THE BLOG

Please Let Me Join Your Spy Scandal!

02/23/2015 10:36 am ET | Updated Mar 29, 2015

Is the "new Cold War" a sequel, or just a sad set of re-runs? Once again, New York faces a Russian spy scandal whose participants really should have taken the title Get Smart literally. But as the movie tag lines go: This time, it's personal. Because it apparently involves a university very close to home.

2015-01-27-joliespy2.jpg

A Russian spy-ring is accused of trying to lure young, female college students into a life of espionage. Has a spy scandal finally hit New York University? We should be so lucky. As always, the details are something of a mess.

The New York Post reports that "alleged [Russian] agent Evgeny 'Zhenya' Buryakov, 39, was nabbed by a team of FBI agents outside the A&P supermarket in Riverdale around 11:45 a.m. Monday." Let us pause to recognize the solemnity of the moment: arrested outside an A&P in Riverdale. I shudder to think what would have happened if they hadn't "nabbed" him. An A&P! Will those monsters stop at nothing?

According to new sources, Buryakov allegedly met with local humans that the newspapers insisted on calling "college girls" or, better yet, "co-eds." Witness the Post's headline: "Russians charged with plotting to recruit N.Y.C. co-eds as spies." Really, "co-eds"? Do they gather top secret information while wearing go-go boots and mini-dresses?

This all feels like some sort of top-secret plan to promote Season Three of "The Americans" (debuting tomorrow on FX!) And here we have perhaps our clearest link to NYU: Keri Russell, whose wigs star in "The Americans," got her big break in the nineties playing the title role in "Felicity," a WB teen drama about a young woman (sorry, girl, sorry, "co-ed") who follows the guy of her dreams to study at the "University of New York" (which was basically NYU with better dorms and hotter faculty). I'd already speculated that Felciity's role as a double agent explained a great deal about her odd behavior, most notably her insistence on sending tape-recorded reports to a "friend" named "Sally."

But if it's all true, then I finally understand why so many of the women at the NYU freshmen orientation wear big fur hats (in August!) and stop every passerby to ask: "Excuse, please, where are your nuclear wessels." Yes, they can't pronounce "vessels" correctly, but they're still better at "nuclear" than two out of three Republican former presidents.

This is not my first brush with espionage at NYU. Several years ago, I was contacted by the FBI, who were concerned that I was being cultivated by a Russian diplomat with whom I'd had lunch a few times to talk about things Russian (full disclosure; sometimes his evil masters picked up the check, and sometimes mine did). I asked them why anyone would bother, and they said, "Because you're the Chair of the Department of Russian and Slavic Studies."

My response surprised them; apparently no one has ever burst out laughing in these situations before. I told them that they should sincerely hope the Russian Federation's spies are devoting their efforts to people like me, because of how much of their own time they're wasting (this was less a comment on my patriotism than on my utter insignificance). At the very least, it was heartening to encounter bureaucrats who were not concerned about our declining enrollments.

Still, it's like anything else: it's always flattering to be asked. And, hey, I have bills to pay, just like everybody else. So when the news broke yesterday, I was perversely pleased to see that the media were tacitly implying that NYU could be involved: finally, we've made the big time. Then I read Newsweek (always a mistake):

The indictment didn't identify the university in question, but Columbia University's Harriman Institute is one of America's major Russian studies centers. New York University also has a Department of Russian and Slavic Studies.

It's really hard to know how to respond to such a slight. Do I insist that we're just as worthy of subversion as Columbia? Our co-ed spies can beat up your co-ed spies? This may not help us academically or strategically, but throw in a web cam, and I've got a business model.