Back home, the ex-spook and new celebrity Anna Chapman tries her hand at drumming up investment in Russia's technology industry
Russian secret agent Anna Chapman spent several years living in London and New York trying to blend in. Back in her home country since last July, she has done anything but.
The flame-haired 29-year-old was a member of a 10-person sleeper cell that was expelled from the U.S. almost a year ago. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin feted Chapman and her colleagues on their return, leading them in an impromptu round of Soviet-era patriotic songs. The agents would likely land "respectable" jobs and lead "bright and interesting lives," Putin later told reporters.
So far Chapman is doing just that. The former spy has joined Molodaya Gvardiya, the youth wing of the ruling United Russia party headed by Putin, and emerged as the face of a public-private partnership aimed at building a Russian version of Silicon Valley. The effort dovetails with President Dmitry Medvedev's goal of weaning the nation's economy off its dependence on oil and mineral exports and spurring growth to levels seen in China and India.
The government has designated the Moscow suburb of Skolkovo as a technology hub. Authorities have successfully wooed international giants such as Siemens (SI), Cisco Systems (CSCO), and Nokia (NOK), which have pledged to set up offices in a technology park now in development. Chapman says her mission is to help promote the growth of homegrown startups and stem the brain drain of college graduates going abroad in search of job opportunities. "I've always been fascinated with technology," says Chapman. "And right now, I want to make my own input into developing this industry, the venture capital industry."
A graduate of the Peoples' Friendship University of Russia, which is among the country's highest-ranked schools, Chapman has been working as an adviser at Fondservisbank, a Moscow bank that invests in high-technology industries, since October.
During her time living undercover, Chapman was also the founder and manager of DomDot.ru, a now-defunct property listings website that, by her own description, operated in 40 countries and was valued at $10 million before the global financial crisis hit in 2008. "My technology was really worth a lot of money," she says.
A spokesman for Yandex (YNDX), Russia's leading search engine, said via e-mail that the company held talks with representatives of DomDot.ru on a possible acquisition. The site was also shopped to Direct Group, a Moscow-based investment company. "We decided not to invest, for business reasons, but it was a good, respectable project," says Adrien Henni, a former senior investment manager at Direct Group who now edits a website about Russia's IT industry.
Unlike other spies who came in from the cold, Chapman has not shunned the spotlight. In January she began hosting Mysteries of the World with Anna Chapman, a weekly Russian TV show devoted to the supernatural. Last year she posed for the cover of the Russian edition of Maxim clad in lingerie and wielding a handgun. Chapman says she has also fielded several offers for film roles. "In the West, she's got a lot of notoriety," says Roland Nash, chief investment strategist at Verno Capital, a Moscow investment firm. "Not all publicity is good publicity. She's got to turn around part of her image."
After months of burnishing her brand, Chapman is now tending to her career. In June she began editing Venture Business News, an English-language publication owned by Russian businessman Vasily Bargan that tracks venture capital investments along with mergers and acquisitions, with a special focus on Skolkovo. Chapman "has indispensable knowledge and skills in investments," says Varvara Zolotova, 26, chief marketing officer for Progrestar, a Moscow startup that designs computer games.
Chapman is confident her ambitions will not be constrained by what some have called Russia's iron ceiling. "If you are a decent, smart woman, if you bring value, you will go as far as you want, period," she says. "If you want something, you go and get it."
The bottom line: Anna Chapman, a former spy and onetime tech entrepreneur, has been recruited to help build a Russian version of Silicon Valley.