Citizen columnist was a Holocaust survivor, exiled Russian journalist

Ilya Gerol immigrated to Canada in 1980, moved to Ottawa five years later and eventually became the newspaper’s foreign editor.

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Ilya Gerol was an unusual and quite original figure in Canadian journalism.

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Born into a prosperous Jewish family in Riga, Latvia during World War II, Gerol survived the Holocaust and the war, and built a career as a journalist in the Soviet Union before clashing with the Kremlin. Expelled from the country, he settled in Vancouver and, improbably, embarked on a career as a foreign affairs columnist in Canada, where he became a powerful critic of the Soviet regime.

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He joined the Citizen in September 1985 and, as a globe-trotting foreign affairs analyst, conducted a series of interviews with world figures such as Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Pole Lech Walesa, Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov and Austrian President Kurt Waldheim.

Never a master of written English – and with an uncertain understanding of Western journalism conventions – Gerol dictated all of his columns to editorial assistants, pipe in hand.

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« He was very smart and very funny, » said former Citizen reporter Chris Cobb, who traveled with Gerol to Russia and the Middle East. « They broke the mold when he arrived. »

Former Citizen editor Russell Mills said: « Ilya was exuberant and irrepressible: he could talk nonstop and was full of insight. »

Gerol died in Montreal on August 22 of heart failure. He was 81 years old.

His wife, Marina, said their life together was full of love and adventure: « He was like a wizard, a magician, and he was my husband, » she said.

Ilya Gerol’s life was rocked by seismic world events almost from the moment he was born on November 8, 1940 in Riga, Latvia. Months earlier, the Soviet Red Army had invaded and occupied the country. When he was still a baby, Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, the massive invasion of the Soviet Union, in June 1941.

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Within a month, the Nazis were on the outskirts of Riga. Mobile SS death squads, the Einsatzgruppen, along with Latvian auxiliaries, would slaughter thousands of the city’s Jews.

According to an account Gerol later published in the Citizen, his large extended family gathered in the living room of his Riga home as the Germans moved into the city.

“My family tried to decide what to do: join the rapidly retreating Russian troops and leave behind property, savings, old furniture and souvenirs, old books collected by my grandfather, the Torah that was in the home for over 150 years when my ancestors came from Germany.

The family eventually decided to stay, convinced that the Germans were too cultured for stories about their wartime atrocities to be true. But Gerol’s mother was unconvinced and ran into the street with her child. They were picked up in a truck by retreating Russians.

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« My family, meanwhile, was forced to go into the backyard and dig a pit, » Gerol wrote. “They were buried alive. An SS officer commanded the operation while young people in our neighborhood threw children into the pit.

Gerol studied at Moscow University and was a member of the Red Army reserve. In August 1968, he participated in the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union.

He hated « playing the role of invader », Gerol later wrote in the Citizen, where he denounced the occupation as « the most obscene decision of the Soviet leadership in its post-war history, comparable only to the invasion of Afghanistan ».

Despite his private reservations, Gerol thrived for a time inside the Soviet regime. He became a journalist and, at 25, was the editor of the Atlantica radio station in Russia. In 1976 he was editor of the Russian-language newspaper, Sovetskaya Molodezh (Soviet Youth). He published two books on the leaders of the Young Communist League and occasionally wrote speeches for Mikhail Suslov, a prominent member of the Politburo.

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Gerol appreciated his access to power and the advantages offered to Soviet journalists, but he declared that these had a price: “There is only one condition: do not write what you have seen; write what we ask you to write.

He wrote about the unique success of Soviet agriculture and the equality of women in Soviet society while ignoring the Kremlin’s assault on minority rights and individual freedoms.

Unable to accept this « double life », said Gerol, he published truthful articles in American magazines under a pseudonym, but when his identity was revealed, he was expelled from the League of Journalists of the USSR.

Gerol told the Canadian Jewish News that he was only spared jail or exile because of the intervention of his father-in-law, a senior judge. In 1979 he was allowed to leave the country with his second wife, Larisa, and son, Dimitri.

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After landing in Vienna with only the clothes on their backs, the family traveled to Rome, where Gerol found a job as a translator at the Canadian Embassy. He applied for refugee status and the family arrived in Vancouver early the following year. He was 39 years old.

Fluent in English thanks to his cultured mother, Gerol taught at the University of British Columbia, but yearned to return to journalism. Aided by a stack of dictionaries, he wrote a chronicle of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan and submitted it to the Province of Vancouver.

“They said, ‘It’s interesting: what language is it written in?’ “recalls Gerol.

But his extensive knowledge and in-depth analysis of the still-mysterious Soviet Union was enough to convince editors to help him write more such articles. In 1985, he was recruited to the Ottawa Citizen by editor Paddy Sherman, who had previously worked in Vancouver.

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Former Citizen and Financial Post reporter James Bagnall traveled with Gerol on a tour of NATO bases in the mid-1980s. Gerol took great joy, he said, at speak to military officials about his former ties to the Kremlin. « He was very entertaining, » Bagnall said.

He was also enterprising. In 1987 he traveled to Russia for a series marking the 70th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, and he disappeared for long periods. Then, editor Scott Honeyman was trying to find Gerol when he received a call from a man in Georgia, who was also desperate to reach Gerol.

« I’m sitting here in Georgia with a plane loaded with frozen chicken, » the man said, « and he hasn’t told me where to deliver them or how he’s going to pay. »

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Remembers Honeyman: « TThis is how we discovered that Ilya had his own vision of new trade opportunities between the USSR and the West.

Gerol played a key role in bringing Nobel laureate and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov to Ottawa for a three-day visit organized by the Citizen in February 1989.

He left the newspaper soon after and embraced the business world. He started a foreign affairs newsletter, worked as a consultant for companies looking to do business in Russia, and ran a company that sold internet services abroad. All his business meetings, according to his wife, were held at the bar of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal.

Marina Gerol said her husband was diagnosed with heart failure in 2017 and fought the disease like a lion. He died Monday in a Montreal hospital.

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