The Cold War began with Igor Gouzenko; his kids went to a Mississauga high school undercover

 

As one of the oldest schools in Peel Region, Mississauga's Thomas L. Kennedy Secondary School has had innumerable alumni of note. But one family in particular touched Canadian and international history with a story that stretches back to the closing weeks of the Second World War, eight years before the Cooksville-based TLK opened in 1953.

As WWII ended in early September, 1945, a 26-year-old Russian secret communications officer stationed at the Soviet embassy in Ottawa, realized after living in Canada for over two years that this country afforded many freedoms unknown to him in the motherland.

Igor Gouzenko, his wife Svetlana and baby Andrei had been granted rare independence from the embassy compound where most employees’ families were lodged. The family was given permission to live in an apartment in the city with Canadian families where they quickly discovered first-hand what life in the West offered.

Since Igor’s job involved receiving and sending coded messages to and from Moscow, he had learned of his pending transfer back to Russia. Igor’s and Svetlana’s positions as Red Army officers of the GRU, the intelligence core, made them aware of some of their country’s deepest secrets, including spying on their wartime allies that could have catastrophic consequences for continuing peace.

To warn the West, he and Svetlana decided to defect...but this was no ordinary flight to freedom.

Igor knew he needed evidence of Soviet spying and decided to take over 100 documents from his embassy; the proof that showed his country's clandestine motives of gathering intelligence on British and American nuclear development programs, including the top secret Manhattan Project.

Initially the Gouzenkos were rejected by the Canadian government and the press, but after days of interviews and translating the papers, Igor, Svetlana — now pregnant — and baby Andrei were given RCMP protection and spirited to a secret location.  The Soviets initially demanded their return after breaking into their apartment to capture them and recover the highly classified papers. 

Their flight to the West eventually made international headlines. The combined Canadian, British and American investigation into what became known as “The Gouzenko Affair” resulted in arrests of 39 suspects in three countries and 18 convictions in Canada and Britain. The New York Times wrote that “Igor Gouzenko kicked off the Cold War.”

The family spent two years in protective custody at Camp X, an ultra-secret spy training facility in Oshawa, where their second child was born. They then moved to Mississauga Rd. into their own home with a cover name under a federal witness protection program.  There, their third child was born in freedom under the newly provided name. All three children eventually attended T. L. Kennedy. 

Five more children were born. Igor became a writer and made appearances on the nascent technology of television; his face never visible for fear of Soviet retaliation. Igor’s book The Fall of a Titan won the Governor General’s award for fiction in 1954 and was translated into 40 languages — though not Russian.

The children grew up not knowing that their RCMP-issued surname hid their true identity and that the burly man living in the spare room in their house wasn’t simply a border; he was the family bodyguard.

The cover story given to the children was that they were Czech immigrants and as they grew up participated in Canadian life as regular middle-class citizens, not aware of their family’s flight to freedom years earlier. They enrolled in the local schools and participated in the community like any new immigrants’ children, though never understanding why their parents were much more protective of them than what they observed from friends. In the late 1960s, a KGB "sleeper agent" was assigned to kill Gouzenko; instead the agent defected to the RCMP.

During their time in Canada, family members of both Igor and Svetlana back in Russia were incarcerated and disappeared. Igor’s mother died while being interrogated by Soviet officials.

The three oldest children attended T. L. Kennedy and were fully engaged in their school work, extracurricular activities and growing up in the burgeoning future Mississauga of the 1950s and ’60s.

During one visit to T.L.K. to see a daughter cheerleading, Igor quipped, “They don’t have that in Russia!” Yearbook photos show the three teens identified by their RCMP-issued names and it was while enrolled at T.L.K. that they discovered their true identity. After graduation and post-secondary studies, they found employment, marriage and lives of their own.

To think that the Gouzenko children were very likely taught the history of the Second World War in school, and perhaps even the defection of a small Russian family in Ottawa in 1945, not realizing that they were the family — the irony is palpable.

The Gouzenko children, now some grandparents, have mostly chosen to live low-key lives, rarely making public statements about their parents’ historic defection, one that was the start of many more widely publicized national renunciations from the Communist East. In 1948 a movie was made by Twentieth Century Fox about the family’s early life based on Gouzenko’s autobiography entitled This Was My Choice. The American version of the movie was The Iron Curtain.

On the 50th anniversary of the Gouzenkos’ defection in 1995, a letter arrived at their home addressed to Svetlana. It read in part that Igor’s “…revelation helped the West to face up to the reality of communist subversion and tyranny…we are greatly in his debt” signed, former British Prime Minister, Lady Margaret Thatcher.  

Igor Gouzenko died in 1982; he lay for years in an unmarked grave. Svetlana passed in 2001. The epitaph on their headstone erected in 2002 includes only their birth names, “Sweet Dreams” in Russian and in English “We chose freedom for mankind.”

Below: A very rare photo that exposes Igor Gouzenko’s face, his wife Svetlana and the three children who would later attend T. L. Kennedy Secondary School in Mississauga.

Tim Mosher is a teacher and school historian at Thomas L. Kennedy Secondary School. He wrote this story with the assistance of the Gouzenko children.

 

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