Mikhail Vasenkov Dies at 79; His Spy Ring Inspired ‘The Americans’

He and his wife were among 10 Soviet sleeper agents who blended into American society before being exposed and deported in 2010. The TV series sprung from the episode.

Mikhail Vasenkov, the most senior of 10 Soviet sleeper agents who posed as ordinary citizens in the United States as they scouted potential recruits, and whose mass arrest and deportation in 2010 inspired the TV series “The Americans,” died on April 6. He was 79.

His death was announced by the Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation. The agency did not specify how or where he died, but he was interviewed as recently as December 2020 in Moscow.

When they were arrested, Mr. Vasenkov and his wife, Vicky Pelaez, a journalist, had been living undercover in a Soviet-owned two-story brick and stucco house in suburban Yonkers, N.Y., since immigrating from her native Peru in 1985.

Daniel Barry for The New York Times

They and eight others, part of a network of so-called illegals, were rounded up in a multiyear F.B.I. investigation, called Operation Ghost Stories, and pleaded guilty to failing to register as agents of a foreign government. They were then deported, flown to Europe on July 9, 2010, and swapped for four Russians who had been imprisoned in Moscow on charges of spying for the United States and Britain.

The arrests of the sleeper agents, including several couples with children and a self-styled New York socialite, Anna Chapman, generated the concept for “The Americans,” which was broadcast on FX beginning in 2013.

“That was absolutely the inspiration for the series,” Joe Weisberg, who developed the series with Joel Fields, told Time magazine in 2010.

Over six seasons, the drama, set in the 1980s, followed two Soviet undercover agents masquerading as a suburban Washington couple, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys), in a Cold War cat-and-mouse contest with federal agents.

Patrick Harbron/ FX

Mr. Vasenkov, operating as Juan Lazaro Sr., conducted what sounded more like a cat-and-slouch competition with federal counterintelligence agents. He and Ms. Pelaez didn’t shade their anti-American views, and they apparently neither collected nor delivered any secrets to Moscow.

When the spies were rounded up, the F.B.I. said that while “their intent from the start was serious, well-funded by the S.V.R.” — the Soviet intelligence service — “and far-ranging,” they “never got their hands on any classified documents.”

Whether for the benefit of eavesdroppers or because he was getting paid regardless, Mr. Vasenkov was recorded by federal agents telling his wife matter-of-factly that his Soviet handlers “say my information is of no value,” adding, “If they don’t like what I tell them, too bad.”

He was apparently the first of the Soviet agents to have been compromised, captured on tape as early as 2003 blithely instructing his wife on how to communicate with Moscow.

“When you go to Peru, I am going to write in invisible,” he said, according to a transcript, “and you’re going to pass them all of that in a book.” To which Ms. Pelaez replied, “Oh, O.K.”

When he was arrested, he told investigators that he “would not violate his loyalty” to the S.V.R. — “even for his son,” a teenager whom he would leave behind when he and his wife were deported.

When the 10 agents arrived in Moscow, Vladimir V. Putin, a former K.G.B. agent who was prime minister at the time, greeted them by lustily leading them in patriotic anthems and offering them a “bright life” in Mother Russia with a pension and a monthly stipend.

But Mr. Vasenkov, the senior spy among them, said no, thank you. He had not been looking forward to his return. He had not lived in his native Russia for decades (by then he spoke Russian with a Spanish accent), and his wife had never visited the country.

And so within weeks of landing in Moscow he decided instead to resume his false identity and return with his wife to Peru.

They did, in 2013.

In “Deception: Spies, Lies and How Russia Dupes the West” (2012), Edward Lucas wrote that while the infiltration by sleeper agents posed a serious threat to U.S. national security, “it is easy to mock the pointlessness of these people, apparently the least serious of the illegals, sent at vast trouble and expense of a foreign country in order to carry out tasks that most people manage with a mouse click.”

Nonetheless, in announcing Mr. Vasenkov’s death, the Russian security agency praised him in an obituary.

“At work in special conditions since 1975,” the obituary said, “he created and headed an illegal residency, which obtained valuable political information, which was highly appreciated.”

The agency openly identified him as a “former Russian spy and sleeper agent” — a covert infiltrator assigned to scout potential spies, assess vulnerable targets and stand ready to be activated in a crisis even decades later.

The S.V.R. said that Mr. Vasenkov had reached mandatory military retirement with the rank of colonel in 2004, without elaborating on why he had remained in New York for six more years before he was betrayed, the agency said, by a Soviet defector.

The agency’s announcement listed the medals and other commendations that Mr. Vasenkov had been awarded and characterized him as “a hardworking, honest and modest employee” who had been “prone to work associated with risk” and had shown “will, courage and resourcefulness.”

The couple’s son, Juan Lazaro Jr., who was 17 at the time of their arrest and already an accomplished pianist, declined to accompany them back to Russia. He was finishing his studies at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts in Manhattan at the time. According to a résumé, he later graduated from the Juilliard School and studied at the Mannes School of Music in Manhattan, part of the New School, and still lives in New York.

Ms. Pelaez’s stepson from a previous relationship, Waldo Mariscal, an architect who was 38 at the time, also remained in the United States. He now lives in Peru with his mother, according to her lawyer, Carlos Moreno. She and her sons are among Mr. Vasenkov’s survivors, Mr. Moreno said.

Mikhail Anatolyevich Vasenkov was born on Oct. 9, 1942, into what his obituary described as a family of workers in Kuntsevo, a town outside Moscow. (Stalin had a dacha there.) The family moved to Siberia some time after the German invasion during World War II.

Mikhail graduated from the Moscow Higher Combined Arms Command School. Trained in English and Spanish, he flew from Madrid to Lima in 1976 on a Uruguayan passport under the name of Juan Jose Lazaro Fuentes, an identity he had stolen from a Uruguayan who had died of respiratory failure in 1947 at the age of 3.

Described as a freelance news photographer with a black belt in karate, he was granted Peruvian citizenship in 1979. In 1983, “with the sanction” of the spy service, according to the Russian security service, he married Ms. Pelaez, a television reporter.

Two years later, they emigrated to the United States, where she went to work as a journalist for the Spanish-language daily newspaper El Diario/La Prensa.

Mr. Vasenkov earned a doctorate in political science at the New School, wrote approvingly of the leftist Shining Path guerrilla movement in Peru and, in 2008, taught Latin American and Caribbean politics for a semester as an adjunct professor at Baruch College in Manhattan, part of the City University of New York.

Despite the recording of Mr. Vasenkov’s instructions about invisible ink, Ms. Pelaez insisted that she had not known that her husband was a Soviet agent until the arrests. And in interviews, her stepson — who remained loyal to the couple, saying, “We believe in the integrity of our parents”— vouched for her.

“My mother barely speaks English,” he said. “She’s going to speak Russian? The only Russian thing my mother likes is vodka.”

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