On the evening of April 8, 1971, some 24 Labor opposition parliamentarians enjoyed a politically seasoned meal in the Soviet embassy. Some 21 months later, when those guests were the government, Attorney-General Lionel Murphy told ASIO to drop its interception of the Soviet embassy’s phones
The night the KGB cooked dinner for the ALP, ASIO was there. The event took place in April 1971—less than three years after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
In the National Archives, spies in the files aren’t easy to spot. It is a shushingly quiet and antiseptic place in which to follow paper trails through ASIO’s declassified and heavily redacted wastepaper in search of traitors and deceit. The spy-catchers themselves, their agency possibly corrupted from within, had little chance of tracking quarry their Soviet opponents unsportingly protected beneath heavy layers of tradecraft. What the files do hold is the private family history of the Australian Left in the twentieth century. Tapped phones, intercepted mail, reports of untrustworthy friends and snoops tell incomplete stories of the agents of influence and political activists, the eager friends of the Soviet Union who dreamed of power and hurting us with boot-in-the-face socialism. Across the years ASIO observed the fellow travellers of one generation, the “mavericks, activists, movers and shakers” of another.
Modern progressives observe their predecessors, and the memories of their own youth, with self-indulgence. Unscarred by a reality he never knew, and replaying youthful fantasies, Professor Stuart Macintyre teaches that communism was:
a popular phenomenon [!!] that people in all countries grasped as a spar of hope against other forms of oppression; that it gave meaning and purpose to idealists in a wide range of circumstances; and it was not a simple divination of evil but a complex body of thought that altered over its life-course.
The idealised view the western Left holds of itself was not shared by its Soviet friends, who were themselves imprisoned by Macintyre’s “complex body of thought”. In 1984 defector and ex-GRU (Soviet military intelligence) officer Viktor Suvorov delineated the fellow travellers from his viewpoint as an experienced recruiter:
In examining different kinds of agents, people from the free world who have sold themselves to the GRU, one cannot avoid touching on yet another category, perhaps the least appealing of all. Officially one is not allowed to call them agents, and they are not agents in the full sense of being recruited agents. We are talking about the numerous members of overseas societies of friendship with the Soviet Union. Officially, all Soviet representatives regard these parasites with touching feelings of friendship, but privately they call them “shit-eaters” (“govnoed”). It is difficult to say where this expression originated, but it is truly the only name they deserve. The use of this word has become so firmly entrenched in Soviet embassies that it is impossible to imagine any other name for these people. A conversation might run as follows: “Today we’re having some shit-eaters to dinner. Prepare a suitable menu.”
On the evening of Thursday, April 8, 1971, in the residence of the Soviet ambassador behind high embassy walls, twenty-four federal Labor opposition parliamentarians
… hurried up,
All eager for the treat:
Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,
Their shoes were clean and neat.
Receiving the guests who ALP parliamentarian Albert “Bert” James had rounded up were eighteen Russians. Our view of what took place that evening is through the anonymous eyes of a watching ASIO informer. In twenty months the guests would be our government.
In the partial list of the Russians present, KGB officer Adolph Gorev is named first. The supposed host, ambassador Nikolai Mesyatsev, was third. The list order may be an assumption of the real power ranking inside the embassy. The second man named is an interesting problem: Vladimir Georgievich Aleksandrov. Less than two months earlier, on February 13, a Soviet embassy official in Rome, Vladimir Aleksandrov, was accused of military espionage and expelled from Italy. He may have been a GRU (Soviet military intelligence) operative. If this was the same person, how was it possible that a known Soviet intelligence officer was allowed into Australia? He is not mentioned in ASIO’s official history.
The food that night, not from the Lubyanka cookbook, was politically seasoned. Assisting the Russian cook was embassy superintendent and KGB officer Vladimir Khodnev.
Five of the Australian guests are specified in the document: Senator Lionel Murphy and his wife; June Walters, his secretary; Bert James, MP, and Senator Albion Hendrickson. ASIO had earlier been listening when James told his KGB hosts that opposition leader Gough Whitlam would be out of Canberra on the night but his deputy, Lance Barnard, would be present.
Identifying only three out of the twenty-four Labor parliamentarians present, while knowing that a woman with Murphy was his secretary, suggests the ASIO informer was not familiar with the parliamentary guests, many of whom would have been familiar faces to Australian political observers. At the same time the source was able to distinguish both “an unidentified Russian from Sydney” among the Soviets, and name the presumably unseen Russian chef working in the kitchen. It is possible ASIO was operating a source inside the embassy.
Russian diplomats, including KGB and GRU officers, were commonly entertained by ALP parliamentarians in Parliament House. This dinner, however, offered by the Soviets, was in the assumed privacy and security of their embassy. The evening began with drinks and speeches. The observer described the speeches as simply formal in nature. The only speech from the Labor men present which was found noteworthy was by Senator Hendrickson. He praised the communist Soviet regime over India, a democracy and member of the Commonwealth: “having observed both he was convinced that the only form of government was a socialist one”. The comments are surprising coming from a politician whose biography on the Senate website claims that he “was genuinely anti-communist”.
Hendrickson exhibited the sort of free-world stupidity criticised by Viktor Suvorov:
the behaviour of the numerous friends of the Soviet Union is utterly incomprehensible to Soviet people. In the Soviet Union everybody without exception wishes to be abroad, to go absolutely anywhere, even if only with one eye to look at Mongolia or Cambodia … the contempt felt for them does not prevent the GRU and KGB from using them whenever they can. They do everything free, and they will even come to meetings in secure places like the Soviet Embassy.
Alcohol created conviviality. Ambassador Mesyatsev “made a great display of good will towards his guests and drank numerous toasts with them”. Then he made a speech, translated for the Australians.
Mesyatsev is not mentioned in ASIO’s official history. Earlier this century he published an autobiography which seems to have aroused no interest in Australia. Immediately before being sent to Canberra he had been head of Brezhnev’s state radio and television until falling out of favour. Briefly referred to in the memoirs of Pavel Sudoplatov, the KGB officer who organised Trotsky’s murder, he was involved in the Stalinist investigation of the anti-Semitic Doctors’ Plot in the period shortly before Stalin’s death. According to Sudoplatov the friendly ambassador had tortured the falsely accused Jewish doctors. He was one of three men “in charge of the criminal interrogation and beating of the doctors” and was then promoted for obeying orders. He was, said Sudoplatov, “totally incompetent” and he “beat prisoners almost to death”. Happily, as Stuart Macintyre claims, communism “gave meaning and purpose to idealists in a wide range of circumstances”.
Mesyatsev addressed Murphy: “I would like to speak frankly and hope you will not take offence at what I have to say.”
Murphy responded, “That’s the way we like it, please talk frankly.”
Do you realise why you are sitting at this table? Isn’t it because we have helped you, isn’t it because we have helped your Party, and isn’t it because we have helped your trade unions? You should bear in mind that you must not listen to your national leaders, even if they are coming back to earth, the people you must listen to are your own Party leaders and your own trade union leaders. You must never forget that your ultimate objective and ours is precisely the same.
Post-Petrov Affair, post-ALP Split, post-Czechoslovakia, this boasting of Soviet interference within the ALP and trade unions would have created headlines if it had been made public, and might have prevented Labor’s victory in the 1972 election—the Sydney journalist Alan Reid would have seen to that. If hidden somewhere in the unwritten pages of our political history Moscow gold or help had been given to the ALP, that may explain the casualness with which Gough Whitlam authorised and was personally involved in an improper request for money from Iraqi government thugs in November 1975. Almost exactly a year after this dinner ASIO observed Mesyatsev further interfering in internal Australian politics when he was seen discreetly advising officials from the Communist Party of Australia and their rivals in the Socialist Party of Australia.
Instead of criticism, according to the secret observer, the explosive words were met with approval and even boredom by the politicians. Some of them, including Senator Hendrickson, responded with comments along the lines of “What’s he talking about? He doesn’t have to justify himself to us.”
Though Gough Whitlam wasn’t present to hear the ambassador urging ALP parliamentarians to support his leadership he could easily have dropped over if he had been home. He lived almost next door to the embassy in Stuart Flats—a public housing project. Among other tenants of the flats were public servants, politicians, and the Soviet embassy. Inside the KGB their GRU rivals are referred to as “the neighbours”. Gough Whitlam’s flat was immediately above one leased to the Soviet embassy; his neighbours may have been neighbours.
Just after taking office, Prime Minister Whitlam met Peter Barbour, ASIO Director-General. Barbour wrote that when the strange nature of Whitlam’s living conditions were pointed out it “caused him some amusement”. It was shortly before he moved into The Lodge but an offer to have his home given a security check was rejected. In ASIO’s official history Barbour’s report of his meeting with the Prime Minister is discussed, but the section dealing with these matters is ignored. Surely, in the time he was living there Soviet security agents would have profited from the opportunity to place the opposition leader under electronic or physical observation—that is why they are here, this is what they do. And it would have been ASIO’s duty to watch the watchers. Whitlam asked Barbour how many of the Soviet embassy staff were assumed to be intelligence officers and was told approximately one-third.
By 11.30 p.m. dinner ended. No doubt some interesting conversations had taken place in nooks and crannies around the residence and, hopefully, Moscow Centre was satisfied with the reports they would have received. As the guests departed Murphy and his wife and Senator Hendrickson settled down to welcome Good Friday, drinking with the ambassador and his wife and the Gorovs.
A final detail in the document suggests information either from a phone tap or from an informant inside the embassy. The report notes that on the following day Vladimir Khodnev said the guests left at about 3 a.m. Readers of Molly Sasson’s memoir More Cloak than Dagger may be forgiven for surmising that if ASIO was running an agent inside the embassy he or she was probably a double agent being run for Soviet amusement.
In the not very distant future Labor took government. Lionel Murphy was appointed Attorney-General. His refusal then to authorise ASIO’s continued interception of the Soviet embassy’s phones protected the Soviets and the history of the Whitlam government. Without the phone taps production of a regular ASIO report called “Contact with Members of Federal Parliament” was halted.
 The following account is based on “Reception held at U.S.S.R. Ambassador, Nikolai Nikolaevich Mesyatsev’s Residence” in James Albert William James: Volume 1, NAA: A6119, 5934
 See the back cover blurb of Meredith Burgmann (ed.), Dirty Secrets, our ASIO files (Sydney, 2014)
 Stuart Macintyre, The Reds, the Communist Party of Australia from origins to illegality (St Leonards, 1998), Introduction
 Lewis Carroll, “The Walrus and The Carpenter”
 “Expulsion of Soviet Representatives from Foreign Countries, 1970-81” in Foreign Affairs Notes, US Department of State, February 1982
 See Albion Hendrickson (1897 – 1977), The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate: Online Edition
 Viktor Suvorov, Inside Soviet Military Intelligence (New York, 1984), p. 105
 Pavel Sudoplatov, Special Tasks (London, 1994), p. 306.
 Pavel Sudoplatov, Special Tasks (London, 1994), p302
 Mark Aarons, The Family File (Melbourne, 2010) p. 249
 “Note for Record: Discussion between the Prime Minister, The Hon. E.G. Whitlam, Q.C., and the Director General, Mr P. Barbour, in Canberra on 14 December 1972”, dated 19 December 1972. A copy of the 4 page document is available on the “Persons of Interest – The ASIO Files” Facebook page.