The Canadians? Sons of Cambridge sleeper cell spies fight for citizenship

Yelena Vavilova and Andrei Bezrukov led a secret life in this Cambridge home as they raised their sons, Alexander and Tim Vavilov.
Globe file photo
Yelena Vavilova and Andrei Bezrukov led a secret life in this Cambridge home as they raised their sons, Alexander and Tim Vavilov.

Canada’s highest court will ponder a bid for citizenship from the son of two Russian sleeper agents who operated secretly in Canada and later in the United States, settling for years on a quiet street near Harvard Square in Cambridge until the FBI came knocking on their door.

The Supreme Court of Canada last week said it would take up the case of Alexander Vavilov, the son of spies Yelena Vavilova and Andrei Bezrukov, who were part of a ring arrested in 2010 after a decadelong counterintelligence investigation. (The sleeper operation inspired the FX TV show “The Americans.”)

Vavilov and his older brother, Tim, are both seeking Canadian citizenship. The outcome of Tim’s case will hinge on his brother’s, said their attorney, Hadayt Nazami.


“I do know, from their perspective, the sooner this is resolved the better,” Nazami said.

Get Metro Headlines in your inbox:
The 10 top local news stories from metro Boston and around New England delivered daily.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Beatrice Fenelon, a spokeswoman for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, which has opposed the brothers’ citizenship bid, said, “In response to your query, it would be inappropriate for us to comment while this matter is before the Supreme Court.”

The parents, Vavilova and Bezrukov, assumed the identities of two dead Canadian citizens, Tracey Lee Ann Foley and Donald Howard Heathfield. They lived in Canada and eventually came to the United States, living on Trowbridge Street for a decade.

The brothers, who were 16 and 20 at the time of their parents’ arrest, have insisted that they did not know what their parents did, the Guardian reported in 2016. “I lived for 20 years believing that I was Canadian and I still believe I am Canadian, nothing can change that,” Tim wrote in a court affidavit in his citizenship case.

Alexander Vavilov was born in Canada in 1994. In August 2014, the Canadian government notified him that a certificate of Canadian citizenship issued to him in 2013 had been canceled — and he was no longer recognized as a citizen.


A lower court upheld the decision stripping his citizenship, while an appeals court found the decision was unreasonable, the high court said in announcing it would take the case. The government then sought to bring the case to the country’s highest court.

A key issue in the case is how to interpret a Canadian law that says everyone born in Canada is a citizen, except children born to a foreign diplomat “or other representative or employee in Canada of a foreign government” or an employee of such a person.

The appeals court “concluded that given the text, context and purpose of the provision [the law] targets only foreign government employees who benefit from diplomatic immunities or privileges,” the high court explained. Because the Vavilovs were undercover spies and didn’t get diplomatic privileges, that would mean the two sons could become citizens.

But the high court also said it wanted to determine whether the appeals court “defined and applied the appropriate standard or review to the decision.”

Vavilova and Bezrukov had undergone extensive training in spycraft, including invisible writing, codes and ciphers, and creation of a “cover profession,’’ a job used to mask their intelligence activities, the Globe reported in 2011.

Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report.