After a buffet lunch, the four returned home and opened a bottle of champagne to toast Tim reaching his third decade. The brothers were tired; they had thrown a small house party the night before to mark Alex’s return from Singapore, and Tim planned to go out later. After the champagne, he went upstairs to message his friends about the evening’s plans. There came a knock at the door, and Tim’s mother called up that his friends must have come early, as a surprise.
At the door, she was met by a different kind of surprise altogether: a team of armed, black-clad men holding a battering ram. They streamed into the house, screaming, “FBI!” Another team entered from the back; men dashed up the stairs, shouting at everyone to put their hands in the air. Upstairs, Tim had heard the knock and the shouting, and his first thought was that the police could be after him for underage drinking: nobody at the party the night before had been 21, and Boston police took alcohol regulations seriously.
When he emerged on to the landing, it became clear the FBI was here for something far more serious. The two brothers watched, stunned, as their parents were put in handcuffs and driven away in separate black cars. Tim and Alex were left behind with a number of agents, who said they needed to begin a 24-hour forensic search of the home; they had prepared a hotel room for the brothers. One of the men told them their parents had been arrested on suspicion of being “unlawful agents of a foreign government”.
The FBI indictment detailing their misdeeds was a catalogue of espionage cliches: dead drops, brush-pasts, coded messages and plastic bags stuffed with crisp dollar bills. The footage of a plane carrying the 10 touching down at Vienna airport, to be swapped for four Russians who had been held in Russian prisons on charges of spying for the west, brought back memories of the cold war. The media had a field day with the Bond-girl looks of 28-year-old Anna Chapman, one of two Russians arrested not to have pretended to be of western origin; she worked as an international estate agent in Manhattan. Russia didn’t know whether to be embarrassed or emboldened: its agents had been busted, but what other country would think of mounting such a complex, slow-drip espionage operation in the first place?
For Alex and Tim, the geopolitics behind the spy swap was the least of their worries. The pair had grown up as ordinary Canadians, and now discovered they were the children of Russian spies. Ahead of them was a long flight to Moscow, and an even longer emotional and psychological journey.
Nearly six years since the FBI raid, I meet Alex in a cafe near the Kiev railway station in Moscow. He is now officially Alexander Vavilov; his brother is Timofei Vavilov, though many of their friends still use their old surname, Foley. Alex is 21, his still-boyish looks offset by a serious manner and businesslike clothes: black V-neck over a crisp white shirt. A gentle North American lilt and the careful aspiration of final consonants give him the unplaceable accent of those who have been schooled internationally – in Paris, Singapore and the US. These days, he speaks enough Russian to order lunch, but is by no means fluent. He is studying in a European city and is here to visit his parents; Tim works in finance in Asia. (In the interests of privacy, both brothers have asked me not to reveal details about their working lives.)