In Red Sparrow, out March 2, Jennifer Lawrence plays a former ballerina recruited to join the Sparrow School, an elite Russian intelligence branch. As a dancer, Dominika Egorova had used her body to convey movement and beauty. And as a spy, Dominika will use her body, her mind, and whatever else it takes in order to extract information from unsuspecting Americans.
The fast-paced spy thriller is based on a book by Jason Matthews, who, before becoming an author, worked as C.I.A. spy for 33 years. Matthews brought his expertise to Red Sparrow and its film adaptation. Though the book's plot is fictional, the elements in the story — including the sparrow program — are entirely real.
"There was a Sparrow School in Kazan, in the Republic of Tatarstan, in European Russia, during the Cold War, and the use of sexual entrapment and compromise of targets by the Russians is well documented," Matthews told Publishers Weekly in 2013. In one notable instance, an American Marine stationed at the embassy in Moscow in the '80s was seduced by a Russian spy. The Marine also allowed other female spies into the embassy, and was later convicted of a security breach.
While sparrows definitely existed during the Cold War era, there’s less information available about the use of sparrows today. "I don’t know if there still is an operating Sparrow School, but I imagine honey traps are still used,” Matthews told Publishers Weekly.
The Red Sparrow novel, which came out in 2013, was praised for its astonishing accuracy. A review on the C.I.A’s website reads, "The amount of tradecraft, particularly surveillance and counter-surveillance, will make the in-house reader wonder how he got all this past the Publications Review Board.” Matthews brought that same expertise to the movie. He assured in a preview for the movie that “the techniques in the film are all 100% true, including dead drops, safe houses, financial blackmail, and sexual blackmail.”
The fact that Red Sparrow is based on truth makes the school’s brutal training process all the more shocking. Within the walls of the school’s dilapidated mansion, recruits are forced to undergo a cold, depersonalized type of sexual training. In the book, Dominika learns techniques for pleasuring and exciting men through live demonstrations, and has to memorize hundreds of movements. She and her fellow recruits watch a couple having clinical sex, and listen to a professor giving a play-by-play of the action. Finally, one of book’s most shocking scenes is recreated in the movie — each of the students has to disrobe in front of the classroom.
In addition to sexual maneuverings, Dominika and the other sparrows were trained in what Matthews called “practical subjects.” They learned to comport themselves, how to dress, and how to make small talk.
All of this culminates for the sparrows’ ultimate goal: “To participate in the entrapment of the target,” as one of the book’s characters says.
Russia isn’t the only country to have trained its spies in sexual entrapment. China, Taiwan, and Czechoslovakia used sex to get closer to sources. As for the U.S.? The movie’s director, Francis Lawrence, told the New York Times that he heard the CIA tried to institute its own sparrow program in the ‘60s, but the idea never stuck.
“It didn’t work because of the difference in terms of values and morality around sex,” Lawrence told the Times. “They just didn’t care as much, and it didn’t work and it was scrapped.”
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