Canada·Exclusive

Son of Russian spies returns to Canada after government loses fight to keep him out

After a long legal battle, a young man born to Russian spies is back in Toronto with a Canadian passport and dreams of breaking into investment banking. "I don’t pose a threat," he told CBC News in an exclusive interview. "I’m a Canadian citizen and I’m here to make my own life.”

'I don’t pose a threat. I’m a Canadian citizen and I’m here to make my own life'

Alex Vavilov is back in Canada and has a Canadian passport while the Supreme Court decides whether to hear his case. Vavilov, 23, was raised in Canada; his parents were elite KGB agents who were returned to Russia as part of a spy swap. (John Badcock/CBC)

The last time Alex Vavilov was in North America, swarms of FBI agents burst into his family home and arrested his parents for being deep-cover Russian spies, leading to the largest spy swap since the Cold War and sending him to Russia, a land he'd never known.

"It was traumatizing," Vavilov explained in an exclusive interview with CBC News. "I had no idea what was happening."

Now, after a six-year legal battle, the 23-year-old is back in Toronto with a Canadian passport and dreams of breaking into Toronto's investment banking sector. Since his return, he has visited the hospital where he was born and the Toronto house he was a toddler in and has sent photos back to Russia for his parents to see.

But his parents are former elite KGB agents who can never visit him here.

"Yes, they can't come here and that is their punishment," said Vavilov. "But for me, why should I suffer for anything they have done?"

Andrei Olegovich Bezrukov, aka Donald Heathfield, with sons Alex and Timothy in Niagara Falls, Ont., in the 1990s. (Family handout)

The Canadian government doesn't see it that way. It has argued in court that Vavilov was never a Canadian citizen to begin with — because his parents were employees of a foreign government stationed in Canada. But that provision applies to the Canadian-born children of diplomats.

The Supreme Court is now reviewing the case but, until it decides what to do, a lower court ordered Ottawa to issue a passport to Vavilov. He received it in March.  

Cold War double life

Vavilov's parents were among the rarest and most secretive of intelligence agents. They slipped into Canada in the 1980s and assumed the names of two babies who'd died: Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley. Their mission: deeply immerse themselves in Western society, establish connections to powerful circles and "sleep" until activated by their intelligence masters, according to the FBI.

In the 1990s, their sons were born in Toronto —Timothy first, and Alex four years later. Heathfield was even featured in a newspaper article that celebrated the diaper delivery service he started. 

During their time in Canada, Vavilov's father was featured in an innocuous Toronto Star article about the diaper delivery service he started with a partner. (Toronto Star)

When Vavilov was two, the family moved to France. And then they moved back across the Atlantic, establishing themselves near Boston. Little did they know, American authorities would quickly be on their case — tracking them, and others like them. 

Alex said he had no idea. He said it was when the FBI came crashing in one day in 2010, a few days after he had returned from a study abroad in Singapore, that he first learned of his parents' double life. 

It was his older brother Timothy's birthday. American intelligence officials have alleged, though never provided proof, that Timothy was in on it. 

Vavilov called the assertion ridiculous.

"I understand suspicions but we've categorically refused them," he said.

Alex Vavilov, left, with his older brother Timothy in Bangkok. (Family photo)

"My brother and I being so public now. How would it make any sense to follow in any kind of work my parents did. It just doesn't make any sense."

The family's story was so extraordinary, it inspired the FX Network's hit show The Americans. Vavilov has seen some of the series, so have his parents, who he said are now wealthy from business in Russia. He told CBC it reminds them of the initial excitement of their assignment.

Battle to return

Vavilov's parents pleaded guilty and were returned to Russia in exchange for American agents and informants, who'd been jailed in the former Soviet state.

The 10 Russian agents were part of a high-stakes spy swap on the Vienna airport tarmac in exchange for four Russians, who'd provided information to the West. They included Sergei Skripal, who is back in the news after being poisoned by a nerve agent this year in Britain — an attack blamed on Russia.

Vavilov and his brother were sent back to Russia along with their parents, though they'd never been to Russia and spoke no Russian.

But they wanted to return and argued they had a legal right to do so. They were born in Canada, had citizenship, but Ottawa refused to issue them passports to travel.

FBI agents are shown outside the Cambridge, Mass., home of Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley in 2010. (Richard Stanley/Associated Press)

Vavilov challenged the decision in court, but lost. So he appealed, and the court ruled in his favour in 2017, saying he fell into a narrow legal crack.

Normally, the children of foreign government employees are not eligible for citizenship. But that exception is reserved for diplomats and others with state immunity. Vavilov's lawyers argued his family enjoyed no such protection or status. The Russian Embassy wouldn't acknowledge its role when they were caught.

Three Supreme Court justices are now reviewing Vavilov's case to determine whether it warrants a hearing. If they decide to hold one, he will face one last legal hurdle.

Timothy, left, and his brother Alex Vavilov are shown leaving federal court after a bail hearing for their parents in Boston in 2010. (Elise Amendola/Associated Press)

"I wish they would drop the case or let it go," he said of the federal Liberals.

"I think we've proven in court that we're completely innocent. There's no charges against me or my brother. We're completely innocent. I just want to live my life."

Return to Canada

Some in Canada's spy community don't want Vavilov or his brother here.

"Those young men are Russian citizens and ought to be the responsibility of the Russian government," said Andy Ellis, a former assistant director of operations for CSIS. "I'm not sure we ought to grant an insurance policy to individuals who were in the country illegally."

Vavilov said it's fair for his parents to face consequences, but not him.

After most unusual teenage years, he is now seeking the ordinary. He's finished his studies in Europe and hopes to get a banking job in Canada.  

"I've been through quite extreme circumstances ... but haven't accomplished much personally," he said. 

"I'm hoping that I can achieve or build something of my own. I hope this isn't the end of my interesting life story."

Vavilov hopes potential employers see it that way, too.

If he's asked about his part in a tale of international intrigue, double lives, espionage and spy swaps, he'll stick to his own story.

"I don't pose a threat. I'm a Canadian citizen and I'm here to make my own life."

About the Author

David Common is a host & senior correspondent with CBC News.