‘It’s war. It’s Russia’: How Igor Gouzenko triggered a new Red Scare

In September 1945, a Soviet cipher clerk went to authorities claiming that a spy ring had infiltrated the intelligence services of multiple countries, including Canada. What happened next would help usher in the Cold War
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on Sep 12, 2020
Igor Gouzenko in a Toronto hotel room on April 11, 1954, flanked by actors set to star in a film about his story. (CP)

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William Lyon Mackenzie King was not having a good morning on September 6, 1945. Preparations for the opening of the new session of Parliament later that day had left him anxious. The prime minister was nervous about having to meet the many new MPs from other parties. Working on the throne speech had worn him out.

His day got worse after he reached his Centre Block office. Waiting for him were Norman Robertson, the undersecretary for external affairs; and Robertson’s assistant, Hume Wrong. Both men wore grave expressions.

“Robertson said to me that most terrible thing had happened,” King wrote in a confidential portion of his diary. “It was like a bomb on top of everything and one could not say how serious it might be or to what it might lead. He then told me that this morning, just half an hour or so earlier, a man had turned up, with his wife, at the office of the Minister of Justice. He asked to see the Minister. He said he was from the Russian Embassy. That he was threatened with deportation and that once he was deported, there would rein certain death. That the Russian democracy was different than ours. He went on to say that he had in his possession documents that he had taken from the embassy and was prepared to give to the government.”

The man in question was Igor Gouzenko, a cipher clerk who claimed he had evidence of a Soviet spy ring that had infiltrated the intelligence services of Canada, Great Britain, and the United States. Though the events that occurred after Gouzenko left work for the last time on September 5 and before he ended up in RCMP custody on September 7 were chaotic — bordering on comedic — they marked one of the main starting points of the Cold War.

Gouzenko and his wife, Svetlana, had lived in Ottawa since 1943, when he was assigned to the Soviet embassy in Ottawa as a cipher clerk decoding messages from the Allies. “The unbelievable supplies of food, the restaurants, the movies, the wide open stores, the absolute freedom of the people,” he wrote in his book This Was My Choice, “combined to create the impression of a dream from which I must surely awaken.” In September 1944, he was informed that he would be sent back to Moscow. Given that several years remained in his posting, he feared that he had made some kind of mistake — perhaps one that could lead to imprisonment or even death. His superior officer arranged to delay his return by reporting that his decoding skills were indispensable.

After discussing the matter with Svetlana, who was now pregnant with their second child, Gouzenko decided to defect, taking confidential documents with him. While he initially claimed that he had stuffed them all under his shirt, it appears that he had taken home the 250 sheets of classified papers over several weeks. Learning he was to hand over his duties to his successor the following day, Gouzenko acted on September 5, 1945. Driven by fear, he decided not to go immediately to the authorities after leaving work; instead, he headed to the Ottawa Journal building. As he later told Maclean’s, “All the embassy staff fears the press.” (During court testimony the following year, he indicated that he had also believed that the NKVD — the predecessor of the KGB — might already have infiltrated the RCMP.) But, after reaching the top floor of the Journal’s office, he had second thoughts and fled home. Svetlana then convinced him to go back. 

This time around, Gouzenko talked with nighttime city editor Chester Fowde. “This man was short, with a tubby build, and was as white as a sheet,” Fowde later recalled. “He beckoned me to leave the desk. I gathered he wanted to talk to me in private somewhere, so I led him into what is called in the newspaper the morgue on the other side of the main office. He backed against the wall. The first words he spoke were: ‘It’s war. It’s Russia.’ He said those words as if he had them prepared to frighten people. Well that didn’t ring a bell with me because we were not at war with Russia — World War Two was over — and I didn’t get the connection.”

After a 10-minute conversation, Fowde recommended that Gouzenko go to RCMP headquarters, located in the nearby Justice Building. Gouzenko’s nervousness, broken English, and confusing claims made nearby reporters wonder whether, as frequently happened at the Journal office, a drunk had wandered in from the bar next door. When he reached the Justice Building, Gouzenko found that the offices had closed. He went home, figuring that embassy officials wouldn’t discover his theft until the next day.

On September 6, Gouzenko headed back to the Justice Building, bringing with him Svetlana and their son, Andrei. Though he waited for two hours, he failed to secure a meeting with Minister of Justice Louis St. Laurent. News of his visit, though, was relayed to Robertson, who then passed it on to King.

King was initially hesitant to act. The man could be lying: Was it worth risking diplomatic relations with the Soviets? Throughout the rest of the day, he and Robertson discussed the matter with high-ranking British intelligence officials.

In the meantime, Gouzenko returned to the Journal, where he was passed on to reporter Elizabeth Fraser. She wondered whether he were making up the spy story in order to escape other problems. “I became convinced he was paranoid and had not only delusions of persecution but of grandeur that he held information that would change the course of western history,” she later recalled. Given the positive Allied propaganda for the USSR during the war, she thought his story was unbelievable. A senior editor, whom she turned to for advice, recommended that he go to the police: the story could not be printed unless and until it could be verified by the government. (For decades after the story finally broke, the Journal listened to anyone who came in off the street with a wild story: it didn’t want to run the risk of missing another Gouzenko-level scoop.)

The Gouzenkos went to the Crown attorney’s office and asked to become naturalized citizens. They were treated as just any other applicants — until a clerk noticed how anxious Gouzenko was. The office place several calls to the Journal and to the RCMP: ultimately, John Leopold, the RCMP’s assistant chief of intelligence, agreed to meet with him the next day.

Frightened, the Gouzenkos went home to their apartment at 511 Somerset Street West. That evening, an employee of the Soviet embassy pounded on their door. Gouzenko went out onto the balcony and pleaded for help from his neighbour, RCAF corporal Harold Main. Not trusting the phone, Main hopped on his bicycle and rode over to the nearest police station. But, when Ottawa police arrived between 8 and 9 p.m., they said they couldn’t do anything, because the apartment was technically Soviet property. The family then hid in the apartment of neighbour Frances Elliott.

Between 11 p.m. and midnight, a group of four Soviet men, led by NKVD agent Vitali Pavlov, arrived at the building, broke down the Gouzenkos’ door, and ransacked the apartment. Police returned and argued with them, and they eventually left. Unbeknownst to the police, there was someone watching the building from the park across the street: RCMP officer Cecil Bayfield. To maintain his cover, he briefly moved along after police told him to get lost, then returned to his post. The botched attempt to capture Gouzenko convinced government officials that there might be merit to his claims.

The next morning, Gouzenko and his family went into protective custody. The translated documents, and further discussions with Gouzenko, revealed the severity of situation: it appeared that Soviet agents had, indeed, infiltrated the public service, some occupying positions at atomic-research laboratories.

In a letter, the Soviet embassy claimed that Gouzenko had stolen money from the office and that Ottawa police had treated the apartment-raiding party “in a rude manner,” failing to recognize their diplomatic credentials. It demanded that the federal government “take urgent measures” to arrest Gouzenko and hand him over for deportation and that the police officers be made “answerable for their actions.” Neither request was granted. At a garden party that night, King noted that Soviet ambassador Georgi Zarubin “had a very anxious look on his face.”

Over the months that followed, King met with American president Harry Truman, British prime minister Clement Atlee, and numerous intelligence officials from both countries. Their discussions remained confidential: combatting Soviet espionage while maintaining decent relations amid the confusion of postwar Europe was a tricky matter. The public didn’t become aware of what had happened until February 3, 1946, when American political commentator Drew Pearson broke the story on his weekly radio show. The next day, King finally discussed the situation with his cabinet — and launched a Royal Commission to investigate the allegations.

Thirty-nine people were arrested under the War Measures Act. Among the 18 later convicted was Fred Rose, the only Labor Progressive Party MP (the name the Communist Party ran under during this period). Applicants for government jobs soon had to obtain security clearances. Public opinion, which had been in favour of stronger ties with the USSR during the war, turned against the nation, leading to a new Red Scare.

Assessments of Gouzenko varied. Some, like former RCMP handler Don Fast, felt he had defected simply to enjoy the benefits of Canadian life. “He wanted to eat regularly,” he observed. “You can’t blame him for that.” Sir William Stephenson, though — who’d served as the head of British intelligence during the war — said that “in light of subsequent events, Gouzenko has by far the most important defector of all the escapees from Soviet tyranny.”

Gouzenko and his family remained in Canada, eventually settling in Mississauga. He wrote a memoir (This Was My Choice, 1948) and a novel (The Fall of a Titan, 1954) based on his experiences. Although he remained under the watch of the RCMP and lived under assumed identities, he feared that he would be killed by those acting for his former country. During his few public appearances, he wore a hood over his head, becoming an iconic symbol of Canada’s Cold War experience. It was a heart attack, not a KGB agent, that killed him in 1982.

​​​​​​​Sources: This Was My Choice by Igor Gouzenko (Toronto: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1948); How the Cold War Began by Amy Knight (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2005); Gouzenko: The Untold Story by John Sawatsky (Toronto: Macmillan, 1984); the September 6, 1945, September 7, 1945, and September 8, 1945, entries in William Lyon Mackenzie King’s confidential diary; and the December 15, 1946, edition of Maclean’s.

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