I meet Anna Chapman, the alleged “Russian secret agent” who hit the headlines after her arrest in Washington in the summer of 2010, in an Indian restaurant in downtown Moscow.
Despite rarely being out of the news since her return home as part of a dramatic “spy swap” in Vienna, Chapman, 30, has been remarkably reluctant to speak to the media.
“I don’t need publicity for myself,” she says, picking at a lamb korma. “I don’t sell records.”
Our interview takes place a few hours after the end of an opposition protest against Vladimir Putin’s March 4 election victory. Chapman’s support for Putin, whom she famously joined for a karaoke session after her return to Moscow, is well-known.
“He is a strong leader,” she says, when I bring up the subject. “And that’s what Russia needs.”
Her fondness for Indian food – born of her former residence in north London - is not quite such common knowledge. “I’m not fond of spicy stuff,” she admits. “And I’ve learnt to only order one dish at a time.”
But we are not here to talk about either Putin or curry.
Chapman is keen to discuss her Right to a Smile charity fund, which works with blind and partially blind children in her hometown of Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad), some 900 km to the south of Moscow.
She was inspired to begin her charity work by a meeting in Moscow with the late Rolf Schnyder, CEO of Swiss watch manufacturer Ulysse Nardin. “He told me not to worry about anything and just do it,” she recalls. A large proportion of the money for the charity is raised through the sale of specially-designed Ulysse Nardin watches, called Lady in Red. Coincidentally or not, she is wearing a red dress when we meet.
It has been almost two years since Chapman returned to Russia, and in that time she has hosted a TV show, posed for men’s magazine Maxim, and worked with pro-Kremlin youth group Molodaya Gvardiya.
She is also editor of Venture Business News, which reports on news from President Dmitry Medvedev’s Skolkovo project, Russia’s under-development “answer to Silicon Valley.”
But it is her charity work that seems to have captured her enthusiasm.
“I became less selfish after I returned to Russia following my arrest and I had to do something that was not just for me,” she says.
“I’m trying to break the stereotype that you can’t do charity in Russia,” she goes on. “When I lived in England and the United States, everyone around me was doing charity and social work.”
“But charity has a very bad reputation in Russia. Not many people do it. And if they do, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. For PR, for example. There is also a lot of distrust and suspicion about corruption, as well.”
And while Chapman may prefer to avoid giving interviews, she recognizes all too well that her celebrity status is a distinct advantage when it comes to putting her charity in the spotlight.
“I don’t enjoy being a media celebrity at all,” she says. “But I understand that I have to use it to benefit other people – that’s why I keep on being one.”
“Being a celebrity only means disadvantages for my personal life,” she adds. “I cannot date anyone, especially publically. You know, I don’t like to make my private life public.”
It’s an odd experience meeting Chapman. Instead of the popular image of a flirtatious, calculating femme fatale, she appears, well, extremely normal. She is also - it immediately becomes apparent - very protective of her privacy.
Chapman was recently the subject of a feature-length article in a New York magazine – one that she says made up for the “absence of real facts - no interviews, no answers,” by “using a little imagination” - and she is clearly wary of being misrepresented in the press.
“For a year or so I didn’t even say it was my charity fund that was helping children in Volgograd,” she says. “The press had written I was going to run in the parliamentary elections – even though I’d never said I would – and people would have thought it was just for publicity.”
Media reports in the run-up to December’s parliamentary polls had suggested that Chapman would stand as a candidate for Putin’s United Russia party. But she declines to reveal if she was sounded out about a possible bid. “That’s a political question,” she smiles.
Chapman’s attempts to help the blind community in Volgograd have not always gone entirely smoothly, with a project to install sound in traffic-lights running into the notorious red-tape of Russian officialdom. Or what she calls “nightmare bureaucracy.”
“We could only do eight sets of traffic lights in the end, so we asked the blind what the best places for them were.”
“But can you imagine anything simpler?” she asks, exasperated. “It took us over nine months of going from office to office to sort it all out.” “If I hadn’t known the governor of Volgograd, we would never have been able to do this.”
“As you know there is a big problem with guide dogs in our country,” she says, as we continue to discuss the problems blind people face in Russia, especially in the less-developed regions far from Moscow.
“What problem?” I ask
“There aren’t any,” she deadpans.
Chapman and her team have also been trying to set up a scheme to test every child up to the age of seven in the sprawling Volgograd region for possible eye problems, but have been unable to get the project off the ground, so far.
“Officials have been busy with elections,” she sighs.
But it’s not only the visually-impaired who have it tough here, with even Moscow’s public amenities lacking in basic facilities for the physically handicapped.
“Yes, most people with disabilities have a hard life in Russia,” Chapman says, turning serious. “But this is changing rapidly.”
Attempts to reassure donors that their money is being wisely spent have also failed to go smoothly.
“We wanted people who help our charity to see the results of the money they had spent. I wanted everything to be completely transparent,” she explains. “So we asked the children to speak into the camera after their operations, but a lot of parents were against this.”
“They were so suspicious that we were going to in some way misuse the clips,” she says. “I don’t blame them though, because no one has ever helped them.”
Chapman has also attracted a number of Russian stars to help out with her charity, including the “amazing example” of the blind-from-birth, Georgian-born pop singer Diana Gurtskaya. “She runs master-classes for blind children and inspires them so much,” she enthuses.
She also reveals that she spends time helping at children’s homes in Moscow and surrounding regions. I wonder what the kids there make of being visited by the woman at the center of one of the world’s biggest media stories of recent years. Are they, I wonder, aware of who she is?
“No,” Chapman grins. “They don’t care. I’m just Anna to them.”
The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.