Son of Russian spies relieved to keep Canadian citizenship
'I can move forward with my life and put these problems behind me,' Alexander Vavilov said
The son of a Russian spy couple who lived clandestine lives in Canada and the United States said Friday that he wants a future in Canada after the country's Supreme Court ruled he can keep his Canadian citizenship.
Alexander Vavilov was born in Toronto, which would typically qualify him for Canadian citizenship. But authorities had ruled that Vavilov didn't qualify because his parents were part of a Russian spy ring in North America that was broken up by the FBI in 2010.
The high court rejected that finding on Thursday, meaning Vavilov can reside permanently in the country where his parents once lived clandestine lives as deeply embedded spies who were the models for the TV show The Americans.
"It's a huge relief," Vavilov said at a news conference after flying to Toronto from Russia. "I am happy to be back in Canada, to be here without this constant doubt in my head, with the ability to finally put down roots and build a life for myself. It's going to take time. But I'm happy I can move forward with my life and put these problems behind me."
Vavilov, 25, said he works in finance but said it's been difficult to find work. He said people trust him, but companies don't want to be associated with his espionage story. "It's been difficult, a lot of anguish and stress," he said.
As he waits for the ruling on his citizenship, he's been bouncing around countries in the Middle East and Asia. He said it's "hard to say" where he now resides, though he flew in from Russia. He declined to comment on life in Russia under Vladimir Putin.
Who is entitled to citizenship?
The Canadian government argued he wasn't entitled to citizenship and appealed to the Supreme Court to annul the passport granted to him by a lower court. The top court upheld that ruling.
Vavilov's supporters said a son shouldn't pay for the sins of his parents, while critics contend his claim to be a Canadian by birth was based on fraud since he and his parents lived under stolen identities in the Toronto area and later Massachusetts as they collected intelligence for Moscow.
He said he has mended his relationship with his parents. He said it's OK now after initial difficulties after they were arrested.
"I understand their decisions now. They did what they did for patriotic reasons. They wanted to help their country to fight for peace and better understanding between the countries," he said. "Although I suffered through the result of all this, but I have an understanding of why they did what they did. In their position maybe they shouldn't have had children, but that's not to say I'm not happy to be alive and be here."
In the dark about his parents' dealings
Canada, like the U.S., grants citizenship to anyone born within its territory with limited exceptions, such as the children of diplomats. The government argued that Vavilov's parents were employees or representatives of a foreign government and thus ineligible. Vavilov's lawyer argued that they were not official representatives and that all that matters in this case is their physical birthplace.
The parents came to Toronto in the 1980s and took the names Donald Heathfield and Tracey Ann Foley. They then gave birth to two sons — Timothy in 1990 and Alexander in 1994 — before moving to Paris in 1995 and then Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1999.
In 2010, the FBI arrested a ring of sleeper agents for Russia that it had been following for years in the United States. All 10, including the now well-known Anna Chapman, pleaded guilty and were returned to Russia in a swap. Vavilov had not been to Russia before.
Vavilov said he had no idea his parents were spies and that he was surprised and confused at their arrest. "I thought the FBI had the wrong house," he said. "I did not believe it."
The family's story became the inspiration for The Americans. He said he and his parents have watched the show.
"My parents said they enjoyed watching it, because it at least portrayed the sense of patriotism and the sense of connection. It's a good show," he said.
The FBI agent who oversaw the arrests said in 2010 that Timothy Vavilov may have found out about his parents' secret life before they were arrested.
Alex called it nonsense and said his parents would never have put them in jeopardy by telling them that. The brothers weren't charged. "He's over the moon," he said of his brother.
Their lawyer said no evidence had ever surfaced suggesting the sons knew their parents were Russians or were spies.
Alexander Vavilov wanted to return to Canada for university but was denied. The government ruled Canada would no longer recognize him as Canadian because his parents were "employees or representatives of a foreign government."
Criticism of the decision
After losing in a lower court, Vavilov won support from the Federal Court of Appeal, which ruled in 2017 that the law applies only to foreign government employees who benefit from diplomatic immunities or privileges. Vavilov was given his citizenship back.
In its decision, the Supreme Court said the citizenship registrar's decision was unreasonable. Although the registrar knew her interpretation of the provision was novel, she failed to provide a proper rationale, the court said.
Although it involves the same central issue, Timothy Vavilov's case proceeded separately through the courts and was not directly before the Supreme Court. However, in a decision last year, the Federal Court of Appeal said its 2017 ruling on Alexander Vavilov equally applied to his brother, making him a citizen.
Former FBI agent Richard DesLauriers, who oversaw the arrest of the couple, Andrey Bezrukov and Elena Vavilova, and the other eight sleeper agents criticized the high court's decision on Thursday. DesLauriers called it ridiculous.