The Petrovs and countering Cold War espionage

In April 1954, Australia (and ASIO) found itself in the frame of the Cold War with the public announcement by Prime Minister Menzies that Vladimir Mikhailovitcvh Petrov, a Soviet intelligence officer based in Canberra, had sought political asylum in Australia.

Mr Petrov and his wife, Evdokia, had decided to reject communism and defect. In return, they offered to provide valuable information about Soviet espionage activity against Australia and the West.

ASIO and the Petrovs

Vladamir Petrov came to the notice of ASIO in 1950, barely a year after its foundation. ASIO had a focus on the diplomatic officers within the Soviet Embassy, and Director-General Spry had issued a directive that work be done to identify a Russian with potential as an asset.

An existing agent, Dr Michael Bialoguski, became a key player and was tasked with providing information on Petrov and his activities. Dr Bialoguski’s service was controversial among those few people involved in ‘the Case’. However, he was undeniably important in convincing Petrov that staying in Australia was not only a possibility but also the best option.

In a dramatic and very public event, Petrov was convinced to seek asylum in Australia in April 1954 after months of development by ASIO handlers and agents. His wife, Evdokia, a cypher-clerk at the embassy and an identified KGB officer, accompanied him days later, but not before being subject to a very public attempted extraction by diplomatic minders. The photo of Mrs Petrov being manhandled onto a plane at Sydney Airport ranks as one of the most iconic Australian photographs of the 20th century.

The Petrovs’ defection was followed by the severing of diplomatic relations with the USSR, the closure of the Russian Embassy in Canberra and the establishment of the Royal Commission into Espionage.

Petrov’s defection (and the aftermath) was a milestone for the Organisation and a public demonstration of the very real threat of espionage in Australia. It provided a great deal of credibility about ASIO’s ability and its role, with both partner organisations and the Australian public.

Both Vladimir and Evdokia remained in Australia for the rest of their lives, and continued to provide valuable intelligence to the security of the Commonwealth.

Cold War espionage

After its early success with the Petrovs, ASIO remained active countering Soviet espionage activities during the Cold War.

In 1963, ASIO identified Russian diplomat and KGB officer Ivan Skripov. The Organisation determined Skripov was attempting to cultivate Australians to assist his intelligence efforts, one of whom was an ASIO human source. ASIO used this opportunity and ran the source back against Skripov as a ‘double agent’ for a short time, confirming the extent of his intelligence activities. Skripov was later declared persona non grata—with the Australian Government revoking his diplomatic privileges and forcing his return to the Soviet Union.

Representatives in Australia of other Soviet bloc countries were also a priority for ASIO, and in 1969 the Organisation secured the defection of Czech Consul-General Karel Franc. In post-defection debriefs, Franc reported on the intelligence activities of some of his consulate staff and advised of the presence of a network of 25 Soviet ‘illegals’ in Australia placed to activate in case of war. ‘Illegals’ are intelligence agents posted abroad to live a normal life, usually under an assumed identity, and operating without any contact with the legal representation of their home country.

Later, in 1983, Soviet diplomat and KGB officer Valeriy Ivanov was declared persona non grata after ASIO discovered his attempts to cultivate a former senior member of the Australian Labor Party. ASIO learned Ivanov was seeking to create a clandestine relationship with a person in a position of influence, in order to manipulate political and trade discussions between Australia and the Soviet Union. The investigation into Ivanov, and his eventual expulsion, in part contributed to the Royal Commission on Australia’s Security and Intelligence Agencies (the second Hope Royal Commission).

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