Jennifer Lawrence stars in the movie Red Sparrow as a prima ballerina turned clandestine honeypot, trained by the Russians in sexual spy craft. (Stop reading if you don’t want to get spoilers!)
A key section of the movie comes when Lawrence’s character, Dominika Egorova, is trained at a so-called red sparrow re-education school, where pupils are dehumanized and taught to use sex appeal as a weapon in geopolitical spy games. The school is run by the austere and humorless headmistress played by Charlotte Rampling.
Suffice it to say that Dominika finds a way to flip the power imbalance on the uncle who sets her up for rape and possibly to be murdered, and, in so doing, on the gray, impersonal and oppressive Russian system that he upholds, where the individual is still expected to acquiesce all desires and humanity to the service of the state.
The school where Dominika is trained is called a “Sparrow School” in the movie. That has a lot of people wondering: Were Red Sparrows real? Is it a true story? Does Russia or did Russia really have a school called a “sparrow school” to train women in sexual spycraft?
The school is based generally on real life, although it clearly takes some liberties with the facts. There’s no evidence, for example, that Jennifer Lawrence’s character is specifically based on a real person. Rather, the movie draws on the belief that Russia did have a sparrow-like school in the past and on how honeypot spying works in general.
Red Sparrow derives from a book of the same name that was written by Jason Matthews, defined as a veteran CIA officer in his Amazon book summary. Red Sparrow is a trilogy.
Matthews told NPR that the movie stayed true to the book, and the book stayed true to real life. The movie “did get it right. They stayed fairly close to the plot of the Red Sparrow book. Generally, the tradecraft is authentic and reflected the old Cold War techniques,” he said, adding that he made sure the script accurately reflected how spies operate, such as when the CIA agent in the movie does a “brush pass” with a Russian mole.
Asked by NPR whether Russia specifically had or still has a “sparrow school,” Matthews said there used to be something similar in the old Soviet Union, but he doesn’t think the schools exist anymore, although the concept of using honeypots still exists. “In the ’60s and the ’70s in the Soviet Union, they had an academy,” he told NPR. “It was called State School 4. But I think now that academy is closed. Any such work —sexpionage … is done by, probably, young ladies in the five-star hotels in Moscow. They’re independent contractors.”
According to CNBC, the Soviet Union “once ran a school to train young women in being professional ‘honey pots’ to entrap diplomats.” CNBC calls the movie “an amalgam of Matthews’ own anecdotes from his years as a clandestine officer.”
“The Russians have for many, many years, used women to try and sexually entrap [high-ranking foreign officials] for blackmail purposes, to try and tell their secrets,” Matthews told CNBC. He also told CNBC that Russian sources had spoken of a “Sparrow school, a state school where women trained in these arts. I think that’s long since closed.” He said the women in the school were taught things like how to open champagne bottles. He also told CNBC that intelligence agents often try to cultivate authentic human relationships with targets they are recruiting.