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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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Star Wars: George Lucas’s futuristic ark reveals its first mysteries | Culture

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In the south of Los Angeles, an imposing building has been rising over the city for five years. It stands directly in front of the Natural History Museum, an essential tourist stop in Exposition Park, where visitors can also see the space shuttle Endeavor. Starting in 2025, the great attraction of the area promises to be the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art.

The name of George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars and Indiana Jones who became a patron of art together with his wife, the financier Mellody Hobson, influences the viewer’s sense of the building. It is made up of a flattened sphere that is joined by a bridge to a huge oval, overlooking the University of Southern California – which the American Graffiti filmmaker attended. The museum’s grounds occupy almost four and a half hectares, and to many people it looks like a spaceship landed in its midst.

But the museum team is quick to refute the popular impression. “It’s the foliage of a tree,” said Sandra Jackson-Dumont, director and CEO of the institution, a few days ago to a group of journalists who visited the work, including EL PAÍS. Ma Yansong, the architect responsible for the design, was reportedly inspired by the tall trees in Exposition Park. His office, MAD Architects, proposed a huge pavilion that leads into a space designed to unite the community in this lower-middle-class residential area where 70% of residents are Black or Latino. To emphasize the botanical reference, the project foresees planting 200 trees throughout the area.

An architectural rendering of the building’s vestibule.
An architectural rendering of the building’s vestibule.

This week, workers put up the more than 1,500 curved fiberglass panels that will give the building a futuristic look. They have been specially manufactured in northern California by robots; 15% of the façade is occupied by solar panels, which will help reduce the center’s environmental impact. Jackson-Dumont, who worked at the Met in New York for five years before coming to the West Coast, proudly noted that there is no single straight line inside the Lucas Museum.

The idea for the museum was born in 2014. That year, Lucas and Hobson launched a competition to design a center that would be located in Chicago, where Hobson has great power thanks to the investment fund she chairs, Ariel, which has a budget of $16 billion. But a problem with the land forced the couple, who married in 2013, to look for a new location. They found it a few meters from the L.A. Coliseum, which has been the home of two Olympic Games and two Super Bowls.

After five years under construction and a $1 billion investment, the center has begun an aggressive public relations campaign to remind the public that the project did not fizzle out with the pandemic. It has simply been delayed once again. The opening date has been pushed back from 2022 to 2023 and now from 2023 to 2025. This week, the team held press events and conferences in New York with members of the art world to build buzz. In addition to the founders, the board of directors of the institution includes Henry Bienen, president emeritus of Northwestern University; sociologist Arne Duncan, who was Secretary of Education during the Obama Administration; Michael Govan, the director of the Los Angeles County Museum (LACMA); Andrea Wishom, the president of Skywalker Holdings, Lucas’s real estate company; and filmmakers Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro.

A painting by Ralph McQuarrie for the production of Episode IV of ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’ in 1975.
A painting by Ralph McQuarrie for the production of Episode IV of ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’ in 1975.Lucas Museum

The board has recently revealed some of the works that have been added to the catalog. Among them is a painting by Robert Colescott, a subversive painter whose work is full of sarcasm and irreverence. The canvas, owned by Lucas and Hobson, shows a black George Washington crossing the Delaware. All those who appear in the painting are African American, a comment by Colescott on the absence of Black people in the historical landmarks of the United States.

The director of the museum believes that there will be no permanent collection once the museum opens its doors. Her idea is that the works will be rotated within the museum. Before their marriage, Lucas and Hobson were already art collectors. She was mainly interested in works by African-American artists such as Norman Lewis and Kara Walker. Lucas’s forte was American art, graphics, comics and illustrations. After their union, they began looking for pieces that interested them both, such as canvases by the 1980s and 90s New York phenomenon Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the photorealistic works of Chuck Close.

A space dedicated to narrative art can sound confusing, and it is. The museum’s treasures include objects as disparate as pieces made 2,200 years ago in Egypt, mosaics from the Roman Empire, the post-war works of Normal Rockwell, African art, a replica of Velázquez’s “Las Meninas” made 200 years later by John Singer Sargent, photojournalism by Dorothea Lange, a self-portrait by Frida Kahlo, a mural by Judith Baca, Ralph McQuarrie’s art designs from the Star Wars movies and Marvel comics by Robert Crumb, star of the American underground cartoon.

“Our intention is to erase the borders between culture and popular art,” says the director. The museum will also have two exhibition halls with capacity for 300 people. One end of the building will include a library open to the public with the entire archive of Lucasfilm, the production company that the filmmaker sold to Disney in 2012 for $4 billion. Lucas and Hobson also bought the Separate Cinema archive two years ago, which includes 37,000 objects linked to the history of film noir ranging from 1904 to 2019.

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Portofino mayor offers residents €400 to offset energy bills

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And with far-right leader Giorgia Meloni promising to abolish a poverty relief scheme if she wins Sunday’s general elections, he fears things will only get worse.

“There will be a flood of people here,” he warned as he handed out food at the San Francesco kitchen, not far from Salerno’s palm-lined seafront, south of Naples.

The eurozone’s third largest economy is suffering a cost-of-living crisis exacerbated by Russia’s war in Ukraine.

READ ALSO: Soaring energy prices push Italy’s inflation to 37-year high

But as usual it is Italy’s south, long plagued by poverty and unemployment which feels it hardest.

“I pay rent, the electricity bill, and then I’ve got nothing left for food,” said 60-year-old Antonio Mela, a former barman who lives with his brother on a 500-euro state pension.

“Everyone is struggling here,” he told AFP, as he took servings of pasta, pork and potatoes, and fruit.

Energy is a major concern in a country reliant on Russian gas, particularly here, in the Campania region.

According to the Italian Poverty Observatory, the region has the greatest number of people struggling to pay electricity and gas bills.

EXPLAINED: How much are energy bills rising in Italy?

Volunteers prepare food at Mario Conte's San Francesco soup kitchen on September 20, 2022 in Salerno.

Volunteers prepare food at Mario Conte’s San Francesco soup kitchen on September 20, 2022 in Salerno. Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP.

– Citizens’ income –

Rocco Papa, a spokesman for the Catholic Caritas charity which helps run the kitchen, said there was a “chronic” lack of work in Salerno, where one in 13 people are at risk of extreme poverty.

“The bringing together of many factors, the pandemic, the war, has seriously aggravated the situation,” he said.

While this is a familiar story across Europe, Italy, with its low-skilled and rapidly ageing population, is unique.

It was the only EU country where inflation-adjusted wages fell between 1990 and 2020, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

EXPLAINED: What is Italy doing to cut the rising cost of living?

It is also one of just six EU countries without a national minimum wage, having instead, since 2019, the so-called “citizens’ income”.

Nearly 2.5 million people claim this benefit for the jobless, which works out on average at 550 euros a month, costing the state 8.3 billion euros this year.

The majority – 1.7 million people – live on Italy’s islands or in the south, a region with a large shadow economy and where 10 percent of households live in absolute poverty.

But the benefit has been targeted by fraudsters, and some employers say it makes it impossible for them to find staff. They accuse young people of preferring to pocket easy money for sitting at home.

These payments have become one of the electoral campaign’s most divisive issues, to the point that Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party, which led the last opinion polls, has vowed to ditch the scheme outright.

READ ALSO: Italian elections: The main campaign pledges made by Italy’s political parties

Rocco Papa, a spokesman for the Catholic Caritas charity which helps run Mario Conte's San Francesco soup kitchen, is pictured on September 20, 2022 in Salerno. Conte fears the 140 hot meals his Salerno soup kitchen dishes out daily will not be anywhere near enough, should Italy's poverty relief scheme be scrapped after Sunday's elections.
Rocco Papa, a spokesman for the Catholic Caritas charity which helps run Mario Conte’s San Francesco soup kitchen, is pictured on September 20, 2022 in Salerno. Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP.

– War on poverty –

“The citizens’ income helped hugely,” 70-year-old Conte said. For a while, many guests stopped coming.

Rising prices have brought new faces to his door, however: from divorced dads to struggling carers, whose badly paid, off-the-books work is no longer enough.

The number of people using soup kitchens in Salerno has doubled over the past few months, while a Caritas-run canteen in Castellammare outside Naples has seen a three-fold increase.

Conte feeds an extra 10 families with young children each morning.

This benefit was the brainchild of the populist Five Star Movement, which swept to power four years ago after winning big in the south.

Now trailing the right in the polls, Five Star has vowed to make the income “more efficient”, to bring in a minimum wage and to tackle the gender pay-gap.

The centre-left Democratic Party (PD) also wants to keep a reformed version of the benefit. It has pledged similar other anti-poverty measures as well as with 500,000 new council houses and free school meals.

READ ALSO: Italy plans to scrap VAT on bread and pasta amid cost of living crisis

– Favouring jobs –

But for Meloni, the citizens’ income is not the solution.

Poverty, she told a rally in Palermo, Sicily this week, “is fought by favouring growth and jobs”.

She proposes instead a benefit for those most at risk: disabled people, the over 60s, and struggling families with small children.

Her right-wing coalition, which brings together the anti-immigrant League and right-wing Forza Italia, has also promised tax cuts to boost growth.

The last available polls suggest Five Star and the Democratic Party’s support for the citizens’ income may once again be winning votes in the south – although not everyone here backs it.

“Young people have to work,” said Mela, as he collected his food from the San Francesco kitchen. “It should be for families, not 30-year-olds.

“And they have to check who’s cheating and who’s not.”



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Music: Coldplay: Why such an irritating band can fill more venues than any other on the planet | Culture

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Mick Jagger doesn’t hate Coldplay. A few weeks ago, the Rolling Stones singer published a video on his Instagram account showing him in the upper stands of London’s Wembley Stadium, waving his arms to the sound of the Coldplay anthem Fix You. Like the other 80,000 members of the audience, Jagger wore on his wrist a xyloband, the light bracelet that the British quartet has invented for their concerts. The image was startling. “Jagger listening to Fix You at Wembley and keeping the tears at bay,” someone said on Twitter ironically, referring to the tear-jerking effect of listening to the piece. “Mick Jagger doesn’t care if you know he loves Coldplay,” the music medium Loudwire titled a piece of information about the video, noting that it’s a bit embarrassing to declare passion for the music of the British quartet.

Put the words “hate + Coldplay” in Google or YouTube search engines and you will find dozens of articles on the subject. Music critics and aficionados can’t stand them. A few years ago, The New Yorker published an article titled Why I Don’t Like Coldplay and The New York Times critic Jon Pareles, left this phrase for history: “The most insufferable band of the decade.”

But Coldplay is the biggest pop band of the moment. No one can come close to their concert numbers. After a hugely successful UK tour, the band will embark on a world tour in 2023. The 200,000 tickets for the band’s four concert dates in Barcelona sold out in a matter of hours, and in Argentina, Coldplay is expected to perform to over half a million people during the 10 days they will be at River Plate stadium. We are talking about tickets that cost upwards of €105. And yet, Coldplay’s music is hated just as much as it is loved. What have the British quartet done wrong?

Alexis Petridis, music critic for the British newspaper The Guardian and one of the most influential pop music specialists in Europe, ends his furious analysis of the band’s latest album, Music of the Spheres (2021), with this criticism: “There must be more worthy ways to stay on top.” His theory is that the quartet is obsessed with success and after commercial slips in the past, have decided to play it safe. How? By working the numbers. They selected artists with the most social media followers and platform listeners and went out of their way to have them on the record. Hence, the presence of Selena Gomez and Korean pop stars BTS.

It’s an interesting theory, one that echoes similar criticism from Alfonso Cardenal, the host of the Sofá Sonoro music program on Spain’s Cadena SER radio network. “Coldplay is a band that was aiming for an independent side, so to speak, but the unexpected success of their first album [Parachutes, 2000] turned them into stars, and they decided to stay there by performing commercial pop. Radiohead had the chance to do the same after the huge success of Creep, but preferred experimentation.”

Coldplay during a concert in Glasgow on August 23. In the foreground Chris Martin and, in the background, drummer Will Champion.
Coldplay during a concert in Glasgow on August 23. In the foreground Chris Martin and, in the background, drummer Will Champion.RK (Getty Images)

It is worth highlighting what Coldplay critics find annoying about the band’s music: the excess of positivity, songs composed with the aim of being played in stadiums, saccharine melodies, the forced feelgood vibes and the lack of imagination – and this doesn’t just apply to their early songs. And hence the jokes: Coldplay is perfect music for a wedding, indie music for people who don’t like indie… Lanre Bakare is The Guardian’s arts and culture correspondent. When asked by EL PAÍS about why some people have a problem with Coldplay, he says it’s because the band is seen as too commercial. “Those looking for challenging music are put off by Coldplay’s level of success. It is for the same reason that many hate U2, which I think is a group with certain similarities to Coldplay. Also, Coldplay’s tendency to fall into sentimentality is off-putting to some. But the truth is that the mass public wants music that can soundtrack the ups and downs of their lives, and their songs are perfect in that regard,” he says.

Gustavo Iglesias, from Spain’s Radio 3, also defends the band: “Given Coldplay’s massive success, it’s easy to attack them and say that they have sold out or lost their dignity. But if you look at their career, their recent albums haven’t been so bad. Music of the Spheres won’t be an important work in the future of popular music, but I don’t see it as an atrocity either, as much of the critics have said.”

Coldplay performing in Los Angeles with the Korean group BTS on November 21, 2021.
Coldplay performing in Los Angeles with the Korean group BTS on November 21, 2021.Kevin Winter (Getty Images for MRC)

Critics of the band also criticize lead singer Chris Martin for his meekness as a rock star. He doesn’t brag about vices, he grinds at the gym and always has a smile on his face. But this is exactly what Shuarma, the leader of the Spanish group Elefantes, likes about him. “Chris Martin is simple, nothing fancy or eccentric. His power is that naturalness. I think it’s a time when the music culture is closer to the normal person than the rock star,” he tells EL PAÍS. “Music has taken a turn: records are no longer sold and music programs and magazines are no longer so influential. There are no more rock stars, the ones that survive are the ones from yesteryear.”

Shuarma admits he is more interested in Coldplay’s early music than their latest albums. “However, they continue to do wonderfully now as well. They have a tremendous compositional capacity and energy. And collaborating with artists from different styles, as they have done with BTS or Selena Gomez, I think it enriches the music.” Bakare agrees with Shuarma about Martin. “He’s a new kind of pop star, less cool, but who connects on an emotional level and people can relate to. Chris Martin is a nerd who grew up an evangelical Christian. And it has paved the way for musicians with similar profiles, such as Ed Sheeran and Lewis Capaldi.”

From left to right, Jonny Buckland (guitar), Chris Martin (vocals), Will Champion (drums) and Guy Berryman (bass), in London, in May 2021, at the Brit Awards.
From left to right, Jonny Buckland (guitar), Chris Martin (vocals), Will Champion (drums) and Guy Berryman (bass), in London, in May 2021, at the Brit Awards.John Marshall (Getty Images for The Brits)

It is true that Coldplay has been a stadium band for years, but now it has exceeded expectations. “Nobody can doubt its pull, the figures are tremendous. The images of the Wembley concerts have raised a lot of expectations,” says Cardenal. “Some are not fans of Coldplay, but are drawn to the show. It is also a concert which is considered an ‘event to be at.’ There are a lot of influencers, people taking photos for Instagram. They are fashions that bring together part of the population that wants to involved in what’s being talked about.” And there are the songs, of course, with the rousing choruses that work perfectly for large audiences.

We asked a college student who spent a morning in the virtual queue for Barcelona concert tickets why she wanted to see them. Blanca Liceras, a 23-year-old from Madrid: “I’m not a big fan of the group and I’ve barely listened to their latest album, but I decided to buy a ticket after seeing the videos of other concerts on social media: the lights, the different settings, how much fun people seem to have….”

People cheer as Coldplay perform during the 2021 Global Citizen Live festival at the Great Lawn, Central Park.
People cheer as Coldplay perform during the 2021 Global Citizen Live festival at the Great Lawn, Central Park.ANGELA WEISS (AFP via Getty Images)

The members of Coldplay met at university in the 1990s and moved to London full of ambition. “We wanted to meet musicians, the people with whom we were going to conquer the world,” they have reported on occasion. When Britpop (Oasis, Blur, Suede) was beginning its decline, a new generation of British musicians appeared who turned down the volume of the guitars, introduced the piano and spoke of melancholy love. It was the early 2000s. Coldplay, Travis, Keane and Snow Patrol were appearing at the top of the charts.

Of all of them, only Coldplay are capable of reaching large audiences today, partly due to their willingness to be a commercial pop group. Iglesias finds their evolution “quite honest, they have never tried to be an arty or sophisticated group.” Bakare points out: “They are fundamentally a commercial band that sometimes surprises us by winking at Kraftwerk. I always remember Noel Gallagher [Oasis] saying that Coldplay wrote songs for ‘children who wet the bed.’ The truth is that they make songs that connect with people on an emotional level, that’s why they perform in Spain and fill stadiums and Noel doesn’t.”

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