansions in Scituate but way more expensive. Who lives there? I’d always wonder. Are they real people? Are they the intellectual movers and shakers or just the boring upper middle class trying not to show it? People like my mother couldn’t get the cachet because many of these residences were in an organic state of dishabille, which, to the appropriate market segment—those sucked into the Williams-Sonoma ethos of the 1990s—made them all the more desirable.

Right after I moved to Boston after college, a friend in law school lived on one of the street’s few modern shoebox apartment buildings. That was the first I saw of Cambridge’s tenured-professor real estate, and it reminded me of the leafy city streets I used to anticipate living on as a child watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Trowbridge lie in the transitional southeast of Harvard—where houses went for nothing in the seventies—versus the Harvard southwest, where old, old money kept barbarians from the gate. Later, when I worked in publishing, a co-worker had a condo on Trowbridge that she was subletting for below market before going off somewhere for a doctorate. I pulled out all the stops to get her to rent the place to me, but instead she rented it to people like her, who already had the money to afford market rate.

And then much later I had a freelance copyediting gig for the National Bureau of Economic Research, whose offices were in a building at the intersection of Trowbridge and Mass. Avenue. It was deadly dull work (all these papers by Larry Summers), and the woman whom I reported to was brutal. I’d dread meeting up with her as I walked down Trowbridge from my proletarian place over the line in Somerville. I walked so much in that area until I was priced out entirely—and yet I still drove down Trowbridge in a shortcut coming back from Memorial Drive.

Seeing the house at 35 Trowbridge in the Boston Globe was like seeing a face from my childhood. The irony immediately struck me: No, the people who live there are actually not real. These Russians had lived as Americans for many years, getting jobs and mortgages and birthing and raising kids. And yet the lives anchored by robust hydrangea bushes were as gossamer as spider webs. The FBI called the sting operation “Ghost Stories,” and the press described the haul as “mostly couples” (one guy got away in Cyprus), like a bunch of suburbanites who rent an airport bus to see a Bon Jovi concert.

The U.S. government eventually made a tradeoff of the ten mostly couples for four Russians who’d been imprisoned as spies. Many Americans thought the whole affair a joke given the investment of time, money, and lives in relation to the paltry payoff. I always wondered what Putin thought he was going to score from his Cambridge connection—Andrei Bezrukov and Elena Vavilova—living the life and raising two privileged sons on Trowbridge Street.

But now, with 20/20 hindsight provided by Robert Mueller, I can see why this may have been a pivotal moment for the Kremlin, the changing of the guard in regard to infiltrating and undermining the United States. Attempt to penetrate the highest strata of government via years’-long and meticulous deception? Screw that. No more of that spooky action at a distance, with bags of cash buried in Upstate woods. Rather than attempt to steal state secrets, the way to go was sowing discord—and maybe even install a puppet—from the bottom.

The FBI’s June 2010 Russian bust occurred months before one of the lowest points in Barack Obama’s first term—the midterm elections and the Tea Party wave. Although big GOP money was fueling this “movement,” it was marketed as being 100% grassroots, going back to Facebook group meetups in January 2009.

By June 2010, Facebook was Prometheus unbound. It had attracted 7.8 million new active users in May and had just introduced the option to Like individual comments. It was also bracing itself for anticipated notoriety from a movie in the works—The Social Network, released on October 1.

Between April 2009 and May 2010, the Pew Research Center found that social networking use among Internet users 50 and older nearly doubled, going from 22% to 42%. The increase was even higher for the oldest demographic: users over 65 grew from 13% to 26%.

In the summer of 2010, the Facebook-loving future Trump voter was being hatched. These were the people who only months before had been clicking on Internet Explorer popups to turn them off. And now here they were—learning about lady porn from following their nieces in Dallas, hunting down high school sweethearts and sussing out whether they were worth ditching their spouses for, friending and liking their way beyond the community where they rarely spoke to neighbors.

This was the demographic the Kremlin trolls went after. This was the sacred demos, the grassroots. We may ask why the stilted language of the Russian Facebook posts didn’t raise a red flag, but you have to remember that a lot of those new to social media had spent decades working in professions that required very little reading and writing. They’d given up the daily paper long ago and subsisted on Fox News. All in all, a perfect storm.

In some sense, Putin and the Russians realized way ahead of us that the power in this country was not in the hands of Harvard’s cultural elite—the Laurence Tribes and the Cass Sunsteins. Thanks to the far-right in concert with Silicon Valley, it has been gerrymandered into remote pockets of red. Those houses on Trowbridge Street could assemble all the Harvard professors you could get to dance on the head of a pin, but a ghost is still a ghost. §