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Elena Vavilova: Confessions of the Boston soccer mom who was secretly a Russian spy | USA

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Former spy Elena Vavilova in Moscow on June 11.
Former spy Elena Vavilova in Moscow on June 11.María R. 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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Nadine Lott told ex-partner who later killed her not to ‘threaten’ her, court hears

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Nadine Lott told her former partner not to “threaten” her two weeks before he killed her, the Central Criminal Court has heard.

The jury in the trial of Daniel Murtagh was given transcripts on Tuesday of WhatsApp messages between the accused and his ex-girlfriend in the days and weeks leading up to her death.

In them, the accused asks her if she is “seeing someone from Dublin”. In reply, Ms Lott tells him she is not seeing anyone. Mr Murtagh asks her if there was a “Dublin lad” in her “place” and she tells him to “leave it out”.

She tells him that “nothing is ever going to happen between us again, I want to make that clear.”

In another text from December 5th the accused said: “Nadine I worry about ye, not in love, just don’t slip”.

She replied: “Don’t threaten me either”.

Evidence has previously been given that Mr Murtagh told a motorist that he had “killed my wife because she was with my friend”, just hours after he assaulted her.

John Begley testified last week that he saw a car in a ditch as he was travelling over Bookies Bridge in Laragh on the morning of December 14th and then came across the accused man standing at the side of the road.

“Daniel said to me ‘you don’t know what I’ve done”. I said what did you do. He said ‘I killed my wife’. I didn’t think anything of it. He said it a second time and said he hoped she was not dead. He said ‘she was with my friend’,” said Mr Begley.

Mr Murtagh (34), of Melrose Grove, Bawnogue, Clondalkin, Dublin 22 has pleaded not guilty to murder but guilty to the manslaughter of his 30-year-old ex-partner Ms Lott at her apartment in St Mary’s Court, Arklow, Co Wicklow on December 17th, 2019.

The jury has heard that Ms Lott suffered “severe blunt force trauma” and stab injuries at the hands of her former partner “in a sustained and violent attack” in her Arklow home.

They have heard evidence that the injuries to Ms Lott were so serious that she never regained consciousness and died three days later in St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin.

An intensive care nurse at the hospital has told the jury that Ms Lott was “completely unrecognisable” and that she had never seen anybody so badly injured. A paramedic who attended to Ms Lott at her home told the jury that the call will “haunt” him for the rest of his career and was one of the most “horrendous scenes” he had ever walked into. The garda who telephoned ambulance control informed them that Ms Lott had been “beaten to a pulp”.

The trial continues before Mr Justice Michael MacGrath and a jury of seven men and five women.

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Five unwritten rules that explain life in Austria

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Adjusting to life in a new country takes time – even more so when navigating unwritten rules of how to act in social and professional situations.

But learning how to live like a local in Austria will not only make it a more pleasant experience, it will also show that you fit in and respect the rules.

To help you further understand Austrian culture, here are five unwritten rules that explain life in Austria.

Always say hello – at least in the countryside

Austrians have a reputation for being direct in their communication, but politeness is also highly valued. 

A prime example is the unwritten rule of saying hello to people – even if you don’t know them.

This applies more in the countryside than in the cities but it’s worth being aware of to avoid making a social faux pas.

According to a Kurier article, failure to greet others will even have you labelled as unfriendly, arrogant or badly educated.

READ MORE: Nine things you might be surprised are actually Austrian

So, if someone is walking towards you, you walk into a bakery (for example) or you see neighbours on the street, then a greeting is expected.

It could be a simple nod of the head, but in most cases it will be “Servus”, “Griaß di” or even “Hallo”.

But don’t try it in a city like Vienna. Saying hello to strangers will just result in funny looks.

Saying hello to someone will show them that you come in peace. Photo by Tom Leishman from Pexels

Always bring food or drink to a social gathering

If invited to a barbecue or dinner party at someone’s house, always take a drink or something to contribute to the meal.

For example, if your host is cooking, offer to bring a salad or a dessert.

If they are taking care of the food then offer to bring a nice bottle of wine or a selection of beers.

If you’re going to a gathering, always bring something – especially if someone tells you it’s not necessary. Photo by Nicole Herrero on Unsplash

And if they are hosting a barbecue, always take your own meat and expect a wide selection of salads and bread that other guests will also bring and share with everyone else.

Not only is this polite, but it will stop other people from talking about you because you violated the unwritten rule.

Don’t expect polite queues at ski lift stations

While Austrian society can be polite in many ways, queueing at ski lift stations in the Alps is a different story.

In fact, it’s a free-for-all and it’s something that both tourists and international residents in Austria have experienced.

REVEALED: What do Austrians think about foreigners?

An Austrian in Tyrol, who asked to remain anonymous, summed it up when he told The Local: “Don’t be civilised and politely queue up at the ski lifts – just push in.”

So, when going skiing in Austria, leave your manners at home, be prepared for others to cut in front of you and get ready to push to the front of the queue.

For a country that loves order and predictability, Austria sure doesn’t know how to queue. Photo by Mael BALLAND on Unsplash

Lateness is not appreciated

People in Austria are generally punctual, like to be on time and expect others to do the same – just like in neighbouring countries Germany and Switzerland.

The unwritten rule applies to both work and social situations, including going out to dinner at a restaurant.

READER QUESTION: Is it legal to drink in public in Austria?

This means if you’re running late it’s polite to call the host and let them know. Likewise if you have a reservation at a restaurant.

However, there is still a limit on how much lateness can be tolerated, with 15 minutes typically the maximum delay before people become annoyed.

Always carry cash

Cash is king in Austria. 

What can I get for this many? Always carry cash in Austria. Photo by Christian Dubovan on Unsplash

It always has been and it probably always will be, with a pre-pandemic study showing that 83 per cent of Austrians preferred paying with cash.

Customers can even expect a grumpy roll of the eyes when trying to pay with cash in some places because it’s so deeply ingrained in the culture.

READ MORE: Why is cash so important to Austrians?

This attitude towards cash is perfectly reflected in the Austrian saying “Nur Bares ist Wahres” (only cash is true) and there are three reasons for this – freedom, anonymity and control. 

Austrians like to have the freedom of not relying on a bank, the anonymity to spend money on whatever they like and control over spending.

For international residents from card-favouring countries like the UK, Ireland and most of Scandinavia, the best way to deal with this is to just get used to carrying cash.



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Shocking news, Irish people may be sanest in Europe

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Ireland is running low on loopers. If we don’t watch out, we could emerge from the pandemic with our reputation for wildness completely shredded. We are in danger of being exposed as the sanest people in Europe.

Vaccines go into the arm, but also into the brain. They are a kind of probe sent into the national consciousness. In Ireland’s case, the probe has discovered exciting evidence of intelligent life.

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