Elena Vavilova: The Soccer Mom Who Was A Russian Spy

In 2010, an FBI operation arrested 10 Russian spies living in the United States. Those sleeper agents would often work in pairs, living as a married couple or working together. The disguise they created was so perfect that not even their children would notice there was something strange. They lived in the suburbs and had ordinary jobs, such as real estate agents or consultants. Those spies were part of an illegal program created by the Soviet Union and maintained by modern Russia. According to CBS News, they aimed to access sensitive information that could be useful to Russian Intelligence back in Moscow.

The spies were sent back to their home country and traded for four Western agents arrested in Russia. Years later, they would inspire the award-winning TV show "The Americans." There were no trials. While most of them still want to live away from the spotlight, Elena Vavilova (above) shared her story in the book "The Woman Who Can Keep a Secret," providing a rare insight into the spy world, reported The Guardian.

The FBI followed those spies for nearly a decade. During those years, the Russians' phones and emails were monitored; microphones were placed in their houses. "These were Russian intelligence officers, trained, living amongst Americans, posing as Americans who were getting access like Americans," explained FBI Supervisor Alan Kohler (via CBS News).

How spies have arrived in the U.S.

Behind the harmless façade the spies created, they were well-trained agents who had to report to their headquarters in Moscow. All spies had a false identity and received intense training about American culture, martial arts and weapons. "A spy has to be an actor, but an actor that doesn't need a public or a stage, and doesn't require the approval of others," said Elena Vavilova, a former spy (via The Guardian).

Vavilova was born in Russia in 1962. When she was in college, she met Andrei Bezrukov, and they started dating. Both were recruited by KGB, the Soviet Union's primary security agency (per History), and became well-trained agents, including coding messages, evading surveillance, studying maps and cryptography and intense language lessons (via El Pais). They were sent to Montreal, where they received new identities stolen from dead children — Tracey Ann Foley and Donald Heathfield. In Canada, they had to pretend they had just met and created a whole new story about themselves. Vavilova and Bezrukov lived in Canada and in the U.S. for two decades and had two boys, Tim and Alex.

Vavilova and Bezrukov later moved to Boston, where they lived in a beautiful house on Boston's outskirts and often traveled abroad for holidays. Bezrukov earned a master's degree in public administration from Harvard and worked as a consultant. Vavilova worked for a real estate company and loved attending her children's soccer games at school and organizing barbecues with her neighbors.

They were welcomed back as heroes in Russia

According to El Pais, Vavilova and Bezrukov had to send encrypted messages to Moscow with all the information they collected. Initially, they worked for the USSR, but after the end of the Cold War, they worked for Russia. Vavilova said the spies were betrayed by a superior who helped the FBI. However, they were being investigated for nearly a decade. The Russian operatives met in public places, where there were secret exchanges of money. Special Agent Todd Shelton says the FBI "identified that they had shortwave radios ... frequently used for sending encrypted messages that sound like Morse code" (via CBS News).

In Russia, the spies were welcomed as heroes by Vladimir Putin, who gave them state honors. The government helped them start a new life, and Vavilova now works at a mining company, while her husband became a professor at university.

The former spy believes that spies are still necessary today, but social media, facial recognition and other technologies make it more challenging. "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" (via El Pais).

In 2019, the Canadian Supreme Court decided that the Vavilov children could keep their Canadian citizenship, reported the CBC.