Once asked to describe his former lover, ex-FBI agent and convicted spy Richard W. Miller replied that Svetlana Ogorodnikova was “charming, outgoing, vivacious” and that she spoke atrocious English.
After 11 years in prison on espionage charges, Ogorodnikova still speaks fractured English. But the charm and vivacity are in little evidence. It takes imagination to see any of that in this faded, exhausted woman--the femme fatale convicted of seducing Miller so he would betray his country and pass government secrets to the Russians.
That, she admits, is something of a blessing. “Thank God, nobody recognizes me now,” she said as she paced her husband’s sweltering West Hollywood apartment after her Sept. 13 release from an immigration holding facility.
Though she and her husband, Nikolai Ogorodnikova, pleaded guilty to espionage conspiracy charges a decade ago, they insist that they are innocent and are fighting the government’s efforts to deport them.
“We want try to bring justice. Bring justice not only for us, for my son, even for, ahh, system, you know?” Svetlana Ogorodnikova said.
The system, for its part, remains very interested in her. No sooner had she finished her federal prison sentence in April than she was taken into custody by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which has orders to deport the Ogorodnikovas because of their espionage convictions.
The problem is, the INS can’t find a place to send them.
Russia, the successor state to the now dissolved Soviet Union, their homeland, says the two relinquished their Soviet citizenship when they emigrated to the United States in the early 1970s. Russia therefore won’t issue travel documents unless the Ogorodnikovas ask for them--something they have refused to do.
Nikolai, who served five years in prison and lost an appeal of his deportation order, must report monthly to immigration authorities, who say he is liable to criminal prosecution if he does not cooperate in his deportation.
Svetlana, who was released from the INS facility in San Pedro after posting a $10,000 bond, is appealing her deportation order.
Meantime, Svetlana says she wants to spend time with the couple’s 25-year-old son, who lives in Petaluma. “He’s my best friend.”
She also wouldn’t mind “just little bit rest.
“I’m very tired,” sighed Svetlana, 46, who says she has cancer of the vocal cords.
“She has changed greatly,” noted Donald Spatny, who met Svetlana nearly a decade ago when both were inmates at the Dublin, Calif., federal prison. “The difference between her present ‘bag lady’ look and demeanor and her earlier glamorous persona is startling.”
Spatny, who lives in Mill Valley, is among a small band of supporters who have taken up the Ogorodnikovas’ cause.
He has asked the U.S. attorney general’s office to open an inquiry and has written members of the California congressional delegation--so far to no avail.
“When I saw this case it smelled to high heaven,” said Spatny, who, like her other advocates, portrays Svetlana as the victim of an overblown prosecution, the naive pawn of Miller’s bumbling attempt to infiltrate Soviet intelligence.
“She never was a femme fatale. Basically she was foolish,” said Russell Warren Howe, a former journalist who wrote a book about the Miller case called “Sleeping With the FBI.”
As for Nikolai, 63, Howe says, “There’s no question he had no involvement at all. He’s just an unlucky guy.”
The Ogorodnikovas contend that they were browbeaten into pleading guilty by warnings that Svetlana would be sent to prison for life if she was convicted.
Although she confessed in the early stages of the case that she had received documents from Miller, she later recanted. In the second of Miller’s three trials, she tearfully testified that he was an innocent man who had simply recruited her to help him with his unorthodox efforts to penetrate the Soviet spy network.
Miller admitted to having an affair with Svetlana but also maintained his innocence. He ultimately was convicted of espionage and was released from prison last year after serving two-thirds of his 13-year sentence.
Now Svetlana compares herself to accused murderer O.J. Simpson.
“Like Simpson trial,” she declared emphatically. “I believe they falsify documents against Mr. Simpson. They falsify documents against me.”
“Prejudice against Russian Jewish community and against black community,” she asserted. Svetlana is not Jewish, though her husband is.
Miller’s prosecutors scoff at her protestations.
“Certainly one thing demonstrated in the second Miller trial is that she is a pathological liar,” said former Assistant U.S. Atty. Russell Hayman, who is now in private practice. “Apparently that has not changed.”
Former U.S. Atty. Robert C. Bonner remarked: “The evidence was indisputable that Svetlana had been recruited and was operating as an agent of the KGB.”
Svetlana has remained in touch with Miller, who moved to Utah after his release to be near his children, who live with his ex-wife.
“I just think he’s trying to catch up with his family,” said Joel Levine, Miller’s former attorney.
In a letter Svetlana says she received from Miller last year, the former agent wrote that Utah was beautiful and that he was working as a customer service agent for $6 an hour. Of their case, he lamented, “Next thing I know, we were all in prison. Some James Bond I turned out to be.” The end of the sentence is punctuated with a drawing of a sad face.
Despite her years in prison for a crime she says she did not commit, Svetlana professes no bitterness.
With a sweep worthy of the Russian steppes, she declared, “I never have against nobody nothing. I forgive everybody.”