This story contains spoilers about the current season of FX’s “The Americans.”
Two Russian spies living in the U.S. with two teenage children. It sounds like the stuff of fiction, and in fact it is — that’s the premise of Cold War family drama “The Americans,” which is currently airing its fourth season on FX. But it was also real life for brothers Alexander and Timothy Vavilov (formerly Foley), whose parents, “Donald Heathfield” (born Andrei Olegovich Bezrukov) and “Tracey Foley” (born Elena Vavilova), were arrested by the FBI in the breakup of a 10-person Russian spy ring in 2010.
The brothers had thought of themselves as Canadians all their lives: That was where they’d been born, and it was their home, though their family had long lived in the United States. Their father was a consultant; their mother, a real estate agent. “It seemed all my friends’ parents led much more exciting and successful lives,” Alexander Vavilov told the Guardian in a recent interview. After the FBI raid, their Canadian citizenship was revoked.
“The Americans” has won universal critical acclaim this season for showing the toll a life built on lies can take — on a marriage, a family, a single psyche. “Americans” creator Joe Weisberg was himself a CIA operative, and facts about the KGB’s “illegals” program in the 1980s form the basis of the show. But it’s eerie to see so many details from the stories, separated by time and fiction, line up, as shown the Guardian’s article on the brothers’ post-raid lives.
On “The Americans,” Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, respectively) have lived as average U.S. citizens for decades while carrying out their myriad missions to infiltrate U.S. intelligence. They love each other, and they love their children, Paige and Henry, and they love their country. Always behind that love lay a clock ticking down, and the question: What happens when the numbers hit zero?
We haven’t quite reached zero hour yet, but it is fast approaching. At the end of last season, teenage daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) could no longer reconcile the lies from her “travel agent” parents, who themselves had been struggling with orders from the KGB to recruit her to the cause. (Younger son Henry, played by Keidrich Sallati, remains in the dark.) Philip and Elizabeth revealed themselves, and Paige revealed them to her pastor, and much of the current season has dealt with the themes of betrayal and collateral damage, all while the clock keeps ticking.
The Vavilovs’ story is that heartbreak writ real, with the added tragedy of being ripped from the only lives they knew and cast abroad, denied visas to the country they’d always considered home. “I feel like I have been stripped of my own identity for something I had nothing to do with,” Alexander Vavilov told the Guardian. His parents were recruited to serve their country early on, sent into the world, and had a family. The only thing missing is the FBI agent living next door in the television version.
In the brothers’ real-life story is the sadness of Martha (Alison Wright), the FBI secretary seduced and married by Philip (under yet another identity) on “The Americans,” unwittingly used for access to classified information until her bosses caught on. She was scooped up by the KGB and flown off to a new life — without the man who married her under false pretenses — in Russia. No friends, no family, no language and figured for a traitor by her colleagues.
We don’t yet know how “The Americans” will end: Philip and Elizabeth in prison? One or both dead? But the story of the two brothers from Canada tells us that whatever Philip and Elizabeth’s fate, it’s nothing compared to what’ll happen to the ones they love.