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A Glimpse Inside the Spy Scandal That Rocked Ottawa
The Ottawa Citizen

Part 1

When Igor Gouzenko defected from the Soviet embassy in Ottawa in September 1945 with documents revealing the existence of an espionage ring in Canada and the United States, William Lyon Mackenzie King initially wanted nothing to do with him.

Even with Gouzenko in hiding and under RCMP protection, the Canadian prime minister repeatedly pushed for a diplomatic solution to avoid upsetting the Soviet Union, then a wartime ally and ostensible friend.

American historian Amy Knight describes King's horror over the cipher clerk's defection and his naive faith in Joseph Stalin in a new book, How the Cold War Began: The Gouzenko Affair and the Hunt for Soviet Spies, to be published next week by McClelland & Stewart.

Drawing on interviews, Russian sources and newly released archival material, Ms. Knight provides the most complete account to date of an event that shook western governments, provoked gross violations of civil liberties and helped spark the Cold War.

Among her sources were King's unedited diaries, not previously plumbed for their insights into the Gouzenko affair. They reveal that King, then 70 and weary from six years of war leadership, was aghast when Norman Robertson, his undersecretary for external affairs, and his assistant, Hume Wrong, informed him on the morning of Sept. 6, 1945 that a "terrible thing" had happened.

Gouzenko and his wife Anna, they told him, had appeared at the office of justice minister Louis St. Laurent with documents unmasking Soviet perfidy on Canadian soil. "It was like a bomb on top of everything else," King wrote.

Robertson told him Gouzenko was threatening suicide and suggested the RCMP offer him protection. But King was hesitant. "I thought we should be extremely careful in becoming a party to any course of action which would link the government of Canada up with this matter in a manner which might cause Russia to feel that we had performed an unfriendly act," he wrote in his diary.

After consulting with St. Laurent, reports Ms. Knight, "King was adamant that his government not get involved, even if the man was apprehended by Soviet authorities or committed suicide."

Fortunately for Gouzenko, Robertson ignored the prime minister's wishes and authorized the RCMP to grant the family asylum, justifying his decision by saying their lives were in danger.

That was undoubtedly true. The previous night, a group from the Soviet embassy had broken into Gouzenko's apartment at 511 Somerset St. and ransacked it in a frantic search for the missing documents. They only left when confronted by Ottawa police while the Gouzenkos, hidden by a neighbour, watched through a keyhole from across the hall.

Seventeen days after Gouzenko's defection, King met for dinner with his intelligence advisers. According to Ms. Knight, "he dismayed those present by saying he wanted to talk with the Russians privately 'with a view to discovering from them whether they intended to really try to be friends and work for a peaceful world.'

"One can imagine the eyes rolling when King blurted out this new 'diplomatic' strategy," writes Ms. Knight.

But because Gouzenko had warned of high-level spies in the U.S. and Britain, King first embarked on a round of consultations with U.S. president Harry Truman and British prime minister Clement Atlee. King, says Ms. Knight, was clearly enjoying his new role as a leading statesman. "Troubling as it was for Canada, the Gouzenko case had made him the centre of attention."

It did not, however, make the notoriously cautious King any bolder. To the frustration of RCMP commissioner Stuart Wood, who was anxious to make arrests, King continued to advocate quiet diplomacy aimed at convincing the Soviet government to "turn over a new leaf" and abandon espionage.

In early December 1945, King decided to have a talk with the Soviet ambassador to Ottawa, Georgii Zarubin, who was about to leave for Moscow on vacation.

"King wanted to send a message to Stalin through the ambassador about the espionage revealed by Gouzenko," writes Ms. Knight, "and request an end to the Soviets' illegal activities."

The Canadians named by Gouzenko would not be arrested, but instead would be questioned by means of "departmental enquiries."

When he learned of the plan, Commissioner Wood "was beside himself," says Ms. Knight.

"I cannot state too strongly," he wrote in a letter to St. Laurent, "that the suggested method of procedure ... is fraught with possibilities of the gravest danger to Canadian interests."

The British intelligence service immediately telegraphed the RCMP to protest. "Diplomatic action unaccompanied by prosecution ... will be taken by Russians as indicative of weakness of evidence on which protest is based."

King's diaries for the crucial period in November and December 1945 are missing. Given that those are the only missing months in the 57 years that King kept a diary, Ms. Knight thinks that's not coincidental. The diaries, she suspects, may have been destroyed because they reflected badly on King's judgment.

But other archival papers make it clear what happened next, she says. King's advisers hatched an eleventh-hour scheme the day before his scheduled meeting with the Soviet ambassador.

Wood told King the Americans had just learned critical new information about alleged Soviet spies in the U.S. Treasury, intelligence services and the White House. Disclosure about Gouzenko to the Soviets would hamper the U.S. investigation, Wood warned, adding that FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover preferred discretion for the time being.

In fact, says Ms. Knight, Wood "lied to the prime minister" by exaggerating the American revelations and misrepresenting Hoover's views.

King backed off, then did nothing until his hand was forced by American journalist Drew Pearson, who told a nationwide radio audience on Feb. 3, 1946 that a Soviet spy had defected to Canadian authorities with information about a "gigantic Russian espionage network inside the United States and Canada."

Two days later, a reluctant King finally told his cabinet about Gouzenko and appointed a special commission led by two Supreme Court justices to investigate his accusations.

When Pearson followed up Feb. 10 with another broadcast predicting that sensational public trials for spying were imminent, the commissioners decided to act before he could cause further damage. The RCMP arrested 11 people in a series of raids on Feb. 15 and two more suspects the following day.

On Feb. 15, King finally made his first public statement on the Gouzenko affair, revealing that secret information had been disclosed to an unnamed foreign country.

Conveniently forgetting that he had been pushing for a low-key diplomatic solution to the Gouzenko affair, King congratulated himself in his diary two days later.

"It can be honestly (said) that few more courageous acts have ever been performed by leaders of the government than my own in the Russian intrigue against the Christian world and the manner in which I have fearlessly taken up and have begun to expose the whole of it," he boasted.

King's reference to the "Christian world" reflected his association of spying with Jews, according to Ms. Knight.

"It is a rather extraordinary thing," King wrote, inaccurately, in his diary, "that most of those caught in this present net are Jews, or have Jewish wives or (are) of Jewish descent."

His anti-Semitism surfaced in another diary entry around the same time. "I must say that the evidence is quite strong, not against all Jews, which is quite wrong, as one cannot indict a race any more than one can a nation, but that in a large percentage of the race there are tendencies and trends which are dangerous indeed."

Even after the arrests of the spy suspects, King continued to indulge in fantasies about Stalin, writes Ms. Knight.

In March 1946, he decided to send a personal message through Czech president Eduard Benesh to Soviet Foreign Minister Viachislav Molotov. The message, now in the Russian archives, is reproduced in the book.

"The measures taken against spies in Canada were not and are not directed against the Soviet Union and Generalissimo Stalin, as the hostile press has asserted to the Soviet Union," King's message reads. "It is necessary to have recourse to the internal considerations of the Canadian government to understand these measures.

"I would be very obligated to you if you would explain this affair to Generalissimo Stalin, as my friend, who from personal ties knows my character and can confirm that I am very interested in maintaining cordiality and friendship with the Soviet Union."

King added that he was "certain that the spying operations were conducted without the authority of ambassador Zarubin, towards whom I have the greatest respect."

Not only did Stalin fail to respond, says Ms. Knight, "the Soviets let the Canadians know how much the bad publicity had displeased them."

Ms. Knight, in Ottawa for the launch of her book yesterday at Nicholas Hoare on Sussex Drive, says it was extremely naive of King to assume that Stalin was unaware of the spying.

"What he failed to understand was that this was a carefully orchestrated policy of conducting espionage against the West," says Ms. Knight, who taught political science at Carleton University for four years before moving to Switzerland in 2003.

"He was really shocked that these people were doing this, and he really shouldn't have been."

But, she says, King wasn't necessarily wrong to think that the Gouzenko matter could be handled through diplomatic channels.

"It could have been handled differently, and perhaps in a certain sense it would have been better, because all it did was deepen the rift with the Russians."

In the long run, Gouzenko's revelations probably did more harm than good, she says.

They fanned an anti-communist hysteria that later flared into McCarthyism in the U.S. In Canada, the civil liberties of the accused spies were so flagrantly abused that even King was offended. "The whole proceedings are far to much like those of Russia itself," he wrote in his diary.

Nor did Gouzenko's defection do great damage to the Soviets, Ms. Knight contends. Instead, it forced them to rethink their entire approach to espionage. "They ended up becoming stronger and more effective."

Part 2

Brilliant hero or foolish turncoat?: Igor Gouzenko, whose 1945 defection in Ottawa signalled the start of the Cold War, was a mysterious, complex man. A new book tries to unravel the mystery, Don Butler writes. He was a difficult man who was easily offended, pathologically suspicious and prone to launching lawsuits at the least provocation.

He was a brilliant man with a near-photographic memory and the creative juice to write an award-winning novel that critics likened to Tolstoy in its sweep.

He was an opportunist who, seduced by the life of material comfort that Canada offered, betrayed his native land.

He was a hero whose courageous defection in 1945 awakened the West to the treachery of its ostensible friend and ally, the Soviet Union.

In short, says author and Soviet expert Amy Knight, Igor Gouzenko "was a complex man, a blend of admirable qualities and deep faults, a person who was revered and scorned. He was both a victim of his fate and an engineer of his own demise. There are no easy answers to unravel the mystery of who he was."

In her meticulously researched new book about the Gouzenko affair, How the Cold War Began, Ms. Knight offers fresh insights into the shadowy figure few Canadians ever saw without an identity-shrouding pillowcase over his head.

Along with his wife Anna, 24-year-old Igor Gouzenko arrived in Ottawa in June 1943 to work as a cipher clerk at the Soviet embassy.

The Gouzenkos settled happily into their spartan apartment at 511 Somerset St., which would have been shared by four or five families in Moscow. Even with wartime austerity, Canada seemed like a paradise to them. They were amazed by the abundance of food and goods, and the freedom enjoyed by its citizens.

Barely a year later, though, they got terrible news: They had been ordered back to Moscow. As Ms. Knight explains, Gouzenko had fallen into disfavour with Mikhail Mil'shtein, a Moscow-based colonel with Soviet military intelligence, who was suspicious of him in part because he and his family lived apart from other embassy staff.

Fortunately for Gouzenko, his boss at the Ottawa embassy, Col. Nicolai Zabotin, persuaded Moscow to back off temporarily. But the episode prompted Gouzenko to raise the idea of defecting with Anna.

That hardened into firm resolve the evening of Sept. 5, 1945, when Gouzenko learned that he would be replaced the next day by a new cipher clerk. That night, while his colleagues were at the movies, he stuffed scores of papers documenting the existence of a Soviet spy ring under his shirt and walked out of the embassy, never to return.

That was Gouzenko's story, at least. Ms. Knight finds it implausible, in part because he had come to work that sultry day in his shirtsleeves. "It would have been physically impossible for Gouzenko to contain all these papers underneath his shirt," she writes.

Gouzenko later admitted he had been taking documents home with him for weeks. But that, says Ms. Knight, "conveyed an impression of calculation and dishonesty, so it had to be covered up."

According to legend, Gouzenko stole 109 documents when he defected. In fact, Ms. Knight writes, that number appears on one of the documents and refers to a mailing list of items that Gouzenko's boss, Col. Zabotin, had sent to Moscow.

"Zabotin's list was one of the documents Gouzenko stole," she explains. "The actual number of separate sheets of paper that ended up in the hands of the RCMP, including telegrams, letters, reports, dossiers on agents and handwritten notes, was around 250."

Famously, Gouzenko first tried to tell his story to journalists at the Ottawa Journal, but in his broken English and agitated state, was unable to make himself understood.

"The night editor on duty recalled that Gouzenko was unable to answer any of his questions," says Ms. Knight, "that he just stood there and repeated, 'It's war. It's war. It's Russia.' As one eyewitness later remarked, 'Nobody could figure of what the hell the guy wanted'."

Once the government granted Gouzenko asylum, the RCMP acted quickly to get the family -- which now included a 15-month-old son, Andrei -- out of Ottawa.

Late on the afternoon of Sept. 7, two armed RCMP officers escorted the family to a lake about an hour from Ottawa, where they stayed for several weeks.

Gouzenko was so terrified he couldn't sleep. "At one point, according to the Mounties looking after him, he appeared outside his cabin in the middle of the night, completely nude, screaming for help," writes Ms. Knight. "He had heard a noise that frightened him."

What Gouzenko could not know, says Ms. Knight, was that Josef Stalin, who "could be whimsically merciful at times," had forbidden his assassination. "The war has ended successfully," Stalin reportedly explained. "Everyone is admiring the Soviet Union. What would they say about us if we did that?"

While the Soviets swiftly retaliated against his family in Russia, it wasn't until after Stalin's death in 1953 that the Soviet Supreme Court sentenced the defector, in absentia, to death.

At the beginning of October, the RCMP moved the Gouzenkos to a three-bedroom cottage near Otter Lake, outside Smiths Falls. But with Anna due to give birth to their second child within weeks, they needed a more suitable home.

Two weeks later, they were relocated to Camp X, a top-secret wartime school on the shores of Lake Ontario near Whitby established to train Allied soldiers in sabotage and counterintelligence. There, they happily settled into a somewhat ramshackle three-bedroom farmhouse.

They remained at Camp X until 1947, when, equipped with new government-provided identities, they moved into their own home on two acres of land in Port Credit, Ont. Now they were Czech immigrants named Stanley and Anna Krysac. "Amazingly," writes Ms. Knight, "krysac means rat, or mole, in the Czech language."

She says the idea for the name probably came from John Leopold, a Czech-born RCMP officer who had interrogated Gouzenko after his defection. Leopold's relationship with Gouzenko, who accused him of being a Soviet spy, was a difficult one.

In fact, Gouzenko's entire relationship with the RCMP was troublesome. At an early stage, according to Ms. Knight, Gouzenko decided that the RCMP had been infiltrated by Soviet agents and was plotting against him.

He was so suspicious and uncooperative that his RCMP protectors eventually lost patience with him. "One Mountie went so far as to ask for a transfer to another part of the country to get out of guarding Gouzenko," says Ms. Knight.

Despite his fear of assassination, he could also be reckless. He often ignored RCMP advice and indulged in behaviour that risked blowing his cover.

"Frustrated by his carelessness and fed up with his demands," writes Ms. Knight, "the RCMP gave up guarding him by the early 1960s."

In 1946, after encouragement from prime minister Mackenzie King, Gouzenko began working on his memoirs. They appeared in February 1947 as a four-part series in Cosmopolitan magazine, for which he was paid $50,000, a considerable sum at the time.

A book version later earned him $6,000 in royalties and a $75,000 movie contract with 20th Century Fox. But the movie, called The Iron Curtain and starring Dana Andrews as Gouzenko, was a box-office flop.

"Nevertheless," writes Ms. Knight, "by 1948, Gouzenko had earned a great deal of money, somewhere in the range of $130,000 to $140,000." He was also collecting fees for press interviews and a $100-a-month annuity from T.F. Ahearn, president of the Ottawa Electric Railway Company, offered in recognition of his service to Canada.

By 1951, though, the money was gone, squandered on high living and an ill-advised investment. The family was penniless and in debt. For a time, Gouzenko was forced to take a job as a riveter for $1.47 an hour.

His fortunes took a dramatic turn in 1954 with the publication of his lengthy novel, The Fall of a Titan, an epic story about life under Stalin. The book was a huge success. It was selected by the Book of the Month Club and translated into more than 40 languages, winning the 1954 Governor General's Award for fiction.

"The Fall of a Titan was the work of a young genius," says Ms. Knight, "a writer of great promise."

Gouzenko soon began working on a follow-up, Ocean of Time. Though he worked on it for 20 years and wrote enough to fill three books, he never finished.

Meanwhile, the $50,000 in royalties he had earned for The Fall of a Titan vanished within a few years. By the early 1960s, the family was $150,000 in debt.

A sympathetic Toronto lawyer named B.B. Osler helped them pay off some of their debts. But, says Ms. Knight, Mr. Osler "ended up being disgusted with the defector and refused to see him anymore. He reached the conclusion that Gouzenko was an opportunist and a cheat."

In 1962, the Canadian government awarded the Gouzenkos a monthly pension of $500. It was not enough to live on and was later increased. But by the late 1960s the family was again $140,000 in debt.

"Had the Gouzenkos invested wisely, or simply saved some of the money he had received," Ms. Knight writes, "he would not have been in these dire straits."

But that, she concedes, may have been too much to expect of someone not raised in a capitalist system. "He had grown up in a society where there was little concept of earning a wage or being rewarded for hard work."

Gouzenko did manage to generate some income by launching a string of libel actions, many of them successful, against publications he felt had defamed him.

Gouzenko was also "volatile and authoritarian," says Ms. Knight. "He had frequent outbursts of violence, which began shortly after his defection. Sometimes he would lose his temper over something small and strike Anna." At least twice, says Ms. Knight, she went to the RCMP with bruises on her body. But always she would forgive herhusband.

In June 1982, while pretending to conduct music on the radio in his kitchen, Gouzenko suffered a heart attack and died instantly. Only his immediate family and a few acquaintances who knew his true identity attended his quiet funeral.

"The minister who conducted the funeral referred to him as Mr. George Brown, a pseudonym he often used when he met people for the first time," writes Ms. Knight.

"It was as if Gouzenko, the famous defector, had never existed."
© The Ottawa Citizen 2006

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