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ForumDaily Exclusive: US intelligence agent exposed in the USA on preparations for illegal intelligence, espionage tricks and the difficulties of double life

Next year marks 10 years from the day the largest espionage scandal in the history of Russia and the USA. As a result of the betrayal of former Colonel of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) of Russia, Alexander Poteev, the FBI discovered a network of deeply conspired intelligence agents. Many of them lived for decades under foreign names, successfully impersonating foreigners, and their own children did not know who their parents really were. As a result of the exchange that followed shortly after the arrest, the detained Russians returned home.

Photo from the personal archive of Elena Vavilova

The history of the unmasked scouts formed the basis of the cult series “The Americans” (The Americans), however, what the Russian intelligence officers actually did during their long decades of life in the USA is kept a secret until now. A recently released book by one of ten arrested Russians, retired colonel of the SVR Elena Vavilova "A woman who knows how to keep secrets" slightly opens the veil of secrecy. Elena admits: although many of the points described in the book are fictitious or deliberately changed, the essence of the story, and most importantly, her personal experiences described in it, remain autobiographical.

Photo from the personal archive of Elena Vavilova

For many years, living first in Canada and then in America under the name Tracy Lee Ann FoleyElena and her husband Andrey Bezrukovworking under the name Donald Howard Heathfield, were not only successful spies, but also raised two children: Alex and Tim, who at the time of the arrest of their parents were 16 and 20 years respectively. The boys did not speak Russian and had no idea about their roots. Elena Vavilova told about how difficult it was to combine ordinary life with unusual work, about the peculiarities of training intelligence officers and the tactics of espionage operations in an exclusive interview with ForumDaily.

Path to Intelligence

An unusual offer to work in intelligence for Elena and her future husband Andrei came at the beginning of the 80, when both were still students of the history department of Tomsk State University. Elena Vavilova claims: contrary to common stereotype, no one picked up a couple “in administrative order”. A genuine relationship developed between the boy and the girl, and each of them agreed to work for KGB intelligence independently of each other.

“It is difficult to say why the choice of the KGB fell on us. Perhaps because both of us were students, we were very active, studied well, had diverse interests. For example, I studied music, ballet, studied in a special school with in-depth study of German. I think versatility combined with flexibility of character are the basic qualities necessary for such work. A person should be able not to get lost in the new environment. But, of course, in addition to flexibility, the future intelligence officer must retain some inner core, ”explains Elena.

Elena with her husband. Photo from the personal archive of Elena Vavilova

The KGB verification system for this KGB has been honed for decades. According to the former intelligence officer, their study as potential candidates began, most likely, from the moment they entered the university. One of the selection criteria was the fulfillment of individual requests from the KGB.

“For example, we were asked to describe the character of one of our friends or to learn more about him. But even if you initially meet all the criteria, this does not mean that you will definitely become a scout. To do this, you need to undergo complex training and have really good health. Such work entails tremendous psychological stress, which can affect the physical condition. Of course, these aspects are also studied during preparation, ”explains Elena Vavilova.

In addition to learning the language, the skills of recognizing surveillance, compiling ciphers, and other techniques useful for espionage, prospective intelligence agents arranged rather stringent psychological tests. For example, they tried to flirt with Elena, checking her “moral stamina”, and Andrei was instructed to transport allegedly smuggled goods from one city to another, then imitating the attack of the smugglers. The purpose of such a provocation was to test endurance: will the candidate withstand the stress of an extreme situation and will he not be able to admit his belonging to intelligence.

“Most of the time is studying at least two foreign languages. We had very experienced teachers, but in any case, learning a language is a long job. We worked on it for many hours daily, and in terms of loads, this was perhaps the most difficult. In the Soviet Union it was difficult to get English-language films, but we had a special library of such tapes selected. Part of the training took place at a special facility - a “summer cottage”, fully furnished in a Western style, with an abundance of American and European household appliances, which we, yesterday’s Soviet students, saw for the first time in our life, ”says Elena.

Elena while studying at a school in the USSR. Photo from the personal archive of Elena Vavilova

By the way, the "cottage" is described in sufficient detail in the book of Elena. In intelligence, where, as you know, there are no trifles, it was important for future spies to learn how to deal with any Western equipment as if it had surrounded them since childhood.

“Of course, in some moments, for example, the nuances of slang, quotes from films, we still could not cover everything, and we had to“ get it ”in practice,” the scout admits.

War for Peace

Initially, illegal intelligence was created at the dawn of the formation of the USSR - a young and unrecognized by many countries state was afraid that at any moment breaks in fragile diplomatic relations with the West could follow, and only illegal immigrants would remain - typical Americans or Europeans, whom no one would suspect of contacts with the Soviet Union. However, the functions of illegal immigrants gradually expanded. In addition to the goal of becoming the main source of information in case of war, they obtained important information in peacetime, selected sources for recruitment and served as a channel of communication with Russian and Soviet agents from among Americans with access to classified information. For Americans, for obvious reasons, meeting with representatives of the embassy was undesirable.

Illegal scouts are convinced: despite the ambiguity of their work, the “war on the invisible front” contributes to the cause of peace more than it seems at first glance.

“The less our people are in the country of a potential adversary, the more difficult it is for them to figure out what is happening there and pass on to their management the correct information that helps them make the right decisions. We believed that we were working for peace for all people, trying to prevent the imbalance of power. And, of course, we did not see the enemy in every person. Moreover, we had to love the country and culture in which we worked. Otherwise, a feeling of hostility would inevitably affect the work. If you truly love the country and treat people well, they will feel your sincerity, ”Elena explains.

Elena in New York. Photo from the personal archive of Elena Vavilova

At the same time, she assures: sometimes communicating with people brings much more results than, for example, stealing documents from safes that spy films abound.

“Many are skeptical about whether it is possible to obtain important information without having access to state secrets. But intelligence is primarily proactive work. If any doctrine has already been developed, much less adopted, it is too late to respond to it. But on the spot to understand what trends are expected, it is possible without direct access to secret and state institutions. Intelligence is far from always theft of documents from safes, it is primarily access to people who develop or make decisions, ”says Elena Vavilova.

The scout admits: pragmatic Americans will not just share secrets even with their compatriots, and in order to become interesting for potential "objects", illegal immigrants had to constantly develop and work to improve their social status.

“Then the decision makers will themselves appear in your environment. For example, my husband abroad graduated from three universities, including Harvard, and was a successful consultant in developing company strategies. To expand your contacts, you can also work only as an agent for the sale of real estate, but if, for example, you are dealing with elite real estate, your clients may include promising politicians, assistants to senators, etc., ”the scout shares her secrets.

Intelligence uses some of the sources called “blindly,” while it studies some for potential recruitment. At the same time, Elena notes: illegal intelligence agents themselves do not risk recruiting their contacts. For this purpose, other people are already approaching the “objects”. The scout assures: unlike the widespread stereotype, illegal spies do not engage in sexual seduction of their “victims”.

“I do not exclude the possibility that for some one-time operations, for example, to compromise a person,“ honey traps ”are used. Moreover, such a method is used not only by the Russian, but also all the intelligence services of the world. However, illegal scouts never take part in this. Our task is to create the image of respectable Americans, a normal family with a good reputation. Erratic sexual contacts, and especially criminal acts or the elimination of people in such work, are unacceptable, ”Elena emphasizes.

Elena in her student years. Photo from the personal archive of Elena Vavilova

Most often, intelligence carries out the tasks of the "Center", but sometimes, being in place, illegal immigrants take the initiative and in any case report on any promising opportunities that arise abroad. Without going into details, Elena Vavilova admits: sometimes, according to news reports, she suspected that the basis of certain political decisions was the information that she and Andrey had communicated.

“To summarize, we can say that the scout works in three jobs. The first is the work of "cover", explaining in the eyes of others what you live for. The second is the actual reconnaissance and fulfillment of tasks, and the third is the constant work to increase one's social status and an attempt to break into the higher circles of society, ”says Elena.

Espionage tricks

The scout admits: if in communication with ordinary neighbors she allowed herself to behave almost naturally, then in communication with those who fell into the category of “development object” (for example, she worked professionally against Russia), illegal immigrants calmly used the technologies that they were trained in intelligence.

“There are special techniques for getting to know each other and building relationships. For example, one should transfer relations from business to neutral, which can be built on the basis of common interests. That is why it is so important to have several hobbies. We planned every meeting with a person based on his personality characteristics and position in society. Sometimes it happened that I met a man, and then my husband connected. Sometimes we asked some leading questions in a conversation, mentioned some moments allegedly by chance, ”Elena shares secrets.

However, the scouts entered the role in such a way that even at the time of completing tasks and sending ciphers, they continued to feel like Americans - though they were sympathetic to Russia. As regards the selection of candidates for the recruitment of sources, there also existed its own system.

“We studied a potential candidate according to three criteria: how interesting he is in terms of obtaining information, is dangerous for us and complicated in terms of approach to him. For example, if a person holds a too high post, all his contacts could be checked, and in this case it was dangerous to enter into the circle of his acquaintances. By the way, the situation shown in the TV series “Americans” - when illegal immigrants find out that their neighbor is an FBI agent and develop a friendship with him, would be absolutely impossible in practice. If this happened to us, we would definitely report it to the Center and, under any pretext, would move from there. Due to mandatory inspections, we could not, for example, work in state institutions. Regarding complexity, it was important to find out if there are inclinations that a person will agree to help us, ”says Elena.

Elena with children in Los Angeles. Photo from the personal archive of Elena Vavilova

According to her, in this case, the material and marital status of a person, his problems, needs, views, that is, possible motives for working in another country, are studied. At the same time, although ideological motivation is preferable, in practice the most widespread is still material interest.

“Today, when Russia does not have a clear ideology, as it was during the Soviet era, some Americans agree to work for us because they are opposed to modern US policy. Blackmail can sometimes be used, but you need to be careful here. A person may be ready to answer for his misconduct in his own country rather than agree to work for another, ”Elena warns.

Another common stereotype is that it is impossible to leave such work. According to Elena Vavilova, the example cited by the creators of the movie "Americans" when the protagonist decided to end espionage and start living an ordinary life is quite real. The decision made in early youth can change over the years, and then yesterday's scouts can return to their homeland. True, once the chosen path in any case imposes restrictions on the rest of his life.

“No one will keep anyone forcibly, because in this case a person will not work efficiently. Moreover, it is even dangerous. Therefore, in those rare moments when a scout arrives on vacation in Russia, his psychological state is taken very seriously. If necessary, he can return home by his own decision and without any failure. Another thing is that in this case he will not be able, for example, to speak publicly, since in the West this person was known under a completely different name. That is why many real heroes remain unknown to the general public, especially those who successfully completed illegal work and did not become a victim of betrayal. But the life of a scout always consists of limitations. For example, when we went abroad, we couldn’t communicate with our relatives, and even our parents didn’t know who we actually work, ”Elena shares.

Another difficulty in working illegally is the need to start a lot from scratch. People with higher education at home, sometimes abroad had to start a career as a peddler of newspapers and go to study again, for the sake of building a "legend".

“When I arrived in Canada, formally, I did not have a higher education, and my first job was an accountant in a garment factory. Of course, here we were helped by the inner feeling that we were doing some unique work, which not everyone could do. Even being in the shadows, such a person knows his worth. We believed in what we did, and therefore, even with age, we did not experience any doubts about the need for our work, ”Elena assures.

Between life and work

Life in a foreign country under a foreign name, of course, leaves its mark. Many illegal intelligence agents hesitate to have children. In fact, how in the event of failure to explain to the child that his parents are not at all the people whom he knew all his life, but the seemingly sinister and distant Russia in fact is his unfamiliar historical homeland? Elena admits: the decision to have children was not easy for them.

“In fact, we made a choice for our children, and after the exposure we talked a lot with them about it. Of course, we tried before this to somehow expand the horizons of our sons - for example, educating them not only in American, but also in European culture. It seemed to us that in America, if we do nothing, the children will be Americanized to such an extent that it will be difficult for us later on to find a common language with them. However, according to legend, our family had French roots, which helped to educate them in a culture closer to us. Of course, I was sorry that I could not read Pushkin’s poems or Russian folk tales to children. But we tried to find positive aspects in American culture, for example, punctuality, independence and law-abiding Americans, ”says the former intelligence officer.

Elena with children. Photo from the personal archive of Elena Vavilova

Nevertheless, Elena admits: the image of Russia in her children was quite distorted, and the suddenly revealed truth was a real shock for young people.

“Gradually, with our help, they discerned that in Russia there are a lot of very sincere people, even if at first glance they do not look as friendly as the Americans. It also helped that we always maintained friendly and trusting relationships with children. In addition, you should not think that we lived a completely different life. Yes, we had different names, a different story and language, but the character, by and large, remains the same, ”Elena explains.

According to Elena, the children forgave and understood them, although they did not like all the features of Russia.

“They learned Russian, but, nevertheless, they want to live their own life, not connected in any way with our past profession. It is logical that they want to quickly distance themselves from this whole story. It’s unfortunate that the parents’s work touched them, ”says Elena.

Elena with little Tim in Toronto. Photo from the personal archive of Elena Vavilova

However, not only Tim and Alex, but also Elena and Andrey themselves had to get used to the new Russia again. More similar to the West than the Soviet Union, the country, however, has become completely different, and even the Russian language, according to Elena, has changed a lot over the last 30 years. It was not easy for scouts to recall their native language and get used to Russian features, but today Elena feels that she has fully adapted in her homeland, where she has already made new friends, her favorite job, and most importantly, the opportunity to share her such unusual experience.

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