Apr. 14, 2004. 08:01 PM
Canada to honour defector Igor Gouzenko
Clerk smuggled a trove of eye-opening documents out of Soviet Embassy in Ottawa


OTTAWA (CP) A bronze plaque will be installed in a small Ottawa park across from a modest apartment house Thursday, marking what many see as the event that ushered in the Cold War.

More than 58 years after the fact, the federal government will commemorate the bravery of Igor Gouzenko, the fabled clerk who smuggled a trove of eye-opening documents out of the Soviet Embassy.

The 109 cables and pages from his superior's diary which he surreptitiously removed on Sept. 5, 1945, revealed Soviet spies had penetrated key government departments, the Canadian military and a laboratory privy to secrets of the atomic bomb.

So sensational were the disclosures that the would-be defector was at first rebuffed by incredulous government officials and an Ottawa newspaper.

Gouzenko, pregnant wife Svetlana and their baby boy were suddenly in grave danger.

Two days would pass before the administration of Mackenzie King recognized the beginnings of a far-reaching rift between East and West.

Evelyn Wilson, the daughter born to the Gouzenkos just three months after the defection, plans to attend an unveiling of the plaque Thursday at the national Library and Archives, which is co-sponsoring a two-day conference on the historic affair.

"It feels wonderful," Wilson said in an interview. "It feels as if we can at last have an opportunity and a forum to get to the truth."

Immediately after the ceremony, the marker will be whisked off to Dundonald Park in downtown Ottawa, where two RCMP officers camped out on a bench to keep an eye on Gouzenko's home after the first attempts to interest Canadian officials in his story.

The cipher clerk and his family had taken refuge in a neighbouring apartment in the red brick building when Soviet agents broke into the Gouzenko abode.

He nervously watched the drama through a keyhole.

The seriousness with which Gouzenko's embassy comrades took his betrayal helped erase any doubts the RCMP might have had about him.

His revelations would lead to the arrest of 12 suspects and a royal commission that confirmed the presence of a Soviet spy ring.

The image of a white-hooded Gouzenko, fearing for his life during his rare public forays, remains emblazoned in the memories of a generation of Canadians.

Mystery shrouded Gouzenko till his death near Toronto in 1982, and for years his grave went unmarked.

The plaque, approved by the federal Historic Sites and Monuments Board, will join one placed in the park by the city of Ottawa last year.

Central Intelligence Agency historian Benjamin Fischer applauds the federal government's decision to honour the first man to warn the West of the threat of Soviet espionage following the Second World War.

"Canada has done a good thing and made a unique and courageous gesture that, I think, is without parallel," Fischer plans to say in a presentation Thursday. "In the West, we rarely regard defectors and agents as heroes."

A copy of his remarks was made available to The Canadian Press.

Fischer, of the CIA's Center for the Study of Intelligence, characterizes Gouzenko's decision to spill his country's secrets as ``a heavy blow" to the Soviets and a boon for Western intelligence.

"He had risked his life and his family's safety and had prepared to earn his passage, so to speak, by bringing smoking-gun evidence of Soviet intrigue."

Fischer says the move informed Canadian, American and British counter intelligence agencies that Soviet espionage was being conducted on a "massive scale and around the world."

The wartime allies of the West had not ceased or slowed spying operations but had exploited co-operation against the Nazis to fullest advantage.

In addition, Western agencies learned the espionage was directed primarily against military and defence targets above all "the holiest of holies, the atomic bomb project."

Gouzenko's defection quickly threw Soviet efforts into disarray, Fischer notes. "Since they could not be certain what had been revealed, they had to put a hold on their operations and put their agents on ice."

The 733-page report of Canada's royal commission into the Gouzenko affair had "major impact" in the United States, Fischer contends.

The FBI studied it as a virtual handbook on Soviet espionage and subversion, as did the newly created Central Intelligence Group, the CIA's precursor.

The commission was a model of how to probe and handle the thorny topic of Soviet subterfuge, Fischer adds.

"It is a testimony to its efficiency, sobriety and discretion that Canada avoided the excesses the United States experienced once the Red Scare became a political issue."

The Ottawa conference brings together historians who are still trying to make sense of Gouzenko's legacy, some drawing on recently declassified records.

Wilson, who runs a bed-and-breakfast in southern Ontario, is keen on hearing the latest thoughts and theories about her father's fateful decision.

"We're finally getting to put the pieces of the puzzle together."


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