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We Were Raised By Russian Spies

The Vavilov brothers were born in Canada to deep-cover Soviet agents, so Ottawa stripped them of their citizenship. Inside their fight to finally come home.

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Alex and Tim in Bangkok in 2011. (Tim and Alex Vavilov) Raised by Russian spies

Alex and Tim in Bangkok in 2011. (Alex and Tim Vavilov)

Tracey Lee Ann Foley — the real Tracey Lee Ann Foley — was born at Montreal General Hospital on Sept. 14, 1962, a Friday. Gorgeous and blue-eyed (seven pounds, three ounces), she was the first child of newlyweds Edward and Pauline Foley. “It was an amazing day, pretty exciting,” Ed remembers, all these decades later. “We were a young family just getting started.”

Back then, the Foleys rented an apartment in the Montreal suburb of Hampstead. John Diefenbaker was prime minister, John F. Kennedy was the U.S. president, and on the radio, the number-one song in both countries was Sherry by the Four Seasons. The captain of the hometown Canadiens was a 31-year-old centre named Jean Béliveau.

Seven weeks after she was born, Tracey woke up with a spiking fever. Her mother phoned their doctor and, as doctors did in those days, he drove straight over, medical bag in tow. It was Halloween, a detail forever seared in the Foleys’ minds. “He gave her an antibiotic,” Pauline recalls. “By the time he got back to his office, she had died.”

Tracey Lee Foley's death notice from November 1, 1962.

Tracey Lee Foley’s death notice from November 1, 1962.

The culprit was meningococcal meningitis. In hindsight, Tracey didn’t stand a chance. “She died so suddenly,” says Pauline, now 81. “It came on within hours and she was gone. She was perfectly healthy up until then.” Just days earlier, baby Tracey had smiled at her mom for the first time. “You wonder: ‘Oh my heavens, how could anybody go through that?’ ” Pauline continues. “Somehow, you’re given that extra strength.”

The Foleys were blessed with two more children, a boy and a girl, and in 1971 the family left Quebec for Toronto, where Ed launched his own recruitment firm. After the kids grew up, the couple moved to a midtown condominium, ideal for their retirement years. In the master bedroom, amid so many family photographs, are two small pictures of their first daughter. “She is always here,” says Ed, 82.

Ed was standing in that same bedroom on June 29, 2010, getting dressed for a treadmill run at the gym downstairs. Pauline was in the kitchen, eating breakfast with her morning newspaper. The top story on the front page that Tuesday was the stuff of Hollywood scripts: the FBI had busted a group of deep-cover Russian spies operating on U.S. soil — including some who had stolen the identities of dead Canadian children. Pauline froze as she read one of the names: Tracey Lee Ann Foley.

“It was devastating,” she tells Maclean’s, speaking publicly, along with her husband, about the case for the first time. By then, their daughter had been gone for nearly 48 years. “It made me very angry because our privacy was invaded, along with hers.”

Pauline rushed to the bedroom to show Ed the article. “To see her name printed there really shook me up,” he says. “You feel violated.”

Nine hundred kilometres away, at a townhouse near Boston, two other “Foleys” were deep in their own state of shock: the Canadian-born sons of the fake Tracey Foley and her fellow-spy husband, Donald Heathfield, whose bogus ID was also stolen from a dead Montreal infant. Alexander Foley was 16 when the story hit, and his older brother, Timothy, had just turned 20. They could do nothing but watch as FBI agents burst in and handcuffed their parents. As Tim later recounted in a sworn affidavit: “I was shocked in ways words cannot describe.”

Up until that moment, the brothers insist, they had no idea their mother and father were undercover Russian “illegals” deployed by the KGB in the late 1980s, first to Canada, then to America — or that their parents’ real names were Elena Vavilova and Andrey Bezrukov. The sons had no clue, in other words, that their surname since birth was a fraud, swiped from a dead baby girl and passed on to them.

If the details read like an episode of The Americans, the Emmy-nominated FX television show, there’s good reason: the series, about a Soviet spy couple and the secrets they hide from their U.S.-born children, was inspired by the same FBI bust that exposed Tim and Alex’s mom and dad. But here is the true-life subplot you won’t see on TV: a years-long court battle over whether the kids should have to pay for their parents’ crimes with their Canadian citizenship.

Although both brothers were born in Toronto, immigration officials concluded (after the spy ring was revealed) that the boys were never Canadian to begin with because their mother and father were “employees of a foreign government,” making the kids ineligible for status under the Citizenship Act. In June, however, the Federal Court of Appeal ruled otherwise, ordering Ottawa to reinstate Alex’s citizenship (his case is furthest along) and propelling the bizarre saga back into the headlines. “[T]he sins of parents ought not to be visited upon children without clear authorization by law,” the judgment reads.

What happens next is in the hands of the Trudeau government, which has until Sept. 20 to decide whether to pursue an appeal at the Supreme Court. A spokeswoman for the federal immigration department would only say that officials are “carefully reviewing” the June ruling.

Like all the great espionage thrillers, there is one more twist: CSIS, Canada’s spy agency, has told Immigration that Tim, the eldest brother, did indeed know the truth about his parents’ double lives—and that he pledged to follow in their footsteps. According to CSIS, Tim had been “sworn in” by the SVR, the KGB’s post-Soviet successor, by the time the FBI showed up. (Tim adamantly denies the allegation, saying in his affidavit that “no evidence of my involvement has ever been presented.”)

Sitting in their Toronto living room, Ed and Pauline Foley aren’t sure what to believe. Tracey has been dead now for nearly 55 years. “I don’t have an axe to grind with the two kids; it’s not their fault they were born here,” Ed says. “But I can be very frank with you: I have absolutely no sympathy for the sons and am certainly against them getting citizenship. They should sue their parents.”

To this day, authorities still don’t know exactly when Bezrukov and Vavilova slipped into Canada. Or where. So many secrets never surface.

One thing is clear: they were hardly the first Soviet spies to sneak into the country and pass themselves off as born-and-raised Canucks, with jobs and car payments and, in some instances, children. “There is a long history of Canada being the gateway for ‘illegals,’ ” says David G. Major, who served as the FBI’s head of counterintelligence during Ronald Reagan’s second term in the White House. “You came into Canada, established your ‘legend,’ then came into the United States. It was very common.”

In 1951, a communist spy named Yevgeni Brik was dispatched to Quebec, where he transformed into David Soboloff; he later flipped sides, working as a double agent for the RCMP. Two years later, one of the Soviet Union’s most revered “illegals” stepped foot on Canadian soil: Konon Molody, a.k.a. Gordon Lonsdale. Using the alias of a dead boy from tiny Cobalt, Ont., Molody worked with atomic spy Rudolf Abel before moving to London, where he was eventually arrested. (Although Molody refused to talk to interrogators, Scotland Yard did discover the truth about his identity. In Cobalt, police tracked down the doctor who delivered the real Gordon 37 years earlier, and his handwritten notes, meticulously kept, revealed that the baby boy had been circumcised. The mystery man in custody had not.)

The last known illegal apprehended in Canada was Montreal resident “Paul William Hampel,” unmasked by CSIS in 2006. A government synopsis of his case, filed in Federal Court, describes operatives like him as “Russian espionage elites, among their nation’s costliest and longest-term undercover agents.”

‘Donald Heathfield’ with his sons Alex and Tim in 1999. (Tim and Alex Vavilov)

‘Donald Heathfield’ with his sons Alex and Tim in 1999. (Tim and Alex Vavilov)

“Don Heathfield” and “Tracey Foley” were two of those elites. Already a couple when the KGB recruited them, they underwent years of intense, covert training that would have covered everything from counter-surveillance to the art of the dead drop. As the FBI discovered, the pair was certainly well-versed in how to use coded radio transmissions and encrypted computer messages to communicate with their Moscow handlers. They had also mastered English, to the point that neither spoke a word of Russian, even to each other.

Adapting to a counterfeit name — knowing full well that it was stolen from a dead child — was all part of the curriculum. “I didn’t think twice about it,” says Jack Barsky, a former KGB spy who has written a memoir, Deep Undercover, about his decade as a Soviet illegal in the U.S. (under the name of a 10-year-old Maryland boy who’d died in 1955). “At the time, I was so devoid of a lot of feelings. I was an arrogant, self-absorbed youth who rationalized all of his bad behaviour by saying he was serving a just cause: the cause of communism.”

At its height, the KGB was notorious for sending agents strolling through foreign graveyards and flipping through obituary pages, searching for potential IDs. The service would then use that intel to apply for a legitimate birth certificate, and armed with that single piece of paper, an illegal could amass a walletful of real — yet completely bogus — documents. The seeds of a legend. “The Russians had a term for it: cemetery walking,” says H. Keith Melton, a leading espionage historian and founding board member of the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. “They were exploiting a vulnerability. For years, governments didn’t reconcile a birth with a death, so there were records of everyone being born and completely separate records of everyone dying.”

In the case of Donald Heathfield, the real baby boy is buried at Montreal’s Memorial Park Cemetery, where he shares a headstone with his father’s parents. His middle name was his dad’s first: Howard. From what authorities now know, it is all but certain that someone working for the Soviets homed in on that particular grave (or the brief death notice that appeared in the Ottawa Citizen) and jotted down the details.

“It is pretty scary,” says Donald’s mother, Shirley Heathfield, now in her late 70s. “Hearing that brought out a lot of emotions: ‘How dare you steal my son’s identity.’ ”

The third of four siblings, Donald was born at Ottawa’s Salvation Army Grace Hospital on Feb. 4, 1962 (seven months before Tracey Foley). His dad, who worked for McDonald’s, was in the process of transferring to a new job in Montreal, and his mom, a staunch Roman Catholic, made sure to have the baby baptized before they left Ottawa.

“We had just moved,” Shirley tells Maclean’s. “I was watching TV and it was time for him to be fed, so I went and got his bottle ready and I went to get him out of bed. In those days, we laid them on their stomachs. His little arm was sticking out of the bars of the crib. He was dead.”

It was March 23, 1962. Donald had succumbed to SIDS: sudden infant death syndrome. “I can see it so clear,” Shirley says.

Donald Howard Heathfield's death notice in the Ottawa Citizen from March 26, 1962.

Donald Howard Heathfield’s death notice in the Ottawa Citizen from March 26, 1962.

More than five decades later, Donald’s mom still finds comfort in knowing her boy was baptized before he passed away. “He was a lovely baby,” she says. “Unfortunately, we only had him for seven weeks.”

For the fake Don and Tracey, reaching Canada was never the ultimate goal. It was a necessary first step. Before their handlers could even contemplate a deployment to the United States, the pair would need to spend years building and perfecting an airtight backstory — while doing little else. The KGB was nothing if not patient. “They may have been given some reporting duties while in Canada, but clearly that was not their end mission,” Major says. “Their mission was to come to the U.S., using Canada as a stopover point.”

Those seminal years — pieced together by Maclean’s using court documents, corporate records and interviews with people who crossed paths with the spy duo — were anything but glamorous. Which was precisely the point. Once safely inside Canada, their primary task was to blend into the background, like they’d been here all along.

The couple first surfaced in Montreal around 1988, it appears. (For clarity, this portion of the article identifies the agents using the aliases they were known by at the time.) According to an affidavit sworn by Tracey — one of dozens of documents filed in connection with her son’s court cases — she enrolled in some computer courses before taking a job in the payroll department of a clothing company. Don, meanwhile, says he worked as an accounting clerk at a Honda dealership. By 1989, they had relocated to Toronto. Their first apartment was in the Annex neighbourhood, inside what is now a boarded-up house a few blocks from the University of Toronto.

6 Walmer Road, Toronto on Saturday, April 29, 2017. (Photograph by Mikaela MacKenzie)

6 Walmer Road, Toronto on Saturday, April 29, 2017. (Photograph by Mikaela MacKenzie)

The pair moved again in 1990, this time to a fourplex on Claxton Boulevard, close to St. Michael’s College School. That summer — June 27 — Tracey gave birth to the couple’s first child at Women’s College Hospital. They named him Timothy Andrew Foley. He was seven pounds, six ounces, and no one in the maternity ward had the slightest reason to doubt his citizenship.

From Moscow’s perspective, Tim’s arrival would have marked a giant step forward: a key piece of his parents’ legend. If the agents themselves felt at all conflicted — if Don and Tracey ever thought twice about entwining their newborn in their elaborate lie, or grasped the irony of rejoicing in childbirth when they’d hijacked the names of dead babies — such doubts did not knock them off their task.

The year after Tim was born, 1991, Don started selling books for a company called Montgomery Marketing. In his affidavit, he says he earned a “moderate” wage, just enough to pay the rent and buy a used Mazda 626. “My incomes allowed regular living with a small child paycheque to paycheque,” he said, “but that was all.”

‘Tracey Foley’ with her son Tim at the Toronto Zoo in 1991. (Tim and Alex Vavilov)

‘Tracey Foley’ with her son Tim at the Toronto Zoo in 1991. (Tim and Alex Vavilov)

That summer, the family spent a sunny day at the Toronto Zoo, exploring the animal enclosures and taking photographs. In one shot, a smiling Tracey is sitting on a large rock, holding Tim on her lap.

Only a few months later, the couple watched from the other side of the world as the Soviet Union collapsed. The hammer and sickle flag was removed from the Kremlin, and with it, the cause that Don and Tracey had pledged so fully to serve. They must have felt lost. “There would have been some real indecision,” says Melton. “ ‘Who are we working for?’ ”

Amid so much chaos, some illegals “just disappeared into the woodwork,” says Alistair Hensler, a former assistant director at CSIS. “Their coverage was that good.” Whether Don and Tracey pondered such a drastic option is one more detail only they know. But the pair never did waver, taking orders instead from Russia’s new foreign intelligence service, the SVR. “The country was falling apart,” Major says. “But the service was very good at coming back and reassuring the agents: ‘Don’t worry about this, we’re still in business.’”

A year later, Don was in business, too, incorporating his own company: Diapers Direct Ltd. As cover ops go, it’s hard to imagine a less suspicious one: a thirtysomething man behind the wheel of a blue truck, delivering discount diapers door to door.

“Honestly, he seemed like just a regular, normal Joe trying to start a business and get ahead,” says Paul Ovens, who worked as Don’s primary driver for three years. “He had an accent, but I just figured he was fresh to the country and trying to make a life for himself.” (Until Maclean’s contacted him, Ovens had no idea his old boss had been outed as a Russian spy. “That is incredible,” he says. “I’m not going to have the FBI banging on my door, am I?”)

Diapers Direct in Mississauga on Sunday, April 30, 2017. (Photograph by Mikaela MacKenzie)

Diapers Direct in Mississauga on Sunday, April 30, 2017. (Photograph by Mikaela MacKenzie)

The diaper company was located just west of Toronto, in a Mississauga warehouse that featured a small storefront. Don imported his products from the U.S. — always paying cash, according to Ovens — and sold the diapers to nursing homes, hospitals and any parent keen to avoid paying retail. As the sign on the side of the truck said, a box of 200 sold for $19.99.

“He would hand me a list of deliveries, I would go fill up the truck, and away I would go,” Ovens recalls. “I wouldn’t see him again until the next morning.” During a typical shift, Ovens says he would collect up to $4,000; he would then leave the cash inside the store for Don to retrieve—hiding it, dead-drop style, in pre-arranged locations.

The diaper-delivery business proved a viable one. In September 1993, the Toronto Star featured Don’s company in a regular series about entrepreneurs, dubbed “Thinking Big.” In the photo the accompanied the article, the Russian spy is dressed in a green golf shirt, sporting a wide grin and holding a pile of diapers.

By that point, the secret-agent salesman was also taking night classes at York University, pursuing an international economics degree that would further cement his back story. His wife also returned to work, at the downtown offices of Mutual of Omaha, a financial services firm. Together, the couple earned enough money (or received enough cash from the SVR, though that’s never been proven) to enrol Tim in pre-kindergarten classes at the prestigious Toronto French School, a private institution near Bayview and Lawrence. The school was a 10-minute walk from the family’s next rental home, a red-brick duplex at the edge of a dead-end street.

It was there that the couple’s second son — Alexander Philip Anthony Foley, born June 3, 1994 — had his first bedroom. “I remember his wife showing up at work once with the baby, just as I was leaving,” says Ovens. “I said to Don later: ‘Was that your wife?’ He said: ‘Yeah, and that was my new son.’”

Page C1 of the Toronto Star from September 6, 1993. (Photograph by Andrew Lahodynskyj)

Page C1 of the Toronto Star from September 6, 1993. (Photograph by Andrew Lahodynskyj)

Thinking back, Ovens says that was probably one of the most personal conversations he ever had with his boss. Not once did Don ever talk about his past, and he never asked Ovens about his. “It was always just straight business,” he recalls. “We never, ever shared a meal, and we never went for coffee. He was very much: ‘You’re the employee.’”

Don sold the company’s assets in the summer of 1995, pocketing more than $90,000, according to records filed in accordance with Ontario’s Bulk Sales Act. After seven years in Canada (maybe more), he and Tracey were preparing for another move: to Paris, where Don had been accepted into another university. “My wife had always wished to live in France,” he said in his affidavit, “and we decided not to lose such an opportunity.”

They left Toronto that August. Tim had just turned 5. Alex was 1. Since then, neither brother has lived in his country of birth.

Their gateway to America was Harvard University, of all places. After four years in France and more than a decade undercover, Don landed a coveted spot at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, in a one-year, mid-career master’s program in public administration. Flashing their Canadian passports, the family arrived on U.S. soil in August 1999. Tim was 9. Alex was 5.

“Don was notable because he was such a networker,” recalls former classmate Sam Delson. “I think it was the first week of orientation that he announced he was going to print up business cards for everyone in the class. He made himself known.”

Don’s accent didn’t seem to match his biography — “People used to say: ‘Wow, he doesn’t sound Canadian,’ ” recalls Jeff Katz, another old classmate — but he always had what seemed to be a plausible explanation. Don told at least one Harvard student that his dad was a diplomat and that he’d attended boarding school in the Czech Republic.

“I thought he was French,” says Craig Sandler, who also met him at Harvard. In fact, when Sandler mentioned that he and his wife were planning a trip to Paris, Don was quick to suggest the best places to stay and eat. Don’s travel tips panned out so well that Sandler showed his gratitude with a pair of Red Sox tickets.

Don took Tracey to the baseball game. Today, Sandler still chuckles at the image: two Russian spies infiltrating Fenway Park. “I sent ‘Boris and Natasha’ to a Red Sox game,” he laughs. “It gives us something to talk about at reunions, that’s for sure.”

Although his classmates didn’t know the truth, the FBI did — tipped off, it turns out, by a turncoat colonel inside the SVR. When Don graduated from Harvard in 2000, he had no idea an agent was snapping surveillance photos. Over the next decade, the bureau continued to follow not only Don and Tracey, but eight other deep-cover illegals inside the U.S. The investigation was dubbed Operation Ghost Stories, a nod to the dead infants reborn as Russian spies.

Unlike the fictitious Philip and Elizabeth Jennings portrayed on The Americans, Don and Tracey did not wear wigs or transport deadly pathogens or murder anyone, let alone innocent civilians. Their role was to mingle and report — and simply exist behind enemy lines, an invaluable asset if all Russian diplomats were ever expelled. “The Americans is far more glamorized,” says Melton, the historian — who also happens to work as a technical adviser on the hit TV series. “A real illegal couple would never expose themselves as blatantly as they do on the The Americans. But you’re trying to sell a television show.”

Melton, however, is quick to refute any suggestion that the real-life spies posed no real threat (or, as one defence lawyer famously put it, that they’d successfully infiltrated “neighbourhoods, cocktail parties and the PTA.”) “Did they steal the plans to Star Wars?” Melton says. “The answer is no. But could they have pointed the way to individuals who could have sold that information? The answer is yes.”

Of all the Russians rounded up, Don was arguably the most talented. In 2004, according to the FBI indictment, he messaged Moscow to report a discussion about “nuclear weapons research” with a government source. A year later, he linked up with a “former high-ranking” national security advisor. One day, when Tim was 16 and Alex was 12, the FBI surreptitiously searched their home, discovering more drafts of messages bound for SVR superiors.

The couple used a tactic known as steganography, embedding their reports inside seemingly random internet photos. Don’s codename was “Dv.” “Your relationship with ‘Parrot’ looks very promising as a valid source of info from U.S. power circles,” reads another intercepted message. “To start working on him professionally we need all available details on his background, current position, habits, contacts, opportunities, etc.”

All the while, Don was knee-deep in his legitimate career as an international business consultant. Looking back, former colleagues wonder which life Don preferred: Russian secret agent or jet-setting adviser?

“He was a valuable asset,” says Paul R. Sullivan, who hired Don to work at his firm, Global Partners Inc., in 2000 (Don’s starting salary was approximately US$85,000). “I remember going into his office and looking at the checklist on his board of all the things that needed to be done and who he needed to contact. None of it set off alarms. I just thought he was very well-organized.”

Sullivan still has Don’s resumé on file, which includes his stint as “chief executive officer” of Diapers Direct Ltd. “Conceptualized, funded, developed, managed and sold to investors an innovative start-up in express distribution of disposable medical products,” it reads. “Pioneered direct sales concept in the industry, bypassing traditional distribution channels, created new market sector.” (Sold once more after Don left, Diapers Direct continues to operate inside the same industrial unit first scouted by a Russian spy 25 years ago.)

“I have quite a bit of respect that he was able to fool me so well,” Sullivan says now. “It shows that he had a lot of talents that I still hadn’t even leveraged as well as I might have when I was managing him.”

Although Tracey was the primary caregiver at home, she did dabble in real estate sales during their Cambridge years. On her website, she also claimed to have run a travel agency (à la The Americans) that specialized in tours to French wine regions. “She was very pleasant to deal with, very professional, always on time, always well-dressed, always ready to do the job,” says Alexander Coon, who hired Tracey at his real estate firm in early 2010. “We actually ran pretty extensive background checks at the company, so we had done a background check on her.” It came back clean.

As for the boys, they have nothing but fond memories of their upbringing. They attended private school, travelled the world (visiting more than 40 countries) and never missed an opportunity to tell people where they were born. As a kid, Tim even won a competition organized by the Canadian consulate in Boston for promoting “Canadian values” of cultural integration. “I am first and foremost Canadian,” he wrote in his affidavit. “I have lived for 20 years believing that I was Canadian and I still believe I am Canadian. Nothing can change that.”

Even after the FBI showed up (on June 27, 2010, Tim’s 20th birthday), Alex assumed it was all an honest mistake: that authorities had confused his dad’s consulting work for something nefarious. “I never had any doubts whatsoever about my parents’ identities,” he wrote in his affidavit. “Never once in my 16 years of life had they done anything that seemed odd, or unexplainable.”

New York newspapers are on display featuring personal photos of suspected Russian spies Anna Chapman (L) and Richard and Cynthia Murphy at a news stand in New York, June 30, 2010. Russia and the United States sought to cool a heated scandal sparked by the arrest of 11 suspected Kremlin spies, amid fears the Cold War-style furore could harm improving ties. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)

New York newspapers are on display featuring personal photos of suspected Russian spies Anna Chapman (L) and Richard and Cynthia Murphy at a news stand in New York, June 30, 2010. Russia and the United States sought to cool a heated scandal sparked by the arrest of 11 suspected Kremlin spies, amid fears the Cold War-style furore could harm improving ties. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)

Alex is now 23, seven years removed from watching his mother and father hauled away at gunpoint. To say he’s endured an identity crisis doesn’t quite suffice. Identity explosion is more accurate. “Having your life flipped upside down in every conceivable way is not an easy change to make,” he says, speaking to Maclean’s via email.

In those dizzying days right after the bust, Alex continued to believe the FBI had the wrong people behind bars. How could his Canadian parents possibly be someone else? Only when he and Tim flew to Russia — where officials met them at the airport, carrying old photos of Andrey Bezrukov and Elena Vavilova — did reality finally set in. The boys even met a grandmother they didn’t know they had.

Days later, Washington and Moscow orchestrated a movie-scene spy swap, sending the Ghost Stories suspects back to the motherland after so many years abroad. Don and Tracey were still wearing prison-issued orange jumpsuits when they reunited with their sons. “It was already late, but we talked deep into the night,” Alex recalls. “Slowly, we began to discuss their past. We discovered a confusing patchwork: stories from their childhood having been real, but taking place in the Soviet Union, not in Canada or Europe. In general, my parents were open and spoke about their hidden lives and identities. With regards to their methods or missions, my brother and I were smart enough to not ask questions where we knew we would be better off not knowing the answers.”

It’s hard to imagine a scenario more surreal: discovering that the people who raised you are not at all who they say they are — then being banished to a different country because of it. Yet despite the initial shock, Alex insists he and Tim aren’t angry at their mom and dad, and never were. Their anger is aimed squarely at Ottawa.

“Tell me,” he writes, “why is it important for you to keep your Canadian citizenship? My reasons are the same as anyone’s. It is an integral part of my identity, the way others recognize me and is a recognition of certain values. In addition, I also believe in my right to pursue justice. It is unacceptable that the government may strip me of my rights just because it wants to.”

Though now the stuff of headlines, the brothers’ legal fight began quietly, when both tried to renew their Canadian passports. Because their surname (Foley) was now a confirmed fraud, Ottawa told them they would need to update their birth certificates. They complied, taking a version of their mother’s real last name: Vavilov. But when Tim and Alex reapplied for passports, they instead received letters from the registrar of citizenship, informing them they were no longer Canadian in the eyes of the law.

Tim (left) and Alex (right) are the children of alleged Russian spies, Donald Heathfield and Tracey Lee Ann Foley exit the Moakley courthouse after their parent's hearing. (Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe/Getty Images)

Tim (left) and Alex (right) are the children of alleged Russian spies, Donald Heathfield and Tracey Lee Ann Foley exit the Moakley courthouse after their parent’s hearing. (Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe/Getty Images)

Technically, the feds did not revoke their citizenship. In Ottawa’s opinion, they were never citizens to begin with because each parent was working as a “representative or employee in Canada of a foreign government,” a rare exception to the birthright rule under section 3(2)(a) of the Citizenship Act.

Who fits that definition of “representative or employee” is the central issue of the brothers’ court challenges. Ottawa contends that the phrase means exactly what it says: any representative or employee of a foreign government, period. Tim and Alex argue that the clause is extremely specific and applies only to foreigners who enjoy diplomatic immunity — which their parents clearly did not, having operated deep in the shadows.

In 2015, a Federal Court judge agreed with the government’s plain reading of the law, ruling, in Alex’s case, that “the wording is clearly meant to cover individuals who are in Canada as agents of a foreign government, whatever their mandate.” In June, however, the Federal Court of Appeal reached the opposite conclusion: that only those with diplomatic immunity fall under the “employee of a foreign government” exception. Under that narrow interpretation, the court ruled in its 2-1 decision, Alex is clearly a citizen. Any other conclusion is “not supportable, defensible or acceptable,” the judgment reads.

As the Trudeau Liberals ponder one last appeal to the Supreme Court (again, the government has until Sept. 20 to seek leave), the stakes extend well beyond a granular point of law. Between the lines of all the legal briefs is a much larger debate being waged in the court of public opinion: who deserves citizenship — and who doesn’t? As the case plays out, after all, this same government is poised to restore citizenship to Zakaria Amara, a convicted, foreign-born terrorist who plotted to kill hundreds of fellow Canadians. For Amara to retain status while two Toronto-born brothers with no criminal records are denied it would present a striking, if not absurd, contrast.

Ottawa must consider something else, too: that one brother may not have been as oblivious as the other. Although it was Alex who won his case, the judgment, if left standing, would surely apply to Tim — who, according to CSIS, knew about his parents’ covert activities and had been “sworn in” by the SVR prior to their arrests. What CSIS revealed to immigration bureaucrats appears to be the first official confirmation of a bombshell Wall Street Journal report published in 2012, which claimed that Tim had agreed to return to his parents’ homeland to begin formal espionage training. During one conversation with his parents, the article claimed, the eldest son “stood up and saluted ‘Mother Russia.’”

As damning as the allegation may be, it has no real bearing on the specific issue at hand: the definition of “employee of a foreign government.” In other words, if the latest ruling is not overturned, the feds will have little choice but to recognize Tim’s citizenship and, like his little brother, let him come home — regardless of the suspicion swirling over his head. (If Canadian authorities then choose to launch a criminal investigation, that’s a whole different story. Either way, though, a Canadian citizen cannot be expelled.)

Which raises yet another question for Ottawa to ponder: should the government attempt to appeal Alex’s ruling solely because it would present the best possible chance of keeping Tim out of the country?

Now working in Asia, Tim declined to speak to Maclean’s. He has, however, repeatedly professed his innocence. “I am aware that there have been some media reports that my parents were ‘grooming’ me for espionage,” says his 2015 affidavit. “These allegations are not true. It has been stated by the FBI that for over 10 years my home was bugged, however no evidence of my involvement has ever been presented.”

“It has been a huge shock to me the way the Canadian government has tried to block me from obtaining my rightful citizenship,” Tim continues, adding that he “would feel lost” without his Canadian status. “Losing the citizenship would most surely guarantee that if I applied for a Canadian visa, I would be rejected and therefore be exiled from my home country — a fate that Socrates himself considered worse than death.”

Russian spy Andrey Bezrukov (Donald Howard Heathfield) talks during an interview on July 31, 2015 in Moscow, Russia. Andrey with his wife Elena Vavilova (Tracey Lee Ann Foley) were two of ten people from The Illegals Program, a network of Russian sleeper agents under non-official cover, arrested in June 2010. Were sent back to Russia as a result of prisoner swap between Russia and the US on July 9, 2010. (Gleb Shchelkunov/Kommersant Photo/Getty Images).

Russian spy Andrey Bezrukov (Donald Howard Heathfield) talks during an interview on July 31, 2015 in Moscow, Russia. Andrey with his wife Elena Vavilova (Tracey Lee Ann Foley) were two of ten people from The Illegals Program, a network of Russian sleeper agents under non-official cover, arrested in June 2010. Were sent back to Russia as a result of prisoner swap between Russia and the US on July 9, 2010. (Gleb Shchelkunov/Kommersant Photo/Getty Images).

Andrey Bezrukov is now a senior adviser at Rosneft, a major Russian oil company; he is also a university professor who writes and lectures on U.S. public policy. He is still married to Elena Vavilova, who works as an adviser at Moscow-based Norilsk Nickel. Like Tim, both declined to comment for this article.

Alex, too, was initially hesitant to talk. Now finishing a master’s degree in finance at a European university, he would like nothing more than to be an anonymous student pursuing a career, not the partial inspiration for one of television’s most popular dramas. But knowing that his court battle has already garnered so much attention, Alex wants to ensure that Canadians understand what is at stake. “I must live in exile because of past events completely out of my control or knowledge,” he writes. “I believe deeply that people should not be punished for the circumstances they are born into.”

He is not alone in that opinion.

“The sons didn’t ask for this,” says Delson, the former Harvard classmate, who is now deputy director of the California Environmental Protection Agency. “They didn’t choose their parents and they didn’t make the choices their parents made. As far as I’m concerned, the kids are collateral damage.”

Sandler remembers watching the Foley boys run around the courtyard at the Kennedy School. To hear what has happened to them is “the most painful aspect of this whole case,” he says. “I resent the Heathfields, as I knew them, more for doing that to their kids than I do for gathering intelligence for the Russian government. Those kids are casualties of the intelligence war, and I hope they win their case.”

Just a few weeks before the bust, Katz hosted a 10-year Harvard reunion at his house. Nearly 100 graduates showed up, Don included. Katz snapped a photo of the spy leaning against his fridge, chatting with another guest. “It’s hard enough when children find out that a parent had an affair, or has a drug problem,” he says. “To find out your parents are absolutely not who they said they were — and that you’re Russian — I can’t imagine what that would be like. It is just unfathomable how horrible that would be.”

Even Major, who spent his FBI career chasing Soviet agents, says he is torn about what should happen to the sons. “I’m not sure what the law is and I wouldn’t be a character witness at trial, but can you imagine what it must be like for them?” he says. “Their whole lives they are westerners, and then they find out their parents are spies for an adversarial country.”

Seven years after the bust, Alex concedes that he “felt ripped” from his previous life. “I faced a period of several months trying to reflect on who I was,” he writes. “In some sort of extreme teenage identity crisis, I needed to wrestle with many conflicting thoughts, beliefs and cornerstones of my identity. I took awhile to find a new foundation to base my own identity from. I came to the conclusion that, just as my parents were the same ones who raised me regardless [of] where they were born, it is my character and experiences that shapes me the most. Having been born in Canada and having grown up as a Canadian, it has become an irrevocable part of who I am.”

His current relationship with his mother and father is “quite fine,” he insists. “Some ask me if I blame my parents for what happened,” he says. “I see it as counterproductive. Do I blame them for getting caught because of a traitor? For deciding to become spies? For moving to the United States? For deciding to have children? It’s impossible to know what would have happened in all those circumstances if events had not happened as they did. Nevertheless, I do get frustrated with the treatment I have received because of my parent’s choices.”

Alex understands why his mom and dad’s double life is such a fascination for some people, especially fans of The Americans. His only hope is that Canadians don’t judge him by his parents’ behaviour. “I would like people to see beyond the story of my parents and the international political atmosphere, and to recognize the strong legal grounds that my case rests on, and the fact that I have done nothing to warrant the harsh treatment and exile I have received,” he writes. “Whether or not the government decides to reissue my citizenship, I will always be Canadian at heart. I have grown up that way and believe it to be my only identity; it is something I would fight to the end to retain.”

Neither the real Foleys nor the real Heathfields are interested in a fight. They’ve been through enough trauma already. “It’s being dredged back up again, and that is what’s bothering me,” says David Heathfield, Don’s older brother. “I have no sympathy at all for the sons. If they didn’t know what their parents were doing, it’s not our problem.”

His mother agrees. “I just hope they don’t get back into Canada,” Shirley says.

Back in the Foleys’ living room, Ed and Pauline reminisce about the baby daughter they barely knew. “It can be a bit emotional at times,” Ed says. “The memory is always there.” Especially over the past year. “You can’t help it,” Ed says. “You’ve got CNN on and they’re talking about collusion with the Russians during the U.S. election. It takes you back to 2010 when these guys were swapped.”

Pauline keeps an envelope with all the old news clippings tucked inside. When she first read her daughter’s name in the paper, she was so furious that she wanted to fly to Boston to face the fake Tracey in court. Today, she feels some sympathy for the woman’s sons — but not enough to see them regain their citizenship.

“I have mixed feelings,” says Pauline. “I do feel very bad for the boys because they were put in a position that never should have happened. They were Canadian all their lives. But unfortunately, they do have to pay for the sins of their parents.”

If the Vavilov brothers ever do make it back to Canada, Tracey’s mother says she would appreciate one thing: a face-to-face meeting. “I want them to know what effect this has had on the two families,” she says. “I would like them to know the impact of what their parents did.”

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