Elena Vavilova, Russian spy: “We weren’t aggressive, we defended our country”

  • VilaWeb talks to the Russian spy who deceived the US for twenty-five years

All pictures by Júlia Partal
Vicent Partal
25.04.2021 - 16:34
Actualització: 25.04.2021 - 18:34

On 27 June 2010, Elena Vavilova, who went by the name of Tracey Lee Ann Foley, was arrested by US authorities, along with other “illegals” who had also worked for the KGB, acting on a tip-off obtained in Moscow. Vavilova had lived in the US and Canada for twenty-five years, together with her husband and fellow agent Andrei Bezrukov. They had led a double life, in a highly complex espionage operation which was subsequently made into the TV series The Americans, largely based on Vavilova’s character.

Vavilova concocted a seemingly watertight fake identity which allowed her to live like an American and gather vital information for the Soviet Union. After being put on trial and found guilty, Vavilova was part of a spy swap, in which she and other members of her network were exchanged for four American spies detained in Moscow. Vavilova received a hero’s’ welcome in the Kremlin and was awarded the Order of Merit to the Fatherland.

Símbol Editors has just published the Catalan translation of Vavilova’s novel El secret de la clandestina [published in English as ‘A Woman Who Can Keep Secrets’]. Vavilova, who now lives in Moscow, agreed to speak to VilaWeb by video conference.

I’m not sure if you’re comfortable with the word ‘spy’?
—In Russian we have several words for it. But let’s say that if we see a spy as a someone who works to obtain information, particularly sensitive information, covertly and clandestinely, then it’s the right word. “Spy” has the advantage that everyone immediately understands what you mean. You don’t have to go into lots of detail.

—You were born in the USSR, where you lived for some years; then you became a completely different person, pretending to be an American by the name of Tracey Foley, down to the smallest detail; and now we have a novel that is apparently based on your life, but which is still a work of fiction. In view of all these many layers, with so many characters behind them, can I ask you who Elena Vavilova really is?
—I’m a person, like anyone else, with strengths and weaknesses. I’m someone who did an unusual job for a long time, because very few people in the world do this job, in the service of my country. And in order to carry out my mission I had to learn a few techniques and I had to possess several unusual qualities.

You used the words ‘job’ and ‘mission’?” What was more important? As they’re not the same thing
—It’s all the same, really. We did a job because we belonged to an organisation and followed orders. But it was clearly not just a professional matter. What we did can’t be done without believing that it’s very important for the defence of one’s country, of one’s people. It’s important to believe in what you do and the importance of what you do, and that’s probably the biggest difference in our case. You don’t work “illegally” in a foreign country, pretending you’re someone else just for a salary, just as a way of life. I don’t think people can make —I think I can use the word— the sacrifices that a life like this involves without believing in what they’re doing. Now, in the end, after so many years, I realise that everything comes down to one thing. You do a job because you have a feeling that you’re fulfilling a mission.

Which affects everything you do
—Yes, of course. You choose where you live and the people you come into contact with based on your mission, for the value they might have. Your whole life revolves around it. You see everything through the lens of the work you do.

It’s by no means an ordinary job. You knew and had access to stuff that very few people had access to. By reading the novel, one can relate certain episodes to real events. I get the feeling that there are decisions in the real world that are made behind highly opaque curtains and that there are very few people who have access to them. You did.
—We knew certain things, yes. But people need to understand how intelligence agencies work abroad. I was very keen to tell people about it, which is why I wrote the novel. No one in Moscow expected us to discover some great truth, to find information which would change everything. It’s a team effort. Each of us was sending snippets of information and the key thing is the big picture which was obtained as a result. This was the essential information, which was used to make, at the right time, a specific decision which was vitally important. And we know such decisions were made based on our work. We worked for this, we provided intelligence that enabled it to happen. That’s why our government put so much effort into training us and maintaining our network.

—So much effort over so many years.
—That’s right, so many years. If we hadn’t been useful, if our information hadn’t been of any use, they wouldn’t have kept us going. They kept us on because of this and also because we were “sleeper” agents who they could wake up at any time, if the need arose.

—“Sleeper agents”?
—We were already in the country, perfectly undercover and integrated. If they ever needed us, at a time of great conflict, we were already inside and could do whatever was needed. But I want to emphasise the collective nature of our work. There were expert analysts, for example, and people who were good at obtaining information from third parties. And there were very good people engaged in operations in the field. It was all a collective endeavour, we were a cog in a big machine, the KGB was a big organisation, and you can’t judge the work of one part in isolation from the whole. It’s not about how many documents we managed or failed to obtain.

And why have you decided to talk about all this in the form of a novel? Wouldn’t it have been better to write an account of your experience, a non-fiction book?
—The problem is that in writing my memoirs I would have had to write about things I can’t talk about. Fiction, on the other hand, gives me more freedom. Nevertheless, I’ve thought of some passages very carefully so as not to slip up and reveal too much information. The first part of the novel, where I describe how we were recruited and all the work we did to become illegal and overcome all the obstacles is essentially real life. Then, later on in the book, I try to explain how we lived, how we worked. Everything I put in the book is based on what we went through, the issues we were working on; everything is real and the period in which the novel is set coincides with the period when we were there. Nonetheless, I think I need to keep certain things secret.

—Such as?
—Perhaps if I’d written a different type of book, I would have revealed methods and ways of doing things which might be secrets that still need to be kept to this day. A novel gives me more freedom. It’s a way of not revealing everything and in particular of not having to reveal what I don’t want to. I’ve made sure that everything is more or less in the public realm, that it’s previously appeared in other books or media, so I don’t disclose anything that’s inconvenient. I’m more interested in portraying how we lived.

—And this aspect, having to watch your words, aren’t you afraid it will affect the book?
—No. I knew from the beginning what lines I couldn’t cross and what I wanted to say. The novel reconstructs what my life and work were like and allows people to gain some insight into a world that had almost never been seen before. I think it’s interesting to see how we lived and how we worked, I feel it’s inherently interesting. The role of the “illegals”, this shadowy figure, the work we carried out cloaked in secrecy, is very typical of Soviet and subsequently Russian intelligence. Westerners don’t do such things and I honestly don’t think they were aware of how to do it either.

—Do the “illegals” still exist today?
—I don’t know, I can’t say anything about it. We’ve been out of the business since we came back. That’s why we do different things, like this novel. Nevertheless, the head of our intelligence agency once said: “We have enough people to do the job.”

—If you hadn’t been arrested and sent back to Russia, would this novel have ever existed?
—Of course not.

—What was your arrest like?
—To be honest, at the time our main concern was to find out how our cover had been blown. When we realised that it hadn’t been our fault, that we’d been betrayed by someone in Moscow, we breathed a sigh of relief. It would’ve been really hard to accept it, if one of us had made a mistake.

—But in the US the sentence could have had very serious consequences, including the death penalty. Didn’t that worry you?
—We worked for decades as illegals. We created identities, a cover story that concealed who we really were. We lived like an average American couple, we had kids, we were employed. We were pretty sure they wouldn’t find us. That it was impossible. That’s why it was so important to find out that we hadn’t be detained due to a mistake we’d made. Of course, in everyday life, especially at the beginning, we felt really tense in case we were discovered, but over the years, everything became normal.

—At the time of your arrest, the American authorities said that the information you’d obtained wasn’t very important.
—I can see why they’d say that. We’d spent twenty-five years living in their country without being found and they didn’t have the slightest idea of what we’d been up to. What would you expect them to say? They wouldn’t acknowledge something that was perfectly obvious. Don’t forget that they recently announced that we were arrested thanks to a person who betrayed us, someone in the Russian service. That it wasn’t their doing, that they didn’t find us.

—In a way they acknowledged your importance by exchanging you for American spies.

— The TV series The Americans was made after your cover was blown and it’s based on your life. Do you recognise yourself in it at all?
—Partly, yes. I’m sure everyone can appreciate that a TV series needs a lot of action and that a lot more things happen, and in particular a lot more often, than happened to us in real life. When I watched it with my husband he remarked that we hadn’t had such an exciting life as the one you see on screen!

—Was it more boring?
—I don’t think “boring” is the word. Let’s just say the action wasn’t so relentless. You have to realise that in our line of work patience is key. Sometimes it could take weeks to take a small step. You can’t do it like this in the TV series, as it would bore the viewer.

And yet …
—And yet you could say that many details in The Americans are accurate. The psychological stress we were subjected to is real. The ethical and moral debates we had when we needed to do certain things or the way it portrays the particular period of the Cold War when the tension reached a peak was real, it’s depicted really well. Obviously, everything in the series has been exaggerated, made more of a spectacle, to draw viewers and keep them hooked. It’s logical and I can see why they did it. In the novel, however, I try to shy away from what you might call the “James Bond angle”, and paint a more realistic picture of what our life was like.

—Is A Woman Who Can Keep Secrets your response to the TV series, in some way ?
—The idea to write it came to me when we saw the first few episodes, yes.

—I was surprised by the book because we’re very used to Western spy novels. In the UK, novels about MI5 are almost a genre in themselves. But this isn’t the case in Russia. There’s not much of a precedent.
—It’s true. They’re different traditions. The British talk more. Here not so much, which makes things a bit unbalanced: there are lots more novels and films in the US and the UK. It’s probably due to the fact that we keep our secrets for longer and reveal them less and more slowly. It’s part of our tradition. But in terms of the Soviet intelligence services and the methods we used, a few interesting books appeared when the USSR collapsed, but there aren’t many first-hand accounts and even fewer by living people, such as mine. People are biased and I hope that my novels —I’ve just published another in Russia— will help to provide a more balanced view of reality. A lot of people in the West have a distorted view of our work and changing that was also one of my goals, to change that point of view. In movies and novels in the West we’re always the bad guys and we’re really scary!

—Are you? Were you?
—I don’t identify with the way we’re depicted at all, because we weren’t so dangerous or so bad. We weren’t aggressive. We defended our country. And at no time, unlike certain others, did we set out to change the form of government or the direction of the country where we worked. We only worked so that our leaders had the best possible information when it came to making difficult decisions. This was a really unique feature of the Soviet intelligence services.

—Do you mean to say that a British or American spy is in some way different from a Russian one?
—The way they work is similar in many ways on all sides, in spite of everything. Psychology plays a big role, there are techniques regarding how you approach your sources and find out their weaknesses and how to use them in your favour when necessary. There are many, many similarities, I won’t deny it. And I imagine that there’s patriotism, patriotic motivation on all sides. You don’t do a job like this if you don’t put the defence of your country above all else. But I would say that in the Soviet Union this ideological aspect, if you want to call it that, ran deeper than in the West. Because we lived in a country that was under threat. We felt threatened and we had to defend ourselves, that was our priority. And because we believed in the system it represented.

—A system that collapsed all of a sudden. It must have been really distressing for you if that’s the right word living in Boston and watching the fall of the Soviet Union on TV.
—It was very sad, because we believed in what it all represented. A multinational state that put social justice first and foremost and which was a large, powerful state on a global scale.

—What did you think? Were you afraid that your organisation would be disbanded?
—We had little contact with Moscow for security reasons. Communication was highly restricted, we worked largely on our own, and the truth is that we knew very little about anything that was going on.

—But you kept working, for what was to become the new Russia.
—That’s right. When a message reached us asking if we would continue with our work we breathed a sigh of relief. It gave us a strange feeling because we knew that what had happened was extremely serious, the disappearance of the Soviet Union, but we also understood something important.

—That we weren’t fighting for our leaders, but for our country. For our homeland. For our compatriots. And that didn’t change when the Soviet Union changed to Russia. Ideologically, we felt very strongly about the loss of the Soviet Union and what it meant, but we thought that the new Russia would more or less follow the same path.

—And now?
—Well, Russia is still not a Western country.

—However, the changes at the time were huge.
—Precisely. And they had enormous implications. For example, we had allied countries with organisations allied with the KGB that became part of the West overnight, such as the German Democratic Republic. And what was going to happen? What did they know and what didn’t they know? It was all very complicated at the time.

—Do you still have a relationship with the intelligence services? Have you ever been told what you can write?
—I’ve had no part to play in the intelligence community since the moment my true identity was revealed. Obviously, I’m aware of which lines I shouldn’t cross.

—You left the United States a long time ago. Do you miss anything?
—Of course. The neighbourhood where we lived in Boston, the people, our friends there. Now that the United States is having such a hard time it would be really interesting to hear what they think. And other stuff. Russia is very different from the United States, and there are things we got used to and miss. I’m sure everyone can appreciate that.

—It’s a very difficult time for the United States right now.
—It is. And also for relations between Russia and the US.

—Would you still like to work there? Would it interest you?
—The moments of great change are always, always, the really interesting moments. And, to be honest, some of the things that are happening there now were already starting to be apparent when we lived there, ten years ago.

—Looking back, are you proud of what you did? Do you regret anything?
—Look: our job wasn’t to make decisions. It wasn’t us who made the decisions. Sometimes we even disagreed with the decisions that were made, that were made in Moscow, based on our information. But we did feel at all times that we were doing a worthwhile job. And not just for us. Somehow our work also benefited the American people…

—How do you mean?
—We served as a counterweight.

—But you were an active, illegal, clandestine agent, working against the United States with all your might and putting your life on the line.
—But we didn’t feel any hostility towards the American people, nor did we work against them. We worked against those who made certain decisions in the United States and above all, with the aim of avoiding aggression against our country.

—And were you successful?
—Let’s just say we played our part. I have a feeling that our work was important to our compatriots, but if you look at it from that point of view, for other people as well, even for the Americans. We helped to maintain the balance of peaceful coexistence with our work. In the end there was no nuclear war, something that might have occurred. So, looking at everything as a whole, in that sense, I think we helped keep the peace for everyone.


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