I wrote a novel about Russian mind-hackers

And then I got Trumped

Elizabeth Kiem
7 min readJan 12, 2017
Gif by Washington Post. Trump illustration by Ben Kirchner

Generally speaking, it’s good news for a writer when headlines start to converge on book titles. Non-fiction authors pursue “timeliness.” Novelists are smug when they hit the zeitgeist.

But sometimes being too close to the truth is a problem. Like when fact is, not just stranger than fiction, but decidedly so. Or when fake facts are all the more relevant for being fiction.

I’m having that moment. A moment when the escapades of Russian intelligence forces are an alleged threat not just to national security, but to the speculative plot of my new novel. A moment when the President-elect asserted that his relationship with Russia should be called “an asset.”

Coming as soon as the FSB grooms the Rockettes.

Orphan, Agent, Prima, Pawn, a novel about a Russian ballerina who is also a foreign spy, will be published in about six months.

By then, judging by the warp speed of disbelief that has carried the American populace this far, today’s news that the Kremlin has a nasty file of kompromat on the President-elect may look quaintly naïve, rather than ominously explosive.

By the time I celebrate my own modest release-date, Donald Trump may have secured a promising new accord with Vladimir Putin (who, after all, has plenty of perverted, mendacious pals). Alternatively he may have already set a new record for the shortest-ever presidential administration.

Who the hell knows?

The only thing I know for certain is that when I began writing books about Russian-American relations and the hostages they take, I was worried that my teen readers had no context for their Cold War setting. Now I worry that my readers will be disappointed by the absence of golden showers and Manchurian candidates.

Sure. I’m really much more worried about the demagogue of Fifth Avenue and the stain he will drag to the White House. I’m gravely concerned about the health of our institutions and the safety of our people.

But as a novelist, as a historian drawn to the curious, the absurd , the unbelievable, and as an often-horrified Russophile, I can’t suppress a shameful glee over this state of affairs: in which it is the dangerous buffoon who promises improved relations with Russia and the sensible professionals who demand retaliation.

Just pause and reflect. A century after the Russian Revolution and a quarter century since we won the Cold War, it is the liberal left that strikes hawkish, while the rabid right play the fellow travelers, the deluded apologists for the Kremlin.

That is fascinating to me. As is the developing realization that the hermetic, isolationist, jingoistic Americans who demand Greatness above all don’t care if Russians mess with our elections, just so long as they back the right man.

Oh yes, there’s lots of “stranger than fiction” there. When I gave my psychic ballerina the power to hack the minds of her western foes, I didn’t take it to its tabloid conclusion. I thought I was fetching far. But how, even with botched poisonings, telepathic intelligence and a secret pas-de-deux in the White House basement by a Soviet Enemy of the People, could I compete with an American president who …

From the unverified files of a former MI6 spook.

And if that weren’t enough, there’s the mindfuckery of a dodgy dossier being not just alleged, not just fake, but maybe — stay with me here — a phony fake news item delivered just in time to send those baying dogs in the lying media bounding to a news conference where they will be steamrolled into Disgrace from whence they will fail to recover in time to make it to the decidedly not-fake confirmation hearing of Rex Tillerson, future Secretary of State, whose investment profile in Russia is neither minimal nor, one imagines, free of potentially compromising details cooked up by the FSB, fake or no.

An excellent plot twist, you will agree.

I remember the moment when, a month before the release of my debut novel, Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy, Edward Snowden gave me the gift of his defection. When he landed in Sheremeytevo airport, he begged the question: what is a police state? With his prolonged exile in the heart of the country that perfected mass surveillance, he raised another: what is freedom of conscience?

That’s what I talked about at every reading that summer: How the War on Terror had replaced the War on Communism. How intellectual defectors could become ideological converts. How, in the era of mass incarceration, one measures a police state.

Look ma, no spies.

My second novel. Hider, Seeker, Secret Keeper, was a story quite deliberately ripped from the headlines. Namely, from the acid attack and ensuing scandals that engulfed Russia’s famed Bolshoi Ballet beginning in January 2013.

This book was a sequel, in which another dancer (daughter of the eponymous traitor and spy of the first novel) is accused of dastardly deeds and artistic vengeance while on tour with the Bolshoi in New York City.

The story had moved beyond the Cold War and into the realm of the spin-doctors of the Bolshoi Theatre and the propaganda of the Kremlin. So when, in the summer of 2014, a month before the book’s release and in the middle of the Bolshoi Ballet’s first American tour in a decade, a Russian missile parked in war-torn Ukraine shot a passenger jet out of the sky … I was flabbergasted. And I fought a shameful schadenfreude.

To this day, the Bolshoi is mum about the dancer in its midst who was just released from three years in a penal camp for putting a hit on his artistic director. And the Kremlin denies the incontrovertible proof of its involvement in the Malaysia air downing.

Which brings us to today’s news. Or Fake News. Or the post-truth news.

Just one of more than 1,000 comments on Buzzfeed.

Crazy is as crazy does. Or doesn’t. Or denies. Or doesn’t.

The point about Hillary’s pizza parlor and Donald’s Moscow hotel suite is that they were both cooked-up, wiretapped, celebrated or simply, leveraged, by Russia’s intelligence forces.

The craziness. The confusion. They are precisely the objective. This is how democracies teeter into tyranny. This is how the west loses its global lordliness. Through the embarrassment of buffoonery. Through the low-hanging fruits (and Podestas) of spear phishing. Because the Ed Snowdens and the Kremlin cyber-trolls both operate, in the surprised words of George Packer, “in a world just as corrupt and dangerous as that of politicians and journalists.”

Or in the even more aggrandizing words of the enigmatic former Putin adviser, Gleb Pavlovsky: “We are traders of chaos. We sell it, and the more chaos there is in the world, the better it is for the Kremlin.”

Good lord. Cut to evil hand-rubbing gif.

I spent the last year imagining the small victories and unorthodox strategies of a fictional secret branch of the KGB where agents were trained in psycho-intelligence and mind-hacking. It was not entirely fictional, this conceit. At the height of the Cold War, a lesser arms race, more woo-woo than existential, was ongoing between Russian and American intelligence agencies dabbling in mind-control and paranormal “remote viewing.”

Fifty years later, mind control is back in fashion, in a more prosaic form. The military doctrine of High Putinism is known as New Generation Warfare, and it relies heavily on fucking with the enemy’s minds.

Loads of intel types have studied it, and now the Buzzfeeds of the world are familiar with it. You, too, have heard of Guccifer and Cozy Bear. They’re funny! Because they’re real! And they’re almost certainly not the 400 pound loser lurking in the parental basement of Donald Trump’s imagination.

Somewhere between the novelty and the ubiquity of Russia’s New Generation Warfare, the journalist Peter Pomerantsev nailed its essence: a vision of war which lay not in the realm of physical contact but in what Russian theorists described as the “psychosphere”. These wars of the future would be fought not on the battlefield but in the minds of men.

That means doctored photos, fake news, armies of trolls and kompromat — reams and reams of compromising material, the veracity of which is neither knowable nor relevant. Russia doesn’t need proven information; it prefers intelligence that can “outfox enemies without firing a shot.” It’s called misinformation, disinformation, and fake information. It’s waged in the psychosphere.

My heroine, whom you will meet next summer, is Svetlana Dukovskaya, aka Agent Prima. She is a young lady who, in the summer of 1961, is enticed by the KGB in return for a starring role in Romeo and Juliet. I named her KGB minder Comrade Gerasova, a subconscious tribute to Valery Gerasimov, credited with the 21st century doctrine of asymmetric warfare in the psychosphere, aka mindfuckery.

Last week, Strobe Talbott, an old-Soviet hand, considered all the assets and operations ever employed by Russian intelligence. He concluded “there has never been a Moscow-instigated gambit that was so spectacularly successful as what they have done [today] with our democracy.” He called it “winning seventeen jackpots at once,” and that was before the 18th hole. Trump’s pussy-grabbing pursuit of plutocrat golf courses outside the Ring Road, no doubt.

My poor Agent Prima. All she managed was a starring role in defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis.

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