Russian spies in Canada: new lessons from the Gouzenko defection

It is an intriguing footnote in the annals of international intelligence — did Igor Gouzenko's crying baby made it easier for the Soviet cipher clerk to defect 70 years ago? There may even be lessons in it for today, says a new book from Britain.

Soviet cipher clerk defected in Ottawa 70 years ago

When former Soviet cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko appeared in public after his defection in Ottawa in 1945, he wore a pillowcase to shield his face. (Associated Press, Libraries and Archives Canada)

It is an intriguing slip-up in the annals of international intelligence — did Igor Gouzenko's crying baby help make it easier for the Soviet cipher clerk to defect with a bunch of secrets stuffed under his shirt in Ottawa 70 years ago?

U.K. author and historian Jonathan Haslam suggests that it did in his recently released book, Near and Distant Neighbours — A New History of Soviet Intelligence, showing how Gouzenko's domestic circumstances flummoxed his Moscow watchers

Gouzenko's story, says Haslam, demonstrates the role of accident and personality in intelligence, along with how some plain good luck can pay off for the other side.

He also argues that this history has relevance today as some of these Russian intelligence methods, and especially the mindset behind them, still seem to be in play.

The 109 documents Gouzenko snuck out of the Soviet Embassy on Sept. 5, 1945, revealed a Soviet spy ring in Canada and sparked great worry in the halls of Washington, Westminster and Moscow, not to mention Ottawa. For some historians, what became known as the Gouzenko Affair marked the beginning of the Cold War.

"There were other factors and other showdowns, but that was probably the first moment when the West really said to itself: 'We can't trust the Soviet Union one iota,' " says former CBC foreign correspondent Brian Stewart.

As it turned out, the Soviet Union couldn't trust Gouzenko, either. But beyond Gouzenko's growing discontent with Soviet ways, there was some simple happenstance that seems to have played into the success of his defection.

Haslam, whose research took him to obscure Russian archives, memoirs and biographies, found that Gouzenko was under the supervision of a "hopelessly ineffective military attaché."

Initially, Gouzenko and his wife were living next door to the attaché and his wife in a tightly guarded building, but that building had wafer-thin walls, and the attache's wife didn't like the way Gouzenko's baby son would wail through the night. 

"Because of this curious dislike of the military attache's wife to Gouzenko's crying baby, all of sudden they were let out of the coop" and moved to a new apartment, says Haslam, a professor emeritus at Cambridge University who is now a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.

'Let out of the coop'

Coupled with that looser oversight was the fact that Gouzenko deciphered his own recall notice from Moscow — and felt no need to pass that message along to his local handlers. 

Igor Gouzenko lived at 511 Somerset St. in Ottawa before his defection in 1945. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"Whereas Moscow was on to him, it took a long time for his own people to be on to him in Ottawa and that gave him time to get away with his bag of secrets," Haslam says.

What's striking about what happened, Haslam now suggests, is what the defection says about the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin.

"It was supposed to be a buttoned-down police state, yet a military attaché who was obviously a [military intelligence] station chief could on his own authority authorize one of his people to live outside of the compound without consulting Moscow at all, just because his wife suffered from lack of sleep," says Haslam.

"It gives you a picture of Russia which is much more like the real Russia than the Russia presented in these scary political science textbooks on the Soviet Union where everything is buttoned down and nothing moves."

Brian Stewart, now a distinguished senior fellow at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs, says there has rarely been a more buttoned-down society than the Soviet Union under Stalin.

"But there are always cracks in every buttoned-down society and certainly they occurred overseas. Western intelligence was able to find agents … drop-ins they called them. It was very hard to ever recruit a Soviet agent, but they would sometimes drop into the West and Gouzenko would be a classic case."

Not so robotic

From Haslam's perspective, Gouzenko's defection "gives human form" to the intelligence operations of the day. Gouzenko, for example, was a young man with a lot of responsibilities, and a memory that allowed him to recall anything he read in great detail, "and that's probably what got him the job in the service in the first place."

Others in Soviet military intelligence in Ottawa at the time of Gouzenko's defection may not have had the same intellectual heft, but they ultimately were promoted to other senior positions in intelligence, where networks and loyalties were tight.

Igor Gouzenko didn't show his face during interviews after his defection in 1945 with 109 documents that included revelations about a Soviet spy ring in Canada. (Associated Press)

The thing to remember, though is that "they're actually people. They're not machines," says Haslam. "Soviet Russia under Stalin was not super-efficient."

Haslam's book delves into Soviet intelligence from the October Revolution of 1917 through to the end of the Cold War, focusing on an area he says has been neglected: codes and ciphers.

No other Soviet cipher clerk had defected in the way Gouzenko did, and the information he brought with him set off a web of investigations in Canada and beyond.

"It wasn't just that he would have handed over the ciphers that the [Soviet military intelligence] were using to the Americans, and that led to the uncovering of atomic spying," says Haslam.

"This whole method by which the ciphers were put together … all of a sudden the Americans and the Brits had an open window onto how these Soviet systems worked."

Haslam's book grabbed headlines in the U.K. in earlier this year, with attention focusing on its suggestions that the Profumo Affair of the early 1960s — a heady mix of scandal involving a call girl, a minister of war and a Russian spy — was a bigger danger to Britain than was considered at the time. 

But he also argues that the lessons from that era have relevance today given how Russia is run by Vladimir Putin, a former intelligence officer. 

"When you look at Putin's Russia ... it's being run by former intelligence people and they have a particular mindset," Haslam says.

"They have particular attitudes to the West and other places, which emerge out of this history and tradition."

Spies in Canada?

All of which leads to a question: To what extent are Russian spies operating in Canada now? It's not an abstract question. Two years ago, Jeffrey Delisle, a Halifax naval officer, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for selling secrets to Russia.

Canadian Forces Sub.-Lt. Jeffrey Paul Delisle leaves provincial court in Halifax after pleading guilty to charges related to selling secrets to Russia. (Canadian Press)

Haslam notes that since the levels of Russian spying "elsewhere are buoyant, there is no reason why Canada should be an exception."

Stewart also says there's no question Russian espionage is going on here — and it's not just the Russians who are poking around.

"Chinese espionage, if anything, is even higher than Russian espionage, and there's espionage from all sorts of countries now because there's real reason for it," says Stewart.

"If you can steal the secrets of a new defence system or a new cyber-system or a new energy system, you can save your own country billions upon billions of dollars, so there's enormous financial reason for espionage these days."


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Account Holder

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?