The Americans: the real Russian spies

A tangled tale of espionage in America's suburbs was inspired by the biggest Russian spy ring since the Cold War, says Tony Halpin

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They were the spies who came in from the suburbs, undercover Russian agents who had lived for years as ordinary Americans while secretly working for the Kremlin. When the FBI sensationally arrested ten so-called “illegal” operatives in the United States in 2010, it exposed a plot more astounding than any spy novel and triggered the biggest espionage drama between Washington and Moscow since the Cold War.

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For days, many of the arrested Russians denied even that they were Russian, clinging desperately to American identities that in some cases had been carefully constructed for decades. Attention particularly focused on glamorous redhead Anna Chapman – a diplomat’s daughter dubbed “Agent 36-24-36” for her Bond-girl looks – who returned to Moscow as the world’s most famous pin-up spy.

Chapman, 28, who held a British passport after a brief marriage to a man she met in London, went from undercover to overexposed by posing in lingerie for a Russian men’s magazine. She later became a TV presenter in Moscow and flirted with a political career by joining Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia party.

Details of the other arrested illegals, however, demonstrated a fanatical readiness to serve Mother Russia. The story also inspired a television hit in the US that’s now on ITV. Like the fictional KGB agents in The Americans, the real-life spies posed as married couples embedded deep in their communities and had children who seemingly knew nothing of their parents’ double lives.

When the FBI raided the New Jersey home of Vladimir and Lidia Guryev, who claimed to be Richard and Cynthia Murphy and had daughters aged 11 and 9, one shocked neighbour observed: “They couldn’t have been spies. Look what she did with the hydrangeas.”

Just as in the TV show married sleeper agents Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings (played by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) remain undetected for years, the Guryevs had lived in the US leading apparently normal suburban lives. Arriving in America in the 1990s, they were ordered to report to “Moscow centre” or C as part of a programme of penetration first established by the Soviet Union’s feared KGB secret police.

Unlike “legal” operatives sent abroad to spy from embassies, illegal agents were given false identities and expected to gather sensitive information without diplomatic cover by infiltrating organisations in their target country.

The arrests showed that Russia under Putin, himself a former KGB agent in East Germany, remains determined to spy on its old adversary despite the collapse of Communism. In one intercepted message from Moscow, the Guryevs’ handlers told them: “You were sent to USA for long-term service trip. Your education, bank accounts, car, house – all these serve one goal: fulfil your main mission… to search and develop ties in policymaking circles and send intels [intelligence reports] to C.”

The ambitious scale of the project was indicated by the arrest of photographer Juan Lazaro, who had lived in New York for 25 years with his wife, Peruvian journalist Vicky Pelaez. He was unmasked as Mikhail Vasenkov, one of Russia’s most experienced spies, active since the 1960s. Pelaez, who had a son with Vasenkov, claimed to have known nothing of her husband’s real identity but later admitted that she too was a Russian spy.

US officials denied the group ever managed to acquire important information and claimed to have had them under observation for years after a double agent inside Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR, betrayed their fake identities to the CIA. Alexander Poteyev, who was deputy director of the SVR’s Department S, in charge of undercover operations in the US, fled to America just before FBI agents swooped to break up the largest spy ring since the Cold War ended.

Surveillance evidence showed illegals using private wi-fi networks to exchange coded bursts of data from laptop computers, with Russian diplomats waiting nearby. Some were filmed at “dead drop” pick-ups of material, while invisible ink and exchanges of identical bags were also used to contact handlers. Anna Chapman was accused of using her laptop to send data from a coffee shop and a book store to a Russian official.

Humiliated, Moscow handed over four Russians jailed as alleged spies for the CIA and Britain’s MI6 in return for the ten in the US. The exchange took place at Vienna International Airport in Austria, where both sides flew in for a synchronised spy swap straight from a Hollywood thriller.

Putin, then prime minister but now president once again, welcomed the illegals back as patriotic heroes. He blamed their exposure on “treachery” and told reporters that he had joined them in singing From Where the Motherland Begins – Putin’s favourite song, and the unofficial anthem of Russian intelligence. It comes from a 1968 Soviet film, The Shield and the Sword, about a KGB spy working under cover in Nazi Germany whose German is so good that he infiltrates the highest echelons of Hitler’s SS.

Putin promised his heroes good jobs and “an interesting and bright life”, while warning darkly that things would “end badly” for the man who had betrayed them. A Kremlin official told a Russian newspaper a death squad had been dispatched to America to try to assassinate the double agent.

President Dmitry Medvedev presented all ten spies with top government awards. Chapman, whose British citizenship was revoked after the scandal, has since been spotted regularly on Moscow’s nightclub scene, while the others have slipped back into obscurity.

With another spy scandal currently raging in Moscow – over a US diplomat arrested and expelled as a CIA agent for allegedly trying to recruit a Russian informant – the war in the shadows goes on. Western intelligence agencies are certain that Russia’s “illegals” programme also continues. A recent report claimed that two of those arrested by the FBI had even planned to recruit one of their sons as an illegal, creating the next generation of Russian spies in America.

Tony Haplin was Moscow’s bureau chief of The Times from 2006 – 2012. 

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The Americans starts on Saturday at 10:00pm on ITV