BORN: Rogachovo, Russia • 26 January 1919
DIED: Toronto, Ontario • 25 June 1982
For almost half a century, the Cold War shaped the world. Billions were spent on weapons, millions of men and women were mobilized to serve ideological interests, and only by a hair’s breadth did the world escape annihilation.
To say this all began in Canada stretches credulity, but there is some truth in that claim, for it was Igor Gouzenko, a cipher officer at the Soviet Union’s embassy in Ottawa, who in September 1945 forcibly warned the Western democracies that their Soviet ally had continuing aims of its own.
Born near Moscow in the terrible days of the Russian civil war, Gouzenko was a bright student who made his way through the Soviet school system with ease. He studied drawing and drafting in Moscow and attended the Architectural Institute of the University of Moscow.
Nominated for a presti¬ gious academic fellowship in June 1941, his education was derailed by the German attack on the Soviet Union. Instead of becoming an architect, Gouzenko took training in codes and ciphers and served in the headquarters of army intelligence (GRU) as a cipher specialist.
In 1943 Lieutenant Gouzenko, soon to be followed by his wife, Svetlana, was posted to the Soviet Union’s legation in Ottawa.Deeply involved in the war, Canada still provided a startling contrast to wartime Moscow. People spoke freely, there were goods in the stores despite rationing, and food was plentiful.
But as a GRU officer, Gouzenko found that his work required him to betray the Canadians he had come to admire. His task was to encode and decipher messages to and from Moscow, messages detailing espionage requests from GRU headquarters and the answers provided by spy networks run in Canada.
In September 1945, scheduled to be posted back to Moscow, Gouzenko decided to defect.Carefully gathering up telegrams and documents that proved nuclear and military espionage, Gouzenko left the embassy and set out to visit newspapers, which ignored him, and government offices, which did the same.
The govern¬ ment feared creating a diplomatic incident by taking in a man who proclaimed that “Russian democracy was different from ours”; the press simply missed the boat. Terrified, the Gouzenkos began to fear they had made a mistake. Not until embassy officials kicked in the door of their apartment while the Gouzenkos hid next door with a friendly RCAF sergeant did the Ottawa police get involved.
They were quickly followed by the RCMP and the Department of External Affairs, which had been advised by the Canadian-born British intelligence officer, Sir William Stephenson, to “get your man at once.” Safely hidden away with his wife and child, his revealing documents translated, Gouzenko had become very important indeed.
The result of Gouzenko’s defection to freedom was a royal commission that in early 1946 heard testimony from those implicated in the embassy documents. The expulsion of Soviet “diplomats” and the conviction of eleven Canadians, including a Montreal member of parliament, followed soon after.
More important, the proof of Soviet ill-will and the evidence of high-level spy rings in Britain and the United States provided by Gouzenko played an important part in galvanizing Canada’s senior partners, especially as Prime Minister Mackenzie King sensibly shared everything Canada learned.
Gouzenko’s knowledge of Soviet codes—some also believe he brought code books with him when he left the embassy—proved as invaluable to the West as his revelations about the GRU spy network. Moreover, the evidence of Soviet spying led Ottawa to create the security machinery necessary to deal with the new situation of ideological confrontation.
Afraid of Soviet vengeance, Gouzenko lived under an assumed name as a Canadian citizen. He wrote an account of his life and defection, This Was My Choice, which sold well, and in 1954 his novel about the brutality of Stalinist Russia, The Fall ofa Titan, won the Governor General’s Literary Award.
But over the years Gouzenko, who appeared on the media with a bag over his head to confound the KGB’s hitmen, became increasingly difficult to control. He continued to find spies in Canada and the West long after his evidence had grown cold, and his RCMP handlers found his constant complaints enervating.
By the late 1970s his health had begun to break down and, suffering from diabetes and blindness, his death in 1982 was a release.A man of culture and high intelligence, Igor Gouzenko was deliberately belittled by those who called him a mere cipher clerk and denied the importance of the spy rings he uncovered.
They were wrong. His courageous actions in September 1945 alerted Canada and the West to the danger posed by Soviet communism, and this revelation was critical to a world in awe of the superb Soviet resistance to Hitler. The Cold War certainly would have occurred without Gouzenko, but it might have taken longer to wake up the democracies to the new threat they faced.