This is the second of three of excerpts fromLooking for Trouble, the memoirs of the late, legendary Canadian journalist Peter Worthington, now available for the first time as an ebook. Worthington died a year ago, on May 12, 2013. All proceeds of book sales will go to a memorial fund in Worthington's name at Toronto General Hospital's Supportive Care Unit in Heart Failure. (Read Part One here.)
One day in 1965 in Moscow, where I had opened the first Canadian news bureau for the Toronto Telegram, my Russian translator Olga suddenly blurted: "Boss, are you a Communist?"
Startled, I said: "No! Why do you ask?
"Because", said Olga, taking a deep breath, "I want to escape this prison of nations. Will you help?"
For some time, Olga had been talking in riddles, dropping hints, making provocative comments. Once when I had remarked on her relatively good life in Moscow, she replied: "It is better to be a free sparrow than a caged canary." I had ignored all hints, aware they might be a trap.
But I began thinking long and hard about Olga's request. Things started to fall into place - especially her nervousness when the topic of the KGB came up, and her irreverence, ill-disguised contempt and enigmatic remarks about the merits of the Soviet system. I think I knew from the start I would have to help her. Once the ice was broken, she relentlessly pursued the topic.
Back in Toronto to appear on the CBC's Front Page Challenge, I went to see Leslie James Bennett, the head of RCMP counterespionage whom I had met before coming to Moscow. He told me that Olga's husband, Vadim Pharmakovsky, a naval officer seconded to GRU (Military Intelligence), had worked for the Soviet spy Col. Penkovsky, who had been a CIA and British Intelligence double agent, and that I was almost certainly being set up. For God's sake, be careful, Bennett urged. Olga was almost certainly a double agent.
Back in Moscow, I learned more of Olga's background. She was a survivor of the Leningrad blockade, the 900-day siege during which a third of the city's residents died of starvation. She had married her husband Vadim, and after the Penkovsky affair, the Soviets isolated everyone who had any association with the double agent and Olga and Vadim were recalled from Sweden and he was expelled from the GRU.
In her second year of working for me, Olga got, through KGB circles, a holiday cruise in the Mediterranean, and we made plans for her defection. After an intensive ordeal of psychological and psychiatric examinations, she left on the Mediterranean cruise and jumped ship in Beirut, Lebanon.
Before she left, she gave me an airline flight bag for safekeeping, filled with heirlooms and jewelry dating back to Tsarist time. I eventually persuaded an unsuspecting Canadian journalist colleague to take it back with him to Ottawa (he was not amused when I told him much later what contraband he had unwittingly carried).
The press, particularly the Moscow foreign correspondents went wild, questioning me repeatedly, asking if I knew she was probably a Soviet intelligence agent. I was interrogated by the KGB, and Pravda ran an article about me headed "Bloodhound Worthington," saying I was a cold warrior trying to upset relations with the Soviets and the West.
Speculation was rife in Moscow that I was having an affair with Olga, but people finally came, a trifle wistfully I felt, to the conclusion that I was probably innocent because there is no way one could have a fling in Moscow without the KGB knowing about it, and Olga would never have been allowed to go on a holiday cruise. (After her defection, all foreign trips for translators were cancelled.)
After several mysterious 'incidents,' such as having a person approach me, begging to be taken to any embassy, others coming up and making anti-Soviet remarks, trying to get me interested, and my car being hit by a truck, followed by anonymous calls that I should watch out, I was anxious to leave Moscow and meet up with Olga in Brussels, where she had ended up and was being given a hard time by the authorities. The Soviets kept refusing me an exit visa, but finally I was allowed to leave. I discovered Olga had been badly treated in Beirut, which was alive with Soviet activity, and the Soviets were prowling the city looking for her.
At first the Americans were friendly to her, but when they found out she did not have inside KGB information, they turned nasty and abandoned her, saying they were turning her over to the UN refugee centre.
"If you do that it means the end of me," Olga told them. "The Soviets will find me immediately."
"That's not our concern," she was told.
Moved to Belgium, she was given what could best be described as Gestapo treatment when I arrived on the scene. When the Belgians learned she had been rejected by the U.S., they were prepared to take off the gloves and interrogate her more zealously. They were furious to find that her application to go to Canada was now pending, thus making them wait even longer before having a free hand.
In their annoyance they bluntly accused me of being a Soviet agent. To them it was inconceivable that the KGB could be fooled twice by amateurs. Once was unlikely; twice was impossible.
Initially I had tried to co-operate with the Belgians, but increasingly I began to get angry and disgusted at the whole security foul-up. I warned Ottawa that if there were any grounds for believing Olga was a plant, tell me what and I'd accept it. But if they were merely suspicious, I would make what trouble I could. I alerted Fleet Street and my news agent contacts, as well as American journalists, to the story of betrayal and how a stage-managed defection had gone sour.
Finally British security questioned Olga in Brussels and me in London. They'd match stories and see if key areas differed. We were both cleared, so to speak, and a somewhat reluctant British security gave Olga the benefit of the doubt. Canada agreed to let her enter on a Minister's Permit.
As I see it now, the real reason the defection was so successful, and why we both got away with it, was because I trusted no one, told no one anything. The ambassador didn't know, no friends knew, no politicians were told. None could be trusted, for the simplest hint that there was collaboration or conspiracy would have inevitably reached Soviet ears.
Olga was one of the few occasions when the Soviet system was beaten, and the canary escaped and became the sparrow.
Tomorrow: Being shot at in Algiers.