Fast forward seventy years: if the life story of Isaiah Oggins will surprise those who identify spies with the cold war and the cold war imagination, the life story of Andrei Bezrukov, alias Donald Howard Heathfield, will come as an even bigger shock. The stories of Bezrukov and his wife, Yelena Vavilova, alias Tracey Lee Ann Foley, are brilliantly told in Deception, Edward Lucas’s book on contemporary Russian spies. Like his predecessors in Manchukuo, Bezrukov was an illegal, operating under deep cover. “Donald Heathfield” was the name of a dead Canadian child whose passport he used and whose identity he stole. But as with all of the most effective illegals, much else about Bezrukov was genuine. Arriving in Canada in 1992, he really had studied international economics at York University in Toronto as his website declared, and he really had earned a master’s degree in public administration at Harvard. He had also really worked as a management consultant, sold a decision-making software system called “FutureMap,” and wrote an academic paper for an Oxford colloquium on “Future Studies.” He really had a son at Georgetown University. His wife worked as a real estate broker in Cambridge; on her website she wrote of her “ability to ensure quality service, honesty and integrity.”
Just as their Italian airplane company gave Oggins and Steinberg an insider’s view of wartime Japan, Bezrukov’s management consulting company gave him an insider’s view of what Lucas calls the “the think-tank world: the soft under-belly of the American security and intelligence community, where retired officials, those hoping for jobs, and those taking a break from government mix and mingle with outsiders.” Once he had been accepted in Cambridge and Washington, Bezrukov assiduously promoted his software to companies with international and defense links, attempting to cultivate relationships with people like Leon Fuerth, Al Gore’s former national security adviser. He developed professional ties in Europe and Asia as well, and though he exaggerated his professional successes, he was hired as a consultant by at least one French company.
He might have gone even farther—he was trying to persuade several companies to install his software, perhaps in order to insert spyware into their clients’ systems—but in June 2010 Bezrukov/Heathfield and his wife were arrested, along with eight other Russians illegals. Some had been living for many years in the United States, buried deep in suburbia and doing very average-sounding, even inconsequential jobs. At the time, they were ridiculed, particularly when one of the illegals, Anna Chapman—maiden name Anna Khushchyenko—turned out to be an unusually attractive redhead with a fluffy-sounding career in “international real estate.”
Lucas points out that this was deliberate: “Spies need to seem as boring and inconspicuous as possible, to develop the capabilities that their real jobs require.” Some need jobs—in international real estate, perhaps—that allow them to meet a wide range of people without attracting suspicion. Others, like Bezrukov, a man whose “striking quality was blandness,” had labored for many years to acquire more solid professional credentials, hoping eventually to gain access to people with real power.
Lucas traced the activities of these modern spies with the same kind of attention to detail as Meier used to uncover the activities of Oggins. He discovered that the apparently silly Anna Chapman was entangled, along with her ex-KGB father, in what seems to have been a complicated effort to launder money in Zimbabwe—a scheme involving a British-registered company with a phantom owner and several cases of identity theft. Bezrukov/Heathfield, as noted, had made himself into a plausible “consultant.” Another member of the group, Mikhail Semenko, was touting his genuine academic credentials—he spoke Mandarin and Spanish as well as English and Russian—in an effort to get a job at a think tank.
Some of these spies shared certain qualities with their 1930s predecessors. Espionage still attracts “a certain kind of person, often flawed or troubled,” who is willing to “shed the social mores that hamper deceiving, cheating and manipulating people.” But none of them appears at all motivated by the kind of ideological conviction that sent someone like Isaiah Oggins to Paris and Berlin, or that led Ignace Reiss to write an anguished letter to Stalin, accusing his Politburo of having betrayed the Russian worker.
Instead, they were attracted to the opportunities and the material goods available to them in the West. Their missives back and forth to Moscow concerned not the ideals of the revolution, but the houses they felt they had to buy or the private schools they felt their children had to attend—in order to maintain their cover, of course. Life in a New Jersey suburb had clear advantages over life in Tomsk, the original home of one of the couples. Chapman is said to have wept “buckets” when she learned that her British passport had been revoked—she obtained it through a short-lived marriage—and that she would never be able to return to the US or the UK. Bezrukov appeared deeply attached to his phony consultant’s career, and has apparently tried to continue the same line of work in Moscow.
The attitude of the Russian state toward its foreign agents has also changed. At least in public, spies are no longer figures of suspicion. Russia’s current president, Vladimir Putin, is himself a former spy, and espionage is a part of his biography that he chooses to celebrate. Upon returning to Russia, the expelled American illegals were duly lionized by the Russian media as heroes who had been cruelly evicted by vicious traitors and the wicked FBI. Chapman became a national icon, with her own column and television show, even joining a youth group linked to the Russian president. Paradoxically, she was lauded as a symbol of upward mobility and success—success in London and New York, of course, not Moscow. But that is precisely the kind of success many Russians want. Unlike their Soviet predecessors, Russia’s contemporary elite openly craves the material goods of the West, and openly admires those who get them.
The feeling is not mutual, which is why Russia will always have an advantage over the West in the deployment of illegals. Clever and educated Russians will compete hard to become long-term (and heavily subsidized) residents of the American suburbs, and once they arrive they find it easy to fit in. Nowadays, there’s nothing at all unusual about a Russian accent in New Jersey. Some of the recent batch of spies, Chapman included, never even bothered to change their names. But the reverse is much harder to imagine: How many Americans would agree to spend twenty years in suburban Tomsk, living under deep cover (or even light cover), and how many could convincingly pretend to be Russian for that length of time? Historically, Western intelligence agencies don’t have a great track record for this sort of thing. Lucas has a chapter in his book dedicated to a famously disastrous British-American attempt to parachute anti-Communist illegals into the Baltic states after World War II. The plan was revealed before it was enacted to Soviet counterintelligence by Kim Philby himself, and never had a chance of success; the “partisans” who greeted the men as they dropped into Lithuanian and Estonian villages were all employees of the KGB.
Somewhat lost in the amused publicity that surrounded the more recent espionage scandal was the question of what the new generation spies were actually doing in the United States, and how great a threat they really posed. “Russian Spies Too Useless, Sexy to Prosecute” was the headline in New York magazine. Lucas vehemently disagrees with this “oddly complacent” attitude, arguing that Russia “uses its intelligence agencies as part of a broad and malevolent effort to penetrate our society and skew our decision-making.” Though many reviewers have disagreed with his analysis—after all, none of the illegals, at least the ones we know about, ever did get close to anyone remotely important—it is also true that, when seen in the longer light of Russian, Soviet, and KGB history, his view gains strength.
Modern Russian foreign policy—like Soviet foreign policy before it—often has mutually contradictory goals. On the one hand, the Russian ruling class, dominated as it is by former members of the KGB, genuinely wants stable and open relationships with the West. Russian businessmen want to trade, to travel, and to live abroad, and they don’t want to jeopardize their access. But at the same time, this same Russian ruling class would very much like to skew Western institutions—banks, think tanks, the media, government bureaucracies—so as to make the West more comfortable for themselves.
To put it differently, the members of the Russian elite may no longer aspire to launch international Communist revolution, as they did in the 1930s. But they do aspire to change the Western norms and behavior that they see as standing in their way: they want to make Americans and European less interested in human rights, more accepting of corruption, and perhaps more amenable to Russian investment and Russian oligarchs. To some degree, they can try to do so openly. Their money buys them the services of retired Western officials, including a former German chancellor, as well as access to public relations firms, advertising agencies, and lawyers.
But there may be times when they need some clandestine means to pursue these goals as well. Even if Anna Chapman, “Donald Heathfield,” and the others never got very far in their bid to penetrate elite America, they were in a position to handle illegal money, pass along information, and generally do and say the kinds of things the Russian government prefers not to do and say openly. Besides, a great deal of time and money were invested in their education, their living expenses, their travel. Someone cared a good deal about creating and maintaining their cover stories—and that alone is evidence that someone thought they were important.