CLOAK AND DAGGER
The Spy Who Started the Cold War
Igor Gouzenko was a lowly Soviet cipher clerk when he turned the world order upside down in 1945. Nobody could have predicted the espionage hysteria his defection would unleash.
PARIS—Timing is everything in the history of espionage. Geopolitical winds change. Allies become enemies and people once seen as friendly collaborators suddenly are cast as insidious secret agents. Warnings of intrigue previously downplayed or ignored erupt as apocalyptic alarms.
So it was in the late summer of 1945 when a lowly cipher clerk not yet 30 years old, Igor Gouzenko, at the Soviet embassy in Ottawa, Canada, decided that he and his young wife and baby son were going to defect or, as he would later insist, “escape.” In any case, they sure as hell were not going back to Moscow as ordered.
Gouzenko began to collect and hide secret Soviet documents, hoping that they would buy him asylum and protection when he showed them to Western officials—or maybe the press. He wasn’t sure. He knew that one or two other defectors had done such things in the past. In the late 1930s, a former undercover operative in the Netherlands had even published a book. But Gouzenko also knew a great many people in power in the West did not want to know about Soviet espionage and treachery.
By 1945, everyone seemed to have forgotten the nonaggression pact Stalin’s government had signed with Adolf Hitler’s regime in 1939, paving the way for the Nazi invasion of Poland. After Hitler made the rash decision to betray Stalin and invade the Soviet Union in 1941, the Soviets threw millions of troops against the invaders, and lost millions of civilians to sieges, starvation and disease. For more than two years, they were the only force fighting Hitler’s war machine on European soil. The alliance with Stalin was absolutely vital.
Many believed Soviet leader Joseph Stalin—”Uncle Joe”—was a hero and a friend. Even hard-boiled British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had declared at the Yalta conference early that year, “I walk through this world with greater courage and hope, when I find myself in a relation of friendship and intimacy with this great man, whose fame has gone out not only over all Russia, but the world.”
That summer, Gouzenko kept mining the cables he encrypted and decrypted, looking for nuggets to intrigue the West, and thinking back on anything, everything he might have heard in Moscow. But the clock was ticking. His replacement was arriving. He had to make his move.
In fact, by luck as much as by design, Gouzenko could hardly have chosen a better moment.
In August 1945, the Allies’ war against the Nazis had been over for three months, and the war against Japan looked as if it were about to enter a decisive stage. Then the Americans dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that decided everything. Nobody had ever seen weapons like these, although many knew they were theoretically possible. Now they’d been proven, and only the Americans had them. Within days, Japan surrendered.
The Allies’ enemies were vanquished, and for a brief moment many among the American, British, and Canadian leadership believed that the alliance they had forged with Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union would allow the construction of a new world order based on peaceful cooperation.
But Stalin had never believed that. And Gouzenko knew, and could prove, that for several years Stalin had tasked his spies to discover anything and everything they could about the American nuclear program in the hopes of advancing his own.
Some of Stalin’s agents worked for the NKVD (Народный комиссариат внутренних дел, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs), which later would be reorganized as the KGB. Others, including Gouzenko, worked for the Soviet military’s far-flung intelligence organization, the GRU (Главное Разведывательное Управление, or General Intelligence Directorate).
In this century, the Russian GRU would become notorious for the March 2018 attempted murder in England of double agent and defector Sergei Skripal. In 1945, too, defectors worried obsessively about the Kremlin assassins who called their murders “wet work.”
For the rest of his life, Gouzenko felt sure that the killers were only a step behind him. And on Wednesday, September 5, 1945, the night that he made his irrevocable move to defect, he was in a delirium of fear.
Over the years, a number of myths arose about Igor Gouzenko, several of which he himself cultivated. It was not until about 15 years ago that Amy Knight, a former Soviet and Russian affairs analyst at the Library of Congress who had moved temporarily to Canada, pulled together the many threads available in newly declassified documents to answer basic questions and, as often happens in the annals of espionage, raise new ones.
In her 2005 book, How the Cold War Began, Knight argues convincingly that Gouzenko’s defection was the tipping point that shattered what had become a widespread and even optimistic complacency about the Soviets. Gouzenko’s shards of information in and of themselves provided only hints of what Stalin’s services and the people they recruited had been up to. Very little would be useful in the courts, even when Gouzenko appeared to testify with a pillowcase dramatically draped over his head as a makeshift disguise. But his revelations provoked a kind of geopolitical whiplash. Stalin the heroic friend had become Stalin the monstrous enemy.
“What really was hovering above everything was the atomic bomb,” says Knight, who is an occasional contributor to The Daily Beast. “Once the bomb was dropped and the seriousness of what it really meant became clear to everybody, this put the whole idea of Soviet espionage on a completely different level.”
There were good reasons to be concerned. By 1949, Stalin would succeed in detonating his own atom bomb, and the nuclear arms race was on, threatening the world not only with devastating wars but the extinction of human life on the planet. At the same time, however, the corrosive hysteria about Soviet spies began to eat away at the fabric of American democracy.
“It was the Gouzenko affair that forged the connection in many minds between domestic communism and Soviet espionage,” Knight wrote in her book. The door was flung wide open to the self-aggrandizing investigations led by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who had first made his reputation conducting mass roundups of suspected Bolsheviks after World War I. "Now," Knight told me the other day, “there was no constraint. He pretty much was a power unto himself.”
Then came the inquisitions of the House Un-American Activities Committee, with its blacklists and pressure on witnesses to finger as many people as they could think of. The hysteria intensified after Stalin exploded his bomb. Demented accusations by Senator Joseph McCarthy, who had "no decency," came to dominate the headlines.
These demagogues consistently failed to distinguish between “adherence to, or sympathy with, communism as an ideology and the concrete act of betraying one’s country by spying for Stalin’s secret police,” Knight wrote. “In the frenzy of the espionage scare, these considerations were discarded. Once a communist, always a Soviet spy.”
But Gouzenko, a mere code clerk, could have had no idea how much he would change history that hot Wednesday night in September.
Gouzenko was young, handsome, and highly intelligent, but spoke only marginal English. Rather than turn himself over to Canada’s equivalent of the FBI, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), he decided to take his story and his documents to the Ottawa Journal. But after making his way to the editorial offices, he panicked and fled back to his apartment. His wife then told him there was no backing out now; his absence and his theft of documents would be discovered in the morning if not before. He went back to the paper around 9:00 p.m., but the night editor could not figure out what he wanted. “It’s war. It’s war. It’s Russia,” Gouzenko kept repeating. As one witness said later, “Nobody could figure out what the hell the guy wanted.”
Gouzenko went to the Department of Justice building, but of course it was closed, and the cop out front told him to come back in the morning. It seemed nobody would listen to him. And after more futile efforts to share his information with the newspaper or the justice minister, Gouzenko and his pregnant wife and little boy desperately asked a neighbor if they could hide with her. Two nights after he had first tried to defect, NKVD thugs ransacked Gouzenko’s apartment, and only then, reluctantly, did the RCMP get involved. After that, the revelations began.
On September 12, one week after Gouzenko walked out of the Soviet embassy for the last time, FBI Director Hoover sent an urgent message to the office of President Harry Truman. His counterparts in the RCMP had learned, he said, that Stalin had made the acquisition of atomic secrets “the Number One project of Soviet espionage.” A British scientist working in Canada was a veteran Soviet agent. And “an assistant to an Assistant Secretary of State” in Washington was “a paid Soviet spy.”
The hunt was on.
This is the first installment in a series on the history of espionage. Next week: The Pumpkin Papers