Russians lap up the tale of a shadowy spy couple

For five years, as the world convulsed with war, the unassuming Soviet couple rubbed elbows with the likes of Walt Disney and Orson Welles. They took in a private screening of “The Great Dictator,” at the invitation of Charlie Chaplin.

Their son’s earliest memories are set in Los Angeles -- the yellow house nestled in flower beds with a view of the Griffith Observatory; the animal crackers bought with the proceeds of a sidewalk lemonade stand; the author Theodore Dreiser drinking so much vodka that he crawled under the table.

Their handlers called them Zefir and Elza, and from Los Angeles they went on to roam undercover through dozens of countries, from Israel to Czechoslovakia, Soviet spies all the way.

Lost for decades in the shadows of Cold War spookery, the tale of Mikhail and Yelizaveta Mukasey has been blasted over state-controlled media this year. Yelizaveta’s death this fall, as a 97-year-old widow, gave Russian officials the chance to trumpet the derring-do of the two star agents.

The story has found an eager audience. If there’s one thing Russians love, it’s a spy thriller, especially one that conjures up the proud days of the Soviet Union and the fading glory of World War II. Add a touch of Hollywood stardust, and so much the better.

“They are our pride, they are our glory,” gushed one of many Russian commenters thrilled by an online account of the Mukaseys’ exploits. “We should bring up our kids after their example.”

Despite the surge of interest in the couple, hard facts are scant. Anatoly Mukasey, their 71-year-old son, says intelligence officials told him it would be 150 years before the Russian state would divulge the full extent of his parents’ missions. All that remains now are the stories they told their children, and the fragmentary memories they eventually set in print.

“I don’t know much about their work, and most likely I will never know,” Anatoly Mukasey said, sipping tea in a crammed Starbucks near his Moscow flat. He paused. “I don’t think I’d like to know all of it.”

During the years of their parents’ undercover operation after they left Los Angeles in 1943, he and his sister, Ella, grew up without them in Moscow. They were told nothing of their parents’ whereabouts, only that they were abroad, and very busy. Meanwhile, the children lived under the care of the Soviet system.

There was their nanny, Tanya, who lived with the siblings. And then there were the men known as “monitors,” who dropped by to oversee the development of the children’s morals and philosophies.

“It was hard, and I was always missing my parents,” Mukasey said. “They didn’t say anything to us when they left. We were too little. They just went.”

Sometimes, with no warning, one or both of the parents would appear at the edge of a playground or walk in the door of the flat.

“They were very short visits,” Mukasey said. “I remember that they looked like my parents, but their Russian was very, very bad because for years they hadn’t spoken a word of it.”

Like good Soviet children, he and his sister sensed that it was better not to ask too many questions.

“We began to understand because we received typewritten letters from Mom and Dad, and every year or three, a parcel would arrive in which our parents would send us some gifts,” Mukasey said. “And we understood that these were foreign things, and that they can’t write a letter in their own hand, and that this is part of the work. The work is dangerous.”

His parents’ lives would always be shrouded in secrecy.

Even the story about the couple’s first meeting, in a student canteen in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad), is so heavily adorned with idealized Soviet details that discerning fact from myth is difficult.

Nikolai Dolgopolov, deputy editor of the Russian newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta, is cited by intelligence officials as the best source of information on the couple. Dolgopolov has researched and interviewed the Mukaseys extensively, and his admiration is palpable. This is the story he tells of their first meeting:

The year was 1932, and they were both students, poor and far from home. He was the son of a Jewish family in what is now Belarus -- “a guy from a little place where every dog and kitten was killed during the fascist occupation, and he spoke five or six languages,” Dolgopolov said.

She came from a family of peasants in central Russia. “She was very beautiful,” Dolgopolov said. “Even when I met her she was old, you know. But very beautiful.”

The young Mukasey, the story goes, caught sight of a pale slip of a young woman across a crowded lunchroom. He approached and asked where she was going. She was headed onto the streets to march in support of the international workers’ holiday of May 1, she replied.

You shouldn’t, he protested, you look ill. Correctly surmising that she was hovering on the edge of starvation, he bought her something to eat -- and they were together for life.

“They were both ill when I came to see them, and he was blind,” Dolgopolov said. “But they understood each other by some intonation of voice, some touch.”

The Mukaseys moved to Los Angeles in 1939, a couple with two young children. It was the first and last time they served overseas under their own identities; he had been named deputy consul at the Soviet mission.

They mingled freely with Hollywood stars, many of whom were attracted to the ideals of communism and keen for the U.S. government to join the fight against Hitler.

The couple had a network of agents and collected information from contacts, though the only collaborators outed in their 2004 memoir, “Zefir and Elza: Undercover Spies,” are people who had long since been arrested and prosecuted by U.S. courts. The book drew a small circle of readers but received virtually no publicity or attention.

The couple hinted broadly in the book that they had other collaborators who were never unmasked.

“Many famous people in Hollywood were in touch with the White House in Washington, and through them we got the information we needed,” they said. “In Los Angeles our children grew up and we also matured, got the bearings of our work.”

The family left Hollywood and boarded a ship to Vladivostok, retreating behind the Iron Curtain. Soon the children found themselves deposited in Moscow while their parents disappeared undercover.

The couple’s missions included travel through Switzerland to other Western European countries under assumed identities -- he posed as a Czech resident of Swiss origin, she as a Pole.

“According to the story, I had a baby that had died during the war,” Yelizaveta wrote in the memoir. “It gave me a pretext to visit a Catholic church and cemetery in every town.”

Yelizaveta had been trained in Moscow as an undercover radio operator. What looked like the cord of her vacuum cleaner was a radio antenna that threaded up to the attic, where clothes lines hung.

“She looked like a housewife engaged in washing,” the couple noted in their memoir.

When their daughter was married in the late 1950s, the couple was allowed to return to Moscow for a month. The family still remembers it as a blissful break in a long and bleak absence. The parents were determined to make the most of it.

“Do you like your girlfriend?” they demanded of their son. He replied that he did.

“In that case, come on,” they said. “Let’s organize two weddings at the same time.”

So they did. Anatoly Mukasey has been married to his wife for 50 years.

When their superiors suggested that the Mukaseys’ children might be trained to follow their parents into espionage, the parents were appalled.

“They categorically said no,” Mukasey said. “They said, ‘We don’t want our children to be far away like we were and to suffer like we did.’ ”

The couple’s taste for show business stretched to the end of their lives. Upon returning to Moscow, Yelizaveta found work as a theater secretary and the two longtime spies installed themselves as fixtures on the arts scene. Mikhail died last year.

Anatoly, who established a career as one of Russia’s most prominent cinematographers, said that at the end of their parents’ lives, he and his sister pressed them: Why were other spies profiled on television while nobody mentioned the two of them?

“My father said, ‘In our profession, son, only those who blow their cover become famous. And we never blew our cover. We never made an error.’ ”