Did the Cold War Start in Canada?

Igor Gouzenko during a television promotion of his book, The Fall of the Titan (1954)

Given the unfortunate global state of affairs we find ourselves in, a quote like, “It’s war. It’s Russia,” wouldn’t be entirely out of place today. However, these words were uttered by a young Russian man named Igor Gouzenko back in 1945. Less than a month after the end of World War II, Gouzenko defected to Canada and came forward with proof that the USSR was spying on its former wartime allies via a spy network operating in Canada. When the news became public it sparked an international affair which some argue marks the beginning of the Cold War.

Igor Gouzenko Unmasked. (Undated, though he appears to be standing in front of a car made in Ontario).

Back in 1943, the Soviets began to actively pursue their goal of creating their own atomic bomb and wanted to find out more about how their western allies were going about it. They knew Canada was involved and decided to collect information by spying. They had Soviet agents integrate themselves into several Canadian government departments and in the British High Commission in Ottawa. Gouzenko, who worked in military intelligence, was sent along with a group of men to work at the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa. He worked as a cipher clerk (aka a code clerk—he encrypted and decrypted messages) for Colonel Nikolai Zabotin.

Colonel Nikolai Zabotin, head of the Soviet spy network in Canada. Soviet Embassy, Ottawa, (c. 1946). Source: Library and Archives Canada.

Gouzenko found himself torn between his mission and his new life in Ottawa. Tensions were at an all-time high while working at the Soviet embassy. He would describe the working environment in his autobiography as oppressive. Frequent in-fighting and constantly spying on one another created an atmosphere of paranoia and unease. Gouzenko was fortunate that he got a break when he went home. Most of the Soviets were supposed to live together, but he and his wife, Svetlana, had just had a child together. Gouzenko’s family was allowed to live in a rented apartment so their crying baby wouldn’t disturb everyone else.

Eventually, Gouzenko fell victim to his fellow spies and they reported to their superiors that it seemed he was planning to defect. Gouzenko and his family was recalled to the USSR in August 1945. Fearing what awaited them back home, Igor and Anna agreed to risk their lives and defect to Canada. He had been collecting confidential documents at his apartment for weeks leading up to his defection on September 5, 1945. Although he had over 100 documents in total, Gouzenko had a hard time getting the authorities to take him seriously. Newspapers and government departments turned him away; they believed he was lying. What ended up happening was while the family hid in a neighbour’s apartment, a number of Soviets broke into the Gouzenko’s home in a desperate attempt to find the stolen documents. The Ottawa Police were watching and forced the intruders to leave. The Gouzenkos went into RCMP custody after that and he turned over the documents to them.

The Hammer and Sickle (the Soviet symbol) over Canada. Image from a Canadian Chamber of Commerce pamphlet, (c. 1947).

The documents revealed the Soviets had been spying on the Canadian-British atomic research project to obtain secret information from Canada, Great Britain and the United States and implicated government employees, scientists, even a Member of Parliament, Fred Rose. Prime Minister Mackenzie King was quickly informed of the spy ring. For lack of a better phrase, not wanting shit to hit the fan, King chose to act cautiously and not alert the press. He was so cautious that after two months no arrests had been made. He spoke with American President Truman and British Prime Minister Attlee, but both the US and UK felt keeping quiet for now was the best strategy. The Soviets kept trying to get Canadian officials to turn Gouzenko over to them, but they had no luck. Instead embassy workers in both Canada and the US started to get recalled back to Moscow.

Front page of the Globe and Mail on February 18, 1946.

Well, the news eventually did get out on February 3, 1946 and everything changed. The RCMP, along with the FBI, began arresting spies and so did the British. King (much to his dismay) became villainized by the Soviet press. Canadians were pissed and wanted all the remaining Soviet diplomats to get out of the country. Public opinion across the west became stacked against the Soviet Union. Members of the Canadian and American governments who had been arguing that the USSR cannot be trusted felt vindicated. Military intelligence agencies got a major boost in both money and resources. Innocent people got caught up in the hysteria too and despite being cleared by the authorities, the stigma forced them to leave Canada. Of the 39 people arrested, only 18 were convicted. (Also, remember Colonel Zabotin who Gouzenko worked for? He and his family were sent to a labour camp as punishment by the Soviets for the scandal).

Did the Gouzenko and the revelation of Soviet spies in Canada and the start of the Cold War? Not really, but it sure made things a heck of a lot worse. As a result of the Gouzenko Affair anti-Communist rhetoric increased significantly, international relations took a nosedive, and fears of communistic plots to overthrow western democracies began to surface. Essentially, it helped jump-start the Red Scare 2.0* (1947-1957). However, suspicion and animosity towards the Soviets had been growing for years and there was a lot of tension between the western allies and the USSR over what to do with post-Nazi Germany. Most importantly, the end of WW2 created a geopolitical situation where all other rivals to the Americans and Soviets were gone. There were only two superpowers left standing; two who stood in opposition to one another, both militarily and ideologically. As such, the Cold War was the result of numerous factors and the general consensus is that the Gouzenko Affair serves as its symbolic start.

* The first Red Scare followed WW1 and lasted only from 1917-1920. It was tied to the Bolshevik Revolution.

So what ever happened to Gouzenko? After successfully achieving political asylum for himself and his family, aside from publishing two books and being involved in a libel case against Maclean’s, not much is known. The KGB never got him though. Every television and media appearance he made occurred with a hood over his head to protect his identity. The Gouzenkos had eight children. Five years after the death of her husband, Svetlana spoke to CBC about their lives. Gouzenko lived out the rest of his life under an assumed name, likely in Mississauga, Ontario, and up until his death from a heart attack in 1982 was protected by the RCMP.


Brisson, Richard, “Igor Gouzenko,” Vintage Tradecraft in Cryptology and Espionage. March 6, 2016. Accessed from: http://www.campx.ca/gouzenko.html

Knight, Amy, How the Cold War Began: The Gouzenko Affair and the Hunt for Soviet Spies. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2005.

“The Gouzenko Affair and the Cold War,” Library and Archives Canada. January 1, 2008. Accessed from: http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/obj/008001/f2/cold-e.pdf