Meet the Russian Spies Who Inspired ‘The Americans‘


Donald Heathfield, like his wife, had been born in a cemetery, a ghost rising from the dead. A baby boy had been born on Feb. 4, 1962, in Canada, the third of four children of Howard and Shirley. Six weeks later, on March 23, Shirley found little Donald lying still, a tiny arm sticking out of the side of his crib. Her child had died. Tracey Lee Ann Foley was born on Sept. 14, 1962, in Montreal, the first child of Edward and Pauline Foley. Seven weeks old and just a few days after she had smiled at her mother for the first time, she developed a fever. Within hours, she died of meningitis. As with the Heathfields, the pain of the loss of a child so young never left the family. But then a quarter of a century later, Heathfield and Foley were suddenly there again, brought back to life by Directorate S.

The twin tragedies had not gone unnoticed. A KGB officer serving in Canada had observed them. He would steal something from these two families who had already lost something irreplaceable—their children’s identities. KGB officers had the macabre job of strolling around cemeteries looking at graves for likely candidates, a process known as “tombstoning.” The ideal situation was a child who died away from the country in which they were born, with few close relatives, reducing the documentary and witness trail to the death. Once a candidate was found, the next step might be to destroy any documentary evidence of the death. This could be as simple as bribing someone for access to a church registry book and then ripping out the pages. Then came the key—requesting a new birth certificate (a technique that relied on there being no central registry of births and deaths). “It was considered a big success for us when Department 2 managed to obtain children’s birth certificates after a whole family died in a traffic or other kind of accident,” explains one former member of Directorate S. A birth certificate meant a child could be born again as an illegal.

Directorate S was broken up into departments. Department 2 was the storytellers. Their job was to create a fictional life and to make it plausible enough to stand up to scrutiny from a discerning critic by building “legends” and providing backstories. Officers of the department would draw up paragraphs in two columns. On one side would be the supposed detail of a person’s life—Donald Heathfield was Canadian and born in Montreal. On the other side would be the made-up evidence supporting that claim—starting with a birth certificate. If there was a claim that did not have documentation, then there would be a plausible story why. It was painstaking work. If there was any doubt, an entire identity would be discarded. Roughly one in ten attempts would create something considered sustainable against checks by Western security services. Each illegal had a “kurator”—literally a curator of the false identity who would supervise their training and act as a handler once they were in the field.

The Hick From Indiana Who Nailed Master Spy Kim Philby

The Operational Technical section of Department 2 includes a team of highly skilled forgers. What does a French passport issued five years ago look like? What does a Finnish driver’s license look like? They study which inks, papers, glues, and even staples are used in target countries so they can be faked or—if blanks can be stolen—doctored with a new identity inserted. A laboratory works on how to replicate the different types of paper and ink and how to artificially age a document in a special oven so a passport can be filled with the backstory of visas and trips and made to look old when it is in fact new. So why not just create entirely fake personas for the spies? A proper check into someone’s background would raise too many questions and if fake documents are spotted then it is game over. For long-term penetration, the strong preference was always to get hold of real documents rather than rely on fakes. This meant becoming a “dead double”—stealing an identity of someone deceased and then using it to build a set of genuine documents. That was the route for Heathfield and Foley. They might arrive in Canada and start with a birth certificate. This could be used as the stepping-stone to contact public bodies and obtain other identity documents. Ultimately this would eventually lead you to a real passport, helping create what was called an “iron legend.”

So who was the resurrected Donald Heathfield? His real name was Andrey Bezrukov. He was born on August 30, 1960, in Kansk, in remote Siberia, a small town near the route of the Trans-Siberian Railway, home to a MiG fighter base. His parents were often away for work and so he was an independent child, self-contained with a strong inner confidence. Bezrukov traces his family tree back to the Russian conquest of Siberia under Ivan the Terrible in the sixteenth century, when his distant relatives had first come to the region. “For me to forget this is to be left with nothing,” he later said. Remembering your roots was important when you were pretending to be someone else. Patriotism would sustain him in his long years far away from home.

In 1978, at the age of 18, Bezrukov went to Tomsk State University. His study of history gave him a sense of the uniqueness of Russia’s story, a country engaged in what he calls an “endless, painful search for herself between East and West.” And it was while a student that he was talent-spotted. Universities are the classic recruiting ground for illegals. Department 3 of Directorate S is in charge of the intense selection process. An ideal candidate is in their early twenties. When a person was younger than that you could not be sure they had what it took to survive. By thirty, they were no longer malleable enough to be shaped into a new person. Spotters looked for those who might have the right set of skills—an aptitude for languages was vital, so was intelligence, patience, adaptability, an ability to cope with stress, and a sense of patriotism. Careful psychological assessments were undertaken. Someone who was volatile or looked like they might drink too much or have too much of an eye for the opposite sex was not suitable. This was all initially done at a distance before a move was made—perhaps, as often in the West, on the recommendation of a professor. Somewhere among the stream of students carrying books to and from class and flirting with each other, the KGB had spotted Bezrukov.

Bezrukov was not recruited alone. The fact that illegals were selected in their twenties posed a problem—relationships. An illegal was destined to spend decades living undercover. It was unrealistic to think they would not engage in relationships. But this posed a danger. If you fell for a local, you would either have to constantly try to hide the truth from them or risk telling them you were not who you said you were. Worse, you might place love over duty and give up your spying career. Anatoli Rudenko, a 1960s illegal, worked in West Germany and London before ending up in the United States as a piano tuner to the rich and powerful—including the governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller. Rudenko’s career ended when he was forced to reveal he had defied orders by secretly marrying a hairdresser in Germany and taking her with him. Plans to use him to penetrate the United Nations and think tanks—including by seducing lonely young women—had to be shelved. It was an example of why human relationships were the key to an illegal prospering or failing.

And so the preference became to send out couples. Marriages were sometimes arranged and manufactured by Directorate S (its officials could even officiate in order to maintain secrecy). An arranged marriage would not just avoid the danger of falling in love but also offer a partner in undercover work. “You would not have to waste your time chasing after girls and risk falling into bed with the wrong one,” one illegal was told during the Cold War when a partner was offered to him. “You would not have to explain your absences. [Y]our partner would be a trained agent who could help with communications, photography, drops—with everything. You would not be alone behind the lines.” Not all marriages worked. Yelena Borisnovna and Dimitry Olshevsky were sent to Canada under the identity of two dead babies, Laurie and Ian Lambert. Their relationship hit the rocks out in the field. Dimitry moved in with a local woman, while Yelena began to date a British-born doctor. Canadian intelligence arrested them in 1996. The pair were deported, landing on a stormy night in Moscow to be whisked away in a blacked-out van straight from the runway.

Andrey Bezrukov’s marriage, though, was no fake. This was an adventure that two young people set out on together. Elena Vavilova was a fellow history student at the university. She had been born in November 1962 in Tomsk, where her parents were academics. She was a cheerful, outgoing child who enjoyed figure skating, ballet, and acting. At university she played the violin as she studied for her degree. There she met Bezrukov. There was a confidence to him and also a sense he might take her out of the well-ordered world she had grown up in. “Andrey offered me something out of the ordinary, an adventure,” she later said. The young couple spent the night together in the university library, sneaking in before closing time and staying among the book-lined shelves. But they were caught by the director the next morning. There was a telling off but no punishment. Perhaps it was this spirit of adventure and the willingness to take risks together that got them noticed.

The young couple was approached by a man who had an unusual proposal. Did they want to serve their country? She was only 21. “I wondered what would happen to our relationship,” Vavilova thought. “I believe if we were selected separately, each of us could have refused the proposal,” Vavilova later explained to me. “However, since we were already romantically involved, it was more beneficial to have us as a couple for the training.” She would later reflect that love marriages among illegals were better than arranged ones because of the trust that was always there. Their first curator sat down with them and in long conversations began to see if they were suitable—their recruiter talked to them about their backgrounds, their lives, their friendships, and their studies, carefully probing them to make sure they had what it took. The strains of the life they were to live drove others apart but, in their case, it would bring them even closer together.

Why did Elena Vavilova agree to become a spy? “The concept of the Motherland—an amalgamation of everything that is important to you,” was her explanation later. Vavilova and Bezrukov were still living in the era of communism when they were approached by the KGB, but it was always as much defending Mother Russia as spreading communism that had motivated them. “For me the main motive that made me agree and accept this job was the desire to prevent another terrible war, like the Great Patriotic War,” Vavilova later said, using the Russian name for World War II. “As a teenager, all the films about the war and the suffering the people had to go through and the high price we had to pay for victory, all of this fostered in me a wish to be part of whatever could be done to prevent it from happening again.” This was the driving force for many Russian spies from the Cold War generation—the sense of threat to their country and the story of their near defeat at the hands of the Nazis before a victory that came at an enormous cost (one which many feel is rarely acknowledged in the West). Almost every family had lost someone in that brutal war. The illegals’ mission was to prevent it happening again by acting as a warning system. The early eighties, when the couple was approached, were years when the need for such warning seemed all too real. In Washington, there was an American president calling the Soviet Union “the evil empire” and who, Moscow feared, might be gearing up for confrontation and perhaps even a first nuclear strike. And at the same time, young men from the Soviet Union, including fellow students from Tomsk, were heading off to fight in a brutal conflict in Afghanistan.

In the West, the word spy refers to both heroes—the James Bonds—and villains—traitors like the Kim Philbys. But in Russia they separate the two concepts with different words—a spy is a betrayer of secrets. Meanwhile, their word for heroic intelligence officers translates more closely in English to “scouts”—in the sense of someone who is working behind enemy lines to scout ahead and report back, providing advance warning. The separating of the two ideas makes it easier in Russia to lionize the heroes and demonize the villains. It also explains how the illegals saw themselves as operating behind enemy lines in order to protect the motherland. They were the “soldiers of the invisible front.”

Soon after, the couple was married. Bezrukov’s parents came to the modest reception in Elena’s parents’ house. A few years later they would be married for a second time, this time as Donald Heathfield and Ann Foley (she chose to use her new middle name rather than Tracey). “The gap between our weddings was short, a few years, but those years were very intense,” Vavilova later explained. There was no honeymoon the first time. Instead, Bezrukov and Vavilova simply vanished from the life of friends and family as they headed to Moscow. Despite the excitement of being in the nation’s capital and the luxury of a two-bedroom apartment, this period was challenging. “The years before we left were quite taxing physically, psychologically, and intellectually,” she would say. By the end of every week, they would be exhausted. They had to learn all the traditional “tradecraft” involved in being a spy—out on the Moscow streets they practiced brush-pass contacts, where one person hands over items to another surreptitiously—and tested on whether they could spot surveillance. Inside, they learned martial arts, how to shoot a gun, and how to evade a polygraph lie-detector test. But there was much more to the creation of an illegal than attending regular spy school. For a start, the training was provided to them as a couple by a small group of tutors. They did not mix with other recruits to protect their identity. But it also involved going much deeper. Each illegal required a staggering investment—around four years and by some estimates a million dollars. This compares to CIA and MI6 training for new officers, which is measured in months, not years. “It was not a mass production,” one head of the KGB said. “You do not train illegals…  in the classes. It’s a piecemeal operation. You work with an individual, one on one. And only in such a way, we can make them look like an Englishman or a Spaniard or a German.”

As the Moscow snows came and went, Bezrukov and Vavilova’s education involved former illegals educating them in the history of the elite spies whose ranks they were to join. Moscow had developed its specialty in illegals after the 1917 revolution. Many countries did not have diplomatic relations with the communist Soviet Union so diplomatic cover was not an option. In those early years, there had also been a pool of ideologically committed communists of various nationalities who were willing to spy for Moscow. This led to the heyday of the illegals in the 1930s and 1940s. Richard Sorge operated undercover in Japan, moving in the highest diplomatic circles to provide vital intelligence about Tokyo’s relationship with Nazi Germany. In Europe, illegals recruited people who were students, and some would slowly work their way into positions of power and influence. Some, like Kim Philby and the Cambridge spies in the United Kingdom, would reach the highest echelons of Western intelligence agencies. In America, illegals worked with the atomic spies who stole the most sensitive secrets imaginable, which proved vital in allowing the Soviet Union to avoid defeat in the early Cold War. Many of these early international illegals were rewarded with execution in Stalin’s purges.

In the mid-1950s, the KGB began a push for a new generation of homegrown illegals. They never quite matched their predecessors, although there were some successes. Among the best known was Konon Molody, who turned into Canadian Gordon Lonsdale. He came to London and ran a spy ring stealing naval secrets. Molody had previously worked as an understudy in the United States for another of the great illegals—Rudolf Abel, a remarkably talented individual who had been born in Britain and served in World War II on the front lines before embedding himself in New York. These were the footsteps Bezrukov and Vavilova were to follow in.

The illegals were treated as heroes in the Soviet Union, far more than their spy counterparts in the United States or Britain. There were stories of their daring undercover operations in World War II. The most fabled was Nikolai Kuznetsov. Films and books were based on his time posing as a member of the German occupying army in Ukraine during which he killed six senior Nazis. The accounts of World War II illegals were a central part of Soviet popular culture promoted by the KGB. One fictional work was turned into a 1973 TV series called Seventeen Moments of Spring. It featured a deep-cover illegal, a Soviet version of James Bond, who posed as a German aristocrat to infiltrate the Nazi SS and who prevented the Nazis from negotiating a peace deal with America. The series was a massive hit, reaching up to 80 million viewers, and was constantly repeated, embedding itself in the popular mind. Vladimir Putin was 21 when the series was first shown, and he became desperate to sign up for the KGB. One of his first jobs in East Germany in the 1980s, he would later boast, was to work with illegals.

Excerpted from the book Russians Among Us by Gordon Corera. Copyright 2020 by Gordon Corera. From William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

Get our top stories in your inbox every day. Sign up now!

Daily Beast Membership: Beast Inside goes deeper on the stories that matter to you. Learn more.