Confessions of the Boston soccer mom who was secretly a Russian spy

Elena Vavilova and her husband were the inspiration for the hit TV show ‘The Americans,’ as Russian spies who spent years undercover in the US. Now she has written a novel based on her experiences

María R. Sahuquillo
Elena Vavilova
Former spy Elena Vavilova in Moscow on June 11.María Sahuquillo

Tracey Ann Foley was the living embodiment of America’s affluent middle class, with a nice house on the outskirts of Boston and two beautiful children. She was a stay-at-home soccer mom whose husband, Donald Heathfield, worked as a consultant while she ferried the kids to practice and games, and organized barbecues with the neighbors.

Introducing themselves as French-Canadian, the couple were well-liked in their American surroundings, even envied. Donald had a graduate degree from Harvard and an ever-expanding portfolio of top clients from General Electric to T-Mobile. They sent the boys, Tim and Alex, to the best schools, and hopped over to Europe whenever they could. The family had lived in several countries and had a special passion for travel, they told their friends. When the kids got older, she started working as a real estate agent.

One day 11 years ago, the FBI raided their home and brought their façade crashing down. Tracey, whose real name is Elena Vavilova, and Donald, or Andrei Bezrukov, were Russian spies. Vavilova was born in Russia in 1962 and was recruited with Bezrukov by the KGB while they were history students at a Siberian university. By the time they married a couple of years later, they were already trained as agents.

Elena Vavilova and Andréi Bezrúkov, in Moscow, while training for the KGB.
Elena Vavilova and Andréi Bezrúkov, in Moscow, while training for the KGB.

An early posting was to Montreal, where they simulated the whole process of dating and marriage from scratch in order to assume new identities stolen from dead children. Fans of the series ‘The Americans’ will already have noticed several borrowed details. During the interview, in an Italian restaurant in downtown Moscow, Vavilova takes small sips of cappuccino and begins to explain how they fleshed out an empty identity from scratch. “We had to build a discreet life for ourselves, of average people: that’s what good spies are like,” she says.

The couple then spent more than two decades as “illegals” in Canada and the United States, meaning they worked without diplomatic cover and spent years assuming a fake past. The illegals program was a Russian “specialty and tradition,” said Vavilova. Stylish and engaging, her English accent is still slightly Slavic, which at the time she attributed to her French-Canadian origins.

Vavilova reached the rank of colonel in the KGB, and is now retired. That means she has found time to fictionalize her extraordinary life in the novel The Woman Who Can Keep Secrets (translated into English in 2019 and just translated into Spanish). It offers a rare glimpse into the training regime of the Soviet illegals, including evading surveillance, coding messages, studying maps and cryptography and, above all, long hours of study and language lessons. They also received weapons training and learned martial arts. “The Soviet Union was then a powerful country, and the fight against and competition with the Western bloc was fierce. The decision to join the organization to defend our homeland was actually extremely simple.”

Vavilova and Bezrukov’s mission was to gather intelligence, first for the USSR, and when it collapsed, for Russia. They would send encrypted messages to their superiors in Moscow. The raid that led to their capture was carried out under the FBI codename Operation Ghost Stories, during which nine other Russian agents were captured. All were victims of a betrayal, Vavilova explains. One of their superiors switched sides and handed over the identities of the group of undercover agents to the Americans. Weeks later, Washington and Moscow exchanged spies at Vienna airport, in the biggest agent swap since the Cold War. Among them was Sergei Skripal, who was poisoned in 2018 with the nerve agent Novichok by Russian agents, according to British intelligence.

Upon their arrival in Moscow, Vavilova says, they were treated as heroes, as “defenders, secret warriors.” Vladimir Putin, himself a former Soviet agent stationed in Germany, and at the time prime minister of Russia, received them and awarded them state honors. “He tried to encourage us, he remarked that even though the mission was over we still had years ahead of us and we could do something interesting and useful for the country,” Vavilova recalls. The government helped them, gave them advice and found them good jobs. Now the former spy works at Nornickel, a powerful Russian mining company that has the world’s largest nickel and palladium deposits. She studies the workings of international competitors. Her husband is now a professor at a prestigious university and an advisor to a large state-owned company.

Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell in the series ‘The Americans.’
Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell in the series ‘The Americans.’

Settling back home, however, was not easy. They had been returning every three or four years for long, intense intelligence sessions with their superiors and to see family, but their parents believed they worked as specialized translators for an agency akin to the United Nations. They often said that they could not give more details or communicate very often due to company security policy. When the internet arrived, the excuse became that for privacy reasons linked to their jobs they could not use it to chat. Their parents, like good Soviets, agreed without asking too many questions. Vavilova and Bezrukov had left the USSR and then returned to a country that no longer existed, with two children who did not know a word of Russian and who did not know their parents’ true identities at all, they claim. A few years ago, following a long court fight, Tim and Alex regained the Canadian citizenship they were stripped of after their parents’ arrest.

In 2019, after the success of ‘The Americans’ and with the help of writer Andrei Bronnikov, Vavilova decided to write her novel. It is “80% real” she says, and tells the “reality” of the trade. “The series captures the atmosphere and the psychological background, the emotional and family dilemmas very well, but in this profession there isn’t that much action. And there are no murders,” she says with a shrug. “An undercover agent must go unnoticed. The job requires a lot of patience, a lot of brainpower, and sometimes when you are betrayed, as happened to us, it can be a little frustrating,” she smiles. “I also wanted to write something to set an example for young people. It doesn’t mean they all have to be spies, although maybe someone will be inspired. I wanted to show that it’s good to do something useful for your homeland. We did something important and very rewarding. We didn’t go there to become millionaires or be famous, but to serve our country. That was the mission,” she says.

They witnessed the collapse of the USSR on television. “For us it was like losing someone, the loss of a huge and powerful country. But we stayed true to the promise of it because we never worked for a specific regime or a specific president; we worked for our homeland and the people who lived there. And they stayed the same,” she continues. “The country was going through a difficult period in the 1990s and that made us more eager to prevent conspiracies, attacks. We understood that our homeland was sick and that it needed us.”

Vavilova is convinced that illegal spy work is still essential today, though she recognizes that it is becoming increasingly difficult, in an age of social media, facial recognition software, video surveillance and biometric identification. “We worked during the Cold War, when there were clearly two sides. Now many people say we are facing a second Cold War, because the world is divided, even the West. The value of intelligence on the ground is still key, especially in today’s world, where there is so much fake news,” she says. “When a decision is made, even if it is detailed in documents that are somewhere on the internet, and even if they are protected, it can be accessed. The important thing is to know that when you are making a decision, you need to predict what could happen and therefore prevent it, or be prepared to face it,” she says. “To avoid a real war, the kind with weapons, someone has to conduct the secret, invisible war. That’s very important because it prevents us from reaching the point of a hard conflict. Even today: you have to know your adversaries to be well protected and to put countries on an equal footing. That is not only a mission for Russian spy agencies, but for all the spy agencies in the world.”

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