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.
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.
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.”
All Health Service Executive (HSE) staff, including those working in administrative roles, should get a financial bonus for the work done during the Covid-19 pandemic, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has said.
“I want to see something done, yes, I absolutely really do. I think our healthcare teams have been incredible. We are still fighting the fight, but I definitely want to see some form of recognition for the extraordinary work that they have all put in,” he said.
Speaking after a visit to the HSE’s Limerick Covid-19 vaccination centre at Limerick Racecourse, Patrickswell, Mr Donnelly said: “We need to listen to the frustrations that they have.
“We do need to acknowledge that for nurses, doctors, allied health professionals, administrators – for everyone who has worked in the HSE over the last year and a half – that they’ve had an incredibly difficult time.
“I think they represent the very best of us and they have stepped up to the plate,” he said. “When the rest of us were told to stay at home to keep ourselves safe, they went into the hospitals, and into the Limerick hospital to keep other people safe, and we need to recognise that.”
The arrival of the Delta variant has been delayed by the use of some of the “strongest” lockdown measures in the European Union, but foreign travel now is adding to case numbers.
“We are seeing spikes in some parts of the country. There are cases linked to [international] travel, we know that. Most of the cases we are tracking are Irish people going abroad and coming home,” he said.
Some people travelled without a vaccination, or before their vaccinations had time to work. “They shouldn’t have done that. Some of them have come back and they have contracted Covid, but we will take care of them, we’ll make sure they get the care they need,” he said.
In “certain cases”, people have received a second dose of vaccine within 17 days of their first jab, as opposed to the previous advice of four weeks, and this may happen more generally, he said.
A HSE spokeswoman later said “For operational reasons and due to the pace of the rollout we are in a position to offer the second dose after 17 days in some cases. Second doses within this widow are clinically safe and effective.”
On the vaccination programme, the Minister said: “There aren’t that many people who would have thought just a few months ago that, in July, we would be vaccinating 16-year-olds.”
There will be no immediate change to rules around attendance at funerals, Masses, Confirmations or Communions, while the closure of indoor summer camps is being kept under review.
“More than half of the total population is now very well protected against the coronavirus and thus the highly contagious Delta variant thanks to the full immunisation,” Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein said on Thursday afternoon.
Burgenland has the highest percentage of vaccinated people with 66.1 percent, followed by Carinthia (55.7 percent) and Salzburg (55.2 percent).
The lowest percentage is in Upper Austria, where 54.9 percent of the population is vaccinated.
Kleinmürbisch in the Güssing district has the highest percentage of vaccinated people in Austria, with just under 80 percent of people vaccinated.
The village however only has 230 residents.
“But we are still a long way from reaching our destination,” warned the minister.
About the author: For lovers of Russian culture, folklore, and history, Kotar’s work is a treasure. The grandson of White Russian immigrants, the 34-year-old is an author of epic fantasy novels inspired by Russian fairy tales. You can see his four books here on Amazon.
He is also a deacon of the Russian Orthodox Church, a professional translator, and choir director at the Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY, where he lives. Here is his bio from his blog, where he writes about many aspects of Russia. We highly recommend following it and subscribing to his email list to get exclusive material.
He is currently running a remarkably successful crowdfunding on Kickstarter to be able to publish his upcoming novels. Please support him if you can!
Stereotypes are a funny thing. On the one hand, they’re often no more than caricatures. On the other hand, there’s a surprising amount of bitter truth to some of them. Like the Russians say with their morbid humor, “In every joke, there’s a bit of a joke.”
This is especially interesting when we consider old Rus. We don’t have much to go on, historically speaking, other than chronicles, treaties, and a few bits of birch bark.
However, Russians have preserved some interesting stereotypes about the inhabitants of old Russian cities. Whether there’s any truth to them or not is almost beside the point. They’re fascinating, revealing a window to a world long gone, yet still persisting in the habits and personalities of today’s Russians. (Here’s the original Russian article that I translated)
EVERYONE IN GREAT NOVGOROD IS A REBEL
Novgorod’s rebelliousness is legendary. The image of a brawling Novgorodian is almost a calling card of the city. The reason this stereotype came about has to do with the old chronicles. They were filled with illustrations of the constant arguments at the Novgorodian Veche, a kind of popular assembly that met in the central square. (See my translation of “Martha the Mayoress” for a vivid fictionalized example).
Of course, there were arguments and even fights during the Veche. However, they did not constantly devolve into fist-fights, as the legends suggest. Naturally, the chroniclers would choose the most vivid and bloody examples from history to illustrate their point. After all, Novgorod was often an opponent of Kiev and, later, Moscow. But in actual fact, the inhabitants of Great Novgorod were fiercely loyal to their government and loved their city. Compromise was the order of the day, not broken heads. Plus, they were more than usually literate.
EVERYONE IN PSKOV IS A THIEF OR A MORON
Even in modern times, Pskovians have had to endure countless jokes about their crudeness, stupidity, and their lack of good manners. This may or may not be true. As for their lack of manners, that is entirely a matter of hats. The inhabitants of Pskov, no matter what their social standing, hardly ever doffed their cap before anyone (which is extremely bad form in old Rus). However, this wasn’t crudity or bad breeding.
The painful topic of Russian alcoholism became especially relevant in Nizhni Novgorod at the end of the 17th century. A kind of epidemic of alcoholism rose up, and it was normal to see women as well as men lying in the streets in a drunken stupor. Foreign travelers recounted after their visits to Nizhni Novgorod that “Russians don’t do anything but feast.”
Of course, they did more than feast. But on holidays, Russians have always allowed themselves some excesses. It’s not entirely fair to single out Nizhni Novgorod, when alcoholism still is the gravest problem facing Russia today, as in olden times.
EVERYONE IN VLADIMIR IS A CRIMINAL
This stereotype appeared very early. It’s easy to understand. Vladimir itself had five prisons, including the famous “Vladimir Central Prison.” From the beginning, Vladimirians have been considered con artists who like a dangerous life. It didn’t help that the path to Siberia for exiled convicts went through Vladimir. It was even called the “Vladimirka.”
Exiled convicts stopped in Vladimir to have half their heads shaved (a scene vividly recounted in the excellent Russian film The Siberian Barber). Then they’d be branded as exiles or thieves, clapped in irons, and set upon the road to Siberia. In old times, the path could take as long as two years, and those two years were not counted as part of their allotted time.
Vladimir itself, for all that, was a typical enough provincial town.
EVERYONE IN ROSTOV IS AN ARTISAN
When a Russian hears the word “finift’” (enameling), he immediately thinks of Rostov. Nothing could change the old stereotype that every inhabitant of ancient Rostov worked in the enameling guild. That’s complete nonsense, of course. First of all, the best enamellists in old Rus were as a rule in Kiev, the capital city. There were also some famous artisans in Pskov, Yaroslavl, Kostroma, and Great Novgorod.
The only difference is that Rostov alone has preserved the traditional techniques of enameling since ancient times. Even today, there is a factory producing enameled work. Perhaps for this reason alone, tourists still visit Rostov exclusively to see enameled boxes.
THE INDUSTRIOUS YARSOLAVIAN
The industrious muzhik from Yaroslavl is an image that we even find in Gogol. From the times of Rus, Yaroslavians were known as people who were never apathetic, lazy, or prone to tiredness. Instead, they’re known to be active to a manic degree. This may have something to do with the odd tradition that Yaroslav is a city of buried treasure.
Apparently, wherever you turn, you see someone uncovering a jewelry box or trying to break into an ancient chest of drawers. Perhaps a little more seriously, Yaroslavians have long been known as “chicks of the cuckoo.” In other words, they’re more than usually capable of leaving their homeland without much regret. This quality has a clear historical origin.
Yaroslav was built on the crossroads of ancient roads—a path used by merchants from Scandinavia all the way to the Arab lands. From the middle of the 16th century, Yarsolavl became the most important center for trade in all of Rus. This constant movement often inspired young Yaroslavians to try out their luck in foreign lands.
True or not, such stereotypes make for fascinating stories. For myself, the “myth” of the boisterous Novgorodian comes to life in my third novel, The Heart of the World, in a semi-fictionalized setting of the Veche that goes fabulously wrong for all concerned.