Russian Spies in the Film SALT and in Contemporary America

Marketing is a Key to a Movie's Success

Marketers are always trying to come up with creative ways to promote and sell their product.

In addition to the the usual sales and advertising activities, marketers will often try to stage newsworthy events to draw public attention to the product or service they are selling.

Thus, we have things like nurseries and garden supply stores getting together to hold a spring garden show at the local civic center or other public arena, or Santa Claus arriving by helicopter at a local shopping mall the day after Thanksgiving.

Both of these types of things draw both crowds of potential customers as well as free media publicity in the form of news reports.

On rare occasions, outside events, unplanned and even unknown to the marketers, will intervene and unintentionally boost sales of the product.

An early and unexpected snowstorm hitting an area right after some stores have received a large shipment of snow shovels is one example that comes to mind.

Angelina Jolie on Billboard in Rome, Italy in 2010 Advertising her Movie SALT
Angelina Jolie on Billboard in Rome, Italy in 2010 Advertising her Movie SALT | Source

Arrest of Russian Agents Coinsides with Release of Movie SALT

Another example is the recent arrest in the United States of a group of Soviet sleeper agents planted in the U.S. in recent years by the Russian SVR (Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki).

The Russian SVR is the heir to the old Soviet era KGB (Komitet gosudarstvennoy bezopasnosti or Committee for State Security in English).

This arrest and the surrounding publicity occurred a mere two weeks before the July 23, 2010 U.S. release of the movie SALT.

The movie stared Angelina Jolie as Evelyn Salt, a Russian sleeper agent planted high up in the ranks of the today's post Cold War CIA.

Captured Soviet Spy Rudolf Abel

Source:  Public domain photograph from U.S. Dept of Justice Website at http://www.fbi.gov/libref/historic/famcases/abel/abel.htm
Source: Public domain photograph from U.S. Dept of Justice Website at http://www.fbi.gov/libref/historic/famcases/abel/abel.htm

End of Cold War also Meant End of Most Cold War Spy Fiction

One of the casualties of the end of the Cold War was the loss of material for spy novels and movies.

The Cold War was conducted publicly with words and threats by political leaders on both sides.

At the same time, the intelligence services of the United States, such as the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), and those of its NATO and other allies allies employed countless agents to steal secrets conduct covert actions against the Soviet Union and its allies.

Of course, Soviet KGB along with the intelligence services of its allies employed countless agents to steal secrets and conduct covert actions against the U.S. and NATO.

Both sides also employed saboteurs and agents to engage in dirty little semi-secret wars outside each others territory.

Lockheed U2 Airplane Similar to the One Flown by Francis Gary Powers

U2 aircraft on display at Davis Monthan AFB in Tucson, AZ (photo copyright 2008, Chuck Nugent)
U2 aircraft on display at Davis Monthan AFB in Tucson, AZ (photo copyright 2008, Chuck Nugent) | Source

Among the more famous American spies was the U2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers whose aircraft was shot down over the Soviet Union. Powers was later freed in exchange for the Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel, a Soviet spy who had set up shop in Brooklyn, New York.

American Communists, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were not so lucky as they were captured and executed in the 1950s for spying and treason.

Alger Hiss, another American Communist who worked his way into a high position in the State Department during World War II was unmasked by Whittaker Chambers, a former member of the Communist Party of the U.S.A. and Soviet spy during the 1950s.

Hiss managed to bet the espionage charge but was convicted and served three and served three and a half years in prison for perjury. Hiss died in 1996 and to his dying day denied he had been a Soviet Spy. However, the post Cold War release of the secret U.S. Venona Tapes and opening of the KGB archives strongly support the claim that Hiss was a paid Soviet agent.

Captured American Spy Francis Gary Powers

Photo taken of Powers at CIA with model of U2 following his return to U.S. Source: Public Domain photo courtesy of CIA.gov ( https://www.cia.gov/news-information/featured-story-archive/2010-featured-story-archive/cia-and-u-2-a-50-year-anniversary.htm
Photo taken of Powers at CIA with model of U2 following his return to U.S. Source: Public Domain photo courtesy of CIA.gov ( https://www.cia.gov/news-information/featured-story-archive/2010-featured-story-archive/cia-and-u-2-a-50-year-anniversary.htm

In Britain we had the Cambridge Five (Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross) all of whom the British intelligence service, MI5 passed British secrets to the Soviets during World War II.

Three of the Cambridge Five,escaped to the Soviet Union just before being arrested. The fourth and fifth, Cairncross and Blunt, managed to avoid arrest and pursued careers in the West. Both Cairncross and Blunt had their treasonous past publicly exposed in 1979 but avoided prosecution because of the statute of limitations on their crimes.

Caincross retired to the South of France, while Blunt, a respected art historian, continued to write on art history. Blunt was, however, publicly humiliated by having his knighthood revoked by Queen Elizabeth II.

Given the secrecy and the misinformation deliberately churned out by those involved on both sides in the spy vs spy game it was easy to believe the action packed tales of writers like Ian Fleming, John Le Carré, Ken Follet, Robert Ludlum and others.

The Arrest of 10 Russian Spies Would Have Been Great PR for the Movie If the Events Surrounding the Spies and Arrest Weren't So Comical

On Jun 27, 2010, almost two decades after the Cold War ended 10 Russian spies were arrested in the New York City area.  Two weeks later, on July 9th the ten Russian spies were flown to Vienna, Austria where they were exchanged for four Russians serving time in Russian prisons after being charged with being spies.

This spy swap was followed on July 23rd, two weeks later, with the U.S. release of SALT, an action packed spy thriller staring Angelina Jolie as Evelyn Salt, a Soviet sleeper agent planted the CIA and pretending to be an agent for that agency.

From a marketing point of view, the timing of the capture and deportation of the ten Russian sleeper agents and the release of a movie about a Russian sleeper agent in the CIA couldn't have been better.  

One would almost think that the episode involving the arrest of the ten Russian sleeper agents was a marketing stunt by the studio.  That is, except for the fact that, if it was, the marketing department and the production people weren't in communication with each other since the arrest of the ten agents was basically a comedy while the movie was a thriller.

Actress Angelina Jolie Who Plays the Role of Evelyn Salt

Photo Credit: official U.S. Government photo in the Public Domain.  Photo courtesy of WikiPedia.org ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Angelina_jolie_lugar.jpg )
Photo Credit: official U.S. Government photo in the Public Domain. Photo courtesy of WikiPedia.org ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Angelina_jolie_lugar.jpg )

The Movie SALT - A Great Spy Thriller

In the movie, Evelyn Salt is supposedly the child of American parents who were working at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow during the Cold war and who died in a car accident.  Evelyn, a young child at the time, was injured but survived the accident and was returned to the U.S. where, after college she went to work as an agent with the CIA.

However, the real Evelyn Salt did not survive and return to the U.S. but was replaced by a young girl who looked similar and who had been trained from birth to be a sleeper agent with blind loyalty to her KGB master.

Evelyn Salt is a highly intelligent and complex character who is, at the same time, very human as evidenced her attempts to rescue her husband (an innocent scientist) and her taking time, with a team of armed CIA counterintelligence operatives in hot pursuit, to find a safe home for her little dog.

And, as one who has seen Angelina Jolie in similar roles would expect, Evelyn is also an expert fighter capable of analyzing and reacting, in a nano second, to a situation with deadly physical force.  While amazing, the frequent physical combat scenes remain believable even though logic tells us that the sexy, svelte body delivering and absorbing such blows would have to be made of cast iron to survive.

In addition to the James Bond style action, it is also, in the classic agent/double agent world of fictional (and sometimes real life) espionage.  Until the very end it is difficult to know who are the good guys and who are the bad guys in the movie as the true identities of most of the main players, including that of Salt, emerge slowly as the movie progresses.

Old Cold War Era KGB Sleeper Agent Training Schools May Still Exist

While SALT is an excellent movie which I highly recommend, the story surrounding the activities and capture of the ten Russian sleeper agents, as revealed in various news accounts, is almost comical. The Cold War ended some 20 years ago and most of the captured agents were children when the old Soviet Union and its KGB ceased to exist.

According to a New York Post article, the KGB had some special villages in remote areas which were designed exactly like American suburbs and its successor agency, the SVR, apparently still runs some of these villages.

These villages are actually special schools in which agents are trained in an environment identical to that of the U.S. (this is a training method similar to Evelyn Salt’s childhood as recounted in the movie except that Salt and her colleagues were trained in a monastery that had been taken over by the KGB).

Upon graduation, agents are sent to Western Europe with false U.S. passports and identity and, if they successfully pass themselves off as Americans, they are sent to the U.S. as agents.

Things are Different Today

However, unlike the spies of old, most of whom, like Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs, were American born communist sympathizers, these new agents face a different environment.

First of all the Cold War is over and, while the FBI is still on the lookout for Russian and other spies, the United States and Russia now have friendly ties.

Second, instead of trying to steal military secrets or engage in sabotage, Russian spies today are apparently tasked with cultivating politicians and other influential people making them not much different than our own home grown lobbyists.

A second task appears to have been commercial intelligence. Instead of military secrets, these people were trying to learn commercial secrets so that they could better compete with us economically (I seem to remember during the years between the end of the Cold War and the start of the War on Terror that some in the CIA, worried that the agency might not be needed any longer, were proposing that the agency switch from national security intelligence to industrial espionage).

Of course the SVR could have saved considerable money and embarrassment simply by logging on to the Internet where much of this information could either be found for free or purchased in book form from sites like Amazon.com.

Glienicke Bridge Today With Line Dividing East and West Still Visible Today

Glienicke Bridge Where Powers-Abel and other Cold War Spy Swaps took place.  Public Domain Photo taken by Dr Torsten Henning and published on WikiPedia.org at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glienicke_Bridge
Glienicke Bridge Where Powers-Abel and other Cold War Spy Swaps took place. Public Domain Photo taken by Dr Torsten Henning and published on WikiPedia.org at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glienicke_Bridge

During the Cold War Espionage Was a Dangerous Profession

The capture and exchange was also different than the old Cold War days.  Back then, the FBI would track down and arrest the spies.  Some, like the Rosenbergs, would be executed - the traditional fate for spies, while others, like Rudolf Abel would be sent to prison for 30 years.  

On occasion, both sides managed to capture a high profile spy of the other, like the CIA’s Francis Gary Powers having his U2 spy plane shot down and himself captured by the Soviets while the U.S. held a top Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel in this case.  After each side had obtained the maximum intelligence and propaganda value from their respective prisoners a prisoner swap would be secretly arranged.  

In the Powers-Abel case the swap took place on February 10, 1962 on the Glienicke Bridge between the then divided East and West Germany.  A scene eerily similar to this takes place at the beginning of the movie SALT when, following CIA agent Evelyn Salt’s capture by North Korea while on a spy mission there for the CIA.  Salt obtains her freedom when the U.S. secretly offers to get her back in exchange for  North Korean spy they are holding.

Spies Charged with Money Laundering - Not Espionage

However, in the case of the ten Russian agents captured in New York on June 27th, President Obama and the FBI worked out the details for the swap of the Russian agents sixteen days before the FBI arrested them.  Following the capture, U.S. diplomats visited the Russians with a deal all ready to sign.  

Unlike the old Cold War days when the Soviets had an American born agent to trade, like Francis Gary Powers who was sitting in a cell in the KGB’s infamous Lubyanka prison awaiting his fate, they had no American agents on hand to trade in exchange for their spies.  But the U.S. had taken care of that as well by coming up, in advance, with the names of  four Russian nationals charged with spying, but more than likely political prisoners, which we would accept in exchange for the 10 Russian agents the FBI was preparing to arrest.

Again, in contrast to the old days, the 10 Russian agents were not charged with the serious charge espionage, a crime for which spies in the past faced death, but instead were charged with failing to register as foreign agents as lobbyists representing foreign governments are required to do (home grown lobbyists register under a different law) and with money laundering (hiding the source of income which, among other things, usually enables people to avoid paying taxes on such income).

The 10 Alleged Spies Had To Be Bribbed Before Agreeing to the Swap

Failing to register as a foreign agent carries a penalty of 5 years in prison and money laundering a penalty of 20 years in prison (more than likely they did not report or pay taxes on the funds paid to them by the SVR).

Thus, unlike the classic spies of the past, this group was more like the gangster Al Capone who went unpunished for thee murders and other real crimes he committed but ended up going to prison for failing to report, and pay income taxes on, the money he earned from the murder and other serious criminal activities.

The Russian government quickly agreed to the deal as they wanted to get past the embarrassment and move on in their relations with the U.S.

However, the 10 agents weren’t so eager to cut a deal and return to Russia. In fact the SVR, in addition to all the apparently untaxed pay they had sent them over the years, had to bribe them with cash up front as well as promises of continuing income and the option to live anywhere (other than the U.S. where they were no longer allowed to remain) in the world.

Of course all good spies, deny that they are spies that is part of the job description as is the understanding that their government will also deny any connection with them if caught. But here, not only did the FBI have proof that they were spies but the Russian government quickly acknowledged that they were spies on the payroll of the SVR.

After a few additional days delay the 10 Russian spies decided that it made more sense to take the additional compensation promised by the SVR and leave rather than remaining in the U.S. and taking their chances on winning acquittals in court on the relatively minor (compared to the capital crime of espionage) charges they faced.

Sequals Are Possible

With all parties finally in agreement, the 10 were flown to Vienna on July 9, 2010  by U.S. agents where they were exchanged for the four Russian prisoners and flown to Russia from Vienna. Thus bringing an end to this story - although there could be a sequel because, according to news reports, the SVR still has sleeper agents in the U.S.

As to the fate of Evelyn Salt in the movie, I won’t spoil it by giving away any more details other than that the end of the movie leaves the viewer with the feeling that a sequel could be forthcoming..

© 2010 Chuck Nugent

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Comments 20 comments

Eric Calderwood profile image

Eric Calderwood 4 years ago from USA

I enjoy spy movies, especially the ones based on the cold war with Russia (Little Nikita comes to mind). Salt was an enjoyable movie and kept me guessing as to who she really was. It is a strange story about the 10 Russian spies captured and exchanged. I had never heard of it until your hub. Imagine having to bribe your own spies to agree not to be prosecuted. It is a strange world we live in!


bruno1990loko profile image

bruno1990loko 5 years ago

Grate Hub, grate perspective about spys. Regarding Salt, the movie, I think it suck.


5 star 6 years ago

that's great article.

This is about russian(sovyet)spy.

When does we can see about the china's spy movie in USA?

it's just my idea.


World-Traveler profile image

World-Traveler 6 years ago from USA

That's it. Perfect. Very interesting information. Thanks.


The Smiling Man profile image

The Smiling Man 6 years ago from USA

Good review! I watched Salt and enjoyed every bit. She played her part well. At times I just couldn't tell whose side she was on.


witchworx profile image

witchworx 6 years ago from Hong Kong

need to watch this.. thanks for the info and interesting hub...


legendindia 6 years ago

interesting and amazing movie.Nice hub!


buyairhogs profile image

buyairhogs 6 years ago

Very interesting post Chuck. You put a lot of details within your posts I see. I think its great to learn a little bit of history now and then and you hit it right on the mark!


big_C74 profile image

big_C74 6 years ago

nice review of salt.


culturespain 6 years ago

I fear we are a long way from seeing the end of spying between Russia and the West. It will take years for the mutual suspicion between the two to die down. Even when it does it will be replaced by full time economically driven spying!


Karen Bell profile image

Karen Bell 6 years ago from Gilbert, Arizona

I think the real-life story more interesting then the movie.


Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 6 years ago from Upstate New York

Terrific review. Funny thing, a lot of spy stories lose me somewhere in the middle, it gets a little too complicated to follow comfortably when I'm down for the night...this still looks worth checking out, and the background info is so very interesting. Thanks!


2besure profile image

2besure 6 years ago from Charlotte, North Carolina

Nice hub. I love those old clips. Spying has never stopped even after the cold war. China is always spying on us and hacking our sensitive information.


tracykarl99 profile image

tracykarl99 6 years ago from San Francisco

Thanks for this very interesting analysis and review. You have revealed much and provoked more questions at the same time! Well-written ~


sheila b. profile image

sheila b. 6 years ago

This was a good history lesson and a good movie review rolled into one.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

A movie I'll want to see. I remember the spy films and TV back in the 1960s.


drbj profile image

drbj 6 years ago from south Florida

I saw the film, "Salt," and Angelina was amazingly agile and audacious. You can bet your boots that there will be at least one sequel, Chuck. Thanks for the informative hub.


Anton 6 years ago

A little long but enjoing))


eovery profile image

eovery 6 years ago from MIddle of the Boondocks of Iowa

Funny coincidence.

Keep on hubbing!


Darlene Sabella profile image

Darlene Sabella 6 years ago from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ...

Excellent review of Salt, I have been looking forward to seeing it, and it is strange how true life events equal movie's. Sometimes life is stranger then ficton, great hub, thank you for sharing this, your fan and friend, darlene

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