Sunday, 17 November 2013


Agent Elli and the Tricky Language that is Russian

(Part 2)


There are four important points to note about the manner in which Gouzenko came to learn about Agent Elli: one, Gouzenko and Luibimov would have been speaking in Russian; two, in all probability their command of English would have been basic at best (certainly Gouzenko’s was); three, these conversations took place at night when people are tired (and maybe even a little drunk?); and four, I suspect in a beleaguered and blacked-out Moscow the lighting in their office (candles? oil-lamps?) would have been inadequate. The upshot is that this is the ideal environment for mistakes to be made.

So what did Gouzenko learn about Agent Elli during these night time chats? Well, I guess the most basic is that the Agent’s codename was ‘Elli’. Everyone has assumed that Gouzenko got this right: unfortunately I don’t think Gouzenko (or Black) did!

In 1942 when they were discussing ‘Elli’, Gouzenko and Liubimov would have been speaking in Russian and when he came to be debriefed by the Canadian authorities three years later it is highly likely that Gouzenko would have used the same Russian pronunciation for the name he saw on Liubimov’s decrypts, Элли. In fact this is the Cyrillic rendering of the English word ‘Ally’ but as Gouzenko’s English was poor he wouldn’t have known the word and would have pronounced it phonetically as Elli. This mistake was not picked up by Black and is one which created a lot of subsequent confusion.

Professor Christopher Andrew in his authorised history of MI5 (The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5) states that that ‘El’ is the Russian pronunciation of the letter ‘L’ (correct) and hence that ELLI in Russian translates as the plural of the English letter ‘L’. I am reliably informed by a native-speaking Russian linguist that this is ‘nonsense’: no Russian would ever refer to double-L as Elli. Moreover, I doubt the Soviets would have been so stupid as to give such an important agent a code-name made up of his initials. Unfortunately Professor Andrew uses this ‘ELLI = Russian double-L’ hypothesis to corroborate his contention that Leo Long (who I’ll return to later) is the real identity of Agent Elli. Understandable I suppose: without this supporting ‘evidence’ the Leo Long surmise seems somewhat threadbare.

Of course, my Agent Ally hypothesis might be wrong and there are other possibilities. If, for instance, the decrypts shown to Gouzenko by Liubimov had been handwritten – a strong possibility given that most of the documents Gouzenko took with him when he defected were handwritten, making them difficult to decipher – and remembering that this was taking place at night in an ill-lit room it could be that the agent’s name wasn’t Elli (Элли ) but the similar-looking Eppi (Эппи). The one other possibility (the one my own Agent Elli refers to in ‘Faktion’) is that Elli was simply a shortened form of ‘Elijah’!

However I am as confident as anyone can be the Agent Elli was actually Agent Ally, a very apt cryptonym for someone as highly placed and as committed to socialist revolution as this spy.

This ‘Agent Ally’ contention is reinforced by there being two Agent Ellis.

Elli is recognised in Russian as being a woman’s name and, interestingly, the codename ‘Elli’ (sometimes rendered as ‘Ellie’) had already been assigned to one of the Soviet’s female spies in Canada. Gouzenko identified two agents called Elli, the first of whom turned out to be a woman, Elli (or Ellie) being the cryptonym of Kathleen Willsher, who worked as a confidential secretary to the British High Commissioner in Canada, Malcolm MacDonald (Willsher was subsequently identified and arrested). That the Soviets used the same code name of two agents (one a man and one a woman) has generally been dismissed as ‘just one of those things’, but I don’t think it was: the names weren’t the same. There was an Agent Ellie (female) and an Agent Ally (male). Different names but rendered in exactly the same way in Russian.

The final piece of mal-translation confusing the search for Agent Elli is the phrase used by Gouzenko: ‘ou nego shto-to Russkoe’ which Black translated as ‘having something of the Russian about him’. This has been used to suggest that Agent Elli had Russian antecedents, but in fact the phrase is so vague as to be almost meaningless and should have prompted Black to ask for clarification. Unfortunately he didn’t. Nelli’s translation would have been the much more general ‘had a Russian connection’.

The journalist Chapman Pincher presents a coherent set of arguments when he suggests that Elli is Roger Hollis – Hollis worked for MI5 from 1939, eventually becoming Director-General in 1956 (see Pincher’s Treachery: Betrayals, Blunders, and Cover-ups: Six Decades of Espionage Against America and Great Britain for details). Pincher refers to the ‘ou nego shto-to Russkoe’ description of Elli and suggests that it indicates that Elli had pre-Revolutionary connections with Russia (Nelli disputes this: in her opinion the phrase is so ambiguous as to invite several, equally plausible, interpretations). Apparently the Hollis family is able to trace its lineage back to Peter the Great. The difficulty here is that Hollis’s Russian antecedents were tenuous to say the least and I am doubtful they would have stimulated gossip in the GRU’s Moscow headquarters.

But my biggest problem with the ‘Hollis is Elli’ hypothesis is that Hollis would have been too junior in the period running up to 1942 (when Gouzenko first heard of Elli) to be regarded as the Soviets’ most important intelligence asset in Britain.

These pieces of mis-translation and mis-interpretation have confused the hunt for Agent Elli with none of the proposed candidates quite fitting the description provided by Gouzenko: that he was a man; a committed Marxist; recruited by the GRU not the NKVD; had a strong Russian connection; had, from early 1942, access to Britain’s most sensitive of secrets; and was ready and willing and able to provide the USSR with these secrets. A man who truly warrants the cryptonym Agent Ally.

There’s only one man who fits the bill …



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