Sunday, 17 November 2013


Agent Elli and the Tricky Language that is Russian

(Part 1)

‘Faktion’, my alternate-history story set in a very different world of 1947, went out to publishers last week. It uses as a backstory the search by MI5 for the various ‘moles’ that the Soviets had infiltrated into the British establishment and it was while I was doing my background research I became fascinated by the mysterious Soviet agent, Agent Elli whose information was of such importance that his messages were hand-delivered to Stalin immediately they were received in Moscow. To add to the intrigue the identity of Agent Elli has never been definitively established, the two leading candidates being Leo Long (proposed by Professor Christopher Andrew) and Roger Hollis (proposed by journalist Chapman Pincher). Despite the efforts of various historians and journalists the question, ‘who was Agent Elli’ remains hotly debated to this day.

‘Faktion’ delivers my own, somewhat left-field, verdict on who was Agent Elli much of my surmising turning, as does the plot of ‘Faktion’, on the difficulties faced when information is translated/interpreted from Russian into English. This is based on my own experiences living and working in Russia: really good translators are rare as hen’s teeth and most have a real reluctance to raise their hand when they don’t understand what they were being asked to translate. This caused no end of muddles though I was lucky to always have Nelli by my side who is a fanatic for accuracy (and a highly qualified linguistic to boot).

Virtually all our knowledge regarding Agent Elli comes from the testimony of Igor Gouzenko, a 26-year old cipher clerk who was posted to Canada in June 1943 to work in the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa. In September 1945 Gouzenko gave himself up to the Canadians rather than be shipped back to the USSR bringing with him a collection of files and code books and an insider’s knowledge of the extent of the Soviet Union’s espionage efforts in Canada, the USA and in Britain. Such was the brouhaha caused by Gouzenko’s revelations (especially regarding Soviet Intelligence’s penetration of the Manhattan Project) that he is often cited as the man responsible for initiating the Cold War.

Given how important he is to the story of Agent Elli it is perhaps worth spending a moment considering just what sort of a man Gouzenko was (for this I mostly reference Gouzenko’s biography This Was My Choice). He was born in the village of Rogachov, ‘not far distant from Moscow’. His father was killed soon after his birth (in 1919) fighting in the civil war raging in Russia at that time (for which side he was fighting remains tantalisingly unclear). His mother, a teacher, seems to have been a woman of some influence because she managed to move herself and her family to Moscow (moving towns in the Soviet Union was a considerable feat which would have required the pulling of any number of strings), Gouzenko entering the prestigious school named in honour of Maxim Gorky and from there going to study at the Moscow Architectural Institute. Whilst Gouzenko claims that his family had no blat – influence – I doubt this is the case: his mother’s move to Moscow and the quality of the schools where Gouzenko studied give the lie to that. This is confirmed by his being transferred to the Kuibyshev Military Engineering Academy in Moscow where he trained as a cipher clerk in Intelligence Administration run by the GRU, a very cushy, a very safe and a very well-paid job. Although ranked merely as a lieutenant his salary was an astonishingly high 1,200 roubles (in 1940 the average salary of an engineer was R696 and a worker R324).

By his own account Gouzenko was a dedicated student, a diligent officer, a loyal Communist and a devoted husband to his wife, Anna. He does, though, seem partial to a drink noting in his book that ‘I never allowed an opportunity for obtaining vodka or wine to pass’ though whether he was the alcoholic claimed by John Cairncross I couldn’t confirm. As a cipher clerk most of his work seems to have been on telegrams from and to Germany and Switzerland (again, given that Germany was invading Russia at that time, this was a prestigious appointment).

In June 1943 (the pivotal time in the fighting on the Eastern Front) he was transferred to the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa, Canada. That Gouzenko had precious little English (he describes himself as having only a ‘fair foundation in the language’) this seems an unusual appointment, and being such a plumb (and very safe!) posting again smacks of prodigious amounts of blat.

Gouzenko quickly became enamoured of life in Canada and when he was advised that he was to be transferred back to Moscow decided to defect which he and his family did on 5th September, 1945, being taken into custody by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. (En passant, I have my suspicions regarding Gouzenko and his motives for defecting. This man wasn’t what he appeared. I just wonder …)

So the Gouzenko who defected was young, of junior rank (he was still just a lieutenant) and possessed of pretty shaky English (despite twenty years of living in Canada, during the CBC television interview of March, 1966 Gouzenko still answered questions in heavily accented English). The upshot is that all of Gouzenko’s interviews with the RCMP had to be made using an interpreter, which, I believe, accounts for some of the problems historians have had in recent years. The interpreter the RCMP used was Special Constable Mervyn Black and, as with Gouzenko, it's worth taking a closer look at Black. According to Gregory S. Kealey who has made a study of the RCMP's Security Bulletins Black was born on 31st May 1890 in Petrograd (now St Petersburg) to Scottish parents, his father being Managing Director of the D.N. Lebedeff jute mill. After being schooled in Belfast, Dundee and London, Black returned to Russia in 1914 as manager of the Riga Textile factory. He left Russia in 1921finally coming to rest in Canada where he farmed in Saskatchewan until 1932.
This doesn't seem to have been a successful endeavour because in 1933 he joined the RCMP as a civilian translator though his duties also included him working as an undercover agent spying on Communist agitators ... again not very successfully. As Black is reported to have said: 'My connections with the working class of various countries have been very close and intimate but always from the standpoint of the employer, not as a fellow worker on the same step of the social ladder'. Thus Black's background and feelings apparently deprived him of the ability to make a successful secret agent. Mervyn Black was obviously something of a snob who probably regarded his having to work as a translator (and as an agent rubbing shoulders with the hoi polloi) as somewhat beneath him. He certainly railed about never being commissioned into the uniformed branch of the RCMP (apparently his age was against him) so I have the suspicion that Black was an embittered man.
So we have a translator who although )probably) fluent in Russian is not a native speaker nor a linguist and whose snobbishness might have prevented him admitting he didn't understand what Gouzenko was saying. This is especially the case given that Black must have recognised the opportunity Gouzenko presented him with to impress his superiors.
My suspicions regarding the difficulties Black faced in accurately interpreting what Gouzenko said when he was being debriefed by the RCMP are reinforced by a letter written by RCMP Inspector George McClellan and dated 11 October, 1945 which notes: ‘I would like to point out that under the living conditions in Rexall (Camp X) at the moment, Black (the interpreter) laboured under much difficulty in obtaining the statement already submitted herewith … this is due to the fact that Corby (Gouzenko’s codename) has somewhat of the dreamer mentality and it is extremely difficult to pin him down to the business at hand’ (Amy Knight: ‘How the Cold War Began’).

Amongst the revelations Gouzenko made during these somewhat tortuous debriefings was that there was a Soviet agent – codenamed Elli – operating in Britain. Gouzenko had learned of Elli’s existence when chatting with a fellow cipher clerk called Liubimov during the night-shift at GRU headquarters in Moscow in 1942. Apparently Liubimov even went so far as to show him deciphered messages relating to Elli.

(En passant, it should be noted that there has been some suggestion that Gouzenko fabricated the existence of Agent Elli simply to enhance his importance to the Canadians. I doubt this. On 24 November, 1945, the Soviet Commissar for State Security, Vsevolod Merkulov, sent a personal message to Stalin and Beria confirming that Gouzenko had betrayed the existence of the GRU agent inside British intelligence, Elli. The inescapable conclusion is that what Gouzenko said was fact.)

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