Under Boris Yeltsin , post-Soviet Russia seemed on the verge of becoming a failed state. He would be spying not for the Soviet system that had trained him, but for the new Russia of Vladimir Putin. Heathfield and Foley sent their sons to a bilingual French-English school in Boston, so they could maintain their French and stay in touch with European culture.
At home, the family spoke a mixture of English and French. An online video of Bezrukov , appearing in his post-deportation role as a political analyst, shows him speaking smooth North American with the faintest of twangs. When he completed his postgraduate degree at Harvard, Heathfield got a job working for Global Partners, a business development consultancy. I speak to Tim on a Sunday afternoon, talking to me on Skype from his kitchen.
He has the same facial features and careful parting as his younger brother, but his hair is blond rather than dark. Looking back on his youth, he tells me his father worked hard, making frequent business trips. When the boys were in their teens, she started work as a real estate agent. He focused on Asia, taking Mandarin lessons and spending a semester in Beijing. The same year, the family became naturalised Americans, with US passports in addition to their Canadian nationality.
The brothers would never live in Canada again; Alex had been one when they left Toronto and Tim only five — but both felt Canadian. He has no recollection of them discussing Russia or the Soviet Union; they never ate Russian food, and the closest Tim says he came to a Russian was a polite boy from Kazakhstan at school. Their parents did not discuss their childhood much, but this was how they had always been and the boys had little reason to question it. Little did he know. Bezrukov and Vavilova had been put under FBI surveillance soon after they moved to the US, probably because of a mole in the Russian agency.
Excerpts from their indictment suggest the couple lived with a level of intrigue most people would assume exists only within the pages of a spy novel. One paragraph recounts an intercepted communication from Moscow Centre SVR headquarters , explaining how Vavilova should plan for a trip back to her motherland.
The day we discovered our parents were Russian spies
She was to fly to Paris and take the train to Vienna, where she would pick up a fake British passport. Sign your passport on page Pls, destroy the memo after reading.
Be well. Their father, meanwhile, was using his work as a consultant to penetrate US political and business circles.
It is not clear whether he managed to access classified material, but FBI intercepts reported a number of contacts with former and current American officials. In the few public remarks Bezrukov has made about his job, he makes it sound more like that of a thinktank analyst than a super-spy. Even if there was an imaginary safe where all the secrets are kept, by tomorrow half of them will be outdated and useless.
The best kind of intelligence is to understand what your opponent will think tomorrow, not find out what he thought yesterday. Bezrukov and Vavilova communicated with the SVR using digital steganography: they would post images online that contained messages hidden in the pixels, encoded using an algorithm written for them by the SVR. No info in our files about E. To start working on him professionally we need all available details on his background, current position, habits, contacts, opportunities, etc.
Way back in , nearly a decade before her arrest, the FBI had searched a safe-deposit box belonging to Tracey Foley. There they found photographs of her in her 20s, one of which bore the Cyrillic imprint of the Soviet company that had printed it. The family home had been bugged, possibly for many years. Why the FBI finally acted is unclear.
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One suggestion is that Alexander Poteyev, the SVR officer believed to have betrayed the group, felt his cover was blown. He reportedly fled Russia in the days before the arrests; in , a Russian court sentenced him to 25 years in prison for treason in absentia.
Another possibility is that one of the group was getting close to sensitive information. I speak to Tim and Alex many times, in person, over Skype and email. They are not uncomfortable talking about their experiences, but neither do they enjoy it much. Initially, they want to speak only about their court case in Canada; but gradually they open up, answering all my questions about their extraordinary family life.
Furthermore, the officials said, his parents had told Tim they wanted to groom him as a Russian spy. A second-generation spy would be a much more impressive asset than first-generation illegals, who had built up personas that were solid but not impregnable to background checks. Tim strenuously denies the story, insisting it was a total fabrication.
Furthermore, why would my parents take a similar risk in telling their teenage son their identities?
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He would be happy to answer the allegations in court, but it is impossible to argue with anonymous sources. There was another thing that bothered me: was it really just coincidence that the family had planned to travel to Russia that summer, and that the brothers therefore had Russian visas?
Yes, Alex says. It was just going to be one part of our summer trip. In hindsight, surely, that summer trip to Paris, Turkey and Moscow must have looked rather different. When the family were reunited in Moscow in July , did the boys ask their parents what the plan had been? Had they intended to reveal everything?
Or were they really going to spend a week in Moscow pretending not to understand a word spoken around them? Tim agrees. They doubt their parents ever planned to tell them about their real identities. It sounds strange, but yeah. Both brothers tell me they remember, as young children, seeing their grandparents.
I raise the question with Tim, who would have been older. He remembers seeing his grandparents every few years until he was around 11, when they disappeared from his life. Their parents told them they lived in Alberta, far from Toronto, which was why they never saw them. Occasionally, new photographs would arrive of the grandparents against a snowy backdrop; it helped that the climates of Alberta and Siberia are not so different.
The show is set in the s, providing a cold war backdrop, but the spy round-up served as an inspiration. When I meet Alex in Moscow, he has just finished watching the first season. He had started on previous occasions, but found it too difficult; he and Tim joked that they should sue the creators. His parents like the show, he tells me. But it reminded them of when they were young agents, and how they felt about being in a strange new place.
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In , the spies were welcomed back to Russia as heroes. After a debriefing at SVR headquarters, Bezrukov, Vavilova and the other deportees met with then-president Dmitry Medvedev to receive medals for their service. The idea was to show off modern Russia, and to provide them with an opportunity to bond.
Do they still meet up, I ask Alex. He and Tim were the only adolescents; of the four couples arrested, two had younger children, while another had adult sons. Even so, the other families were probably the only people in the world who could even begin to understand their surreal situation. Bezrukov and Vavilova found themselves back in a very different Russia from the one they had left.
The oldest of the agents had been retired from active espionage work for a decade, Alex says, and barely remembered how to speak Russian. The group were told they would no longer work for the SVR, but jobs were found for them in state banks and oil companies. Anna Chapman was given a television series and now has her own fashion line. Bezrukov was given a job at MGIMO, a prestigious Moscow university, and has written a book on the geopolitical challenges facing Russia.
Tim and Alex were given Russian passports at the end of December ; suddenly, they became Timofei and Alexander Vavilov. Unable to return to university for his final year, he managed to transfer to a Russian university and complete his degree there, before doing an MBA in London. Alex was less lucky. He finished high school at the British International School in Moscow, but did not want to stay in Russia. He applied to university in Canada, but was told he would first have to apply for a new birth certificate, and then a citizenship certificate; only then could he renew his Canadian passport.
In he was admitted to the University of Toronto, and applied for a four-year student visa on his Russian passport. The visa was issued and he planned to depart for Canada on 2 September. But four days before he was due to leave, as he was packing his bags and exchanging emails with his future roommate, he received a phone call from the Canadian embassy in Moscow demanding he come for an urgent interview.
The meeting was hostile; there were a lot of questions about his life and his parents. The visa was annulled before his eyes, and he lost his university place. Alex has since been rejected for French and British visas. Twice, he has been accepted to study at the London School of Economics, but both times did not get a visa. Eventually, he was able to get a visa to study elsewhere in Europe; Tim travels mainly in Asia, where many countries can be visited visa-free on a Russian passport.
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Moscow is not a city that embraces newcomers, and neither of them feels particularly Russian. Both are keen to work in Asia for the time being, but want to move to Canada when they feel ready to start families. More than anything, their Canadian identity is the last straw they have left to grasp on to, after so much of the rest of their previous reality fell away. Everyone who is born in Canada is eligible for Canadian citizenship, with one exception: those who are born to employees of foreign governments.
What is a year-old who finds out he is the child of Russian spies supposed to do? Call the FBI? One weekend in , Platt picked up Vasilenko and the two drove deep into the Maryland woods. Platt and Vasilenko spent the next few hours happily obliterating tin cans, grapefruits and watermelons. The next gambit went less well. Vasilenko and Platt met for drinks with an F. Unfortunately, two men at nearby tables were colonels in Air Force intelligence.
After they reported the incident, Platt managed, just barely, to salvage his career. Platt played a key role in the capture of the former F. Moscow wrongly blamed Vasilenko for the loss of their agent, since his friendship and business links with Platt made him a prime suspect. Vasilenko was arrested in August , the start of a five-year nightmare odyssey through the brutal Russian penal system, until he was traded for several captured Russian spies, including the glamorous Anna Chapman.