TORONTO, July 31 (UPI) -- This past week Heritage Minister Sheila Copps designated the 1945 defection of Soviet code clerk Igor Gouzenko an event of National Historic Significance. That makes it official, I suppose. It also makes it something of an understatement.
As the bureaucrat in charge of historic sites and monuments explained, an event must be deemed to have a lasting impact on the lives of Canadians to be considered of historical significance. By this criterion, I'd say that some of the nine events Ms. Copps named this week got in under the wire. Not the Gouzenko affair, though.
The stroll a young cipher clerk took 57 years ago on a humid Wednesday evening from the Soviet Embassy to the offices of the Ottawa Journal had a lasting impact on people's lives, not only in Canada, but all around the world.
The Cold War began on Sept. 5, 1945, shortly after 8 p.m., as the 26-year-old Gouzenko walked out of the Soviet embassy building on Charlotte Street. For the previous month, while atomic bombs exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Igor had been discussing defection with his wife Svetlana in their small Ottawa apartment. As a cipher clerk, Gouzenko knew a great deal about a Soviet spy ring operating through the office of GRU (military intelligence) Colonel Nicolai Zabotin.
The ring was after the atomic secrets of their war-time allies. Being privy to such information might, as Gouzenko suspected, lead to disappearance in the Gulag.
Having made his decision, Gouzenko took 109 documents and hid them under his shirt. The same night he went to the offices of the Ottawa Journal, thinking that it would be safer to report his defection to the newspapers than to the police. He was mistaken. The puzzled night editors of the Journal turned him away.
For two harrowing days, with a pregnant wife and 2-year-old son in tow, Gouzenko tried to convince incredulous Canadian journalists and Ministry of Justice officials to give him a hearing.
Having failed, the family sought refuge with a neighbor. By then Soviet agents were breaking down their apartment door --- which prompted the neighbor to call the police.
There had been many milestones in Western society's loss of innocence about the nature of communism. In the post-war era, the first was the defection of Igor and Svetlana Gouzenko.
Following the hearings of the Kellock-Taschereau Royal Commission of 1946, Gouzenko's 109 documents led directly to the conviction of 11 Canadians and Britons. They included a sitting member of Parliament, Fred Rose, the atomic energy scientist Allan Nunn May, and the organizing secretary of Canada's Communist Party, Sam Carr. In America, Gouzenko's evidence led the FBI to the trail of such figures of atomic espionage as Klaus Fuchs, Harry Gold and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
Gouzenko died in 1982 and his wife passed away last year. All their lives they had lived under an assumed name, as had their eight children and 16 grandchildren. Seven years ago, though, on Sept. 9, 1995, about 30-40 guests gathered in a garden in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga.
Some had just dropped by to say hello to their neighbor, a Russian lady --- the focus of the gathering, a woman in her early 70s, looking matronly and vigorous, with unusually blue, alert and mischievous eyes --- who along with her late husband had been living next door to them for the past 40-odd years. The occasion, as they understood it, was her 50th anniversary in Canada.
There was nothing in the bucolic scene to hint at historic distinction or international intrigue. The guests would have been astounded by some notes and telegrams lying on a separate table, next to the rest of the anniversary gifts.
But the notes were shown only to family members and a few selected visitors by the eldest daughter. One read, in part: "When you and your husband crossed over to freedom, you began the long process that led to the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. His revelation helped the West to face up to the reality of communist subversion and tyranny. Those of us who later fought the battle for freedom to its climax in 1989 and 1991 were greatly in his debt -- and in yours." The note was signed Margaret Thatcher.
Mrs. Gouzenko was pleased by Lady Thatcher's note in 1995 (which the former British Prime Minister must have personally put in an envelope because it also contained a packet of her favorite artificial sweetener). No doubt, this week she would be pleased that the result of her whispered discussions with her husband in their small apartment on Somerset Street has been designated as an event of National Historic Significance. She wouldn't be surprised, though. She knew it at the time.