The Spy Ring of Vladimir Petrov

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In 1954 a humble civil servant at the Russian Embassy in Australia stunned the world when he defected from the Soviet Union with his wife, revealing that he was head of a spy ring with the title of colonel – and the man who knew the truth behind the mysterious disappearance of British spies Burgess and Maclean. We a look at the spectacular defection of Vladimir Petrov, and the astonishing revelations he made.

2001742: MR AND MRS PETROV IN 1946
The pair would later, 1954, be involved in an espionage case which led to a late minute rescue of Evdokia Petrova who was granted asylum with her husband in Australia.

Vladimir Petrov was a junior Third Secretary at the Russian Embassy in Canberra seemingly anxious to dodge the limelight at diplomatic get-togethers.  He preferred chatting about trout fishing to politics – while male attention focused on his vivacious, blonde wife Eydokia, the Embassy book-keeper.

But on 3 April 1954 Petrov created a sensation when he shed his hitherto carefully cherished anonymity, contacted the Australian security services and announced he wanted to defect.

For Petrov was no lowly Third Secretary but the Head of the entire Australian branch of the MVD, responsible for security and intelligence, with the rank of Colonel. Hitherto no Russian of comparable seniority had provided the non-Communist world with such a sensational coup.

At the same time, it was revealed that Eydokia Petrov, whom the Russians held in the Soviet Embassy following her husband’s defection, had been her husband’s cypher clerk with the rank of MVD Captain.

Petrov took to his new masters the identities behind code names of Communist moles, together with mountains of documents on the infrastructure of the Soviet apparatus of Australia.  And he knew the truth behind the mystery disappearance of two British diplomats, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, three years previously.

2001736: MRS PETROV CHOSE FREEDOM – Mrs Evokiya Petrov, the fair-haired wife of the Soviet secret Police Chief who sought asylum in Australia, looks very bedraggled and upset as her strong-arm escorts drag her across to the plane taking her on the start of her Moscow journey from Sydney. She lost her shoe when her companions struggled with a hostile crowd. When the aircraft landed at Darwin, it was met by Northern Territory Police and Mrs Petrov was given a choice of staying in Australia. She has since gone into hiding with her husband, under the protection of the Australian Government
20 April 1954

Why did Petrov defect?

He explained to the Australian Secret Service that his mentor, the notorious secret police chief Lavrenti Pavlovich Beria, had been liquidated and his own life was in danger.

He claimed:  “There were murmurings of inefficiency, even disloyalty.  Eydokia and I knew what that meant.  If we were recalled, it would be the end.”

The irrevocable decision to defect had been taken.  Petrov’s requests for asylum and protection were granted.

The Australian Secret Service’s main priority at once became the safety of the Petrovs.  A posse of armed Russians attempted to force the terrified Eydokia onto an aircraft bound for the Soviet Union.  But in a dramatic move she was snatched back and driven to a secret destination to rejoin her husband.

The couple then talked freely to their hosts about the extent of Soviet espionage in Australia.  But Vladimir Petrov hugged to himself his far more dramatic revelations – to be revealed at a price which, it turned out, a London popular Sunday newspaper was prepared to pay.

A key date in the story Petrov told in print was Friday, 25 May 1951 when, Donald Maclean, Head of the American Department in the Foreign Office and Guy Burgess, a diplomat recently returned from the British Embassy in Washington, left the southern England port of Southampton on what was ostensibly a weekend cruise to St Malo.  They never returned.

For three years, Petrov revealed, an intensely embarrassed British Government had concealed the fact that Maclean and Burgess had been Soviet agents since their undergraduate days at Cambridge – a fact which had been long known but which had not been acted on.

Donald Duart Maclean, son of a Presbyterian Scots politician, had first become useful to the Kremlin in 1944 when he had been posted to Washington as First Secretary in the British Embassy.  As British representative on the Combined Policy Committee for Joint Atomic Development with the Americans and Canadians, he had been ideally placed for supplying important documents to the Soviets on nuclear planning.

However, Western security services were already on the track of the man they had codenamed Homer, surveillance sustained when Maclean, whose health already showed signs of breaking down, received subsequent postings to Cairo and then back to London.

If Maclean, coping with the strain of a double life by drinking, had any suspicions that British intelligence was closing in, he had these confirmed in May 1951 when he received a terse telephone call from Guy Burgess, an old friend, proposing himself for dinner at Maclean’s suburban home that night.

According to Maclean’s wife, Melinda, her husband announced he and Burgess – who had been introduced as “Roger Styles, a colleague at the Foreign Office” – had to keep a pressing engagement.  Maclean had told his wife:  “I don’t expect to be very late.  I’ll take an overnight bag just in case.”

Old Etonian Guy Francis de Moncy Burgess, at one time also a Foreign office diplomat in London and Washington, had known a great deal about Donald Maclean, not least the fact that the Soviets were in possession of a photograph which showed Maclean taking part in a homosexual orgy.

Burgess, also a KGB agent and himself a homosexual, had received instructions from his Soviet control to lay plans for getting Maclean out of Britain.  The escape plan was activated with Burgess making a last minute decision that, with so much explaining to do if he returned home, would quit Britain for ever as well.

2001731: VLADIMIR PETROV SPY CASE Left: A composite picture of spies Anthony Blunt (top left), Guy Burgess (top right), Kim Philby (bottom left) and Donald Maclean (bottom right) Right: copies of telegrams sent in the name of Donald Maclean to his mother, Lady Maclean (top) and to his wife Melinda (bottom)

And the link with Petrov? One of his colleagues at the Soviet Embassy in Canberra had been an official named Filip Vladimirovich Kislytskin who had worked at the Embassy in London as a cypher clerk for the MVD and had handled material passed to him by Burgess.

Kislytskin had been unequivocal about the two runaway diplomats, telling Petrov:  “These weren’t impulsive escapees, but long-term, deep-cover moles recruited at university with the sole purpose of burrowing into the establishment”.

Petrov went on to reveal to a special Royal Commission set up after his defection:  “The volume of material Burgess supplied was so colossal that the cipher clerks of the Soviet Embassy were at times almost fully employed in enciphering it so that it could be radioed to Moscow, while other urgent messages had to be dispatched in diplomatic bags by couriers.”

Burgess would make the handover in bulging briefcases.  After a meeting, Kislytskin told Petrov, the official would return to the embassy with mud-bespattered clothes which pointed to a countryside rendezvous.

Petrov added:  “I was told that most of the documents were photographed before being returned to Burgess, but in urgent cases Kislytskin enciphered the text and had it sent by direct radio to Moscow.

“When Kislytskin went back to Moscow in 1948 he was in charge of the English section of the MVD library.  There was so much Foreign Office material supplied by Burgess and Maclean that some of it had not been translated or sorted.”

A horrified Foreign Office, which had hoped to keep the Burgess-Maclean affair under wraps for a good many years yet and uncomfortably aware of the presence of at least two other Communist moles already under surveillance, stonewalled for a year after Petrov’s defections, dismissing the Russian’s allegations as being “of a limited and general character” and based on “hearsay.”

When a British Government White Paper, titled Report Concerning the Disappearance of two Former Foreign Office Officials was published, a leader in The Times newspaper pounced on a significant omission which was “how Maclean and Burgess made good their escape from this country when the security authorities were on their track.”

On Saturday 11 February 1956, some months after the publications of the British Government’s White Paper, Burgess and Maclean went public in Moscow to two English journalists and produced written statements.

Burgess claimed that he had never concealed his Communist allegiance from his British colleagues.  The nagging question of how both men had been allowed to give the intelligence authorities in London the slip so easily was never answered.

The two men shrank from further contact with the west they had foresworn.  On his arrival in Moscow, Burgess was set to work recommending suitable British books for translation into Russian and helping to edit the English edition of a cultural magazine.  He died in his sleep on 30 August 1963.

Donald Maclean survived to relish the privileges of Colonel rank in the KGB and an eventual pension, living  in a comfortable apartment well stocked with foreign books and in a dacha outside Moscow.  At his death in 1983 at the age of 69, he left his estranged wife Melinda all the money he had – just £500.

But, as it was to turn out, the story of the Burgess and Maclean spy scandal was only just beginning.  Still in the shadows were at least two other Soviet spies, Kim Philby, also recruited like Burgess and Maclean at Cambridge in the 1930s, and Sir Anthony Blunt, at the pinnacle of the Establishment as keeper of the Queen’s Pictures, who had informed Maclean that interrogation by the security services was imminent.  Vladimir Petrov’s original revelations developed even more sensationally than he could possibly have imagined.

2001729: Left: Mrs Donald Maclean on her way to France for a holiday, July 1952 Right: Vladimir Petrov leaving the High Court in Melbourne during a recess in the hearings of the Royal Commission on espionage in Australia, 1954
text by Rupert Butler ©1994 Syndicated Features (Topham Partners LLP)

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