By Reed Richardson / May 12, 2019

Meet the Soviet Defector Who Started the Cold War

Soviet cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko's defection in 1945 sent shockwaves through history

November 1961. East Germans fortify the border at the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, expanding the concrete wall and adding a barbed-wire fence. (Photo credit: CIA archives)
November 1961. East Germans fortify the border at the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, expanding the concrete wall and adding a barbed-wire fence. (Photo credit: CIA archives)

A Soviet cipher clerk who decided to buy his way to freedom in the West in 1945 using stolen documents may have triggered what became the 40-year-long Cold War between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.

As World War II wound down, Igor Gouzenko was a military officer working in the Soviet embassy in Ottawa, Canada. Exposed to the many benefits of freedom and democracy in his post, Gouzenko had grown embittered with his own country’s government and global ambitions, so he made the decision to defect. And to purchase his passage into asylum, he brought armfuls of secret documents into the local Royal Canadian Mounted Police office. But this incredibly brave act made little impact on the Canadians.

The spying apparatus of his home country took notice, however.

Soon after, Soviet agents burst into Gouzenko’s Ottawa apartment, prepared to arrest him as a traitor and likely send him home to face a death sentence. Fortunately for Gouzenko, he wasn’t home at the time and his wife and child were in an apartment across the hall. But the raid finally awakened the Canadians to Gouzenko’s worth and they quickly granted him asylum.

As for the 109 smuggled documents he provided, they offered the West definitive proof of Soviet espionage within the West’s atomic weapons programs. The shockwaves from Gouzenko’s revelations immediately soured the U.S. and its Canadian and British allies on the nation that had just helped them defeat Nazi Germany—and many say it ignited the fuse that eventually set off the four-plus decades of the Cold War.

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