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“ Poor is the man whose pleasures depend on the permission of another. ”

Journalist turned spy
Diplomat’s wife gathered intelligence for Canada in Soviet Union
By Jeffrey Simpson

Janice Cowan spent several years in the Soviet Union as a Canadian spy while the Cold War peaked and the superpower splintered into different nations. So don’t be misled by the title of the one-time Nova Scotia resident’s new book, A Spy’s Wife.

As a career journalist and author, she began her other profession largely through her husband, a military attaché posted to Moscow in 1991. But she was also expected to gather military intelligence.

For this, she underwent extensive espionage training before leaving Canada, which included learning to speak Russian, getting used to guns pointed at her and being chased by helicopter and car through the countryside.

She recounts this fascinating experience in her book, which has appeared on bookshelves on the 15th anniversary of the former Soviet Union’s break-up.

"From the beginning of our training we were learned never to take anything — person, or place — for granted," Cowan said in a recent e-mail interview. "The nicest most helpful person — returning a dropped document, offering to take a photograph — was out to discredit you.

"The quietest rest area off a main highway could become a hive of KGB activity within seconds with masked men rappelling from helicopters and surrounding your vehicle."

Cowan was prepared for classic spy scenarios right out of a John LeCarre novel. And that’s pretty much what she got. Her home was always bugged. KGB operatives followed her constantly.

"We definitely became more than a little paranoid," she said. "That was what the training was designed to do. In Ottawa while we were in training, a man stopped in a white truck to ask us directions to somewhere. We ignored him. Kept walking. We were either being very clever or very rude."

Spying was something that came naturally to her.

"I always thought I was good at reading people, understanding their motives in life," she said.

"Now I was better, I thought. In restaurants we sat (and still do sit)with our backs to the wall. I shredded mail I didn’t file. I checked the road outside the house at night for parked vehicles."

But sometimes her job was like getting paid for being an inquisitive traveller. She visited many of the former Soviet countries as they were becoming independent in the early 1990s.

That’s largely what makes her book different; she was stationed in the region during a significant period of change.

"The fall of the Soviet Union was a momentous event and the aftermath — 250 million people picking themselves up, dusting themselves off, and starting anew — was historic," she said.

"To have been on the ground in Moscow between 1991 and 1994, in both a diplomatic and journalistic guise, was like being a VIP at a Royal Wedding — the view was lovely. I witnessed first hand the cheers of joy and the howls of anguish."

Being a journalist was good training to have under her belt, she said. She started her career in her native Britain but was working for Frank Magazine in Ottawa with the magazine’s founder, Halifax’s David Bentley, when she and her husband were posted overseas.

"Journalists do live a bit of a double life, always trying to reinvent themselves as one minute they are prying a story out of a farmer, the next out of a politician and the next out of someone who has suffered either a windfall or a tragedy," she said.

"I have done a fair bit of ‘acting’ this way. Also, it’s human nature to enjoy being one thing while all along people think you are another."

Cowan said she finds recent news reports divulging that Canadian spies are operating overseas strange.

"I would have thought in this day and age it would have made headlines if Canada did not have spies overseas," she said.

"People on the ground can telltheir governments what is really going on. They can prevent conflicts.

"Spying has been going on for years and a good thing too. Pity there wasn’t better intelligence on the ground before the Iraq war."

Staff reporter Jeffrey Simpson freelanced this story.

A Spy’s Wife: The Moscow Memoirs of a Canadian Who Witnessed the End of the Cold War

by Janice Cowan

(Lorimer, softcover, 224 pages, $24.95)

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© 2006 The Halifax Herald Limited