The Hero Who Betrayed His Country
An ethnic Russian serving in Estonia’s military had something to hide. Now he’s in prison as a convicted traitor.
TALLINN, Estonia—Deniss Metsavas was visiting his relatives in Russia in the summer of 2007 when the incident occurred.
While out with his cousin at a nightclub in Smolensk, Metsavas struck up a conversation with an attractive woman he hadn’t met before. They hit it off and spent the night flirting and dancing before retiring to a sauna in the early hours of the morning. Though saunas in much of Russia are bathhouses where men drink vodka and are flagellated with oak leaves, this one was a sex motel. He and the woman slept together there, but feeling awkward about what was inevitably going to be a one-night stand, Metsavas went out to buy her flowers. “I cannot leave her money,” he recounted to me. “She’s not a prostitute.” Metsavas laid the bouquet by the bed, then returned to his relatives’ home to steal a few hours of sleep.
Estonia lies at the frontline of efforts to contain Russian revanchism. Once occupied by the Soviet Union, the country has no intention of losing its independence again and has eagerly joined Western economic and defense alliances. Where others have lately made noises critical of the European Union or NATO, Estonians see these institutions, and their participation in them, as existential necessities—the only thing keeping the Baltic state from being swallowed up again by its giant neighbor. And after Moscow annexed Crimea, that fear is no longer dismissed as paranoia in Brussels and Washington. Yet ties between Russian and Estonian citizens are much more fluid. Metsavas had joined the Estonian army almost a decade earlier, but would regularly come to Russia to visit his mother’s family. Six feet tall, with a round face and close-cropped hair, he was ethnically Russian, spoke both Estonian and Russian fluently, and moved easily in Smolensk. With this particular holiday almost over, he made plans after waking up to head downtown to do some shopping.
The moment he stepped outside the house, though, two men dressed in plain clothes approached him and identified themselves as police officers. They showed him an affidavit in which the woman Metsavas had spent the night with claimed he had raped her. He could face up to 15 years in a Russian prison if convicted, they warned him, and they told him to follow them to the police station. Once there, one of the officers pulled out a small digital camcorder with a playback screen that showed Metsavas in bed with the woman.
Until then, Metsavas had found little time to think—things were happening so fast. Once he saw the video, though, it was clear to him he had been entangled in a “honeytrap,” a sexual sting operation. “They said they could solve my problem if I cooperated,” he told me. Metsavas agreed and signed forms whose content he can no longer recall.
The ensuing conversation with the officers was vague, and he wasn’t pressed for any information about his service, or the Estonian army. Hours later, Metsavas was released, with no instructions to remain in Smolensk or to return for further questioning. At no point was he handcuffed, read his rights, booked, or offered a lawyer. It was his first time in a police station, and because it was in a country not known for its respect for those being held, his first instinct was to get out as quickly as possible. The thought of calling the Estonian embassy hadn’t crossed his mind: Even the hint of criminality, however false or contrived, might sink his military career. He fell victim, he said, to arrogance, a false belief that he could navigate the situation, and obedience, a result of his training as a soldier. Single at the time, he told no one of the encounter and returned to Estonia.
A full year passed without any mention or reminder of the incident. Then, in the fall of 2008, as he was leaving his mother’s house in Tallinn, a man approached him and began speaking in Russian. “He asked if I remembered what happened in Smolensk,” Metsavas told me, “and my promise to cooperate.”
When I met Metsavas, in March, he wasn’t wearing an orange jumpsuit or shackles, and the handcuffs he’d worn during his transport to our interview had been removed. The room we sat in was sparsely furnished and lay just a few feet from the fortified antechamber into which visitors to the Kaitsepolitseiamet—Estonia’s Internal Security Service, known more commonly as KAPO—first enter. Wearing a light-gray T-shirt and a windbreaker, he could easily have been mistaken for an off-duty agent popping into the office. “Don’t shake his hand when he comes in,” Aleksander Toots, KAPO’s deputy director and the country’s chief spy-catcher, had warned me. “We consider it an insult to shake hands with a traitor.”
Metsavas was shivering when he walked in. “Prison is cold,” he said. He’d spent the previous six months behind bars, and while it was clear he was nervous, he appeared fit and healthy. We were in the same room he’d been taken to immediately after being arrested by KAPO officers in September 2018. This room, no larger than 200 square feet, with a window facing a major intersection in central Tallinn, was KAPO’s interrogation room, where the service questioned all suspected spies. As we talked, Metsavas sat in the same chair in which he’d already spent hundreds of hours, willingly helping KAPO piece together what was, by all accounts, a highly damaging breach of Estonia’s national security.
Weeks before our meeting, Metsavas was convicted of spying for Russia’s military intelligence service and sentenced to 15 and a half years in prison. He pleaded guilty at his trial and cooperated with Estonian counterintelligence, offering details of how he was co-opted by Moscow, of his conversations with his longtime handler, and of the classified information—most of it Estonia’s, some of it from Estonian allies—he passed along to Russia.
I spoke to Metsavas under the auspices of KAPO, which gave The Atlantic virtually unrestricted access to him, but not to his friends or family. Notably, I was not allowed to speak with his wife, his mother, or his father, the last of whom played an integral role in his son’s ordeal. The rules of engagement were simple: I could ask my subject anything I liked, but he had been instructed beforehand not to divulge information that might compromise KAPO’s counterintelligence investigation, particularly any details that would telegraph to the Russians what the Estonians knew about their tradecraft and the secrets they had stolen. “They don’t deserve it,” Toots said.
For KAPO, the interview was an opportunity to publicize its already legendary reputation of catching Russian spies. For me, it was an unmissable chance to speak to a contemporary spy and raise the curtain on the inner workings of a Russian intelligence agency whose century-long history of skulduggery—from election tampering to dirty wars, from attempted coups to assassination plots—shows no sign of abating. And for Metsavas, it was a chance to atone for his high crimes against his country, his comrades in the army, his friends and family. I believe he had little apparent incentive to lie: Everything he said would be within earshot of at least one KAPO case officer, tasked with ensuring that he didn’t speak out of turn, or embellish or misrepresent his autobiography. I got the impression that Metsavas, as much as the men who had unmasked him, took such matters earnestly. In general, there was a strange camaraderie between Metsavas and the KAPO case officers who flitted in and out of the interrogation room as our interview wore on. All interacted with him not as an enemy of the state, but as an old acquaintance, with an intimacy born of close proximity and repetition. I asked Metsavas whether he felt compelled in any way to talk to me. He said he didn’t and insisted that this whole thing was his idea in the first place. I eventually saw why.
In my conversations with him, as well as with half a dozen Estonian security officials—all of whom, bar Toots, requested anonymity to discuss sensitive matters—I was told the story of a genuinely patriotic soldier who was blackmailed into becoming a spy, then coerced to keep going by a handler who knew exactly which weaknesses to prey on. Metsavas’s recruitment, and, even more so, the longevity of his treason, illuminated just how pragmatic, cynical, and cunning officers of Vladimir Putin’s special services can be in prosecuting a cold war against the West, a war that Estonians believe, with good reason, hasn’t begun anew, but never really ended after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Of all the countries to emerge from the wreckage of the Soviet empire, Estonia is one of the most successful. This country of 1.3 million people has a rare degree of social cohesion and uniformity of vision for where it ought to go, joining the EU and NATO in 2004 and adopting the euro in 2011, the first former appendage of the U.S.S.R. to do so. It also has outsize technological impact, as the birthplace of Skype, a country where internet access is enshrined as a civil right.
Yet that drive, in some ways, also makes it uniquely vulnerable. After living under Soviet totalitarianism and occupation for a half century, Tallinn has pursued memberships to Western alliances that Moscow sees as threats, and its relationship with Russia is tense, at best. In 2007, Estonia’s government, banks, and news organizations were hit by an enormous cyberattack that rendered websites inoperable nationwide. Properly understood, that event was more akin to a digital invasion, one that shut down much of the nation’s online infrastructure for weeks. The campaign, Estonian officials and most analysts agree, was almost certainly ordered and orchestrated by Russia.
The Baltic state’s geographic proximity to Russia, and its close cultural and linguistic ties—ethnic Russians make up a quarter of Estonia’s population—have also meant, however, that it has always been forced to contend with the more tried and tested human variety of espionage. When the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, it had to create entire law-enforcement bodies from scratch, and cast about for officials with training and experience. Among the options it relied on was to grandfather in Soviet-era operatives to continue their work, but for a sovereign Estonian state. Inevitably, sleeper agents were among those recruited.
When most countries ferret out spies, they prefer to trade them back for their own captured intelligence officers, with little or no public fanfare. Estonia is the rare country that trumpets the arrest and sentencing of foreign intelligence operatives. “There are a lot of myths about the Russian services, that they’re invincible and we cannot counter them,” Toots told me. “We won’t accept that … This has got to be seen as uncomfortable territory for them to operate in.”
According to KAPO, in the time since Toots took on his position as deputy director in 2008, Estonian courts have convicted six people of treason, “and another 12 of committing crimes against the state by collaborating with Russian special services,” including five with Moscow’s military intelligence service, the GRU. Metsavas was the fifth.
Metsavas’s first meeting with his Russian handlers was, as he recalls, “very, very superficial.” In December 2008, he traveled to St. Petersburg and was picked up by a man who gave his name only as Anton, then was taken to a safe house, where he was asked about his personal life, the early stages of his career, and bewilderingly simple questions about Estonia’s military: How many howitzers did the Estonians have? Could he point out individual buildings on a map of military installations? Metsavas thought they were playing amateur hour. “You could find that stuff on the internet very easily,” he told me. He was offered a small sum of money that his interlocutors said were to cover his expenses, and went back home.
That first exchange had felt innocuous; even though a tentative plan had been set to meet again the following December, Metsavas said he still didn’t feel like a spy. And yet the table had been set. He had accepted money for information—“That was the first step,” he told me—and met the man who would be his handler for the years to come, Anton. Throughout the conversation, the Russians he spoke with peppered their discussions with questions about Metsavas’s family, querying whether his mother’s flower business was doing well and asking after his father’s health. “They never said obviously that something could happen to my parents if I didn’t cooperate,” Metsavas said, “but I understood it that way.”
Over the period they knew each other, Metsavas learned little about Anton, or whether that was even his real name. All he could work out was that his handler had a military background, which appeared clear from his comfortable use of jargon, and that he was greatly interested in Ukraine and Georgia, two countries Metsavas had traveled to as an artillery liaison officer. That was all by design.
“It’s a pattern in GRU methodology to keep the service ambiguous,” Toots told me. “Nobody ever shows a badge. Metsavas didn’t know the true identities of his handlers and their ranks until we told him.” In fact, Metsavas didn’t even know which Russian intelligence service he was spying for until KAPO informed him.
Russia’s Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces—officially known by the acronym GU, though more commonly referred to as the GRU—is unlike the KGB’s successor organizations, the SVR and FSB, in many ways. Since its founding under a different name by Leon Trotsky in 1918, it has enjoyed virtually uninterrupted continuity as the Russian military’s covert security apparatus. Headquartered in a fortified complex in Moscow, the centerpiece of which is an enormous building known as the Stikliashka (or “Glass House”), the GRU answers directly to Russia’s chief of the general staff and is therefore technically under the authority of the defense ministry.
It also has a different ethos than the KGB and its descendants. The KGB typically drew from the ranks of Soviet intelligentsia, but a typical GRU officer is a more rough-hewn type. “The KGB is a vain and arrogant courtier, having the right to speak at the King’s council,” Viktor Suvorov, a GRU officer who defected to Britain in 1978, wrote in his book Inside Soviet Military Intelligence. “The GRU is an ugly hunchback.” Most GRU officers are picked from within the Russian armed forces, before being sent for at least three years of training at the Military-Diplomatic Academy in Moscow. Their overriding objective, according to an analyst with Estonia’s Foreign Intelligence Service—who, like many of his colleagues, requested that he not be named—is to “prepare Russia for war with the West.” GRU agents aim to steal military secrets from rival nations, trying to learn as much as possible about their strategic strengths and weaknesses, as well as their infrastructure, telecommunications systems, and—where relevant—nuclear-weapons capability. During the Cold War, operatives from this service were also known to plant caches of weapons and ammunition across Europe and North America in case a hot war broke out between Russia and the West.
It was the GRU that choreographed the seizure and annexation of Crimea, as Vladimir Putin admitted in a documentary that aired on Russian state television in March 2015. Since then, Ukraine has functioned as a laboratory for Russian military doctrine and GRU subversion efforts. According to Mark Galeotti, a Russia security specialist at the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank in London, the Glass House oversees “the gangster-warlords, militias, and mercenaries of the Donbas” of eastern Ukraine. Bellingcat, an open-source investigations website, reported that a senior GRU officer named Oleg Ivannikov “supervised the procurement and transport of weapons across the Russia-Ukraine border” when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down in 2014. The Kremlin has denied responsibility for the crash without commenting on Ivannikov’s alleged involvement. And a court in Montenegro has convicted two alleged GRU officers for masterminding a complex, murky, and ultimately unsuccessful coup attempt in 2016, a year before the Adriatic country was due to join NATO.
The GRU has lately focused its energies on more ambitious targets, including those in the United States and the United Kingdom. Two different units of its operatives hacked Democratic Party emails in the lead-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, according to an indictment issued by the office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The intelligence agency then disseminated their contents via GRU-run internet personae called Guccifer 2.0 and DCLeaks. (As a further indication of its competition with its sister agencies, the GRU wasn’t alone in hacking the DNC—a different cadre of Russian cyberspies allegedly got inside the servers, too, as part of a presumably autonomous operation.)
Then, last year, the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England, was blamed on two GRU hit men, later identified by Bellingcat as Anatoliy Chepiga and Dr. Alexander Mishkin. (The Kremlin has denied involvement, as have the two men, who say they were there as tourists.) British authorities said the murder weapon was a proscribed military-grade nerve agent called Novichok, the unleashing of which ultimately killed one British civilian, landed several more in critical condition, and forced months-long quarantines in the sleepy cathedral city. Skripal had been a GRU colonel who spied for MI6, Britain’s foreign-intelligence service, from 1996 until his arrest in Moscow in 2004, ultimately spending six years in prison before he was traded back to Britain as part of an Anglo-American spy swap with Moscow. The Skripal poisoning, a spectacular act of international terrorism, rallied a bloc of more than 20 Western countries into collectively expelling more than 100 Russian diplomats, many of them believed to be intelligence officers. The GRU then tried to cover up its crime by tampering with the evidence and trying to hack into the servers of the international organization tasked with investigating Skripal’s poisoning. (Moscow denies this too.) The hackers were thwarted.
Metsavas grew up in Lasnamäe, a mostly Russian-speaking, working-class enclave of the Estonian capital. His father, Pjotr Volin, had served in the Soviet border guard before taking up a series of manual jobs, including working as a diver repairing the underwater infrastructure of Tallinn’s seaports. His mother, an obstetrics nurse, was born in Russia and immigrated to Estonia after marrying Volin.
Although Metsavas lived in Tallinn, his childhood revolved around Russians: Most ethnic Russians in Estonia live in homogeneous metropolitan areas or communities—Lasnamäe was itself built in the late 1970s to accommodate an influx of Russian contractors tasked with preparing for the 1980 Summer Olympics, for which Tallinn hosted the sailing competition. Like most children in the area in the 1980s, Metsavas attended a Russian-language primary school, and only started learning Estonian when he was 6 or 7. “We had two completely different worlds,” he told me. “You didn’t have to speak Estonian or know anything about Estonian culture growing up in Lasnamäe. You were completely Russian.”
The family home was devoid of the intense intellectual debates that consumed much of Estonian society as the Soviet Union collapsed and Tallinn became the capital of the newly independent country. Metsavas, however, was drawn to the military. He wanted to emulate American action-movie stars such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chuck Norris, whose movies he loved, and “didn’t like the idea of becoming an office rat.” By the end of high school, his grades were good, his English sufficient, and his Estonian fluent enough that he was able to join the army, where he was assigned to the Presidential Guard, the post-Soviet equivalent of his father’s assignment. Metsavas was even placed in the same barracks his father had served in, a source of familial pride. (The same year he enlisted, his parents divorced. Volin later remarried and moved, first to London and then to Vladivostok, in Russia’s Far East. Metsavas’s paternal grandfather had changed the family’s surname to Volin in a show of ideological loyalty to Moscow—volya in Russian means “will”—but once Estonia won its independence, Metsavas changed his last name back; his father opted to keep his unchanged.)
A decade into his military career, Metsavas was fully ensconced in the Estonian security forces. He had graduated from the country’s military academy and become an artillery specialist, transiting from a base in Tapa, southeast of Tallinn, back to the capital, and on to Finland, where he underwent further artillery training.
As his career progressed, his value to the Russians only increased, and what began as low-level questioning in Metsavas’s early interactions with Anton soon became more complicated, more detailed, and more dangerous. They asked questions about Estonian military allies, particularly the U.S. and the U.K., and what weaponry and ammunition they stored on Estonian soil. Metsavas’s expertise was especially useful to Moscow, because while Estonia does not have much of a navy or air force, it is proficient in artillery warfare. Anton wanted to know about the U.S.’s activities outside Estonia. “The United States was the strongest interest,” Metsavas said, without going into much detail.
Toots had earlier volunteered that the handler wasn’t much concerned with Estonia’s native defense capability, but rather with what it was receiving from stronger allies. “Metsavas was an artillery specialist, and he knew about the stuff we get from our partners,” Toots told me.
In 2012, Metsavas deployed to Afghanistan as a company liaison officer stationed in Helmand province. Upon returning home, he was assigned to the Estonian military’s headquarters in Tallinn, where he served as a staff officer in the artillery inspectorate, part of a department responsible for preparing an overall national-defense strategy. His access to see classified intelligence was limited, but he could still get his hands on plenty of sensitive documents.
Something had changed in his disposition, though: He had seen what war was like up close, embedded alongside Estonian comrades with whom he’d risked his life against an ideologically committed adversary. While deployed, he’d also been receiving three times his normal salary, a financial bonus for soldiers in active war zones, and had calculated that he’d soon have enough money to possibly retire from the army—and therefore from his espionage for Russia—and settle down with a place of his own in Tallinn.
He made plans to see Anton in St. Petersburg in the summer of 2013 and tell him he wanted out. The pair began by talking about Metsavas’s tour in Helmand, but Anton showed little interest, instead focusing on his agent’s new job at defense headquarters. After talking for some time, Metsavas finally told Anton he wanted to stop passing information to Moscow. He was financially secure, and his career was more and more at risk. “Then,” Metsavas said, Anton “dropped Father on me.”
While Metsavas was in Afghanistan, GRU agents had traveled to Russky Island, off the coast of Vladivostok, to meet with his father. Volin had retired there from London years earlier to be closer to his new wife’s parents, but his partner had fallen ill, and Volin—who remained resolutely pro-Russian, even after becoming an Estonian citizen, according to Toots, who described him as “Homo sovieticus to his core”—agreed to help Moscow in exchange for money to pay for her treatment. They had recruited Volin into the operation. His father, Metsavas said, “was a perfect thing to use” against him.
At first, with Volin based in Russia’s Far East, there was little tangible need for him, aside from making Metsavas feel like he had fewer routes out of spying for Russia. The Estonian officer continued to steal documents from headquarters, passing them to Anton in St. Petersburg. (Neither Toots nor Metsavas would offer details on what kinds of reports were being shared beyond generalities, and all Metsavas would say was that Anton was drawn more to the classification of the documents he passed along than to the inherent value of the information they contained.)
That soon changed. Months after seizing Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Russia kidnapped a KAPO counterintelligence officer who, according to KAPO, had been dispatched to Estonia’s southeastern border to disrupt a cigarette-smuggling ring. The officer spent a year in Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo prison before he was traded, Bridge of Spies–style, for another former KAPO officer who had been caught spying for Russia’s FSB. The Estonian government then issued a general advisory to all state and military personnel: Don’t go to Russia.
Metsavas’s commanding officer would now have to sign off on all his travel across the border. Had this been a few years earlier, Metsavas would have been ecstatic—it would have meant no more meetings with Anton and thus a de facto end to working for the GRU. But Volin was by now living in Tallinn again, having moved back after the death of his father-in-law. In 2016, he became the courier for his son’s stolen intelligence, the agent who’d hand over the goods to Anton in St. Petersburg. (KAPO denied me access to Volin, who was convicted alongside his son in Harju County Court, in Tallinn, in February. He was sentenced to six years in prison.)
If his father had been one of many GRU “hooks,” then Metsavas’s own impending fatherhood would prove the sharpest. In 2015, Metsavas learned he was about to become a father. He had a son with a woman he’d known for years, a fixture like himself at a gym in Tallinn. The pair were friends before getting involved romantically. In 2016, they married. His future wife’s pregnancy, he said, was “the point of no return.” He’d never be able to turn himself in now.
In hindsight, Metsavas’s decision making is hard to rationalize. On multiple occasions, he could have given up, or offered to help Estonian intelligence feed poor information to Russia, something he himself acknowledges. He was not in obvious financial distress, nor was he questioning his loyalty to Estonia. Yet each time, he declined. Studying his behavior, and that of others like him, however, makes it easier to understand.
In an article titled “Psychology of Treason,” Alan Studner, a CIA psychologist who has analyzed defectors—including Oleg Penkovsky, the GRU colonel who in 1961 volunteered to become an Anglo-American spy—argued that those like Metsavas were, in some way, unhappy. “Defection is a response to an acute overwhelming life crisis or to an accumulation of crises or disappointments,” Studner wrote in the article, published in Studies in Intelligence, the in-house journal of the American intelligence community, and declassified in 2014. Ideology was a low-order motivation for traitors. Instead, many defectors came from broken homes. In Metsavas’s case, his parents had undoubtedly played a significant role in his development, but what about beyond that? I wondered. Had the GRU alighted upon him even earlier than the honeytrap in Smolensk? Had Volin colluded with the Russian organs well before that moment, or—and here was a question it was no longer possible to dismiss as paranoid—perhaps even helped orchestrate the compromising of his son?
“The capacity for splitting and shifting loyalties, once incorporated into the personality of the developing child, remains present even if unconscious throughout life, a latent mechanism which can be quickly reactivated and drawn upon later,” Studner wrote. “Some defectors in their oppositional behavior are playing out in their adult lives the unresolved conflict of the adolescent striking back at his parents. Only now the regime has taken the place of the parent.”
Five years ago, after Russia annexed Crimea, precipitated a “separatist” insurgency in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region, and sowed unrest in much of the rest of the country with a wide-ranging disinformation and propaganda campaign, Estonian military planners’ worries began to heighten. If the Kremlin could so swiftly seize another country’s territory, so easily upend the security of a European nation, where did that leave them?
They redoubled their efforts, and in particular they showcased Estonian soldiers who could speak against Russia and whose background and career paths were living evidence of Russia’s lies. Metsavas stood out. By then, he was a 15-year veteran of the Estonian military and had completed a deployment with the NATO mission in Afghanistan. Metsavas soon became the Estonian military’s de facto spokesman for the country’s ethnic Russian community. He gained a measure of celebrity, appearing on Russian-language television shows and giving radio interviews about Estonian defenses and NATO training exercises. He spoke at a local high school on patriotism and democracy, cautioning students against Russian propaganda before taking them to observe military field exercises, where they would fire assault rifles and briefly stay in tents. He was, in effect, a totem for how Estonia sought to present itself: liberal, tolerant, cosmopolitan.
Life eventually moved on. Estonia kept its eyes trained on its larger neighbor to the east, but Metsavas got a new position. Then, last year, on a foggy morning, Metsavas climbed into his car with his young son and took him for his first day at a local nursery school. Once there, the boy did not want to release his father’s hand, eventually relenting only after Metsavas promised he would bring him ice cream. Instead, as many parents do, he got back into his car and called his wife to tell her how the drop-off had gone before starting the engine and setting off for work.
He had driven only about 200 yards when he was pulled over by an array of vehicles. Out of one stepped Toots. Metsavas, he said, was under arrest. For more than a decade—while he represented the Estonian military on television, while he served in uniform in a war zone, while he railed against Russian trolls on Facebook—Metsavas had been spying for the Kremlin.
“Somehow,” Metsavas told me, “I was ready to be arrested. I thought about it thousands of times.”
“I just didn’t know where, or when, or how it would happen,” he said.
Under Estonian law, a convicted traitor must serve two-thirds of his sentence before being eligible for parole. At that calculation, Metsavas, who was 38 at the time of his arrest, will be nearly 50 before he is free. Does he have any plans for when he gets out? “In 10, 15 years, Elon Musk will develop his Hyperloop already, and a lot of things will be very different from today,” he answered, smiling. “I can dream.”
Things are already different in Estonia. The day I arrived in Tallinn was the day of the nation’s parliamentary election. Like other European countries, Estonia has a far-right problem, and it was getting worse. The Conservative People’s Party, or EKRE, did unexpectedly well, garnering nearly 18 percent of the vote, which put it third overall, and it is now part of a tenuous coalition government. EKRE is outspoken in its hatred of immigrants and the European Union—and ethnic Russians, who are seen as fifth columnists and pollutants of the purity of the Estonian race (itself a hodgepodge of continental lineages). EKRE has naturally seized on the Metsavas affair for political advantage. Ruuben Kaalep, the chairman of the party’s youth movement, addressed it directly last September in an interview with the Baltic News Service. “The only logical explanation for his actions is that blood is thicker than water,” Kaalep said. “Loyalty is not guaranteed by Estonian citizenship or even a soldier’s oath given to the Estonian state. Loyalty is based on a feeling of ethnic belonging and a bond with one’s ancestors.”
The list of those Metsavas betrayed is long. There are his colleagues, fellow soldiers, people he called his friends whom he served alongside in a war zone. There are the students he taught, and the Russian diaspora in Estonia, the one constituency he was meant to reassure.
He does not blame anyone but himself for his plight. Anton was just doing his job, Metsavas maintained, no different from how Toots was doing his when he read Metsavas his rights. “When you buy a bottle of whiskey and you become an alcoholic, it’s not the whiskey’s fault,” he told me.
But if Metsavas revealed anything over the course of the two long days I spent with him, it was that he was a man riven on multiple levels by a double identity. An Estonian soldier who was also a Russian spy. An ethnic Russian who loved Estonia and was committed to defending it from the very government he ultimately betrayed it to. Metsavas said he was scared when he first met Anton because his future handler seemed to know everything about his new agent, his life and family. Yet Metsavas dealt with Anton anyway. I was reminded of the quintessentially human element in intelligence. Unlike the binary data of signal intercepts or the black-and-white roll-call facts in stolen documents, a handler of spies works with people—rabota s’lyudmi in Russian. He must be a combination of friend, therapist, and father-confessor, but his goal remains constant: to persuade his agent to slowly, methodically destroy himself.
Even the times Metsavas railed against Russians while he spoke for the military—was that all part of the ruse, I asked him, to keep up appearances? He swore that it wasn’t, that he was genuinely angry and defensive to see his comrades criticized. “I was asked here at KAPO, what would I do if war started with Russia. My answer was that I would fight for Estonia.
“I understand it’s hard to explain how, on the one hand, I can spy for Russia, and on the other hand, I am speaking patriotic stuff on television,” he continued. “One part of that identity is what I hate … the other part is who I am.”