"The Woman Who Can Keep Secrets"
August 24, 2019 5:48 AM   Subscribe

The Russian spy who posed as a Canadian for more than 20 years – The Guardian talks to Elena Vavilova, who acted the part of a Canadian woman named Tracy Foley, an identity stolen for her by the KGB, for two decades. It’s the first time any of the deep-cover illegals has spoken to non-Russian media since their return to the country. Her family’s story was the inspiration for the TV series "The Americans". posted by bitteschoen (13 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
 
My family encountered several such spies. There were more of them than people realize.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 6:13 AM on August 24 [6 favorites]


This is too close for comfort for me. I dated a woman in Toronto who turned out to be a Russian spy who was caught in the late 90s. CSIS showed up at my door around midnight one night and proceeded to interrogate me about it. Very similar circumstances to this woman -- stolen identities, fake husband, the works.

I still get cold flashes on occasion when I think I see her or her 'husband' in a crowd.
posted by dobbs at 6:15 AM on August 24 [21 favorites]


The ones my family encountered were a couple of industrial spies. My mother could speak Russian. She was multi - lingual but NOT ethnically Russian. My father WAS ethnically Russian but his lack of ability with languages was shall we say ‘very American’ she picked up on little stuff and they went to the FBI and a sting was set up. I was a little kid at the time. The other was a guy in the folk music scene. He had a really punny stage name. Not sure what he was doing as a spy. He was pretending to be Irish - American and hung around Nationalist types we knew. Maybe he was really spying on them not the US. The KGB had their fingers in many pies.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 6:29 AM on August 24 [12 favorites]


You'd think the KGB would've taken over by now, or at least got some agents elected to congress or.... ohhhhhhh....
posted by sammyo at 7:10 AM on August 24 [26 favorites]


Real estate agents, irish folk bands... this doesn't sound like a deadly force to be reckoned with
posted by The River Ivel at 7:46 AM on August 24 [1 favorite]


Real estate agents, irish folk bands... this doesn't sound like a deadly force to be reckoned with

That’s the whole point, no?
posted by aubilenon at 7:58 AM on August 24 [10 favorites]


spoiler alert: though The Americans (TV series) was based in part on her situation, she guts its plausibility rather thoroughly.

“After watching The Americans, I thought: ‘Well, that’s not the real work and that’s not how it’s done.’” The show captured the flashbacks and psychological dilemmas faced by illegals well, she says, but the sex and murder shown were not part of her work. Vavilova and Bezrukov used no violence and no disguises. The whole point was to create a fully believable character who would live a mainly “normal” life.

“If one day you come and do something like James Bond, then that’s it and you’re done, you can’t sustain a longer life and work doing that. People think it’s always on the edge, but actually most of it is very routine and very boring.”


Emphasis mine. So I get the feeling that being a spy is a lot like being kept on retainer. You're around just in case.
posted by philip-random at 8:07 AM on August 24 [9 favorites]


There are a hundred questions I have spinning off from this article.

What would have been the end game if she hadn’t been caught? Would she have continued living quietly in the west until she was 65, and then packed up with her husband and returned to Russia — leaving behind children and maybe grandchildren that had been basically created as props for her life? Presumably they wouldn’t want to follow her to Russia. And her children — does she have any relationship with them now? What happened to them emotionally? She believes in the Soviet way and upended her life in loyalty to her government—if you have children that you can’t even teach your most deeply-held beliefs to, what are those children to you, really? How do you even morally countenance having them? Do you inculcate them with a worldview you disagree with?

The more I think about it, the more sinister and just...pathological it becomes. (Maybe the tv show addresses these issues; I haven’t seen it. Or read her book, obviously.)

...I went back and looked at the article again and it links to a long one about the aftermath for her kids.
posted by frobozz at 8:39 AM on August 24 [10 favorites]


During her life in the west she claimed to be of French Canadian origin to explain the accent.

Are people really so ignorant and lacking in curiosity that they can't tell the difference between a French Canadian accent and a Slavic one? Well, maybe they were just very polite,
posted by Dumsnill at 8:49 AM on August 24 [8 favorites]


The more I think about it, the more sinister and just...pathological it becomes. (Maybe the tv show addresses these issues; I haven’t seen it

It does! and according to Vavilova it was at least true to reality in that respect, in terms of the psychological dilemmas (see the bit philip-random quoted above). If you decide to watch it, be warned while it is awesome it can be rather brutal.
posted by bitteschoen at 9:08 AM on August 24 [1 favorite]


Are people really so ignorant and lacking in curiosity that they can't tell the difference between a French Canadian accent and a Slavic one? Well, maybe they were just very polite,
WE COME FROM FRANCE
posted by TrialByMedia at 11:37 AM on August 24 [11 favorites]


She admits her preparation involved weapons training and karate, but says she never had to use it in the field: “The most it’s good for is self-confidence. In the beginning, if you don’t feel comfortable in certain neighbourhoods, you know that at least you can do something and remember a few moves and could get away from a robber or someone who attacks you.”
Really America's main protection from long-term deep-cover spies is its reputation as a violent dystopian hellscape with poor healthcare. :-(

Remember that next time you're in the voting booth. :-/
posted by cattypist at 10:38 PM on August 24 [2 favorites]


What would have been the end game if she hadn’t been caught? Would she have continued living quietly in the west until she was 65, and then packed up with her husband and returned to Russia — leaving behind children and maybe grandchildren that had been basically created as props for her life?

I always assumed that the end game was to live out their lives as Americans.
posted by showbiz_liz at 5:48 PM on August 26


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