Wednesday, July 6

The Russian spy who inspired the series ‘The Americans’: “The hardest thing was raising my children surrounded by secrets”


On June 27, 2010, the FBI broke into the Heathfield home on the outskirts of Boston and arrested Donald Heathfield and his wife, Tracey Ann Foley, a Canadian couple with two children, one 20 and one 16. He , strategy consultant for companies. She, real estate agent.

Not even their children – born in Canada – knew that their parents were in fact covert spies for Russia who had been sent to the West in the 1980s and were part of the “illegal service”, a top secret program in Moscow to extract information in the middle of the war. Cold The Soviet KGB had stolen two real identities of Canadian children who died shortly after birth and they had taken it upon themselves to bring them to life.

Apparently, the Heathfields were betrayed by one of their superiors who defected to the United States. The FBI launched the operation ‘Ghost stories‘, thanks to which they arrested 10 Russian spies on their territory.

The two Heathfield sons were sent to Russia even though they did not speak the language and the 10 detained spies were later exchanged at the Vienna airport for four double agents captured by Russia, including, Sergei Skripal, who in 2018 was poisoned with Novichok.

Donald Heathfield was Andrei Bezrukov and Tracey Ann Foley was Elena Vavilova. Both were already married in the USSR before “meeting” and remarrying as Canadians. The two were received with honors in Russia and awarded the highest distinction of the Order of Merit of the Fatherland. Currently, she works for the Russian mining company Norilsk and he is an advisor to the public oil company Rosneft and a professor at the State Institute of International Relations of the Foreign Ministry. His story inspired the hit series The Americans in 2013, and in 2019 Vavilova wrote the novel ‘The woman who knows how to keep secrets’, recently translated into Spanish by Roca Libros. The book is autobiographical, although it hides some details and locations. Vavilova has seen The Americans and he believes that it reflects the psychological pressure quite well, although he points out that in reality there is not so much action or violence.

How was the prisoner exchange in Vienna? Is it like in the movies?

Everything happened very fast. It really did look like a movie. We were dressed in the white and orange prison uniform and we flew eight hours together in a plane just for ourselves and with some FBI agents who were accompanying us. We were exhausted. In Vienna we got off the plane, got into the van and went to another plane that was parked in front of it, which was a much smaller military plane.

At the same time, we saw the van going in the opposite direction from that Russian plane to the American plane. On that plane were those who were exchanged for us. We got to the plane, but at that point we didn’t even switch from English to Russian. Imagine having lived so many years without speaking Russian and suddenly people greet you and welcome you. We were a bit quiet at the time. I never imagined that I would return after my mission in this way. It was very emotional because we didn’t know what would happen next.

What prompted you to embark on such a difficult mission for such a long period of time and in which you even hid your identities from your children?

We belonged to the “illegal service”, the most secret division of Russian foreign intelligence, which sent undercover agents with false identities. It is a very Russian tradition that started after the revolution.

The Soviet Union had people willing to do it. You could hardly imagine, for example, an American who agreed to go to Russia or the Soviet Union for 23 years. This comes from a special education during Soviet times in which all young people were taught to love the country and to think first about the country and then about their individual motivations. It is the opposite of the American educational culture. I’m not saying it’s good or bad, but that’s what it is. So it was easy to find people willing to sacrifice certain things.

What would you say was the most difficult?

For me, who am more emotional, it was hard being away from my family and, of course, raising my children and not being able to transmit my own culture to them and raise them surrounded by secrets. But when you know why, it’s easier to bear it.

The hardest part during training and work is being able to learn the language to that point where you don’t raise any suspicions. As well as being able to blend into society and understand well the mentality of another nation. Everything else, like spy techniques, is easier and more technical. Anyone can understand Morse code, learn to do ‘dead drops‘–When you hide something to pass information– or learn to cheat the polygraph, but that internal work is the most difficult.

How can a real estate agent in the US be useful in terms of intelligence for Russia?

Being a real estate agent was a cover job, just as my husband had a job as a business strategy consultant. There are other examples: one was a painter, another a priest… The main work focused on finding the people and the sources.

For example, our children were enrolled in the Franco-American International School and there were many parents who had important jobs. On the other hand, my husband, for example, focused on getting the best education. During our 23-year mission, he finished studies at three universities, one in Canada, one in France, and one in the United States, and that was exactly the way to get into the right circles. In his Harvard class, for example, there was a future president of Mexico, Felipe Calderón. There were also a lot of military, future diplomats, etc.

Did your relationship with your children change when they realized who their parents were? How did they react?

That was a very difficult part of the whole story. At the time of arrest, one was 16 and the other was 20. It was very difficult for them to understand how their whole world turned upside down, especially when they traveled to Moscow and ended up here with us in a totally different world.

What helped was that we were very close to our children because we lived without close relatives. We were able to calmly explain the choice we made so many years ago. It wasn’t easy for them to accept it, although I wouldn’t say they were angry. We raise them the way we would have in any culture. Speaking a different language does not mean that we were different people to them. Afterwards, they have followed their paths away from all of the above.

One of them obtained Canadian citizenship two years ago.

Both. One has been fighting in court for seven years, but once he won in the Supreme Court of Canada, his brother also automatically obtained the right to nationality. It is not that they did not like Russian nationality, which of course they acquired, but that they thought it would be unfair to have been born in Canada and not be able to have a Canadian identity.

The ‘Wall Street Journal’ published that they were training their children to become spies.

There was a lot of paranoia after everything that happened. A journalist or other people who wanted to blame us went too far, but for our children it would have been more dangerous to know something. Then not only would we run the risk of being discovered, but also his life would be altered.

It was not allowed to reveal anything, not even to speak the language. That is why our children had a very negative image of the Russian people. They thought that everyone here drinks a lot, that there are bears walking everywhere and that people are not cultured. This is all a stereotype that was created by watching American movies.

How were you recruited by the KGB?

In the book I write a lot about it because that is what people wanted to know and it is the least known part. The recruitment took place in my home town in Siberia. My husband and I were students in the History department and at that time the KGB was looking for candidates for this type of job. At one point a person met with me, asked me to speak to him, and said he was from the KGB.

We chatted a couple of times. He asked me innocent questions and little by little he got to know me. I guess he was studying everything that I had done before, as well as my family history. Then another person came from Moscow and they arranged a meeting. During that meeting they told me that they believed that I fit the profile to be trained to become a spy. That same week my husband was asked the same question and he said yes. I also said yes mainly because I did not want there to be another terrible war. Then they said to me: “By the way, you know that your boyfriend also said yes.”

We were sent to Moscow to start the training and if we passed it, then we could become undercover spies and go to work abroad. They were several years of learning, especially the language.



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