My buddy, the spy

By MARK GRUETER  |  July 25, 2010

Spy games
In 2001, fresh out of UNH, I joined the Peace Corps and began teaching English at Amur State University in Blagoveschensk, Russia. That's way out there — 14 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, right on the northern border of China. I headed up a fledgling Model United Nations club (the Model United Nations of the Russian Far East, or MUNRFE), and Misha joined our meetings and debates. His English wasn't any good back then, but he was already speaking Chinese, and he was very polite and eager to learn. (Dude now speaks at least four languages fluently: English, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, and Russian.) His interests in politics and debate, however, were minimal. He joined the club simply because he wanted to improve his English. Unlike most of the others, he was pro-America.

Around the same time, I discovered that I was being rather clumsily monitored by Russian domestic-security services (known as FSB, it's the rough equivalent of our FBI). One of the Russian teachers in my department was taking notes on my doings and movements and filing her presumably entertaining reports to the boys in Moscow.

Apparently this wasn't good enough for them, though. One day, a few FSB agents pulled a Keystone Kops routine, breaking into my apartment. Luckily, I was in the bathroom and my Russian girlfriend told them I wasn't home, so I didn't have to deal with the thugs.

In any case, I never felt threatened because my secret-agent pursuers were such obvious knuckleheads. I actually thought it was funny in a "look at those silly rubes" kind of way. But it occurs to me now that stupid and dangerous are two adjectives that usually go together.

The whole riotous situation climaxed when our diminutive Asian-American deputy director was accused of spying and the Peace Corps was officially kicked out of Russia in the summer of 2002. No offense to our deputy director, who later wrote me at least one recommendation, but she couldn't find her way from her apartment in Vladivostok to the office without a driver, much less wander alone through the middle of the woods into a security zone 35 hours north (by train and bus), which is what the Russians claimed. Everyone who was there knew how ridiculous this all was, but I think from a distance, people have a tendency to believe this tripe.

Several years later, after I had returned home from another stint in Russia, I was surprised to learn, through mutual friends, that Misha was living in America. He wasn't much different, although his English was much better. What also surprised me was that he had graduated from Seton Hall University — he was obviously bright, but he was also obviously poor. It's true that every year, a small group of Russian students are selected to attend American universities through Fulbright and Muskie scholarships (I used to get flooded with recommendation requests for these programs and always paid attention to the winners — think Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). But Seton Hall is not one of the participating universities. In fact, they appear to offer no assistance at all to foreign students.

Besides, tuition alone at Seton Hall is currently over $40,000 a year. If Misha's parents in Blagoveschensk had that kind of money, they probably would've been shot.

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