Remembering Gouzenko, the defector who triggered the Cold War

Igor GouzenkoBy ANDREW KAVCHAK* |
In 1998, my wife and I moved to downtown Ottawa, the capital of Canada. In 1999, when my first son was born I took several months off work to stay home with him. Every day I would take him to the local park. It was called Dundonald Park, located on Somerset Street, between Bay and Lyon. While my son was enjoying the outdoors and the fresh air in the park, I was routinely distracted by an old brick two-story building across the street. Something very dramatic happened there decades ago. And yet, there was no marker, no plaque, no statue, no monument…nothing. On the way home my son would typically fall asleep in the stroller. And in my free time I began making some phone calls to city officials and federal government offices. What would it take to erect some sort of historic marker to indicate that the first significant international incident of the Cold War happened in downtown Ottawa, so that generations of future Canadians and tourists in the nation’s capital could be informed or reminded of the historic events that transpired here?

The Japanese formally surrendered to General Douglas MacArthur on the deck of the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945. The world assumed that peace and reconstruction would replace war and destruction. However, just three days later, on September 5, Igor Gouzenko, a cypher clerk at the Soviet embassy in Ottawa walked out of the embassy with over 100 secret documents detailing the existence of a vast Soviet espionage network in Canada and other countries of the West. He wanted to expose the Soviet activity and warn the West. He went to the night editor of the Ottawa Journal and provided him with what could have been the scoop of the century, but the night editor told him to come back the next day. He spent the night with his pregnant wife and infant son at their apartment at 511 Somerset Street. The next day he returned to see the day time editor at the newspaper. The editor also refused to listen to the story about Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin’s secret Gouzenko quoteagents and suggested he go to the police. Instead, Gouzenko went to the offices of Canada’s Minister of Justice, Louis St-Laurent. Regrettably, after waiting for hours, Gouzenko was told the Minister would not see him. What to do? He could not go back to the embassy and he knew the embassy secret police would be looking for him. So he asked a neighbor in the apartment building if he and his family could spend the night there as they feared for their lives. Fortunately, the neighbor said yes.

That night, the NKVD, forerunner of the Soviet KGB, broke into Gouzenko’s apartment looking for him, while Gouzenko watched them through the keyhole of the apartment opposite. The neighbor called the police who came and confronted the Soviets who fled, claiming it was an internal diplomatic matter. The next day, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police picked Gouzenko and his family up and took him for debriefing. Shortly afterwards, Prime Minister Mackenzie King flew to Washington and London to warn President Harry Truman and Prime Minister Clement Attlee that the Cold War was on. Later, several spies were arrested, charged, and many were convicted, including a Member of Parliament and the first of the atom bomb spies. A Royal Commission of Inquiry was established which concluded that Canada was in Gouzenko’s debt. Canada was in his debt, but on Somerset Street there was no marker, no plaque, nothing.

After several years of lobbying bureaucracies and politicians, the City and the federal government both unveiled separate plaques in the park across the street from 511 Somerset. The City plaque was unveiled in 2003. In 2002, the federal government officially declared the Gouzenko Affair to be an event of national historic significance, and unveiled a corresponding plaque in 2004. More information about the story and the plaques can be found here. A video about the story and the plaques is available here.

* Andrew Kavchak studied law in Toronto and moved to Ottawa in 1989. His grandfather was among the thousand of Polish officers murdered by the NKVD on Stalin’s orders at the Katyn massacre. He spent over four years lobbying the municipal government of Ottawa and the federal government of Canada to erect the two commemorative Gouzenko plaques.

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Expert news and commentary on intelligence, espionage, spies and spying, by Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen.

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