Friday, July 22, 2011

Igor Gouzenko - The Man Who Revealed the Cold War

Igor Gouzenko
The defection of Igor Gouzenko is probably the one single case that truly marked the beginning of the Cold War.

One month after the end of the Second World War, the Allied forces were still celebrating their victory over Nazi Germany. During the war, the Canadian forces had been part of the second - Western - front against the German forces to relief the pressure on their Russian Allies in the east. Only four months earlier, the Americans and Soviets had shaken hands when they met at the River Elbe in Germany. Many innocently believed that this ended all hostilities and that they could pick up their lives from before the war.

Inside the Soviet Embassy

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Igor Sergeyevich Gouzenko had completed his second year as a cipher clerk in the Soviet embassy to Canada in Ottawa, Ontario. Gouzenko, then 26, was a member of the GRU (Soviet Military Intelligence). After returning from the Russian front two years earlier, he received training in coding and cipher work.
In June 1943 he was sent to Ottawa, where he lived with his wife and baby son in a small apartment. He worked at the embassy under GRU Colonel Nikolai Zabotin, who commanded 14 GRU officers that were involved in espionage operations against Canada. Gouzenko worked in the coding room, the inner sanctum of the embassy, where he was responsible for enciphering and deciphering of secret GRU intelligence messages between Ottawa and Moscow.

In August 1945, Gouzenko was instructed to return to Russia. Having tasted of the Western individual freedoms and being disgruntled about the Soviet intelligence operations against Canada, their former ally, he decided to defect and seek asylum for him and his wife and child. On the evening of September 5, 1945, he left the embassy, carrying 109 secret documents on Soviet espionage activities in the West. 
A Risky Defection

He approached the media and tried to contact the Minister of Justice but was initially turned down by all of them. The next night, fearing for his life, or at least apprehension by a Soviet team, Gouzenko hid with his wife and child at a neighbour, who notified the police. After the police caught Soviet officials breaking into Gouzenko's apartment, his story was finally taken seriously.
On September 7, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police took over the case and Gouzenko handed over the secret documents. The Gouzenkos were placed in protective custody and Igor was interviewed by Canadian officials, Britain's MI5 and the FBI. The 109 documents that Gouzenko took along from his GRU cipher office proved to be of exceptional intelligence value. They revealed a large Soviet spy operation to obtain military, scientific, and technological information, by whatever means, in Canada, Britain and the United States.

Gouzenko in 1948 (Source: CSIS)
Information, provided by Gouzenko and his documents, lead to extensive counter-intelligence operations and resulted in the apprehension of a series of spies and people who collaborated in some way with the Soviets.

But above all, these revelations shocked the intelligence communities, politicians and public opinion. No one expected such aggressive intelligence operations against their country from the former Soviet ally, nor could they have imagined the scale of infiltration in several Western intelligence agencies and bureaucracies. Igor Gouzenko's defection also had some unexpected and devastating consequences that surfaced only three years later.

Vigilant Soviets take Measures

Already before the Gouzenko case, American Signals Intelligence eavesdropped on Soviet encrypted communications and the codebreakers in Arlington Hall broke their cryptographic systems with great easy. In the first week after his defection, Moscow warned all its intelligence posts and agents abroad that their operations were compromised. This warning however was not picked up by the Americans, as they were unable to penetrate the Soviet intelligence communications.

Once Gouzenko's information was fully exploited, the U.S. could no longer openly use covertly obtained intelligence without disclosing their eavesdropping capabilities to their new Cold War enemy. The idea developed to release and use more sensitive communications intelligence with the Gouzenko defection as a plausible cover. The Soviets didn't know exactly what information Gouzenko actually compromised, and this could give the U.S. and Britain the opportunity to use critical information without disclosing to the Soviets that their cryptographic systems were breached.

Unfortunately, just as before the Gouzenko case, they did not consider a Soviet penetration of their own intelligence community. In fact, the Soviets did have several penetration agents inside different Western intelligence agencies. The irresponsible use of sensitive info, derived from encrypted traffic, tipped off the Soviets that their cryptographic systems were insecure. By 1948, Soviet sources within the U.S. codebreaking community had reported which crypto systems were read by the Americans.

Surprise Backlash

What did the Russians do? Nothing! To the outside world it seemed business as usual. Arlington Hall happily continued to eavesdrop on their new enemy. In reality, the Soviets had quietly initiated a large research program to vastly improve their communications security. They continued using the compromised systems but undoubtedly took their precautions and no longer gave away critical information over those channels. Then, on Friday, October 29, 1948, when the British and American eavesdroppers were busy as usual on their Russian targets, they suddenly suffered a complete black-out.

Moscow had secretly planned a complete makeover of all their communications channels. From one moment to the next, they introduced complex radio callsign and frequency schedules and all high-level communications changed to the unbreakable one-time pad encryption. Every single crypto system that the U.S. had been reading went silent. Previously unencrypted channels were now encrypted, and the new systems were a mystery. They no longer used the familiar crypto system indicators, leaving the eavesdroppers with no clues about who was using which system when, and for what messages.

It was a complete and unprecedented intelligence break-down. According to NSA, the Soviet communications changeover "came crashing down like a tidal wave on the beach of Anglo-American cryptology". This so-called Black Friday was a loud wake-up call. The Soviet Union had entered the battlefield of signals intelligence, and it was an impressive entry. It took the National Security Agency six years to even begin to recover from this slap in the face.

A New Life

The Gouzenkos were granted asylum and relocated under a new identity. Igor Gouzenko, who later appeared in several television interviews, was know for the white bag over his head that protected his identity (not a luxury, given the KGB's reputation with traitors). In 1948, Gouzenko's memoirs were published under the title This Was My Choice (see Amazon). Igor Gouzenko died of a heart attack in 1982 at Mississauga, Canada and was survived by his wife Svetlana and their eight children.

More on Igor Gouzenko is found on the Canadian Camp X website. On that page you also find Gouzenko's story "Stalin sent me to Spy School", published in the Coronet magazine (direct links to each page: [1][2][3][4][5]). On Videofact you can read Gouzenko's statement from one month after his defection.

CBC Digital Archives has an interesting interview with Svetlana Gouzenko (old archive), a CBC interview with his daughter Evelyn Wilson, who is also interviewed in Gouzenko Deciphered by Canada's History. Much more video and audio are found on the CBC website by entering "Igor Gouzenko" in their search box.

More on the Black Friday communications black-out is found in NSA's National Cryptologic School - On Watch (chapt 3, p19 (pdf page 25). The Canadian Intelligence Resource Centre has some excellent papers related to Gouzenko. The Gouzenko Affair Revisited; The Soviet Perspective is an interesting document.

Cold War Conversations has an interview with Evy Wilson, the daughter of Igor and Svetlana Gouzenko and with author Andrew Kavchak. Evy Wilson talks about her father, life at the secret Camp X in Canada, and growing up in the United States under a false identity.

I recommend Andrew Kavchak's commemorative page with many press articles. For an in-depth view on Gouzenko's story, Andrew wrote the book Remembering Gouzenk (available at Amazon US, UK and other countries). Below his fascinating presentation of "The Gouzenko Affair - The Start of the Cold War".


Unknown said...


You have a great site here!

Looks like the centenary of Igor Gouzenko's birth was on Jan 13th, according to Wikipedia.

According to the Canadian Encyclopedia his birth date was actually Jan 26th.

Not sure which it is, but it would be cool to have a celebration.



CarolineC said...

Hi Rob,

Oddly enough, his family does not know his actual birthdate to this day.

Caroline (Gouzenko’s Granddaughter)

Unknown said...

Hi Caroline,

Thanks for that update.

My dad worked with Rob, the son your grandfather's friend and translater (Mervyn(?) Black) after he died in the 1950's while still with the RCMP. It was about 53 years ago, and my dad has since lost touch him, but I am wondering if there is any chance you can still contact him, if he would be interested to make contact with his old cribbage partnerm, Bob.

Since it is the 100th anniversary of your dedushka's birth, I think there are some chances for nice anecdotes about a great man who helped change the world.


-rob (jr.)

Unknown said...


Correction: the son's name was "Rick Black", not "Rob", and I think he was working in Northern Canada (YT/NWT) around 1956.


-rob (of which there are too many)