Operation Ghost Stories: The True Story of the Russian Illegals Portrayed in FX’s The Americans

  • All twelve operatives were arrested by the FBI under an investigation known as Operation Ghost Stories.
  • The show noted the case of Vavilova and Bezrukov is classified by Russia for 50 years or until the year 2060.
  • The popular show in the US The Americans is based on their story.

Russian state sponsored television aired a spook program this week. Russia (the government’s official channel) televised an exclusive interview with retired Colonel Elena Vavilova (aka Tracey Foley) and her husband Andrey Bezrukov (aka Donald Hattfield). These two agents were arrested by the FBI on June 27, 2010 at their residence in Massachusetts and charged with espionage.

Through the information provided by Russian defector Colonel Aleksandr Poteyev, the ostensibly American couple were identified by Pateev as part of a larger group of Russian intelligence officers that infiltrated the United States and were living seemingly normal American lives. All twelve operatives were arrested by the FBI under an investigation known as Operation Ghost Stories.

The Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation or SVR RF is Russia’s external intelligence agency, focusing mainly on civilian affairs. The SVR RF succeeded the First Chief Directorate (PGU) of the KGB in December 1991. The SVR has its headquarters in the Yasenevo District of Moscow.

Ultimately, all were released via a spy swap that occurred in Vienna, Austria on July 2010. They faced sentences for espionage of approximately 30 years in prison. The spy swap included now famous Sergei Skripal, Igor Sutiagin, Gennadiy Vasilenko and Alexander Zaporozsky.  All were convicted in Russia for espionage, Skripal was later poisoned in the UK, allegedly by Russian colonels. Aleksandr Poteyev is currently wanted on international warrants. The show claimed he went on the run under false identities and there were rumors he was dead. Such information is not proven or disproven at this time. He may be living in the United States under an assumed identity.

The interview, via talk show setting meant to glamorize the spy profession, included a romantic wedding setting and told the couple’s love story in the city of Tomsk. It sounded more like a recruiting session for the new crop of Russian university students, and additional social engineering propaganda.

The show noted the case of Vavilova and Bezrukov is classified by Russia for 50 years or until the year 2060.

The Russian television program showed a polygraph taken by Elena Vavilova and a second one under the alias Tracey Lee Foley– she passed both times. The reasoning behind passing both polygraphs is based on remaining calm and fully assuming both characters. The excerpt was designed to interest the modern Russian youth.

The false identities originally assumed were from two Canadians who had passed away at a young age.

As far as technical aspects, the show revealed how to make a dead drop: using a regular pop can, cutting out the top, putting information inside and dropping it off at a designated location. In order to improve their linguistic skills, the couple had to memorize and recite whole movie roles, and other repetitive dialogues, in English and French, until their pronunciation was perfected and their Russian accents dropped– including not allowing themselves to ever use the Russian language for the whole duration of their life in the West.

The Americans is an American period spy thriller television series created by Joe Weisberg for the FX television network. Set in the 1980s during the Cold War, it is the story of Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), two Soviet KGB officers posing as an American married couple living in Falls Church, a Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C., with their children. Season 1 begins shortly after the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan in January 1981. Season 6 ends in December 1987, shortly before the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

The popular show in the US The Americans is based on their story. However, the fictional show portrays props, wigs and murders– which was not part of the scope of operation for Vavilova and Bezrukov.

There is an interesting fact about Soviet era spying provided by Elizabeth Mukasey another Russian spy. She claimed to have used a vacuum with an antenna attached in order to transmit information. When asked during the show, the modern era spies claimed they had antennas as well but refused to divulge additional information on the specifics.

Last month Elena Vavilova and Andrey Bronnikov co-wrote a book: A woman who can keep secrets.

The surprising element in the show was an appearance by Gene Coyle via video conference. He is a former CIA field operative who was stationed in Moscow from 1984-1986. His mission was to recruit foreign diplomats to work for the CIA. The three questions asked by Gene Coyle on the show:

  1. Why did the Russian spy couple have children, specifically in Canada? The answer provided was their desire to have a family, as well as maintaining the facade and to solidify their legend under false identities.
  2. How did the Russian spies feel about being spied on themselves? It was not a surprise, they replied. Just part of their career choice. They reiterated that of the 24 years they spent spying in the West, they had only been caught and surveilled the last few years prior to their arrest in 2010.
  3. Upon their return to Moscow, they met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and is it true that he is a good singer? The answer the couple gave was that they sang a lot of patriotic songs from the Soviet era and it was done with soul.

In conclusion, the show seemed to have an informative angle and yet it was clearly created as a recruiting tool for a new wave of Russian spies. The program referenced the pioneer movement during the Soviet era and the obligation of Russian nationals to keep secrets. Add in the patriotic slogans and the mention of a duty to serve Russia and you know you’re watching prime time propaganda.

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Christina Kitova

I spent most of my professional life in finance, insurance risk management litigation.

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