The Magazine

Spy vs. Spy

What Igor Gouzenko taught the West.

Dec 18, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 14 • By HARVEY KLEHR
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How the Cold War Began

The Igor Gouzenko Affair and the Hunt for Soviet Spies

by Amy Knight

Carroll & Graf, 384 pp., $27.95

Igor Gouzenko was a code clerk in the Russian embassy in Ottawa whose decision to defect in September 1945 set off a political earthquake. Because he took with him a few hundred pages of documents that implicated a number of Canadian civil servants and scientists as Soviet spies, his case generated headlines, roiled diplomatic waters, and reverberated in both American and Canadian politics for years afterwards. Amy Knight, a freelance Russian expert, is only slightly exaggerating when she titles her account of the case, How the Cold War Began.

While she has thoroughly canvassed recently opened archives about Gouzenko and the firestorm he created, Knight is not a terribly reliable guide to what the case revealed about Soviet espionage in North America or the Western response to it. She misstates key pieces of evidence and labors to exonerate individuals now confirmed to have been Soviet agents. Despite all her research, she misunderstands both the institutional loyalties of domestic Communist parties and the nature of the threat faced by counter intelligence agencies.

Gouzenko was about to be recalled to Russia when, enamored of life in the West and fearful of being disciplined for security lapses, he secreted evidence of a large GRU (Soviet military intelligence) spy ring directed by his superior, Colonel Nikolai Zabotin, and sought political asylum along with his pregnant wife and young daughter. His initial efforts were a comedy of errors, as various civil servants, newspaper reporters, and police officials shuffled him from one office to another, either confused by his rambling and broken English or, like subordinates of Prime Minister Mackenzie King, worried that they might offend Russian allies.

Eventually taken into protective custody by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Gou zenko eagerly provided additional information, including the news that an assistant to the U.S. secretary of state was a Soviet agent, thus launching an FBI investigation of Alger Hiss, and implicating a British physicist, Allan Nunn May, as part of an effort to steal atomic bomb secrets. His documents also identified two important leaders of the Canadian Communist party, including a member of Parliament, as key figures in the espionage ring.

Although the Canadians, British, and Americans kept mum the news that Gouzenko was in custody (hoping to persuade the Soviets that he was on the run), Kim Philby, one of the KGB's moles within the British intelligence services, kept them informed on the progress of the investigation. As a result, they were able to withdraw key personnel, including Zabotin, from Canada, and warn their agents, including May, that they were under suspicion and to avoid any incriminating behavior. In February 1946, J. Edgar Hoover leaked the news that Gouzenko was supplying dramatic information to columnist Drew Pearson. The Canadian government quickly convened a Royal Commission, detained 13 people under a special war powers order that enabled them to be held incommunicado, questioned without benefit of lawyers, and threatened with severe penalties for refusing to testify before this fact-finding body.

The material gathered by the commission was later used in court, most notably the confessions of several of the defendants. In general, anyone who confessed to the commission was convicted, while those who remained silent or denied guilt were more likely to escape punishment.

Knight is critical of the Canadian government for its violations of civil liberties and even its decision to publicize the case. She consistently minimizes the seriousness of the spying and the damage it did. But she is even more irritated by the uses made of the case by American counterintelligence agencies, decrying the impetus it gave to investigations of such Americans as Alger Hiss, the ways in which J. Edgar Hoover used it to buttress allegations by American defectors from Soviet intelligence, like Elizabeth Bentley, and the extent to which it contributed to a "spy scare" that decimated the American left.