Toronto — The sons of two Russian “deep cover” spies are fighting to keep the Canadian citizenship they acquired while their parents were living in Toronto under assumed identities and secretly working for Russian intelligence.
Alexander and Timothy Vavilov, 21 and 25, are the children of Elena Vavilova and Andrey Bezrukov, Russian operatives who were sent to Canada to develop “legends” that would mask their spying activities in the United States.
The parents stole the identities of Tracey Foley and Donald Heathfield, Canadians who had died as infants. The couple maintained the fiction for two decades until they were arrested in 2010 and sent back to Russia in a spy swap.
The brothers also returned to Russia at the time but are now claiming they are Canadians, and they have taken the government to court to be recognized as such, arguing that since they were born in Toronto they have a right to citizenship.
“I am first and foremost Canadian,” Timothy Vavilov, whom Canadian intelligence accuses of being a Russian operative, wrote in an affidavit. “I have lived for 20 years believing that I was Canadian and still believe I am Canadian, nothing can change that.”
The younger brother wrote in his affidavit that his Canadian heritage was “an important part of who I am” and that he introduced himself as a Canadian. “It is the only culture I can associate with, and has been a cornerstone of my identity.”
But he has not lived in Canada since the age of one, when his parents, having established their Canadian legends, moved to France and then Boston, where they became naturalized American citizens under their fake Canadian identities.
Russia has a long record of sending “illegals” to Canada and other Western countries. While living seemingly ordinary lives, illegals embed themselves in their host countries, covertly advancing Moscow’s intelligence needs.
The Vavilov brothers’ parents were outed as illegals during Operation Ghost Stories, an FBI investigation that identified 10 Russian spies operating in the U.S. After pleading guilty, they were flown to Vienna and traded for four Russians who had been imprisoned by Moscow for spying.
The Canadian government appears to have briefly slipped up, granting Alexander Vavilov a study permit to attend the University of Toronto in 2012. The permit was later cancelled after officials figured out he was the son of Russian spies.
But the following year, the government sent him a certificate of Canadian citizenship. Passport Canada then agreed to renew his passport but officials changed their minds. The citizenship of both brothers was revoked last year. Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) sent them letters explaining that children born in Canada to representatives of foreign governments were not eligible for citizenship.
“It is interesting that it took so long for the authorities to realize that the application for citizenship was without merit, since they had already known that the parents’ citizenship was fraudulent,” said Toronto immigration lawyer Sergio Karas.
According to the CIC’s report on the brothers, obtained by the National Post, the parents were deployed to Canada “specifically for the task of stealing the identities of Canadians and building their respective legends prior to relocating to the United States, the ‘target country,’ as Canadians.”
The report said the couple worked for the Russian SVR Foreign Intelligence Service. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service believes the older sibling had signed on with the SVR, according to the report. “CSIS has since informed CIC that Timothy Vavilov had been ‘sworn in’ by the SVR prior to his parents’ arrest,” it said. “It is not know if Alexander has also pledged allegiance to the SVR.”
In his affidavit, Timothy Vavilov denied his parents were “grooming me for espionage” and accused Canadian authorities of trying to “tarnish our lives.” He said he and his brother had been “indirectly notified by top officials of the Canadian Secret Services” that they would lose their fight for citizenship.
“The representatives of the Canadian Secret Service stated that ‘if you continue, there will be consequences — for example, a campaign to publish damaging information about you in the press,’” he wrote. “I have a strong belief that the reason for the revocation is political and is not something we can influence.”
The Federal Court has not yet ruled on Timothy Vavilov’s case. But on Aug. 10, it upheld the government’s decision to revoke Alexander Vavilov’s citizenship, ruling he was not entitled to it because his parents were in Canada as foreign government employees.
“Anyone who moves to this country with the explicit goal of establishing a life to further a foreign intelligence operation, be it in this country or any other, is clearly doing so in the service of, or as an employee or representative, of a foreign government,” the court ruled.