Canadians gleaned naval intelligence from a Russian defector
The young Russian sailor who found himself exhausted and bloodied on the coast of British Columbia punched a well-bred, sincere and athletic Canadian intelligence officer, built like the Tarzan of the movies.
Less than two years later, defector Sergei Kourdakov would die in a California motel room — apparently by accidentally shooting himself — after joining an evangelical Christian group dedicated to smuggling Bibles behind the Iron Curtain.
Newly released RCMP Security Service archival documents shed new light on Kourdakov’s tragic odyssey, which made international headlines in the early 1970s. The classified memos, messages and reports also detail the RCMP efforts to glean valuable information from the unexpected visitor.
« He fully appreciated our interest in him and his information, and expressed a sincere desire to cooperate to the best of his abilities, » a note read.
The Canadian Security Intelligence Service, which took over counterintelligence duties from the RCMP in 1984, released the 802-page dossier on Kourdakov to The Canadian Press in response to a freedom of information request.
Some parts of the file, although half a century old, were considered still too sensitive to be disclosed.
Kourdakov was a 20-year-old nautical school trainee in early September 1971 when his ship, the fishing boat « Shturman Yelagin », moored in the waters near Tasu in the Queen Charlotte Islands of British Columbia.
Born in Siberia, he was keen on economics, history and politics, and enjoyed photography, writing and amateur radio. Had Kourdakov returned to the Soviet Union, he likely would have received a junior naval commission with duties as a radio operator.
But he had become disillusioned with the Russian system, contemplating defecting as early as 17.
“I don’t believe in the idea of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. I don’t think it’s a utopia,” he wrote in a two-page account, translated from Russian, shortly after arriving in Canada. « It’s an invention of fanatically incited rulers like Khrushchev and Brezhnev. »
Late in the evening of September 3, Kourdakov sealed his personal documents and photos in a plastic bag and dove from the ship into cold water. He was disoriented by the strong wind and rain, but kept swimming until he finally made his way to shore.
He cut himself climbing a rocky slope and wandered in the cold before he saw the lights of the village. “I lost a lot of blood and my wounds were itchy from the salt water,” Kourdakov wrote. « I don’t remember how I got to the village. I woke up to a clean bed and a nice girl gave me a cup of tea. »
An RCMP officer later reported « it was miraculous that Kourdakov was able to survive in the cold water and his survival could only be attributed to his excellent physical condition ».
After a stay in a local hospital, he was handed over to Canadian authorities. A few weeks after his arrival, he obtained landed immigrant status.
RCMP began debriefing Kourdakov just days after he landed.
Additionally, reports based on interviews by the Special Research Office, a division of the Department of External Affairs, have been shared with the United States, Britain and Australia.
“The source made an excellent impression,” read a report from the office. « Athletic, built like the ‘Tarzan’ of the movies with a Western European face as opposed to the ‘Khrushchev’ type of Russian, he could blend into any North American milieu. »
Canadians were particularly curious about naval matters, submarine sightings and fishing fleet operations.
« Kurdakov had no personal knowledge of the use of Soviet fishing vessels for intelligence purposes, » said a summary of the debriefing. « He said it is the general understanding among crew members that photos and information of potential value are collected when or if the opportunity arises, but he did not know of anyone trained for this express purpose. »
He told interviewers that in the event of war, the fishing fleet would immediately revert to wartime status and head to a Soviet port. “The trawlers would be converted into transport boats,” the summary states. « All trawlers contain specially prepared mounts and mounts for armaments. Three times a month the ship had practice drills and took up position as if the armor was in place. » Kourdakov would be responsible for broadcasting any warning of an attack.
Canadians would have been very interested in what Kourdakov had to say about Soviet radio operations and activities related to SIGINT, or signals intelligence, said Timothy Sayle, a history professor at the University of Toronto who has studied the relationship of Canada with Cold War defectors. « I think that would have been the most relevant and valuable information he could have provided. »
A federal interdepartmental committee agreed that Kourdakov was a legitimate defector and that $4,000 should be set aside for him, to be administered by the RCMP, to supplement federal funds intended to help him learn English and settle in Canada. .
Members of the committee hoped the extra money would discourage him from relying too heavily on a private source such as the Russian Orthodox Church in Canada and allow them « to exercise at least some control over Kourdakov’s activities, » a statement said. letter signed by the committee. President.
However, keeping tight control over the young defector would prove difficult.
His sensational arrival in Canada attracted all kinds of attention. Kourdakov said he was followed by a Russian. He was treated to sumptuous lunches and dinners. He even claimed to have received a letter from the Quebec separatist militants of the FLQ advising him not to criticize the Soviet Union.
An RCMP sergeant suggested in January 1972 that Kourdakov was not trying too hard to learn English, adding that the attention of the media and security officials « enhanced his own importance out of all proportion ».
In May, RCMP lamented that Kourdakov was pushing back on the force’s efforts to stay in touch. He had « inexplicably » moved out of his Toronto apartment and « reports from some quarters imply concerns for his welfare, » an internal telex message said.
Kourdakov had also developed an interest in the evangelical movement, « we suspect this for monetary reasons, » the post said. « He is seen as immature, easily swayed by flattery and extremely mercenary. »
In early June, the RCMP informed External Affairs that Kourdakov was living in Calgary and had embarked on a speaking tour across Canada with a reverend who served as the Canadian director of Underground Evangelism, a United States-based group that raised funds to smuggle Bibles into the Communists. countries.
« No extra effort will be made to contact him. »
Kourdakov began recounting stories of being conscripted by police in the Soviet Union to raid Christian worship meetings, often beating attendees, but later abandoning his ways and embracing spirituality – details he does not was not shared during his sessions with Canadian intelligence personnel.
The RCMP would later say that Kourdakov was « known to have embellished accounts of his activities », noting that his comments during the lecture tour about his conversion to Christianity « changed from time to time » and were not always accurate. agreement with the information he had provided during the debriefings. .
“I think he actually becomes a big headache, especially with these stories he tells on the gospel circuit,” Sayle said.
Kourdakov then joined Underground Evangelism and lived with a sympathetic family in California towards the end of his life. He had borrowed a gun for protection and accidentally shot himself while clowning around over New Years weekend in 1973 at a ski resort, according to the daughter of the family. Following an inquest, the death was ruled accidental.
Investigating the shooting in January, the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Office contacted the RCMP with a flurry of questions about the mysterious Russian’s background. The Homicide Division wanted to know if there were any threats to Kourdakov’s life, if he had ever been a member of the Russian secret police, and if it was true that the gendarmerie provided him with a submachine gun.
A response from the RCMP said there was no reason to suspect Kourdakov’s life might have been in danger while in Canada and at no time did he ask for – or receive – a weapon. at police fire. Kourdakov also did not mention being associated with the secret police, the gendarmes added.
« Unfortunately, the obvious lack of facilities to check one’s background with agencies in one’s home country often makes it difficult to separate truth from fiction. »
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on December 22, 2022.