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My Landlord Was a Russian Spy
The author was surprised to find out he’d been renting his apartment from a Russian agent. But what he learned next revealed more about the double life of Mikhail Semenko than even the FBI may know. By Michael Gaynor
Comments () | Published August 24, 2010

The story broke late Monday afternoon, June 28. It was the top item on every major newspaper’s Web site, but the details were scant. The FBI had arrested ten people—supposed American citizens entangled in a long-term, deep-cover espionage ring for the Russian government. They had fake names, manufactured identities, and a covert mission to infiltrate influential policymaking circles. They were from New York, Boston, Seattle. But one name stood out. One from Arlington: Mikhail Semenko. It took me only half a second to place it.

He was my landlord.

I stared at the name: “Mikhail Semenko of Arlington, VA.” I couldn’t fathom it. It couldn’t be him, I thought, this small-framed twentysomething who griped about gas bills and worked at a travel agency. Could a 28-year-old really be a covert agent accused of trying to gain access to high-ranking policy offices? I had been subletting his tiny one-bedroom in Rosslyn for three months, but I just couldn’t see the spy in him, not even if you dressed him in a trench coat and dark glasses.

But how many Mikhail Semenkos could there be in Arlington? There was no doubt about my landlord’s nationality—he spoke in a thick Russian accent. He seemed reserved, but not as if he were hiding something.

And then I remembered something important about my place, apartment 33. The boxes.

Semenko had been temporarily living in the apartment of a friend of his in an adjacent building and was due to move back to 33 as soon as my sublet ended July 1. To facilitate the move, Semenko had asked if he could bring over some of his things a week early. I said yes. So that weekend, in between spy-related activities monitored by the FBI, he dropped off two carloads of boxes, plastic containers, and luggage.

One day later, I was sitting at my computer at The Washingtonian, staring at my landlord’s name on the screen, slowly realizing that my apartment could be housing about a dozen boxes of evidence in an international espionage case.

It was time to give the FBI a call.

I talked to a public-affairs officer at the bureau’s Washington Field Office and told her about the boxes. Was that something she’d be interested in?

“Oh, we’d be very interested in that,” she said.

She put me through to a Supervisory Special Agent, and I told her the story. Part of me was still convinced that the Semenko in the paper and the one I knew were not the same. But yes, the agent told me, my landlord was a Russian spy. And yes, the FBI already knew about his second residence at apartment 33. Five agents had been stationed outside my door all day, waiting for a search warrant.

She asked about Semenko’s boxes—how many of them and where they were. A dozen or so, I said, all moved to my place just two days earlier. I couldn’t say what was in them. They looked innocuous—duffle bags, storage bins, a cardboard box that once held a hair dryer. Typical moving stuff—or so I’d thought up until an hour before. “He put it all against the wall,” I explained.

“Great!” the agent said, excitement evident in her voice. It sounded like a possible prosecution gold mine was sitting in my living room.

She said the FBI could put me up in a hotel for the night and maybe the next, depending on when the search warrant came through. Agents would be seizing my laptop, searching the entire place, and cataloging Semenko’s boxes. I could go back to the apartment, but only to get a couple of days’ worth of clothing and a toothbrush.

“Should I let them know when I’m coming by?” I asked, unsure of the protocol of greeting FBI agents at one’s doorstep.

“Oh, they’ll be there all night, so you can just go home whenever,” she responded cheerily.

So I began the walk back to apartment 33, a place that had started for me as a Craigslist posting and was now a crime scene. I had only questions—still little news had broken on the story, and the FBI could tell me few details. But the biggest question was about Semenko. My landlord, this quiet young man whom I never saw wearing anything fancier than a T-shirt and shorts, who made small talk about the weather and the World Cup.

Who was Mikhail Semenko, really?

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 08/24/2010 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles