Son of Russian spies regains Canadian citizenship after 10-year court battle

Alex Vavilov was stripped of citizenship after the FBI arrested and deported his parents form the US in 2010

Alex Vavilov, right, and his older brother, Tim, leave a federal court after a bail hearing for their parents in Boston, Massachusetts, on 1 July 2010. Photograph: Elise Amendola/AP

The son of two deep-cover Russian spies says he feels “an overwhelming sense of relief” after winning his long-running battle to regain his Canadian citizenship. Alex Vavilov was stripped of his citizenship after the FBI arrested and deported his parents from the US in 2010, exposing their Canadian backstories as fake.

“The judges said that Mr Vavilov was a Canadian citizen,” Canada’s supreme court ruled on Thursday, upholding an earlier federal court ruling that the decision to strip Vavilov of citizenship was unreasonable. The government had appealed the decision.

“After 10 long years of fighting for my most basic rights I can take a moment’s rest. I feel vindicated that the courts ultimately supported my own beliefs regarding my citizenship,” Alex told the Guardian by telephone. He plans to give a press conference in Toronto on Friday.

Alex was born in Toronto in 1994 and grew up, along with his older brother, Tim, believing his parents were the Canadian citizens Tracy Foley and Donald Heathfield, who later became naturalised Americans. The family’s life was upended on Tim’s 20th birthday in 2010, when the FBI raided the house outside Boston and arrested Foley and Heathfield as part of a swoop to detain 10 Russian spies, whose cover had been blown by a defector.

It transpired that Tim and Alex’s parents were really Elena Vavilova and Andrei Bezrukov – career KGB agents who had gone through a multi-year training scheme for Russia’s “illegals” programme, and were dispatched abroad under false identities. They kept their cover even as the Soviet Union collapsed and continued to serve the new Russia.

Earlier this year, Elena told the Guardian in an interview in Moscow that she married Bezrukov in the Soviet Union before departing for the west, but the pair left separately, staged a meeting in Canada and then married for a second time using their new Canadian identities. They never spoke Russian together and raised their children speaking a mixture of English and French.

In an interview with the Guardian in 2016, both brothers said they had no suspicions about their parents’ real identities while growing up, and the raid and subsequent upheaval in their lives came as a shock. They said it was unfair that they were being punished for their parents’ decisions.

“I feel like I have been stripped of my own identity for something I had nothing to do with,” Alex said at the time. Both brothers also faced trouble travelling and obtaining visas on their new Russian passports.

Tim won his own case for citizenship last year, meaning both brothers now have their Canadian identities restored with no further right of appeal for the state and their lengthy legal battles are over.

The court case hinged on a provision of Canadian citizenship law whereby anyone born in Canada is eligible for citizenship except employees of foreign governments. The Canadian government had argued that the secret work of Elena and Bezrukov should cancel their sons’ right to citizenship, but the supreme court disagreed.

“It’s been many difficult years, and I’m sure I still have many challenges to face, but I can finally once again indisputably and confidently call myself a Canadian. I hope this can be another step in my goal to regain a normal life, where I am no longer harassed in the name of political differences,” said Alex.

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