If these were ordinary times, the Russian television series Sleepers might have received little attention. When it premiered on Russian network television, in October, it seemed like just another rip-off of a foreign show—in this case, the FX spy drama The Americans, now concluding its final season. But amid real-world election-interference campaigns and extraterritorial assassination attempts, Sleepers has become something more interesting: a justification for the Kremlin’s aggressive spy games overseas.
The series revolves around the CIA’s activation of an American sleeper cell in Moscow and, more broadly, the agency’s plot to destabilize Russian society. In the first episode, Russia’s embassy in Libya is sacked and its staff killed, and a young pigtailed Russian girl is blown up by militants—all courtesy of the CIA.
A disclaimer before the first episode insists that all characters are fictitious and that any coincidences are random. But the echoes of real-life events are unmistakable. There are unflattering analogues to the opposition leader Alexey Navalny, the slain journalist Anna Politkovskaya, former U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul, and various saboteurs and reprobates. Each character is seemingly driven by some combination of cowardice, greed, and the occasional symbolic cheeseburger.