*Image Credit: Wikipedia
Four months after the world had celebrated the Allied victory in Europe, a wire clerk based at the Soviet embassy in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada decided he could not bear the thought of returning to his homeland. Having worked for two years encoding and decoding sensitive messages, Igor Gouzenko had intimate knowledge of Soviet operations in North America. Armed with 109 documents detailing covert activities organized by Joseph Stalin’s regime and his code books, he defected to Canada on September 5, 1945 and launched the Cold War Era.
Gouzenko joined the Soviet Army at the outset of World War II, moving behind a desk to work as part of the team assigned to confuse enemy spies by translating basic communications into elaborate coded messages before sending them off, then doing the opposite when the reply arrived. Having proven himself sufficiently skilled, Gouzenko moved to the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa in 1943. With the war having ended with Japan’s surrender a month before, he learned he and his family would soon be heading back to the Soviet Union.
Knowing the political climate under Stalin and fearing for the changes his family would face when they arrived, Gouzenko made the drastic decision to claim asylum in Canada and inform the government about the scope of Soviet spying in North America. Leaving the embassy, he headed spoke with members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Incredulous, the Mounties dismissed the former Soviet code man, leaving him to turn first to the editor of the Ottawa Journal (who also found it too difficult too believe) and then the Department of Justice, only to find no one available to hear his story.
Terrified for what may happen to his family once his bosses found out, Gouzenko rushed home to shuttled his wife and children across the hall into the neighbor’s apartment. Late at night, Soviet agents kicked down the door of his home and began searching his belongings. Horrified, Gouzenko watched through the peephole as his former colleagues ransacked his home until Ottawa police arrived on the scene.
The next morning, Gouzenko tried the Mounties again and met with success this time. Transported to a secret location outside the city, he sat with officials from MI5 representing British and Canadian interests, as well as officers from the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation. Within hours, administrators high in the Canadian government were debating what to do with Gouzenko. Prime Minister William King, believed the best course would be to turn over Gouzenko and his documents in order to avoid upsetting the Soviet Union, a wartime ally. Norman Robertson, the head of External Affairs, flatly defied his superior and gave Gouzenko asylum.
It would be almost six months before the press caught wind of the release. Though much of the information filtered through the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa had been rather pedestrian, the possibility of top secret information being passed into the hands of other nations — particularly with Stalin’s desire to access nuclear weapon technology — left many on both sides of the Atlantic reflecting on security measures.
Armed with Gouzenko’s information, authorities in Canada were able to convict 18 of 39 suspected double agents of treason, including one Member of Parliament. The increased awareness of and ability to root out Soviet spies provided by Gouzenko’s information may have even led to the eventual arrest of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the United States and the Cambridge Five — Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross — in the United Kingdom.
Living under an assumed name for the rest of his life, Gouzenko had accelerated new age of suspicion and competition between the West and Soviet Union that would last for nearly five decades.