In Igor Gouzenko’s day the communist spies in Canada were idealistic amateurs. Now they’re “superbly trained professionals” who use methods like James Bond’s to go after the oddest information

BLAIR FRASER July 25 1964


In Igor Gouzenko’s day the communist spies in Canada were idealistic amateurs. Now they’re “superbly trained professionals” who use methods like James Bond’s to go after the oddest information

BLAIR FRASER July 25 1964


In Igor Gouzenko’s day the communist spies in Canada were idealistic amateurs. Now they’re “superbly trained professionals” who use methods like James Bond’s to go after the oddest information


IN ONE RESPECT at least the cold war is over in Canada. Soviet espionage is now taken for granted in this country, as a commonplace fact of life.

It was not always so. Nineteen years ago, when the Russian cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko defected and revealed that our wartime allies were operating spy rings here, the effect was almost a panic. Prime Minister Mackenzie King rushed off to Washington and London to warn President Truman and Prime Minister Attlee in person. The RCMP, after five months of super-secret inquiry, arrested eighteen Canadians in raids before dawn, while Scotland Yard in London arrested an Englishman involved in the same plot. The Canadians were held incommunicado for weeks, by authority of a secret order-in-council passed in October 1945 by the bare minimum of cabinet ministers required for a legal quorum. The whole affair was an international sensation.

By contrast, there was no fuss at all last April when Vladimir Tarasov, the so-called correspondent of the Soviet newspaper Isvestia, was caught red-handed trying to buy secret information from a Canadian civil servant. He was told to leave the country and he left, that's all. His colleague Alexander Zhigulev, the Tass correspondent, a mild-mannered little man with a bald head and a shy smile, continues to come into the parliamentary press gallery each day and is greeted there as usual with not-unfricndly nods but with little conversation. Except for one question by the leader of the opposition, Parliament paid no attention. Within days, the incident was apparently forgotten.

All that had happened was that Canada decided to take a piece (probably a mere pawn, possibly a knight or a bishop) in the never-ending chess game of spy and counterspy between the Soviet bloc and the Western alliance. Canada is only half involved in the game, since we conduct only “defensive'' and no “offensive" intelligence operations — that is, Canada sends no spies abroad, merely carries on counter-espionage at home. But the Soviet bloc pays us the doubtful compliment of maintaining a considerable espionage force in this country.

Tarasov was at least the ninth, perhaps the tenth or twelfth spy to be expelled from Canada since Gouzenko's time. The exact number is secret. Only four were publicly denounced — a Polish attaché and two other Russians besides Tarasov — but about half a dozen more have been quietly sent home for similar offenses. All but Tarasov

were diplomats and immune from prosecution, which may be why the government didn't bother to prosecute Tarasov either.

For the secrecy there are several reasons. The Canadians who were offered bribes, and who co-operated with the RCMP to set traps for their would-be corrupters, had no wash to be involved in a public scandal. Nor did the government want needless squabbles wdth the Soviet Union or its satellites. When a public fuss is made, the communist country often feels obliged to fake up a counter-charge of its own. This could mean that some Canadian diplomat might be abruptly expelled or. worse, some innocent tourist clapped into jail for asking a harmless question. (In Russia it's a crime to seek any information that has not been published officially, so any tourist might be guilty of “espionage” under Soviet law.)

Anyway, it's hardly worthwhile to make a fuss about the spies who are expelled, when others are not even disturbed. The RCMP do not merely suspect, they know every Soviet embassy is the centre of at least one spy ring and often two or three. They spend a great deal of time and effort getting to know the ones that operate in Canada, and penetrating these with their own agents. Whenever a spy ring is broken up the police have the trouble and expense of locating and penetrating the new one that is quickly formed to take its place.

Because the RCMP pool information with the British secret service, the American FBI and other NATO security forces, they also know many spies who come here from other countries — sometimes as resident Soviet diplomats, sometimes as transient visitors. The Mounties have great professional respect for these adversaries.

“They are superbly trained," one officer said. “Sometimes we take whole squads of our men off their regular duty — narcotics, say — and set them to shadow one of these Russians, just for the practice. In nine

cases out of ten they lose him in a matter of hours. The Russians know every trick in the book, and never stop using them."

Such as what?

"Well, suppose you're following a man in a car. He stops at a red light, you stop behind him. When the light turns green, he doesn't go on — he just stays there. What do you do? If you stay there behind him, he know's he’s being followed. If you pull out and pass him, you lose him. Either way, he wins the round.

"A trained Russian spy never stops that sort of thing. If you're following a drug peddler, sav. you know he's up to something when he starts taking precautions. Most of the time, he doesn't bother. A trained spy takes precautions all the time. He'll come out of his hotel room, get on and off a tram two or three times, perhaps duck into a department store and ride up the escalator, then stop at the top and watch everybody else who comes up for five minutes. Then he may just buy a package of cigarettes and go back to his hotel. Two hours later he might do the same thing all over again.”

Why? Just for practice?

“Not at all. It's partly to try us out, and sec if he can spot the men who are following him. More important, it’s to establish a pattern of behavior so that when he does want to meet another agent, his precautions won't give him away.”

A more puzzling question is why the Soviet bloc pays so much attention to Canada. Twelve Canadian foreign service officers, with their wives and children and a few' clerks and stenographers, are the entire Canadian colony in the Soviet Union. (The first correspondent, John Best of The Canadian Press, arrived a few weeks ago.) But in Ottawa the Soviet Union has twenty-nine names on the diplomatic list, plus three more who are accredited but absent. Not only wives and clerks, but cooks, maids, drivers, doormen and other servants bring the total Soviet official staff to about a hundred, and any of these categories may include secret agents.

Gouzenko revealed that two senior aides of Colonel Zabotin, who headed the Red Army's spy ring in 1945, were listed as a driver and a doorman. (Both in fact held commissions in the Red Army.) Pavlov, head of the NKVD spy network in Canada, was listed as a mere second secretary. Wives may also be special agents. In some known cases the real wife has been left behind in Russia, and her place taken by someone better trained or better trusted.

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Once the Soviets in Canada fought to keep firemen out of their burning embassy. Now they’re as suave as their new facade

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Canada is like a farm team for Soviet agents. They come here to brush up on their techniques

Soviet journalists, too, by the testimony of many defectors, are usually members of the Soviet secret police. Since 1943 the USSR has had at least one and usually two correspondents in the Ottawa press gallery, though little Canadian news is ever printed in Russia. Trade officials are similarly recruited (in Gouzenko’s time the “commercial attaché” was really a major of Red Army intelligence) and the Russians have always pressed for the right to open offices across Canada to promote their minuscule trade (minuscule except for the wheat sales, which needed no promotion).

Why all this flattering concentration on Canada?

“I think they use Canada as a training ground,” an external affairs man said, only half in joke. “They send their apprentices here, like a farm team in a minor league.”

Maybe so, but there are some real targets for spies in Canada. As a member of NATO, the government gets a lot of British and American military information. Our open border with the U. S. makes contact easy with Soviet agents there. Also, there arc other useful things as well as information to be got. A false passport, for instance, is perhaps easier to get in Canada than anywhere else in the world.

(Officials are quite aware of the passport loophole, but they don't know how they can close it. How do you check a passport application sent to Ottawa by mail from Kamloops, B.C., or Baie Comeau, P.Q.? A proper check would take weeks, and voters complain if they don’t get their passports within days.)

Once established in Canada, the Soviet spymaster has a lot of advantages that the USSR doesn’t allow foreign diplomats in Moscow. There, every foreign mission must take the houses and office space it is assigned; all, needless to say, are filled with electronic eavesdropping devices. Sometimes these machines are found and destroyed, more often they are taken for granted and ignored. (It’s a comforting, though staggering, thought to reflect how much skilled manpower is tied up in hearing, translating and transcribing all these miles of microtape.) The really secret messages from a Moscow embassy are dictated in a specially constructed room-withina-room, with thick walls installed by the embassy's own staff and proof against Soviet listening devices. Other conversations are simply carried on with the knowledge that they are overheard.

At the door of every foreigner's residence in Moscow, at least one Russian policeman is on duty all the time. It's his job to record every visitor, every entrance and exit of the people who live there. Within Moscow' itself the Russians don’t bother following every foreigner around the street, but no journeys of more than twenty - five miles can be made without permission.

This last is the only restriction imposed on Soviet diplomats and correspondents in Canada. They too must have permission to travel, though here the limit is seventy-five miles rather than twenty-five. Travel requests from the Soviet embassy average about thirty a month, and are often for more than one person — altogether about six hundred individual journeys a year are authorized. When permission is refused, it is always a direct retaliation for refusal of a Canadian application in Moscow.

How do we know whether Soviet diplomats in Canada are obeying this regulation? When a Russian second secretary goes for a drive out of Ottawa does he always stop at Smiths Falls (fifty-seven miles) or does he sometimes go on to Kingston (one hundred and thirty)? And if he has permission to go to Toronto, what’s to stop him from going to Winnipeg instead?

One rule the Soviet hasn’t broken

For obvious reasons the RCMP are coy about answering questions of this kind. They say things like, “We keep a pretty close eye on them,” or, “I think we'd hear about it all right.” At any rate no Soviet diplomat has ever been caught breaking this particular rule. The risk would be considerable (any diplomat who was so caught would be sent home in disgrace) so it's quite probable that they observe the regulation voluntarily — especially since it's the only one imposed upon them.

Far from having to accept buildings

designed for them by the Canadian government, the Russians here have been able to make their embassy almost a Soviet fortress. It was built for them by a private contractor to their own plans and specifications (in appearance, it resembles the standard Soviet architecture to be seen in East Berlin). Visitors enter a small, bare outer porch in which, at the right, a reception clerk sits behind a glass partition. Only after telling him their business are they admitted to the entrance hall itself.

When the old embassy building burned down on New Year's Day, 1956, the staff did not call the Ottawa fire department. Neighbors raised the alarm after about an hour (they were afraid the flames would sweep the whole block) but the Russians refused to let the firemen in. One even took a swing at Fire Chief John Foote. (“I ducked,” the chief said later.) When firemen did force their way in they found the Russians had spent the previous hour not just fighting the fire, but also burning secret papers. “There wasn't enough left to fill your pipe with,” an Ottawa fireman told newspapermen.

No attempt is made to keep all the Russians under constant watch. They can live in any part of Ottawa they like. In fact most of them lodge within a few blocks of their embassy, but that is their own choice; a few live in widely scattered locations. One is in the same apartment house as the Canadian minister of external affairs, Paul Martin. All are free to entertain and be entertained by Canadians.

Nevertheless, the RCMP have their

own methods of keeping an eye on Soviet espionage. They think these methods are adequate, that they have a fairly complete picture of what Russian spies are doing, and they have caught enough of them over the years to prove that this is no idle boast.

Exactly what the methods are, of course, they won't discuss. One method, though, is fairly obvious — penetration of the Soviet spy rings by Canadian counter-agents. The Mounties know many, if not most, of the people who provide Russian spies with information.

Times have changed in the twenty years since Gouzenko's day. All but one of the Canadians involved in that spy ring were communists or sympathizers. (The exception was the passport clerk who accepted a bribe of three thousand dollars to issue a false passport; he originally asked five thousand, but Moscow said this price was “fantastic” and he settled for three.)

In those days there was no such thing as a security check for “sensitive” government jobs. If the same group applied for the same jobs today, none would get through the routine screening. The RC'MP didn’t know them as spies, but could have identified them as communists or near-communists from its own sources of information even then. Such people no longer have access to any classified material.

Even if they had, the Soviet Union is less inclined to rely on them nowadays. Most of the agents in the Gouzenko group were idealists, pathetically so in some cases. They offered their services without pay, and when small amounts were pressed upon them (it is standard Soviet practice that their agents should accept money and sign receipts for it) they accepted with reluctance and misgiving. Kathleen Willsher, who as private secretary to the British high commissioner provided a steady flow of secret information to the Soviet embassy, had great scruples about taking twenty-five dollars to cover her expenses for a trip to Montreal; she kept track of every penny she spent, and put the balance in a separate bank account. I.ittle Emma Woikin, the cipher clerk in external affairs, gave information to the Soviet Union because “I have a feeling of love for that country,” where her parents had been born. Her native Canada seemed to her a harsher land — “there was a time when I was quite poor, and my baby died because we had no medical care, and nobody seemed to care. My husband was sick, and nobody seemed to intervene at all.” In the Soviet Union, she thought, “there is hope for the poor, or something.” Mrs. Woikin had been passing on secret despatches to the Soviet embassy for months before she finally accepted a "gift" of fifty dollars.

Idealists of that kind do not make reliable spies, apparently, or even reliable Communists. At the time of the Hungarian revolt in 1956, all but four of the fifteen members of ihe national executive of the Canadian Communist Party resigned, and most of them became bitterly anticommunist.

For these and other* reasons, the USSR no longer relies on local communists for espionage as much as it once did. The party is still used as

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a recruiting ground, but less extensively. More reliance is placed upon the time-tested methods of recruitment, bribery and blackmail.

The drawback, from the Soviet point of view, is that many of the people w'ho arc offered bribes or subjected to blackmail report the fact to the RCMP. The Mounties always tell them, “Play along — let them think you are co-operating, but keep us informed.” From such sources, and from others deliberately planted, the RCMP have acquired some very detailed knowledge of how the Soviet spy rings operate, and of the kind of information they arc trying to get.

Much of it is innocuous. In the Gouzenko affair and many others since, the Russians showed amazing willingness to pay for facts they could get for themselves from the Canada Year Book. Some people infer from this that Russians do not believe any official statement — knowing their own to be false, they assume everyone clse's to be the same. A more plausible explanation is that their real objective is not to get the information but to corrupt the informant. A man tempted by a bribe, or intimidated by a threat, will more readily yield if the “secrets” he is asked to betray are not secret at all. Once he does yield, though, he is a compromised man. Later, he can be forced to reveal things of more consequence.

Partial confirmation of this theory is the fact that men arc often approached. paid for one bit of informa-

tion, then ignored for months or even years. Apparently the plan is to accumulate a reserve of potential agents who can be used in the future, when needed.

Russians show endless curiosity about individuals — not only eminent men. but anyone who might achieve a position of influence in future. Apparently they keep elaborate dossiers on Members of Parliament, journalists, civil servants, teachers, anyone w'ho might conceivably influence either government policy or public opinion. They want personal information. They like to know who seems to be in need of money, who is fond of drink or women, above all w'ho is a homosexual. They are less interested, though they do have some mild interest, in the political views of each.

One encouraging fact is that lately, they seem less concerned with learning military secrets than with detailed information on trade — industrial and economic intelligence, the kind for which big corporations spy on each other. Apparently the objective is that w'hen a Soviet delegation sits down with a Canadian delegation to work out a trade deal, it should know more about the Canadian position than the Canadians do themselves.

If this trend continues, it opens a cheering prospect. Instead of studying how to vaporize us, or even revolutionize us, the Russians are merely trying to out-deal us. If that is all they do, our grandchildren may survive the atomic age after all. ★