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An Alleged Russian Spy Was the Chef of DC’s Mari Vanna

An FBI agent was investigating Vitalii Kovalev when she suffered a mysterious attack linked to "Havana Syndrome"

Mari Vanna's blinis and caviar. Photograph by Jeff Elkins .

An FBI agent who suffered mysterious brain injuries from a suspected high-energy acoustic weapon says she was investigating an alleged Russian spy at the time of the attack. His name: Vitalii Kovalev. He was arrested in 2020 after a high-speed chase in a Mustang, after which police discovered bank account notes, a device used to erase a car’s computer data, and a Russian passport.  But years before that, Kovalev was executive chef of DC Russian restaurant Mari Vanna.

A five-year investigation by 60 Minutes, The Insider, and Der Spiegel has been digging into reports from national security officials—from White House staff to CIA officers—who experienced a crippling, high-pitched, drilling sensation in their ears that left them with lingering memory and health issues. The phenomenon has been dubbed “Havana Syndrome” after some of the first publicly known cases in Cuba in 2016.

The latest 60 Minutes report features a counterintelligence agent for the FBI identified solely as “Carrie” who had spent 80 hours interviewing Kovalev around the time of her attack. She says she was near a window in her Florida home when she was struck by a mysterious force “like a dentist drilling on steroids.”

Journalist Christo Grozev traced Kovalev’s history and discovered that he had studied radio electronics at a military institute in Russia before he moved to the US to become a chef. “He had all the technology know-how that would be required for somebody to be assisting an operation that requires high technology,” Grozev tells 60 Minutes. He adds it’s unlikely Korvalev dropped all that when he started working in restaurants: “It is not an easy job to just leave that behind. Once you’re in the military, and you’ve been trained, and the Ministry of Defense has invested in you, you remain at their beck and call for the rest of your life.”

Kovalev was the chef at Mari Vanna when it opened its DC location in 2013. The Insider reports that the Russian restaurant—which had locations in New York, Moscow, St. Petersburg, and beyond—sponsored a petition for a non-immigrant visa for Kovalev. The grandma-chic downtown eatery counted Alex Ovechkin as a regular and hosted various celebrities and politicians. (It closed earlier this year.) During his brief time there, Kovalev did not shy away from attention. I interviewed him about some staple Russian dishes for Washington City Paper, and Eater DC included him in a roundup of where chefs like to eat after hours: “Because I’m still fairly new to the city, I try to discover new places every time I go out. Washington DC and Arlington have great restaurants to choose from whether you’re looking for drinks and light appetizers, or full dinner service. When I’m in DC, you can find me getting a drink at Edgar or having dinner at Marcel’s. Just over the bridge, Ray’s The Steaks and Ireland’s Four Courts are two of my favorite spots in Arlington.”

It’s unclear exactly how long Kovalev was in DC, but it wasn’t long. The following year, 2014, he was in New York as chef of a new Russian restaurant from pop star Ariana Grinblat, who has been dubbed “the Slavic Britney Spears.” Before the restaurant closed in 2015, he showed off his borscht in a Fox 5 New York cooking segment.

The specifics of Kovalev’s cooking resume aren’t immediately clear from there, but he appears to have helped at a pop-up of Noma, the Copenhagen fine-dining destination once heralded as the world’s best restaurant, that was held at a members-only club in Tribeca in 2017. Kovalev’s food-filled Instagram page continued posting from New York until June 2020, then suddenly stopped around the time he was arrested. According to the Insider, Kovalev told authorities he was an unemployed chef from New York in Florida to visit the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum. He’d booked hotels along the trip, including at DC’s Trump hotel, but never checked out, “likely to hide his actual location,” the report says.

Kovalev spent 30 months in jail after pleading guilty to evading police and reckless driving, according to 60 Minutes. After serving his time, he returned to Russia in 2022, even though Americans reportedly warned him that he might be in danger for spending so much time with the FBI. A death certificate indicates he was since killed fighting in Ukraine.

“One theory is that he was sent there in order for him to be disposed of,” Grozev, the journalist, tells 60 Minutes. Grozev also considered the possibility that this was a cover story, but “I do believe at this point that he was dead.”

Jessica Sidman
Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.