Moscow Despatches:
Inside Cold War Russia

by John Watkins, Dean Beeby, William Kaplan,
ISBN: 1550280287

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White Nights
by David Stafford

HN WATKINS arrived in Moscow in March 1954, a ,ear after Stalin's death, as Canada's first peacetime ambassador to the Soviet Union. Following the Gouzenko affair and the onset of the Cold War, Canada's interests in the Soviet capital had been represented by a succession of charges d'affaires. Watkins himself had been one of them during the deep freeze years between the Berlin blockade and the Korean war. His return as ambassador heralded an improvement in the climate, a reflection in part of the changes in Soviet society following Stalin's demise.

Aged 52, the new ambassador was a gifted and literate man who had risen quickly as the postwar Department of External Affairs rapidly expanded to accommodate Canada's new found role as an important middle power. A Scandinavian scholar with a Ph.D. from Cornell, he had worked throughout the 1930s at the American Scandinavian Foundation in New York, and when recruited by Hume Wrong for the Department of External Affairs in 1946, he was an associate professor of English at the University of Manitoba. Colleagues found him gentle and sociable. He liked to talk about art, literature, philosophy, and music, and was fond of fine tobacco, wine, good food, and bonhomie.

So was Oleg Mikhailovitch Gribanov, who also served his country. At the time Watkins arrived in Moscow, Gribanov was head of the KGB, and, by force of personality and ruthless bureaucratic politicking, he had earned himself the sobriquet "Little Napoleon." One of Gribanov's main occupations was the surveillance and, if possible, seduction of foreign visitors to the Soviet Union. When actively engaged on such targets, Gribanov assumed the identity of Oleg Gorbunov, a married high official with a dacha outside Moscow. Here, with carefully stage managed parties and picnics, he would soften up his victims. The most famous would be Maurice Dejean, the French ambassador, ensnared in the proverbial honey trap and blackmailed by compromising photographs of himself and the women so kindly placed in his way by Gribanov. Another, more tragically, was Watkins.

Watkins was homosexual. During a visit to Soviet Central Asia in the fall of 1954 described at some length in despatches reproduced in the book Watkins had at least two sexual encounters with younger men (not, needless to say, recorded). The KGB rapidly exploited one of these contacts, arranging for the young man concerned to reintroduce himself to Watkins in Moscow. A hotel room assignation and a hidden camera did the rest.

At this point, enter Gribanov. Appearing on the scene as Oleg Gorbunov, he promised to protect Watkins from exposure, telling him he could "hold off" the KGB if Watkins would only help ensure that Canadian policy was friendly and helpful to the Soviet Union. For the rest of his posting in Moscow (he returned to Ottawa as assistant undersecretary of state shortly after Khrushchev's famous denunciation of Stalin at the 20th party congress in February 1956), Watkins told no one of his predicament. Not until he confessed to interrogators from the RCMP security service in 1964 did the entrapment become known to Canadian officials. By this time Watkins was retired, and a sick man with a weak heart. On October 12, 1964, while undergoing yet further questioning in a Montreal hotel room, he suffered a fatal coronary. The circumstances were hushed up and only in the late 1980s did the story surface to the Canadian public a tragic tale of human frailty, and an example of inhuman persecution at the hands of either the KGB or RCMP, according to one's point of view.

This background explains the decision to publish these select despatches. They became prime I targets of RCMP analysis to see if Watkins had become a Soviet agent of influence." The analysts found nothing incriminating. By implication, the reader is challenged to reach similar conclusions.

Watkins enjoyed something of a literary reputation among his colleagues, many of whom, the editors tell us, considered his despatches as "literary gems that one read as much for pleasure as for information." One can readily understand this, for Watkins was clearly an observant man who liked people and recorded the facts and impressions of his daily life in the Soviet Union in considerable detail and with some skill quite a change, one suspects, from the ordinary despatch produced by the average ambassador. But they are hardly literary gems. The sparkles must surely have been in the eyes of the beholders as they wrestled with their in trays during grey Ottawa afternoons. And what, one wonders, did Watkins's superiors think about his long if loving descriptions of social encounters with Soviet citizens or details of the times he had gone to bed having had one vodka or two too many?

Inevitably, therefore, the interest lies in the chronicle these despatches provide of Watkins's slow entrapment by the KGB. The reader, prepared by the useful editorial introduction, can watch the unwitting victim fall into the trap. On June 7, 1955, for example, Watkins records two idyllic days in the country at a dacha outside Moscow owned by some of his fun loving, Soviet friends. Among them is "Alyosha," a member of the Institute of History with an engagingly non academic interest in football; he even insists on listening to a radio commentary on a (Moscow) TorpedoCzech foothall match while his friends are dancing, much to their irritation. But later he makes amends, charming them all in the moonlight with his good tenor voice. Watkins was clearly moved. Thus Gorbunov, alias Alyosha, bewitched the harmless and hapless John Watkins. A sad and cautionary tale.


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