“The Cold War began in Ottawa”: the significance of the Gouzenko house

gouzenko houseby Kathryn Hunt

You could pass it without noticing anything about it, really, other than its signature little round windows. I did for years, until a friend pointed it out to me as we walked past Dundonald Park. “You see that building?” she said, pointing to the blocky brick two-floor apartment building across Somerset next to the Beer Store. “That’s where the Cold War started.”

The building at 511 Somerset has been marked since 2003 by a small plaque in the park opposite. In 1945 it was the residence of Igor Gouzenko, a 26-year-old cypher clerk for the Soviet Union’s embassy in Ottawa, and his family.

In a way, Gouzenko was like a Russian, 1940s version of Edward Snowden. As a cypher clerk, he coded outgoing messages and decoded incoming ones, which meant he was exposed to information about the Soviet Union’s spying activities in the West.

When he decided to defect rather than be sent back home, he walked out of the embassy with a briefcase full of Soviet code books and deciphering materials. He also took with him the information that the Soviet Union was spying on its presumed allies: specifically, for nuclear secrets.

However, the RCMP officers he went to didn’t believe his story. Looking for somewhere else to take his information, he tried the Ottawa Journal, where the night editor turned him away, telling him to go to the Department of Justice. But by then it was late at night and no one was available.

Gouzenko went home, terrified that someone in the embassy would have discovered what he’d done, and hid with his family in a neighbour’s apartment across the hall.

Soviet agents did show up that night to search his apartment. They were eventually turned away by the police.

The next day, he found someone at the RCMP who would take his story seriously, and he and his family were taken into protective custody in Oshawa, where he was interviewed by British and American intelligence organizations. He went into hiding after that.

Word got out in the media in February of 1946 that there was a Soviet spy network operating in Canada. Gouzenko’s evidence also alerted other countries, such as the United Kingdom and United States, to the potential of espionage happening within their borders as well.

In early 1946, 39 Canadians were arrested and accused of spying on his evidence. Of that number, 18 were convicted. According to historian Jack Granatstein, “Gouzenko was the beginning of the Cold War for public opinion.” Journalist Robert Fulford said, “I am absolutely certain the Cold War began in Ottawa.”

Gouzenko lived out the rest of his life in Toronto under a pseudonym, though he remained in the public eye (he wrote two books, one of which won the 1954 Governor General’s Award). When he appeared in public without an alias, he wore a hood to hide his identity.

He died in Mississauga in 1982.