During the 1956 Olympic Games, Australians went overboard to ensure they were a success. Athletes were overwhelmed by Australian hospitality when they were invited into people’s houses for a meal or stopped in the street for a friendly chat. At the MCG spectators generously applauded the winners, regardless of which country they came from, and suburban housewives spruced up their homes in case a visitor should drop by for an inspection. Everyone hoped the Melbourne Olympics would be remembered as the “friendly Games”.
Well before the Opening Ceremony, ASIO was not as confident that the Games would be all that friendly. It expected the Soviet Union to sneak KGB agents into Australia as part of its Olympic team. ASIO’s priority was to identify those agents and keep them under surveillance, in what it called Operation Robin Redbreast.
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ASIO had an ace up its sleeve. Two years earlier, Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov had defected to Australia. He was a KGB colonel, sent to Australia to penetrate local anti-Soviet organisations and to recruit and run Australian agents. Evdokia was a KGB captain responsible for handling top-secret cable traffic. Both had been involved in intelligence work since the 1930s and knew many Soviet agents personally. The Petrovs handed names over to ASIO, and shared their extensive knowledge of Soviet espionage operations around the world.
By 1956, the Petrovs were living in a safe house in the Melbourne suburb of Bentleigh under the assumed names of Sven and Maria Anna Allyson. They welcomed the opportunity to show ASIO that they were still of value, and were happy to participate in Operation Robin Redbreast. Using photos of Soviet officials, athletes and journalists entering Australia for the Olympic Games, the Petrovs identified forty-six KGB agents, and there were another thirty visitors who they suspected were also intelligence officers.
The expected influx of KGB agents into Melbourne worried Vladimir Petrov. He was convinced that the Kremlin would avenge his betrayal. He particularly feared the KGB’s 13th Department, which was tasked with abductions and assassinations. His fear was well founded. According to a CIA document describing 13th Department, “The Soviets have gone to great lengths in the past to silence their intelligence officers who have defected.”
In Empire of Fear, written before the Olympic Games, Petrov alerted his readers to the activities of the “assassination department”, presumably referring to the 13th Department. He wrote that should he or his wife die suddenly, “the whole world will know that our death was deliberately planned by a government which regards political murder as a normal way of dealing with those who differ from it”.
ASIO agreed with Petrov that he was a target, but its assessment did not see danger as immediate: “An occasion like the Games would seem most unsuitable, from the point of view of the Soviet Government, for an attempted assassination in view of the publicity it would arouse.” However, ASIO believed “it was quite possible that a special appeal might be made to Mrs Petrov to make contact with the Soviet authorities for news of her family”. She was homesick and ASIO worried that the KGB might try to entice or even blackmail her to return to Moscow.
Just as the defections of the Petrovs had been a major Cold War win for Australia’s fledgling spy agency, Evdokia’s re-defection would be humiliating for ASIO. If she returned home, she would undoubtedly spill what secrets she and her husband had divulged and allow the KGB to effectively control the damage they had caused.
Deciding that the threat to the Petrovs was credible, ASIO whisked them away to a safe house in Surfers Paradise, out of the reach of KGB agents in Melbourne. Their chaperones—guards, really—were ASIO operatives Joan and Douglas Dougherty.
What should have been a simple operation soon spun out of control. At around 8 p.m. on November 27, the Petrovs were in the kitchen arguing, after which Vladimir stormed out of the apartment. The Doughertys did not hear him leave. There are two versions of what happened next.
According to Vladimir, he went to a nearby pub, had a couple of beers and was attacked as he returned home. He was then picked up by police and released at 5 a.m. This story was a concoction, a habit that was second nature to the ex-KGB agent.
ASIO pieced together the true story from witnesses. After leaving the house, Petrov went to the Surfers Paradise Hotel, where he had quite a few more than a couple of drinks. Sometime after 9 p.m., Petrov entered an upstairs apartment at Clifford Court where he had heard music and possibly assumed that a party was in progress; a party with free booze. The occupier of the apartment, Sergeant Bill Thompson, an army man, told Petrov to leave. When he refused, Thompson tried to force him out. Soon two neighbours joined the fray, Petrov putting up a game fight against the odds. After a wild swing Petrov fell on his face, after which the three men jumped on him and held him down.
When the police arrived at 9.45 p.m., they found a portly man, agitated, wearing just his underpants and shirt. They handcuffed him and threw him into the back of the police van. At the Southport police station, he was charged with being drunk and disorderly. In his statement he gave his name as “Jack Olson” and told police that he believed he was entering his own apartment, but refused to give them the address of where he lived. After keeping him in a cell for the night to sober up, the police released Petrov at 5 a.m. after he posted ten shillings for bail.
Petrov sustained a lacerated lip, abrasions to his ribs and back, and a bloody nose. Thankfully, by the morning he had been reunited with his trousers.
It did not take long for journalists to realise that “Jack Olson” was none other than Petrov and the next morning newspapers reported that he had been arrested in Queensland. ASIO immediately went into damage control. Its director-general, Colonel Spry, spent the rest of the day trying to piece together what had happened to his prize defector. Once he had the facts, he wrote a grovelling letter to Robert Menzies that started: “My dear Mr Prime Minister. No doubt you have seen in the newspapers a report to the effect that a person, who gave his name as V. Petrov, was charged with drunkenness in the Southport police court on 28 November, 1956. I regret to say that the person concerned was our Vladimir Petrov.” In his letter, Spry accused both Petrovs of being “psychopathic”, but he carefully stepped around taking responsibility for the fiasco.
Spry understood the politics and knew that the government would be most unhappy with ASIO over this incident. In May 1954, the Menzies government had narrowly won the federal election off the back of an anti-communist scare campaign it had unleashed in the wake of the Petrovs’ very public defection. Should this incident reveal Petrov was an alcoholic then his reliability might be questioned.
On the same day, Spry wrote a searing letter to Vladimir Petrov:
I personally am fast reaching the end of my tolerance and sympathy for your predicament. You have received a great deal from our country; safety, protection, subsistence, and many kindnesses. Any further acts such as this will utterly destroy my little remaining patience.
Spry ended his letter by warning that if there was “another scandalous act, I intend to reconsider your position in relation to my Service”. Petrov was being threatened to be turned out into the cold, a possibility that terrified him. Without ASIO’s protection, Petrov was convinced that sooner or later the KGB would find and kill him.
On November 30 the Petrovs and their minders were discreetly transferred to a new safe house in Caloundra and there were no further incidents.
While the news of Petrov’s escapade was a disaster for ASIO, thankfully no details of his involvement in Operation Robin Redbreast leaked out. Instead, Australians were blissfully unaware that parallel to the “friendly Games”, the US and USSR were engaged in Cold War games. It is only now that these secrets have surfaced in declassified ASIO files, of which Petrov’s escapade is just one.
Harry Blutstein is a journalist and an adjunct professor at RMIT University. This is an extract from his book Cold War Games, recently published by Echo Publications, $32.99.