Several months ago, Russian weekly magazine Argumenty Nedeli ran a review of Nikolai Luzan’s spy novel Fantom. First published in 2008, Fantom was the winner of the FSB annual literary competition the following year. The novel’s renewed mass publicity is due to the fact that it is about how the FSB outsmarted the CIA and the Putin inner circle loves it.
There is a need for this kind of narrative in Russia right now. The news from the front lines is bleak and the loyalists may be losing their nerve. The worm of doubt is a pesky one. Nothing is more comforting than reading about how “our good guys” got the best of “their bad guys.” And, in that respect, Fantom does not disappoint.
Nikolai Luzan: FSB’s Favorite Spy Fiction Writer
Nikolai Luzan, the author of the novel, is little known in the West. None of his work has been translated into English. He was born in 1952, the same year as Putin, but far away from the Russian “Northern Venice.” He called home a small town in southern Russia. His father was a military officer so Luzan followed in his footsteps. He attended the military aviation school in Kharkiv where he was spotted by the KGB. This first led him to the Higher School of the KGB in Novosibirsk and then to a 30-year career in the Third Directorate of the KGB (military counterintelligence).
The Osobists, as Luzan and his colleagues were called in the tradition of the Cheka’s Special [Osobiy] Department, were not liked by the rest of the officers. Generally on the paranoid side, looking for the evidence of espionage, subversion, terrorism, and other threats, they were also typically doctrinaire Communist. Anti-Western and anti-liberal dogmas have remained prominent in Luzan’s thinking to this day.
It is not surprising therefore that Luzan’s most basic belief is that the West is out to destroy Russia. In a 2017 interview, he said that the U.S. and its NATO allies want to make Russia into “the appendage for [the extraction] of raw materials” and turn the Russian people “into a slavish, animal-like people predestined to serve their oil and gas needs.” He railed against the Western consumerist lifestyle and “anti-family” values and argued that Russia has what the West does not: the “spiritual power” of its people. According to Luzan, his literary work enables him to harness that power for the “patriotic, pedagogical” aims. In other words, his Fantom novel is a direct continuation of his counterintelligence work only by other means.
Fantom’s plot depicts an FSB’s operational victory over the CIA. Luzan drew his inspiration in part from the real case of espionage involving Russian military officer, Major Igor Dudnik. Assigned to the division of the Russian Strategic Missile Forces (RSMF) headquartered near the city of Orenburg, Dudnik was arrested by the FSB in March 1997 while attempting to sell classified materials to a certain Michael allegedly connected to the CIA. However, in the novel, Luzan heavily mixes fact and fiction and pushes the events forward in time to the mid-2000s.
The plot begins after the successful testing of a new Russian intercontinental ballistic missile “Topol-M” and the intelligence requirement sent out to the CIA stations in Moscow, Kyiv, and Astana to acquire as much information about it as possible. Luzan quickly zeroes in on the CIA station in Kyiv in December 2004 while Kyiv is in the midst of the so-called Orange Revolution portrayed by Luzan as the political conspiracy instigated and financed by the U.S. and NATO.
The CIA station had just welcomed a new ambitious station chief Abraham Sullivan, a long-time analyst with little operational experience eager to prove himself to the Langley headquarters. Luzan depicts Sullivan as explicitly malevolent and fanatically committed to Russia’s destruction. He has him say: “We will corrupt [Russian] souls, we will replace their spiritual values with false ones, we will pit Russians against Tatars and Chechens against Ossetins, we will vilify their leadership, and then, without a shot being fired, we will take that which by right belongs to us.”
Luzan also dissects the character traits of six other members of the CIA station in Kyiv. He divides them into two basic categories: jaded, disgruntled senior officers and starry-eyed, enthusiastic newbies. A senior officer, 46-year-old Mark Percy, described as having served in the wide variety of CIA posts in Eastern Europe, is one of the novel’s main protagonists. Both Percy and his closest associate, a Ukrainian-born Henry Kovalchuk, are portrayed as alcoholics, while Percy is also having an extramarital affair with Joan Gray, a CIA junior officer. Luzan uses his description of the dysfunctional CIA work environment as a foil to contrast it with the collaborative and respectfully hierarchical relations in the Moscow-based FSB military counterintelligence directorate, the CIA’s main antagonist in the novel.
Luzan models Fantom’s initial contact with the CIA in Kyiv on an event that took place in Moscow in 1978. A man named Adolf Tolkachev approached the car of the CIA Moscow station chief and was able to pass on documents with classified information. Whether Tolkachev was “a billion-dollar spy” as claimed by the journalist David Hoffman or “a Soviet dangle” as argued by the former CIA chief historian Ben Fischer is beside the point here. What is important is that Luzan’s Fantom, in contrast to Tolkachev, did not reveal his identity during his initial approach in Kyiv, forcing the CIA staff to devise other ways to contact him.
To further complicate the situation, Luzan has another ace up his sleeve. He alleges that the Russian foreign intelligence service SVR had a mole within the CIA who informed the Moscow Center about Fantom. But, because the CIA does not know who Fantom is, there is no additional information that the SVR mole can pass on. The brunt of the subsequent investigation has to be borne by the FSB military counterintelligence.
This is Luzan's forte. With obvious delight and pride, he describes how General Georgy Gradov, the fictional FSB military counterintelligence head, assembles a team of his trusted advisers and decides which organizations are to be investigated for Fantom’s possible location. Portrayed as very efficient in their covert inquiries, they narrow down the list of suspects to just five individuals within the time period of two weeks.
Each of these individuals had access to the “Topol-M” classified information and also a family connection to Ukraine. The small operative teams are then set up to do the actual investigations. Using various counterintelligence tactics, such as electronic surveillance, fraternizing and drinking with suspects, and even the attempt at a false flag recruitment, they soon reduce the number of suspects to two. Luzan dwells extensively on the false flag operation, establishing historical parallels between the FSB’s current activities and the deception operations of the WWII military counterintelligence directorate SMERSH (Death to Spies). Offensive counterintelligence is obviously still held in very high regard by the FSB.
At the same time, Luzan chronicles the CIA’s own deception operation of having Percy enter Russia under the cover of an inspector with the On-Site Inspection Agency (OSIA) set up to control the implementation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the U.S. and the Soviet Union/Russia. Due to the extensive FSB surveillance, this attempt to contact Fantom ends in failure. However, the CIA does not give up and when Fantom requests an in-person meeting in Moscow, they decide to send Percy again, but this time as “an illegal” with a fake name and national identity.
According to Luzan, as a trusted ally of the CIA, the German foreign intelligence service (BND) supplies Percy and Joan with genuine German passports. Evidently, at that time in Putin’s Russia, Germans were perceived as less suspicious than Americans. Percy’s and Joan’s meeting with Fantom in Moscow takes place without a hitch and they give him a new assignment: to gain access to the “mathematical algorithms of the trajectories of Russian [nuclear] warheads and decoys.”
Luzan seems to emphasize the role of chance in counterintelligence success by having the identity of Fantom being discovered by accident. While entering the biographical data and photographs of the members of the U.S. OSIA inspectors into the FSB computer system, one of the investigators sees a familiar face. He takes a closer look at the recent surveillance video of one of the suspects, Orest Litvin, meeting with somebody in a public park. This “somebody” turns out to be the same person as one of the U.S. OSIA inspectors. In other words, Percy’s cover is blown and Litvin is exposed as the mole.
When Litvin is exposed as the mole, the high-ranking FSB officers are portrayed as debating what to do: to put him behind the bars for a long time, or to try to turn him into a double agent. Most prefer the second option but decide to consult FSB psychologists.
The psychologists thoroughly study Litvin’s character based on the information collected via the questionnaires and peer interviews and return the negative verdict: Litvin is not trustworthy and would use the first available opportunity to defect to the CIA. The leadership makes the final decision based on the psychologists’ assessment but mixes in their favorite offensive counterintelligence tactic, the deception operation. They decide to replace Litvin with an FSB officer who physically resembles him and send him to meet Percy instead.
In the meantime, Litvin, who did not suspect anything, is promptly arrested. He is interrogated and, when shown the photographs of his meeting with Percy, he confesses and offers to serve as a double agent. However, General Gradov voices the consensus already reached by the FSB: Litvin’s words cannot be trusted.
According to Gradov, there are both individual and social factors that pushed Litvin into treason. Difficult economic conditions in post-Soviet Russia must be taken into consideration. Luzan uses Gradov to denounce the West for Russia’s problems: “They [the West] turned the whole country upside down and then pushed it around by 180 degrees. [As a result] many people did not only lose their heads, but also their conscience. Without [the conscience], one is willing to do anything. Thus, Litvin became a foreign spy.” Of course, this is not to be taken to excuse Litvin’s actions but only to amplify the claim that the destructive Western anti-Russian policies had been bearing their deadly fruits.
However, the novel couldn’t end on such a pessimistic note. To provide his Russian readers with a sense of relief and stimulate national pride, Luzan describes how Percy was fooled by the FSB’s deception. He did not notice anything suspicious and neither did the CIA counter-surveillance team run by the Moscow station. Percy paid the fake Litvin half a million dollars for a folder of disinformation about Russian missiles, and left the meeting with a sense of accomplishment.
In Luzan’s novel, the FSB military counterintelligence had the last laugh, while the portrayal of the CIA did not rise above Soviet-era one-dimensional caricatures. As in the days of KGB-sponsored spy fiction, the CIA and its Russian penetration agents never had a chance. However, beyond the pages of the novel, it is a very different story. More often than not, as we are witnessing these days in Ukraine, Fantom does get away.