Born in a town just outside of Moscow, very little is known about his upbringing.
It is believed he was recruited by the KGB whilst at university, in the height of the Cold War.
Then he went into training for a couple of years. He was to be a ‘dead double’ i.e., given the identity of somebody who was already dead.
Then he was trained to be a spy, what the Russians refer to as an ‘illegal’. You take on the new identity, learn the language and customs of your new persona and then infiltrate into a foreign society.
There you become a ‘sleeper’, gathering intelligence whilst you build a new life.
An ‘illegal’ could be under cover for many years without his or her neighbours, work colleagues or even family suspecting them.
Vasenkov was given the identity of Juan Lazaro, a 3-year old Uruguayan boy who had died of respiratory failure in 1947.
Fluent in Spanish and claiming Uruguayan nationality, he went to Madrid and from there flew to Lima in Peru, where he started to live.
He got a job as a photographer which enabled him to travel freely around South America, always gathering intelligence. He was a great supporter of ‘The Shining Path’, the Peruvian guerrilla movement.
In 1979 he claimed Peruvian citizenship and became a television reporter.
Then he met, and married Vicky Pelaez, Peru’s leading female political journalist. She had a son from a previous marriage.
In 1985 Juan (Mikhail) and Vicky emigrated to New York. They bought a house in Yonkers and had a son of their own, also named Juan.
Mikhail got a job as a professor of political science at Baruch College.
But he eventually started to get careless and began openly supporting left-wing regimes in Latin America (Hugo Chavez of Venezuela was a particular favourite), and criticising the American government, saying their wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were just money-making devices.
Eventually Baruch College sacked him for incompetence after a student had complained about him. Unbeknown to him, the FBI had already started investigating him.
He retired as a spy in 2004 and left his intelligence cell – but continued to live in New York.
He was finally arrested on the 27th of June 2010, along with 9 other people including Vicky. The FBI had concluded he was the senior intelligence officer of the cell.
The USA was stunned to have spies living in their midst, especially as one of them was noted New York socialite Anna Chapman.
Mikhail protested his innocence, as did Vicky.
On the 13th of July 2010, they were deported along with the rest of the cell and flown to Vienna Airport. There was then a spy swap as the ‘Illegals’ were given back to the Russians and four people convicted of spying for the Americans were handed over. One of them was Sergei Skripel who was to be murdered by Novichok poisoning by Russian agents in Salisbury in 2018.
It was the biggest spy swap in East-West relations, bigger than any in the Cold War.
Mikhail was still protesting, saying he couldn’t speak Russian, he had never been to Russia and wanted to go back to Peru.
His stepson refused to believe he was a spy (and still does). He said, “I still believe Juan Lazaro is from Uruguay. I never saw him speaking in Russian…I don’t know where that name (Mikhail Vasenkov) came from.”
Gordon Corera wrote a book about them entitled ‘Russians Amongst Us’.
Their story was fictionalised in the TV series ‘The Americans’, and they were changed into the Jennings family. The FBI agents who had investigated them and arrested them, hated it because they felt it was unrealistic and glamourised the couple and made it all look sexy.
And ‘The Americans’ was shown on Russian TV. The Illegals loved it because it made their lives look glamourous and sexy.
But in 2020, Russia countered Mikhail’s argument and admitted he was an agent. They also confirmed he had been awarded the ‘Order of Lenin’ and ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’ in 1990, the highest awards he could achieve – and this was whilst he was still in America. He had also been a Colonel in the KGB.
All the other spies spent the rest of their lives in Russia, but at some point, Vicky and Mikhail were allowed to return to Peru.
It is from there that the Russians have reported he has died.
The SVR (the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service – one of the successors to the KGB) praised him saying he, “Created and headed an illegal residency which obtained valuable political information which was highly appreciated.”
They also praised his “restraint, determination and courage.”
It is not known how valuable his intelligence actually was – but that is the nature of spying. The implication is that it was important, otherwise would he have been decorated so highly?
RIP – Russian Illegal Professor