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Friday, August 15, 2008

IS IT COLD IN HERE?

I don’t believe most Americans have ever heard of Igor Gouzenko, but he actually had more to do with the collapse of the Soviet Empire than Ronald Reagan. Igor was one of those little nobodies whose lives defy the “Great Man” theory of history. Simply because Igor and his wife did what came naturally, the best laid evil plans of Joseph Stalin eventually collapsed. Igor had worked for the Soviet Embassy in the Canadian capital since June of 1943, where he was a lowly “code clerk”, responsible for translating messages to and from Moscow for his boss, “spymaster” Colonel Nicolai Zabotin. Zabotin was aware of how much he depended on the talents of Igor, which is why Zabotin obtained permission for Igor’s pregnant wife to join him in Ottawa in October of 1943. It was a not a boon the Stalinist security structure usually granted. Families at home, under the thumb of the security police, then the NKGB, made effective hostages in case any agents contemplated making a dash for freedom. And Zabotin had even granted his favorite code clerk an apartment at 511 Somerset Street in Ottowa. And it was there, in June of 1944, that the loving couple welcomed the bouncing baby boy who was to cause such difficulties for the evil empire.In September of 1944 the NKGB ordered the happy couple and their 3 month old son to return home to Soviet Russia, and Igor knew that if he did return, at the very least his wife and son would never be allowed to come back to Canada with him. He appealed to Colonel Zabotin, who got him a year’s extension. But as that extension ran out Igor decided to run out, too; during August of 1945 Igor began to stuff top secret cables and documents into his brief case and sneak them home. On September 5th 1945, just days after Japan formally surrendered, he walked out of the embassy for the last time.Unsure of just what to do next Igor asked his next door neighbor for advice. The neighbor, who was a Canadian Royal Air Force officer, suggested that Igor should talk to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. But the RCMP had no idea what to do with their pathetic Russian defector. True, he had plenty of documents which indicated some sort of Soviet spy ring operating in Canada and the U.S., but at the time the Russians were Canadian allies. The RCMP wasn’t even sure they should even be looking at this stuff. They told Igor and his family they should come back tomorrow.That night, while Igor and his family huddled, terrified, in the dark, on the floor of their apartment, there was an ominous pounding on their front door. The next day the RCMP asked some questions, and wrote down the answers, but then sent them home again. That night their RCAF neighbor allowed the exhausted couple and their infant to sleep in his apartment. They heard more pounding on their door across the hall. It seemed likely that Colonel Zabotin had finally noticed the 109 documents that were missing from Igor’s desk. After another fruitless visit to the bewildered RCMP, Igor spent the day walking about the Canadian capital trying to find someone in some government agency who was interested in a desperate young man who had the code names and covers of an entire Soviet spy ring in their midst. He even applied for Canadian citizenship. Nobody was interested in his story. In desperation that evening he walked into the newsroom of the Ottawa Journal and blurted out to the night editor, “Its war. It’s Russia.” The editor suggested he go to the Department of Justice. They were closed.The calm of the next night was shattered when four burly men burst into Igor’s apartment and ransacked the place. Fortunately Igor and his little family were again sleeping on their neighbor’s furniture. But this time the neighbor called the police. The four men were detained long enough for all to be identified as employees of the Soviet embassy. But while the police officers looked the other way, the Russians escaped. The following day the embassy protested the brief detention of their staffers, and demanded the immediate return of the “criminal” Igor Gouzenko. And the Canadians darn near turned him over.Instead, at last, a member of Canadian intelligence, acting on his own imitative, granted Igor, his wife and child political asylum. They were spirited away to a farmhouse near the WWII training base of “Camp X”, outside of Whitby, Ontario. Meanwhile Colonel Zabotin was arrested and shipped back to Moscow, where he served four years in a labor camp for allowing his trusted employee t0 escape.But at last somebody was listening to Igor’s story about the level of Soviet spying on their wartime allies. Still the Canadians sought confirmation from British intelligence forces, MI6. The Brits quickly dispatched two agents from their section 9, Kim Philby and Roger Hollis, to interrogate and pass judgment on Igor as a defector. What these two men, both latter confirmed to have been Soviet moles within British intelligence, would have suggested be done with Igor, we may never know because just a few days after they arrived to question Igor, English scientist Alan Nunn May confessed to passing information to the Soviets, and shortly thereafter a Soviet code book was captured in Norway, which opened a number of secret Soviet transmissions to American, British and Canadian investigators, and confirmed every nightmare Igor had been telling the Canadians.And that is how the cold war started.
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