Sons of the KGB

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Alex and Tim shortly after their parents’ arrest

Quick recap: yesterday we started telling the story of Tim and Alex Foley, two brothers who thought they and their parents were Canadians but discovered, as the result of a 2010 FBI raid on their Cambridge, Massachusetts, home, that their folks were not only Russians but Russian spies, living in deep cover since Soviet days. The family’s tale was a key inspiration for the current FX series, The Americans. 

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“Donald Heathfield” and “Tracey Foley”

When “Donald Heathfield” and “Tracey Foley” were taken into custody and deported to Russia, the story made headlines. Since then, both brothers – who, then aged twenty and sixteen, were obliged to follow their parents to Russia, but left as soon as they could – have kept a low profile, but they agreed to speak to the Guardian as part of an effort to regain their Canadian citizenship, which was rescinded after their parents’ arrests. Both young men insist that they have no sense of belonging to their parents’ homeland. In a recent affidavit to a Canadian court, Tim wrote: “I do not have any attachment to Russia, I do not speak the language, I do not know many friends there, I have not lived there for any extended periods of time and I do not want to live there.” Alex, for his part, told the Guardian: “I feel like I have been stripped of my own identity for something I had nothing to do with.” Although both boys’ relationship with their parents has been “difficult” and “sad” (they visit them in Russia every few months), Alex, after having thought long and hard about “whether he hated them or felt betrayed,” claims he eventually decided “that they were the same people who had raised him lovingly, whatever secrets they hid.”

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Tim and Alex in Bangkok, 2011

Speaking on behalf of both himself as his brother, Alex also says this about his parents: “I’m glad they had a cause they believed in…but I wish the world wouldn’t punish me for their choices.” Ponder that sentence. Admittedly, one can’t expect kids who’ve been put in such circumstances to come out clear-headed. But if we were counseling Alex, we’d suggest he’d put some more thought into his assertion that he’s “glad” his parents found a “cause” to serve – and into his apparent conviction that it’s “the world” that’s responsible for the punishment he and Tim have undergone. Granted, perhaps he has a profound psychological need to cling to the belief that his parents, in spite of everything, were “loving” – but as someone at the threshold of adulthood he must address the question squarely: just how loving was it for “Don” and “Tracey” to put their children in such a situation? For people who made the choice they did – and who clung to it even after living for years in the free world, all the while knowing that their Western-raised sons might ultimately have to pay dearly for their deception – “loving” is, shall we say, hardly the mot juste.

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Tim and Alex in Kazakhstan, 2013

To be sure, although they spent decades operating in the same ideological territory as many of the unsavory characters we’ve studied on this site, “Don” and “Tracey,” as born-and-bred Russians who chose to become KGB spies, don’t qualify as “useful stooges.” On the contrary, they were full-fledged pillars of Soviet totalitarianism (and, later, of whatever you want to call Putin’s own distinctive brand of thuggish tyranny). They and they alone created the nightmare in which their sons are now living. By all means, give Tim and Alex back their Canadian passports; but first make certain that they understand completely just who is responsible for their “punishment” – and just who is being “loving.” In other words, make sure that these two young men, who have been so intent on completing their educations, learn perhaps the most important thing they can ever learn: that their parents weren’t serving just any “cause,” but were, in fact, fighting to eradicate the very freedom that Tim and Alex now seek to live under again.  

 

Spy story

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Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as deep-cover KGB spies in The Americans

In early May, the Guardian recounted a fascinating true story that, as it happens, helped inspire the current FX series The Americans. It’s about a Canadian couple, Donald Heathfield (a consultant) and Tracey Foley (a realtor), and their two sons, Tim and Alex Foley, who, on June 27, 2010, when they were living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, were in the middle of celebrating Tim’s twentieth birthday when “a team of armed, black-clad men holding a battering ram…streamed into the house, screaming, ‘FBI!’ Another team entered from the back; men dashed up the stairs, shouting at everyone to put their hands in the air.”

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The family’s house in Cambridge

Some of the G-men drove Don and Tracey away in handcuffs, while others remained behind to search the house. From those investigators, the boys learned that their parents were Russian spies who’d been living under deep cover since Soviet times, using names stolen from long-dead Canadians. Don was really Andrei Bezrukov; Tracey was Elena Vavilova. The deep-cover system was a well-known KGB specialty (no other country has ever trained spies to pose as foreigners) but it was widely believed to have been shuttered after the fall of the Iron Curtain. On the contrary, as it turned out, old KGB hand Vladimir Putin saw to it that it remained alive and well.

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“Tracey” with Tim in 1991

Visiting his parents in prison after their arrest, Alex, then sixteen, didn’t ask them about the charges: “I refused to let myself be convinced they were actually guilty of anything….They were facing life in prison, and if I was to testify, I would have to completely believe they were innocent.” On their mother’s advice, Tim and Alex decided (rather bemusingly) to “escape the media circus” by flying to Moscow, where they’d never set foot. There, colleagues of their parents in the SVR (the KGB’s successor agency) met them at the airport, showed them around town, and introduced them to relatives they hadn’t known existed. After a few days their parents joined them, having been exchanged, along with eight other SVR operatives, for Russians who’d been spying for the West. They “were welcomed back…as heroes.”

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“Donald” with Alex and Tim in 1999

It turned out the FBI had been on to “Don” and “Tracey” for years. Their home had been bugged. G-men had scoured Foley’s safe-deposit box as far back as 2001. Tim denies a 2012 report that his parents had told him the truth “long before the arrest” and that he’d agreed to train as a “second-generation spy” for Russia. On the contrary, both sons insist they have no affection for their parents’ homeland. Tim, now 25, says they both underwent a “real identity crisis” when, having been stripped of their Canadian citizenship, they were given Russian passports and a new surname (Vavilov). Both maintain they were eager to leave Russia ASAP. Tim, after completing college there, was able to go to London to earn an MBA; Alex, however, couldn’t get visas to Canada, the UK, or France; now 21, he is studying in an unnamed (but presumably less desirable) country in Europe. What’s the deal with them now? Tune in tomorrow.