Spy. Saboteur. Terrorist. Gun for hire. Actor. All of these things describe Dmitri Smerdyakov, an agent from the former Soviet Union. Unknown to him for many years, Dmitri was the half brother of Sergei Kravinoff, aka Kraven the Hunter. They grew up in Tsarist Russia, the children of the aristocracy. However, Dmitri was the illegitimate son of the head of the household, born from a servant girl. His father wanted nothing to do with him and denied that he be given the Kravinoff name. Dmitri and Sergei grew up as childhood friends, even though Sergei often beat and humiliated Dmitri for his own entertainment. Sometimes Sergei would lock him in the tool shed for days at a time. Dmitri would scream and cry to be let out, scratching at the walls until his fingers were bloody as Sergei laughed at him. (Spectacular Spider-Man #241)
Dmitri tried to win his half brother's favor by doing impressions to amuse him. He became very good as an actor, but never won his brother's approval. His skill as an impersonator drew the attention of the Soviet authorities and they gave him the tools needed to become an agent. (The Kravinoffs abandoned Dmitri in Russia after the Revolution, when they fled to America.) In his first known mission, the Chameleon came to the U.S. to steal missile defense plans. He framed Spider-Man for the information theft, leaving the teenager at the site after he escaped. Spider-Man caught up to him and tore a piece of Chameleon's police disguise away, exposing the Spider-Man costume hidden underneath. The police arrested Smerdyakov and eventually deported him. (Amazing Spider-Man #1)
(Despite being a very old man, Dmitri appears young and vital, thanks to Kraven the Hunter's jungle potions. Kraven gave Dmitri a modified version of the substances, as Chameleon has never shown the increased strength or heightened senses that Kraven has exhibited. Sergei admitted to himself that the potion he gave Smerdyakov was of a lower dosage than the one he took, as he demanded that he stay superior to Chameleon. (The Sensational Spider-Man Annual 1996))
After the U.S.S.R. collapsed, Dmitri became a gun for hire. He has worked for everyone from the mafia to Taliban terrorists. He never made much of a mark on Spider-Man's life until he helped Harry Osborn create duplicate robotic parents made to bond with Peter and then kill him. Enraged by the personal betrayal, Spider-Man goes after Dmitri at the Kravinoff mansion in Upstate New York. He tried to escape Spider-Man via suicide, just as Sergei had done. After Chameleon is caught, he begs "I--I'm not even worthy of death! To die--one must have lived! And I--I have never lived! How could I have? I have no name! No face! No soul! I...am a nothing! A nothing!" (Amazing Spider-Man #389)
A Self Loathing Assassin...and a Hardened Killer
At first, it seems odd that a person with such deep insecurities as Dmitri would become a world known "espionage-type" of person. If you want someone dead, the killer better have a spine. Not the kind of person who begs for life. However, Dmitri has been shown to be an unhesitating killer. Whether shooting the head of Ravencroft Asylum security during an escape or suffocating individuals to be impersonated, Chameleon is a killer with a trail of dead behind him.
Soviet assassins were not the inhuman monsters portrayed in the movies. Ramon Mercader, the killer of Leon Trotsky, kept in touch with his family for years after Trotsky's death, just as Smerdyakov kept in touch with Kraven. Yet, he likely gained the attention of the Russian authorities by denouncing the aristocracy and embracing Communism wholeheartedly (as potential recruits were expected to do.) As a homeless young man after the Kravinoffs abandoned him, he needed a new master to serve. While an "aspirant", he had to prove himself physically and mentally, being able to speak at least two languages and trained to be a world class athlete. Interestingly, real Soviet spies were given aliases while in training and were forbidden from sharing their real surnames. This is likely how Dmitri gained the moniker "Chameleon."
Who's Your Daddy? Mother Russia!
As we said before, Dmitri was hated and beaten by his real family members. He was desperate to please them but never could. Then the Commissars came along and took him into their fold. It's possible that Smerdyakov transferred his desire to please from his father to the State. One definition of transference is "the redirection of feelings and desires (and especially of those unconsciously retained from childhood) toward a new object." We find that, in fact, Dmitri did unconsciously retain feelings from his childhood. The narration in Amazing Spider-Man #389 claims "And the truth, so long denied, so long repressed--explodes like a rifle blast in his mind." He remembered how Sergei was really his enemy as a child, not his friend.
For years, Dmitri Smerdyakov was an insecure, groveling servant to Sergei Kravinoff. His feelings of inadequacy remained with him, even after he became a member of the KGB. He gained some self respect as the Chameleon but it wasn't until after his terror of being beaten to death by Spider-Man that the memories of his childhood resurfaced. He has handled his past badly, with two suicide attempts and a stint thinking that he was Kraven. He still manages to get hired by various criminal factions, so "occupational problems" don't seem to be an issue. In fact, being the Chameleon is probably the most empowering part of his life. Avoidance may be how he carries on his life. As long as he keeps working, he wont have to think about his own convoluted psyche. A bonus in his favor is the lower dosage jungle potion that he has been taking for years. While it has kept him young and strong, it likely has not had as severe a toll on his mind as the stronger formula has had on Sergei.