The Current

How a spy betrayed the KGB and was double-crossed by an RCMP cop

The real-life Canadian spy story of KGB agent Yevgeni Brik who becomes a double agent for the Mounties during the Cold War era puts James Bond movies to shame.
Yevgeni Brik on the flight deck of the Canadian Airlines 747, returning to Canada during a CSIS ex-filtration operation. (Donald Mahar)

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It's a story that would make James Bond blush.

A Russian-born spy raised in Brooklyn comes to Canada in the early days of the Cold War, but falls in love and decides to become a double agent for Ottawa. However, he's doubled-crossed by a cash-strapped RCMP officer who sells him out to the Soviets.

That's the story of Yevgeni Brik, told in the new book, Shattered Illusions: KGB Cold War Espionage in Canada. It's written by Donald Mahar, a retired Canadian intelligence officer who knew Brik personally.

Brik was born in Novorossiysk, Russia on the Black Sea. His parents were both Communist Party members. When Brik was a young boy, the family moved to New York City when his father got transferred to work for AmTorg, the Soviet Union's first trading company in the U.S.

Mahar tells The Current's guest host Dave Seglins, when the family settled in Brooklyn, "young Yevgeni Brik's life changed forever."

"As the years rolled on, this young boy learned to speak flawless English, but with a very distinct Brooklyn accent."

Becoming a KGB Agent

When the Second World War broke out, Brik returned to Russia to join the military. He joined the Communist Party, and became a signals officer with a Soviet infantry unit.  
Yevgeni Brik, 1953. (Donald Mahar)

Mahar says the English he learned growing up in Brooklyn — and the accent that went with it — along with the skill of knowing Russian Morse Code earned him a job with the KGB as an "illegal" — a Soviet spy who would go deep undercover overseas.  

Brik's first posting was in Canada in 1951. He arrived in Halifax and breezed through Canadian Customs using a falsified Canadian passport.

Mahar says he believes Brik spent his first two years in Canada travelling, familiarizing himself with the country that he was supposed to have grown up in.

"The Soviets believed they had a patriot — a highly trained young man they could trust. However, their illusions were about to be shattered," Mahar tells The Current.

'He became a double agent in every sense of the word.' -  Donald Mahar

Becoming a Double Agent

During his travels, Brik fell in love with a Canadian woman — and he confided to her that he was not a Canadian photographer named David Soboloff; he was a Soviet spy named Yevgeni Brik.

In 1953, she convinced him to go to Ottawa to turn himself into the RCMP and that's how Brik became a double agent. He was given a code name — Gideon — and told them everything about his handlers at the Soviet Embassy, his meeting schedules, dead drop locations, plus top secret codes to break into radio transmissions from Moscow.

'He became a double agent in every sense of the word," Mahar says.

The RCMP promised to protect Gideon as one of their own. But it was one an RCMP officer who double-crossed the Mounties' new double agent.

An RCMP corporal named James Morrison was ordered to drive Brik back to his home in Montreal after a visit to RCMP headquarters in Ottawa.

"And in a complete breach of security, the senior officer tells Morrison who Brik really is; tells him he's a Russian spy, tells him he's a double agent." Mahar says Morrison was in extreme debt at the time, and saw an opportunity.

"Morrison recognized that he might be able to extort money out of the Soviets," for telling them Brik has switched sides and was now working for Canada.

Brik was called back to Moscow. Brik thought it was for standard retraining and to see his family, but he was quickly arrested, and disappeared. The RCMP believed he was executed.

Becoming a free man back in Canada

It turns out he wasn't executed.

Mahar says that under Stalin, the Soviets routinely executed spies for failed operations overseas. Including their handlers.

"When the Brik operation failed, another one that was going on in the United States also failed," Mahar explains.

"There were the same officers that ran both cases. They were fearful that they themselves were going to be arrested and executed."

Instead of execution, Brik was sent to prison. He was released after 15 years.
Yevgeni Brik (left) with CSIS officer Donald Mahar (right) looking at a menu in their hotel room in Sweden following Yevgeni Brik's exfiltration. (Donald Mahar)

In 1991, as the Soviet Union was collapsing, an elderly Russian man showed up at the British Embassy in Lithuania with a coded message for Canadian intelligence officers.

It was Evgeni Brik and he wanted to come back to Canada.

"We could hardly believe our eyes when we saw this message," Mahar says, who was working in intelligence with the RCMP at the time. He was sent to the archives to dig out old Gideon files to find three questions only the real Yevgeni Brik could answer.

"The message was sent, the Brits answered back, and said that he had answered all three questions flawlessly."

Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was briefed. "Every consideration will be given to this man who was betrayed by the cowardice of an RCMP officer," Mulroney wrote at the time.

Mahar was part of the team tasked with bringing Brik safely back to Canada. He wouldn't discuss the specifics, but the team succeeded.

Brik lived a quiet life in Ottawa. He died in 2011 at the age of 89.

Mahar thinks Brik's story still has relevance today. He says Russian intelligence has continued to use deep-cover spies like Brik throughout the Western world, including in Canada.

"It is not a history lesson," Mahar says. "This continues."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Kristin Nelson.