Espionage story, family story, incredible story — that’s the essence of Victor and Frances Metianen’s journey from the cricket-club social scene of suburban Sydney in the 1930s to the dark world of what they believed in their fervent innocence to be Stalin’s workers’ paradise
When “Sally” met “John” she was wearing a green headscarf and her shoes, European size 36, were new. Carefully positioned, “on the left hand side of the bosom”, was a white brooch. The place was Eighth Avenue, New York, in late August 1943. The first words they exchanged were passwords, crafted for them in Moscow. She was an illegal, a spy about to begin living in New York as an American citizen. He was her contact with the Soviet Naval GRU, or military intelligence, based in Washington. Since the previous December coded cables, planning her voyage from Moscow to Vladivostok, then to San Francisco and onwards to the “Big Town”, had been volleying back and forth between Washington and Moscow. The American-based operatives asked her shoe size so that she could be outfitted with suitable local footwear. In the cables, tantalising parts of which were decoded in the Venona project, she was called the Australian Woman and Sally.
Behind the two cover names the Venona investigators found an Australian-born Soviet woman. Her real name, they suggested, was Francia Yakil’nilna Mitynen—“exact spelling not verified”. FBI information claimed she had been known as Edna Margaret Patterson and had remained in America until she disappeared in 1956. In the cables there is no indication of what her operational objectives had been. Until the highly secret Venona transcripts were made public, few outside the intelligence world had known that the Soviets operated a Naval GRU. At that point the story generally comes to a stop. Suggesting an unsuccessful search by ASIO, a security file, now in the National Archives of Australia, has the Venona spelling of her name on the cover, but she is not mentioned in the few pages it holds.
The reason for the lack of progress in the Australian search may simply be in the confusion of the spellings of her family name. It is highly likely the Australian Woman was Frances Metianen, born at 85½ Morehead Street, in the Sydney suburb of Redfern on January 31, 1914.
Frances was the second daughter of James and Julie (as they were known in Australia) Metianen, an émigré Russian family who arrived in Australia before the revolution, and returned to the Soviet Union in the 1930s, straight into Stalin’s mincing machine.
Interesting as it is, the Venona spy story is a part of an extraordinary family story.
Metianen’s parents had arrived in Sydney on a Japanese liner from Nagasaki with their two-year-old-son Victor in May 1912. Her elder sister Leonore (Lena) was born the following year, though there does not appear to be an Australian birth certificate, and was followed by Frances in 1914. At the time of her birth, James claimed to have been born in St Petersburg in 1886 and married in Siberia in 1906. In the years they lived in Australia none of the family appears to have taken out Australian citizenship. When they left the country in the 1930s they probably travelled on laissez-passers without the return visas which may have offered some slight protection against the Stalin purges, or not.
This essay appeared in a recent edition of Quadrant.
Subscribers read it months ago.
James was employed as a fitter in the Eveleigh railway workshops. Perhaps there had been a political motive for leaving Russia, for after the 1917 revolution and coup he actively supported the Bolshevik dictatorship. On a Sunday in 1919, amidst the public speakers in Sydney’s Domain, he was arrested for selling an illegal communist newspaper, the Brisbane-published Knowledge and Unity. He was sentenced to a fine of five pounds, or one month imprisonment. Presumably he paid the fine.
In 1923 the headline “Russians in Court” returned him to the attention of newspaper readers. If the Russian Civil War had ended, battling Russian neighbours kept the tradition alive in Sydney. Suggesting a volatile nature, James had a more than an unfriendly relationship with his neighbour, whose wife he was in the habit of calling a prostitute and letting it be known that their mortgage payments were being funded by her particular form of home duties. The situation was already tense before the neighbour’s ducks got through a hole in the fence and into his garden. Despite his Bolshevik convictions James was a prole with kulak ambitions, growing fruit and vegetables to sell. There was a heated confrontation and the following night after work, when the two men met on the way home from the local railway station, they fought. James was hit and retaliated with a length of wood. When his neighbour fled, James directed his assault towards the man’s abandoned bicycle. Both men went to law, both wives were called to give evidence, and happily both won their cases. The neighbour was fined for hitting James, and James was fined for breaking his bicycle.
During the 1920s Metianen financially supported, with small donations, a local communist newspaper, the Workers’ Weekly, and was secretary of the Australasian Association for Economic Advancement of USSR. Activities for the latter organisation included the holding of a Grand Bazaar at the Communist Hall for “forty orphans who are being educated in a Trades School in Russia”.
There are some mentions of the three children in their local suburban newspaper, and these suggest ordinary Australian lives. In 1928 the two girls, Frances and Lena, students at Parramatta Intermediate High School, were photographed among smiling sports-day winners. Victor appears in team lists of local cricketers. Among his team-mates was a young English migrant, Donald Sutcliffe. Probably through this connection he met Sutcliffe’s older sister Coral, who he married in November 1931. Reflecting Metianen family political principles the non-church marriage took place in the Parramatta Court House. The witnesses were Victor’s father and Coral’s mother and brother.
As the Depression cut into the lives of the Australian working class the couple were planning on permanently leaving Australia for the Soviet Union, and their marriage certificate reads like a job reference. Victor, aged twenty-one, born in Leningrad and probably unemployed, gave his occupation as “cotton expert”. From a working-class family, Coral had been an assistant baker when she arrived in Australia and now, aged twenty-five, had become a tailoress. Very probably, the marriage was timed to integrate with their plan to quit Australia.
In March, four months later, Victor and Coral joined a group of Australian communists (pictured below; Coral is fourth from the left, beside Victor) travelling to Russia as a workers’ delegation for the May Day celebrations. The expedition was organised by the local branch of a communist front organisation, the Friends of the Soviet Union, and it may have been James’s influence that got the young couple included as one-way travellers.
On sailing day at Woolloomooloo a banner reading “Greetings to the workers of the Soviet from the Australian Workers” was unfurled on the deck of the departing liner. Some 150 communist sympathisers came to farewell them and, as departure time approached, they began singing revolutionary songs. Counter-revolution broke out on an upper deck. The “anti-Reds”, led by an elderly woman waving strips of red, white and blue farewell streamers, sang back with patriotic songs. In retaliation a sweating communist mounted a bollard and began swinging his arms to mark time for his flock: “The strains of ‘Rule Britannia’, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ became hopelessly mixed with that of the ‘Red Flag’ and other revolutionary songs.” The duel of songs broke out each time the vessel left the ports of Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth. Overall it was a pleasant trip for the pilgrims, apart from the time in Colombo when a drunk comrade from Melbourne picked the pocket of a drunk comrade from Sydney.
Though the Australian banner from the ship fluttered in Red Square on May Day, Victor and Coral missed seeing it. They left the ship in Marseille and then travelled to Berlin en route to Moscow. When the English secretary of the Friends of the Soviet Union’s Berlin office saw the Jewish and Russian, Polish, and British-born delegates he asked where the Australians were. In Berlin it was found that not all the delegates were included in the official lists to enter the Soviet Union and the young couple were delayed several weeks before the proper authorisations were completed. Later the Sydney Friends of the Soviet Union received a strong complaint from Berlin for their handling of the travelling delegation. The angry writer pointed to the case of Victor and Coral who, if they had not been helped, would have been left destitute in Europe.
Several of the delegates remained to work in the USSR, as they had planned. The others returned to Australia to report in fanciful terms on the workers’ paradise they had seen. In at least one case the “work” done in Moscow may have had something to do with later espionage matters in Australia.
Over the next few years Victor and Coral found jobs and a room, and had a daughter, Kaola Victoriana, in 1934. On a touching family photo, taken not long before they were arrested, Coral spells her daughter’s name Koala.
These were not good Soviet years. With hindsight, their fates seem as certain as a Greek tragedy.
Soviet actress Vera Shulz was arrested in Moscow in 1938, the last year of the Great Terror. Taken first to the overcrowded Lubyanka, she was moved to Taganka prison for interrogation and sentencing. After the brutal formalities and the awarding of a five-year sentence she was moved to another cell to await transportation to her place of exile in Kazakhstan. Here she met Coral, her fellow prisoner:
the most profound encounter of my entire prison life. My eye was drawn to a boyish figure of a fair-haired, highly intelligent-looking young woman with a cunning glint in her bright green eyes … What faith she had in the infallibility of our great country! … I never for a moment doubted her sincerity, and told myself that her incomprehension of so much evil was the result of living in a foreign country, with a strange language and very few friends.
Some of the detail given by Shulz is inaccurate, for communication between them was difficult: “My English was poor, as was her Russian, so we communicated in a strange and passionate mixture of the two.” One day the guards ordered Coral “to get her things”, presumably for her onward transfer into the Gulag, and the two women never met again.
If Coral had endured a similar story of arrest, interrogation and sentencing, perhaps she was also arrested in 1938. It is unknown when Victor was taken away. In 1937-38 about 335,000 Soviets with foreign contacts were arrested. With both parents gone away Kaola appears to have been looked after by family members. Presumably the Metianen family — James, Julie, Lena an Frances — had already entered the USSR. Victor did not survive imprisonment and the details of his fate are unknown; just another victim of Stalin.
In 1938 Australian lives were being lived rather differently. Early that year Donald Sutcliffe, Coral’s brother and Victor’s cricketing team-mate, married in the Wentworthville Church of England. His bride wore “a nigger-brown cartwheel hat with nigger-brown accessories”. The couple crossed Sydney to honeymoon on the shores of the Pacific in suburban Cronulla.
The Soviets were fighting the battle of Stalingrad as naval military intelligence was planning to place Frances in the US—their military ally. Urgent messages were exchanged between Washington and Moscow to prepare for Frances’s arrival. Discussions dealt with the official papers she would need and what details they held, instructions on buying a train ticket to travel across the country, and even how she would have to be dressed in order to fit in:
In clothing and appearance, our women [serving] on ships are clearly distinguishable from the local women. This is because of their stockings, their berets (American women wear hats), their handbags and their untidiness. They do not take any trouble over their hair or their make-up. Suits or overcoats of medium quality differ little from the American ones.
Her cover story needed full details from Seattle, where she had supposedly lived, of the name of the principal of Ballard High School, the place where her father had worked from 1910 to 1929 (the beginning of the depression), photos of the houses and streets that made up her cover story.
By April the Australian woman’s departure from the Soviet Union was planned for May. Once landed in San Francisco she would have to be met and prepared for travelling on to Big Town (presumably New York) to meet her new controller, “John”. She would take a taxi from the port to Hotel Bellevue in downtown San Francisco and use her Seattle cover story when filling out her reservation details. When booking her train ticket for her “onward transmission” she would use the hotel address in completing the booking. In New York she, and not the man who was meeting her, would book a hotel room.
As time passed and the cables passed backwards and forwards without action being taken Moscow expressed displeasure:
You have had eight months to prepare for Sally’s reception at the port of disembarkation and when, moreover, you have so many people of your own, you should be ashamed to turn to the Neighbours [KGB or GRU] for help.
Sally is leaving Moscow on 10 June. Report urgently whether, using your people, it is in your capacity to organise by the end of July:
- The completion of her equipment.
- The obtaining of a ticket or assistance to her in obtaining a ticket herself.
- The exchange of 900 American dollars (the money has been given to her at the Centre [Moscow] and it is necessary to exchange it for local bank notes).
The immediate, perhaps frightened response was an assurance that matters would be handled by the Naval GRU’s own people and the writer provided details of the New York contact which had been arranged. Things began moving and Sally arrived in San Francisco on the Sevastopol on August 13. Washington reported that she was “feeling all right” and then she vanishes from the decoded documents. Apart from the FBI suggestion of the name she used in America and that she disappeared in 1956 nothing is presently known of her activities.
Coral came out of the Gulag alive. After the death of Stalin, Coral was again in touch with her family and met some visitors from abroad. Itzhak Gust, who had travelled with her from Australia, met her in Moscow in August 1960 and reported that Victor “died during the war”. She had had another child, a son, but Gust does not mention him or her possible second husband. Surprisingly she was allowed to leave the Soviet Union in 1965 and visited her English family members, bringing vodka and caviar. Returning to the Soviet Union, she was a sick woman and died in an Odessa sanatorium on August 25 1966.
Spy story, family story and incredible story.
Michael Connor adds: In relation to the story of Coral and Victor I am grateful to Dr John Helliwell for sharing his family research, and photos.
 863, Moscow to Naval GRU Washington, 17 May 1943; 1600, Naval GRU Washington to Moscow, 12 July 1943
 2505-2512 Naval GRU Washington to Moscow, 31 December 1942; Robert L. Benson, The Venona Story, Center for Cryptologic History, nd, p. 46
 See Franca Yakilnilna MITYNIEN – Miscellaneous papers, NAA: A6119, 2853
 New South Wales, Birth Certificate 1385/1914
 Victor Metianen born 23 March 1910, family arrived Australia May 1912, Franca Yakilnilna MITYNIEN – Miscellaneous papers, NAA: A6119, 2853
 There is always the possibility that there is a certificate, hidden under another variation of the family name.
 “Bolshevism in Queensland”, The Farmer and Settler, Sydney, NSW, 4 February 1919, p. 4
 “Russians in Court”, The Cumberland Argus and Flowergrowers Advocate, Parramatta, NSW, 4 July 1923, p. 2
 “Australasian Association for Economic Advancement of USSR”, The Workers’ Weekly, Sydney, NSW, 5 August 1927
 Grand Bazaar, The Workers’ Weekly, Sydney, NSW, 5 March 1926
 “Champions All”, The Cumberland Argus and Flowergrowers Advocate, Parramatta, NSW, 31 August 1928, p. 20
 The family surname is spelt as Metainen, New South Wales, Marriage Certificate, 13151/1931
 “Loyal Songs Counter To ‘Red Flag’”, The Sun, Sydney, NSW, 16 March 1932, p. 13
 Itzhak Gust, Such Was Life: A Jumping Narrative from Radom to Melbourne (Caulfield South, 2004), p. 122
 Itzhak Gust, Such Was Life: A Jumping Narrative from Radom to Melbourne (Caulfield South, 2004), pp. 121-122
 Franca Yakilnilna MITYNIEN – Miscellaneous papers, NAA: A6119, 2853
 Family information from John Helliwell.
 Simeon Vilensky, editor, Till My Tale is Told: Women’s Memories of the Gulag (London, 1999), pp. 168-169
 “Sutcliffe-Downes”, The Cumberland Argus and Flowergrowers Advocate, Parramatta, NSW, 3 February 1938, p. 11
 2505 – 2512 Naval GRU Washington to Moscow, 31 December 1942
 394, Moscow to Washington, 5 March 1943
 611, Moscow to Washington, 8 April 1943
 1016 Washington to Moscow, 10 May 1943: 835, Moscow to Washington, 12 May 1943
 1040 – 1041, Washington to Moscow, 13 May 1943
 1006, Moscow to Washington, 10 June 1943
 1252, Washington to Moscow, 10 June 1943
 1983, Washington to Moscow, 14 August 1943
 Itzhak Gust, Such Was Life: A Jumping Narrative from Radom to Melbourne (Caulfield South, 2004), p. 232
 Coral’s date of death from Dr John Helliwell who generously shared research into his very interesting family.