Friendly Neighbors

02.02.15 10:55 AM ET

Russian Spies and the Nuns Next Door

Meet the New York nuns who had no idea the neighbors' pet birds they were tending belonged to Kremlin agents.

The two Catholic nuns who reside on Liebig Street asked the family next door to keep an eye on their house while they got away from the Bronx to Miami for nine days.

The nuns, Sister Anne Queenan and Sister Catherine Naughton, had happily done the same when their neighbors went on ski trips.

The nuns had taken in their neighbors’ mail and even tended their pet bird.

“We had the cage in our house. What can I say?” Queenan says. “That’s what neighbors do.”

But unbeknownst to the nuns, the FBI had also been keeping on eye on the neighbors’ house, where 39-year-old Evgeny Buryakov lived with his wife, Marina, and their two children, a boy said to be 10 and a girl said to be 7.

The nuns were still away last Monday morning, when a dozen unmarked cars pulled onto the block. Agents in jackets emblazoned with FBI swarmed into the house, past a row of oversize candy canes that still stood as Christmas decorations along the front walk.

That was the day of what meteorologists warned might be a snowstorm of historic proportions, perhaps the worst in the city’s history. The first flakes were beginning to stick as the father was arraigned in Manhattan federal court.

The city escaped the brunt of this winter Nor’easter, but the city’s schools were closed the next day nonetheless. The Buryakov children and their mom must have spent the time building two snowmen in their terraced backyard, one unadorned and free-form, the other of classic proportions, with slender tree branches for arms and a green and yellow hat.

On Thursday, the nuns returned, delivered from the airport in a yellow cab. They were happy to see that the snow accumulation was nothing like the predicted 2 to 3 feet. They no doubt would have thanked the neighbors for keeping an eye on things, but the house next door was empty. Even the bird was gone.

All that remained were the six oversize candy canes out front and the two snowmen that stood in the back. Creations that should have symbolized snow-day joy looked all the more forlorn for being still surrounded by the footprints of the suddenly departed mom and kids.

Queenan and her fellow Carmelite nun Naughton stood amazed when a Daily Beast reporter informed them why the father had been arrested and was now the one in a cage.

“A Russian spy?” Queenan exclaimed.

The nuns live not two blocks from the 20-story official residence of the Russian mission to the United Nations. That drab white building was constructed in the 1970s with sections prefabricated in the motherland so as to thwart any American attempts to install listening devices.

For decades, U.S. intelligence maintained what was apparently a monitoring post in a small white house on Fieldston Road at the edge to the Russian compound, its rear windows facing the mission’s big satellite dishes. The house seemed a symbol of another era as the 9/11 attacks brought other security concerns to the fore.

In 2010, the FBI did bust a ring of 10 Russian spies who had been operating under such deep cover that their own children were unaware their parents were agents. The case inspired the TV show The Americans, but the real-life spies had not been up to anything of much importance. Russian foreign intelligence, the SVR, almost seemed to have maintained spies simply for the sake of having spies.

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The Cold War still seemed to be a thing of the increasingly distant past, and in 2011 the small white house next to the mission was sold to a synagogue. The house was torn down, leaving a small vacant lot abutting the gray steel fence that still rings the Russian compound.

In the meantime, Evgeny Buryakov had moved with his family into the rented two-story brick house next to the nuns on Liebig Street. He is said to have come from Kushchevskaya, a village in the Krasnodar region known for organized crime and for a 2010 gangland massacre in which 12 people of one family were slaughtered.

Buryakov reportedly worked in a Moscow tax office before coming to New York some five years ago, at least ostensibly as an executive with the government-owned VneshEconomBank. He struck the nuns and the others on the block as pleasant enough, as did his wife. She would often wave and smile as she went past.

The son was of kindergarten age, but the local P.S. 81 was full. He went to St. Margaret of Cortona Catholic School for two years before a spot opened up.

Both the boy and his sister were at P.S. 81 this past fall. The nuns would see them riding their bikes and heading off to the park and periodically embarking on a ski trip with their parents.

“Regular kids,” Queenan says. “Nice kids.”

According to the criminal complaint, the FBI had the front of the house under video surveillance and once recorded Buryakov meeting there with his primary handler, Igor Sporyshev.

“Sporyshev met Buryakov in Buryakov’s driveway,” the complaint says. “Their encounter, which was captured by a video surveillance camera located near Buryakov’s residence, lasted approximately two minutes. On the video footage, the defendants appeared to exchange a small object.”

The complaint notes that Sporyshev had been recorded two days earlier asking Buryakov for information regarding the “effects of economic sanctions on our country.” The FBI subsequently performed a covert search of Buryakov’s office computer.

“Buryakov conducted the following Internet searches: ‘sanctions Russia consiquences’ [sic] and ‘sanctions Russia impact,’” the complaint reports.

Buryakov apparently passed the results of searches that anybody could have conducted—even the nuns next door Google these days—to his handler in the driveway.

On other occasions, according to the complaint, the two Russians attempted to be more discreet, meeting in a public outdoor place after a cryptic phone call in which they talked in apparent code about passing on an umbrella or schoolbooks or, most often, tickets.

“Notably, despite discussing on approximately one dozen occasions the need to transfer “tickets”… the defendants have—other than one occasion where they discussed going to a movie—never been observed attending, or discussing in any detail, events that would typically require tickets,” the complaint notes.

At one point, Buryakov received orders from SVR headquarters in Moscow, known as Moscow Center, to come up with questions for a Russian news organization to ask at the New York Stock Exchange. The news organization was apparently TASS, which did indeed pose questions about high-frequency trading and trading robots, such as Buryakov suggested.

Perhaps, Moscow Center was simply trying to reassert a Cold War notion that Vladimir Putin never abandoned: Journalism should be an arm of the state.

All that seemed to matter was that the questions be provided by a spy, even though they could have been suggested by the nuns or anyone else with access to the Internet.

No wonder Sporyshev and fellow agent Victor Podobnyy were recorded by the FBI grumbling to each other in SRV’s New York headquarters about their current work as spies being “not even close [to] movies about James Bond.”

Podobnyy further complained about being in the Directorate ER, which handles economic matters, rather than the Directorate S, like the agents who inspired The Americans.

“Directorate S is the only intelligence that is real intelligence,” Victor Podobnyy was recorded saying.

“It was,” Sporyshev replied.

Podobnyy admitted that Directorate S had been having little success in America.

“In the United States, even the S couldn’t do anything,” he said. “They caught 10 of them.”

Last summer, Buryakov was approached by a man who said he was interested in establishing casinos in Russia. The man also offered Buryakov some actual U.S. government documents.

Sporyshev suspected aloud that it might be a “setup” but told Buryakov, “You could meet him if you want.”

Buryakov met the man twice last August, each time accepting a U.S. government document that was not exactly classified but official nonetheless.

But Sporyshev was right about it being a setup. The man proved to be working for the FBI, and the meetings became part of an espionage case.

Sporyshev and Podobnyy had official covers with the Russian government and enjoyed diplomatic immunity. Buryakov was in America as a private citizen and was charged last Monday in Manhattan federal court with “acting as an unregistered agent of a federal government.” He was remanded without bail.

When the schools reopened Wednesday, there were two empty seats at overcrowded P.S. 81 where the Buryakov children would have sat.

At the end of class, kids who were at school spilled out past the American flag that flies out front. Many of them trooped by the Russian Mission that rises just behind their school. The Russian flag flying out front was rippled by the same wind as was the Stars and Stripes.

Down on the block where the absent Buryakov children would have been scampering home were the two nuns, who have a shamrock over their door.

Queenan and Naughton do not watch The Americans on TV. But, in the way of nuns, they have no trouble discerning the moral heart of the real-life variation on their street.

“They’re just two innocent kids in the midst of all this,” Queenan says.

The house where the Buryakov boy and girl lived like nice kids, regular kids, stands deserted and still.

And in the back are those two snowmen.