A Curious Century of the West’s “Reverse Defectors” to Russia – From Atomic Spies to Lee Harvey Oswald and Edward Snowden to Steven Seagal, and now Tara Reade.
August 13, 2023,
Tara Reade .Photo:Ukrinform
First, let’s clarify what we’re talking about.
Defectors. A term that seems more aptly associated with the last century, evoking desperate Soviets and Cold War spycraft. Also, one, almost always, applied to those who managed to escape from the communist bloc to points West.
“Reverse defectors” – those who ran away from Western democracies to make lives in the USSR – have been even rarer, and odder, characters in the annals of history. A look across a century shows them to be a list of not only nuclear spies or others on the run from prosecution, but also a hodgepodge of communist true believers, the eccentric, and the disturbed.
Now, summer 2023. Russia has just come through an attempted coup, mutiny, or uprising, depending upon whom one asks. Wagner has run to Belarus, with the world’s corporations and a sizable number of Russians themselves having left a year before.
And once again, the small group of those choosing to run to Russia from the West is peopled by a motley crew – of the ideologically confused, the criminal, the unstable, and the just plain weird.
Meet former Joe Biden accuser Tara Reade.
For a few weeks in 2019, Reade achieved a great measure of publicity, when it seemed her MeToo-adjacent allegations against candidate Biden might upset the 2020 US presidential campaign.
Reade came forward with an accusation that Biden had sexually assaulted her in the early 1990s, when she briefly worked as a campaign assistant on his staff.
Reade’s story was heavily promoted among some of Biden’s most virulent attackers on the right, including long-time Trump dirty trickster Roger Stone and now-fired Russophile Fox News host Tucker Carlson. Yet almost as quickly, troves of information on Reade’s previous lives began to surface. Internet sleuths and top-ranked global publications alike uncovered paper and interview trails of aliases, court records, bankruptcies, falsified educational records, and personal GoFundMes.
The two primary attorneys who worked for Reade during the period of her media appearances were, respectively, a prominent Trump supporter and an editor of Russian propaganda outlet Sputnik News. An attempted media blitz began to peter out.
With all that has happened globally in the last three years, Reade’s name has since been forgotten to many. The Reade affair of a few weeks in summer 2019 seemed destined to be a historical footnote.
Until a few recent, escalating, and stunning re-emergences on the part of Reade – each one very specifically connected with Russia, Putin’s war, and her own still-easily-accessible pieces of Russian propaganda writing.
During Reade’s aborted press blitz, what was most cited as damaging to her credibility lay in the spheres of the personal: defaults, lawsuits, changed names. But there was a parallel, troubling line of inquiry quite speculated upon online but treated more gingerly by mainstream journalists.
In coming forward with her accusation against Biden, had Reade actually, concretely, been working for Russia?
Since last year, Reade’s choices and public appearances around Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine have lent credence to some of those questions raised in 2019 – to say the least.
Indeed, Reade’s Russian journey has finally culminated this summer with an emergence back into the public eye via a tearful press conference – to let the world know she would be “defecting” to Russia.
Reade, accompanied by none other than convicted spy and American felon-turned-Russian-Duma-member Maria Butina, announced that she was moving to Russia, where she could finally “feel safe,” she explained.
“I just really so appreciate Maria and everyone who’s been giving me [protection],” Reade concluded her Sputnik News press appearance by asking Vladmir Putin for Russian citizenship, promising “to be a good citizen and move forward with [her] life in a positive way.”
In retrospect, Reade’s grande finale act of reverse defection could probably have been seen coming for some years.
In the first years after Trump’s election, her public writings on Russia have lined up with those of a typical American Democrat, center-left woman voter, as Reade professed herself to be. In a deleted profile under one of her many other names, she frequently posted angrily about Russian interference in US elections, and critically as to the country’s horrific domestic violence laws.
But in late 2018 – months before coming forward with her accusations against Biden – something changed dramatically. Reade began to parrot the talking points of Russian bloggers.
And in multiple posts of her own, she began to show a fixation not only with Russia – but especially, with Putin. Some of her writings began to resemble erotic fan fiction about the dictator – particularly in their adamantly repeated, specific assertions that Putin is widely seen as an international sex symbol.
In November 2018, Reade wrote, “President Putin has an alluring combination of strength with gentleness. His sensuous image projects his love for life, the embodiment of grace while facing adversity…
“President Putin’s obvious reverence for women, children and animals, and his ability with sports is intoxicating to American women”. The following year she was writing pieces boasting that “like most women across the world, I like President Putin… a lot, his shirt on or shirt off.”
In this same period, Reade also opened a now-deleted public profile on the crowd sharing Q and A website Quora, where she asked only four questions – all about Russia. On the site, she also followed only three accounts: all Russian men, former military or self-described “propaganda executives,” some of whom tweeted relentlessly about Reade’s allegations against Biden.
In 2019, when Reade went public with her allegations, internet sleuths immediately pointed to said frequent and documented praise of Putin – openly questioning whether she had quite literally been recruited to destabilize the US election on Russia’s behalf.
Linguistic experts even undertook language analysis of her tweets with the suspicion that some newer ones had not been written by Reade at all, but rather by a native Russian speaker – finding language patterns that neither matched those of her previous writings or a native speaker of English at all.
At the time she came forward with her allegations, Reade became practiced at attacking anyone who brought up her own passionately pro-Putin writings and suspect ties to Russian propagandists as a conspiracist.
She was even at that time uploading videos mocking the suspicions that she had Russia connections onto a channel, shared on Russian websites, called NYET. They have since been removed.
Flash forward to summer 2022, three years later and post-Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Reade, or those with or for whom she has worked, were not just no longer hiding things well. They had simply stopped trying.
Specifically, by last August Reade had re-emerged as a full-fledged, full-throated Z supporter – at an event shocking even for the fringe circles of the pro-Russian West.
In 2022, Caleb Maupin, a self-described “Marxist-Leninist” and long-time RT writer, founded an attempted offshoot of the Communist Party of America that he called The Center for Political Innovation (CPI). Maupin is not only listed as a Russian disinformation personality by international media watch groups but has appeared at neo-fascist events with Russia’s Aleksandr Dugin and France’s Marine Le Pen.
The CPI folded almost as quickly as it had begun, under admitted allegations of abuse of its members. Its introductory event, however, was announced as being “held in support of Stalin, Putin, Mao, Z-occupation and separatists in Ukraine.”
Housed at a nondescript midrange hotel in suburban Chicago, it featured a tiny group of self-styled American communists in berets marching the aisles with Soviet and Chinese flags, a “Donetsk People’s Republic” flag, and Russian Z flags in support of Putin’s invasion.
It ended with its five marchers on a stage, solemnly holding hands over the sounds of the Internationale. Other, non-marching guests included some of the usual suspect Western pro-Russian provocateurs like Max Blumenthal and Jackson Hinkle.
Video of the event quickly went viral. It was soon pulled – but not before plenty of international watchers had the chance to weigh in in amusement and horror.
“This is hilarious,” tweeted Idrees Ahmad of New Lines, “American ‘socialists’ in Chicago have an elaborate ceremony which they end by holding up the fascist ‘Z’ symbol.”
“Freaks of the world, unite, yo!” offered Olexandr Scherba, Ukraine’s former ambassador to Austria.
Olga Lautman, a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, wrote: “So basically this empty event was done by Russia and affiliated with the Kremlin intelligence arm Russia Today. Insanity.”
The guest of honor, brought up to receive an award from the group, was none other than Tara Reade. In the CPI’s video Reade declared herself “deeply honored and touched” by the award, following up with an eight-minute speech filled with intense praise for Russia.
Among these sporadic pop-ups in the media, from last year’s hotel Z rally to this year’s ultimate Butina press conference declaration, there was one more mystifying Reade/Russia link in winter 2022 that went mostly unreported.
Lost amid holiday news cycles was the bizarre story that Russia had made an attempt to embarrass the Biden administration by inviting Reade to appear before the United Nations Security Council – as a Ukraine expert. The UNSC as chaired by India declined to hear from Reade, on the grounds that the appearance request was both puzzling and inappropriate.
Reade’s meandering path to Moscow shines a light on the rare but not insignificant phenomenon of a century of westerners – from Cold War Soviet sympathizers to current Putin enthusiasts – who chose to decamp to Russia.
Indeed, with her announcement Reade joins a cavalcade of criminals and the confused who’ve sworn off their homelands for a multitude of reasons – only to almost universally come to regret it.
Some of these reverse defectors of the last century did manage to eke out living and dying in tiny flats but found themselves deeply lonely and unhappy: unable to communicate in Russian, kept isolated from the public, and under close “supervision” by the KGB.
Others wound up in gulags. A sizable number were simply murdered by Stalinist secret police – with supreme irony, as suspected spies.
• The most famous US Soviet defector – and undefector – of all was Lee Harvey Oswald. In 1959 he arrived in the USSR on a visa, professing sympathies to the Soviet regime and asking to stay. The Soviets were reluctant to accept him at first, only relenting when he attempted suicide. But by 1961 he was writing in his diary that he had had enough and wanted to go home. In 1962, he was accepted, with his Russian wife, for return to the US. The rest is history.
• This century, the most famous US-Russia defector to date is Edward Snowden. After copying and releasing classified documents, Snowden was not deemed a justified whistleblower by the US government, and thus subject to prosecution for espionage. In 2014, he went on the run from American criminal extradition, ultimately landing in Moscow to seek asylum. In September 2022, Snowden was granted Russian citizenship; in December 2022 he swore the Russian oath of allegiance.
• Action movie star Steven Seagal is one more odd political bedfellow who became an outspoken supporter of Putin during the 2010s. In 2014, he praised Putin as “one of the great living world leaders,” while also expressing support for the annexation of Crimea. In 2016, Seagal was given Russian citizenship and appointed a “special envoy” of the nation. In February of this year, Putin awarded Seagal Russia’s Order of Friendship.
In his bemused June Esquire essay, “Congratulations to Biden Accuser Tara Reade On Her New Life in Russia, I Guess”, commentator Charles Pierce offered of the Butina-Reade press conference: “Far be it from me to suggest that this is not all a big coincidence, but this media event coming at roughly the same time as Moscow gets hit by [drones at the Kremlin] certainly stretches synchronicity to its outer limits.”
After all, Westerners may tend to think of such people – from Seagal to Oswald or a myriad of Rosenberg-adjacent traitors and spies to Snowden – merely as some mixture of cons and cranks. But in fact, those in this group have, for over a century, always served a larger, useful purpose for Russia: to discredit the west.
No matter how Reade’s own Russian odyssey transpires, it’s undoubtable: she’s going to be a long way from California. As Peter Savodnik, author of a 2013 book on Oswald’s Soviet defection years, wrote around the time of Snowden’s 2014 leap, “There’s little evidence from historical records that [they have] anything good to look forward to… Essentially, nobody from the U.S. who has defected to Russia has gone on to think that’s a smart decision.”
The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.