Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Petrov, Vladimir Mikhailovich (1907–1991)

by Phillip Deery

This article was published online in 2016

This is a shared entry with Evdokia Alekseevna Petrova

Vladimir Mikhailovich Petrov (1907-1991) and Evdokia Alekseevna Petrova (1914-2002), Soviet intelligence officers and defectors, were husband and wife. Vladimir was born Afanasii Mikhailovich Shorokhov on 15 February 1907 into a peasant family at Larikha, in central Siberia, Russia. He and his two brothers became fatherless when he was seven. After attending a local school (1915-17), from the age of fourteen he helped to support his mother as a blacksmith’s apprentice. His ascent in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union began in 1923 when he established a local Komsomol (All-Union Leninist Young Communist League) cell. Later he qualified as a cipher specialist in the Soviet Navy. In 1929 he changed his surname to Proletarskii and four years later was recruited by the OGPU (Joint State Political Directorate). He survived Stalin’s purges in the 1930s and served in China (1938-39) as chief of a cipher unit, for which he was awarded a Red Star.

In June 1940, now a major in the NKVD (People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs), Proletarskii married Evdokia Alekseevna Kartseva; both were divorcees. She was born on 15 September 1914 in the village of Lipki, in Riazan province, near Moscow. During the famine of 1919 the family travelled to Siberia where they experienced further hunger and hardship, before moving back to Moscow in 1924. There she joined the Pioneers, the official youth movement for all children under fifteen, which conferred eligibility to join the Komsomol. Later, she studied English and Japanese, was recruited by the OGPU in 1933, and specialised in code breaking.

Proletarskii was renamed Petrov, regarded as a more suitable name for a foreign posting. In July 1942 he and his wife, by then an experienced cipher expert, were sent to the Soviet embassy in Stockholm under diplomatic cover. They returned to Moscow in 1947, and he was promoted to lieutenant colonel in the MGB (Ministry of State Security); Evdokia held the rank of captain in the MGB. On 5 February 1951 they arrived at the Soviet embassy in Canberra. As cover for their intelligence work, he was designated consul and third secretary, she an embassy clerk and accountant.

Evdokia had access to top-secret cable traffic from the central headquarters of the KGB (Committee for State Security which in 1954 succeeded the MGB) and acquired extensive knowledge of Soviet espionage operations. Vladimir performed the duties of the chief MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs) resident, penetrating local anti-Soviet organisations and recruiting Australian agents for espionage activity. In the latter task he was singularly unsuccessful. The hunter was already the hunted. Five months after his arrival, Petrov was befriended by an apparently pro-communist Russian-speaking Polish émigré, Michael Bialoguski and, like Petrov, a prodigious drinker and womaniser. Petrov believed Bialoguski was ‘ripe for recruitment’ (NAA A6201, 156) but Bialoguski was working for the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), under the codenames Diablo and Jack Baker, and was tasked with cultivating Petrov and persuading him to defect.

Petrov and Bialoguski first met at the Russian Social Club in Sydney on 7 July 1951. As their friendship flourished, their lives became entwined and increasingly seedy. Together, they frequented the bars and brothels of Kings Cross and commenced an illegal but lucrative trade in the sale of duty-free whisky. Bialoguski was pivotal to Petrov’s defection. During the weekend of 21-22 November, when Petrov stayed at Bialoguski’s Sydney flat, as he often did, Bialoguski first offered financial assistance if Petrov stayed in Australia.

After Stalin’s death in March 1953 events in the Soviet Union intensified Petrov’s anxieties and readiness to defect. In June Lavrentii Beria, first deputy premier, head of the MVD and Petrov’s protector, was arrested, and six months later, executed. Menacingly, the Petrovs were accused of forming an anti-party ‘Beria cell’ within the embassy. In September 1953 a new Soviet ambassador arrived in Australia.   The Petrovs were becoming scared: Evdokia was accused of insulting the ambassador’s wife and dismissed from her embassy positions, and the ambassador was highly critical of Vladimir’s performance. The likelihood of a recall to Moscow loomed. On 21 February at Bialoguski’s flat, Vladimir met ASIO’s deputy director, Ron Richards, who offered him political asylum in Australia. At a second meeting on 19 March, he was offered £5,000 produced in cash from Richards’s briefcase. This had a great impact on Petrov, as did a personal meeting with ASIO’s director-general, (Sir) Charles Spry. On 3 April he formally sought political asylum and the next day he defected.

Vladimir kept Evdokia ignorant of his decision and had abandoned her. For two weeks following his defection she was, in effect, a prisoner inside the embassy until diplomatic couriers arrived to take her back to Russia. In her own words, she was ‘very frightened’ (NAA A6201, 12) and had even attempted suicide. Her fear was palpable when, on 19 April 1954, her burly couriers, Karpinsy and Zharkov, roughly escorted her across the tarmac at Sydney’s Mascot airport amid a highly charged public demonstration against her apparent kidnapping. Photographs, now iconic, of Evdokia’s obvious terror and lost high-heeled shoe captured her distress. Further drama ensued when the plane landed in Darwin to refuel. There the couriers were forcibly disarmed by local police; phone calls were made between Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies, ASIO, and the Petrovs; and an ambivalent Evdokia eventually announced her wish to stay in Australia, just fifteen minutes before the plane was scheduled to depart. On 21 April she applied for, and was granted, political asylum. The couple were reunited in Sydney, but their marriage was strained: for weeks ASIO safe-house teams heard her ‘long wailing cries echoing through the night’ (NAA A6122, 96), and witnessed her being physically assaulted by an intoxicated Petrov. The possible fate of her family in Moscow also haunted her. However, although her father was dismissed from his job, she corresponded with her mother and in 1990 was reunited with her sister who migrated to Australia.

Evdokia’s expertise in ‘sigint’ (signals intelligence) was as important as the information Vladimir had gleaned from his unrestricted access to embassy safes. During an early debriefing with ASIO on 6 April 1954, Petrov had revealed the whereabouts of the two missing British diplomats, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean. His revelation that they had defected to the Soviet Union caused great consternation in Britain. The intelligence that the Petrovs supplied to ASIO and, by default, the Western intelligence community, was highly prized. They identified six hundred Soviet intelligence officers; gave detailed information on espionage activity in Britain, Sweden, and the United States; provided new insights into Soviet methods of disinformation and crypto-analysis; contributed to the further decrypting of the Venona cables of Soviet intelligence messages; and were debriefed by overseas spy agencies about the organisation, structure, and modus operandi of Soviet espionage. According to Spry this amounted to ‘a world coup’, while a senior MI5 officer observed that the Petrov case ‘certainly put ASIO on the map’ (Horner 2014, 380).

The Soviet government withdrew its embassy from Canberra, followed by reciprocal action from Australia. The defections resulted in the Royal Commission on Espionage, which commenced on 17 May 1954. It sat for 126 days, examined 119 witnesses and received over five hundred exhibits. The latter included the controversial ‘Petrov Papers,' a substantial number of documents he had removed from the Soviet embassy over several months and handed over to ASIO at the time of defection. Although many communist supporters alleged these to be forgeries, the Venona decrypts confirmed their authenticity when they were published in 1996. Despite the royal commission finding that a Soviet spy ring operated in the Department of External Affairs between 1945 and 1948, prosecutions could not be initiated without compromising the Venona operation. The leader of the Opposition, H. V. Evatt, rejected the findings of the commission, considering it to be part of a Menzies government conspiracy. The defections of the Petrovs may have assisted the Menzies government to a narrow electoral victory in 1954, but Evatt’s politically inept reaction to the royal commission and its findings was a factor in the Australian Labor Party’s split, which contributed to a series of electoral defeats. The ALP remained in opposition until 1972.

On 12 October 1956 the Petrovs were granted Australian citizenship, guaranteed protection by a Federal government ‘D’ notice, and provided with a safe house in the Melbourne suburb of East Bentleigh. Their book, Empire of Fear, ghost-written by an ASIO intelligence officer, Michael Thwaites, was serialised in newspapers in 1955, and published in book-form in 1956. Contentment proved elusive as the Petrovs feared they would be assassinated. It was later revealed that their belief was not fanciful: they were named on a KGB wanted list and condemned to death. Viktor Cherkashin, a KGB officer, located a Sydney safe house just after the Petrovs had been moved from there, and a KGB general, Oleg Kalugin, discussed Petrov’s assassination with Yuri Andropov, head of the KGB (1967-82) and later the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1982-83).

Vladimir and Evdokia were given new identities of Sven and Maria Allyson and they bought a house in Bentleigh. He found employment in June 1957 at the Ilford photographic company in Upwey, while she worked as a typist with William Adams Tractors Pty Ltd, Clayton. She also did voluntary work for Meals on Wheels and Vladimir enjoyed Australian Rules football and rabbit shooting. In 1974 he suffered a series of strokes and was admitted to the Mount Royal Geriatric Hospital, Parkville, where he remained for the rest of his life. His anonymity was controversially breached a decade later when the Truth newspaper published a front-page photograph of him confined to a wheelchair. On 14 June 1991 Vladimir Petrov died of pneumonia and was cremated. His funeral service was held secretly, attended only by his wife, a few friends, and ASIO officers including Spry. Evdokia died on 19 July 2002 at Bentleigh and was cremated at Springvale crematorium.

Vladimir Petrov had not been a glamorous spy. Described as ‘a peasant’ (Horner, 459), he was a stockily built drunkard, with an abusive personality. By contrast, Evdokia, with her attractive looks, blue eyes, courtesy, kindness, and love of fashion was far more appealing. When she died, a neighbour described her as ‘a nice lady, and really feisty’; he was remembered as ‘a drunken sod’ (Manne, 27 July 2002). Both Petrovs embodied the emotionally wrenching impact, as well as the perils and the complexities, of defection to the West during the Cold War.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Bialoguski, Michael. The Petrov Story. Port Melbourne: Mandarin Australia, 1989
  • Canberra Times. ‘Petrov, 84, the Former Soviet Spy at the Centre of the 1950s Espionage Scandal, Dies.’ 17 June 1991, 3
  • Horner, David. The Spy Catchers: The Official History of ASIO 1949-1963. Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2014
  • Manne, Robert. The Petrov Affair. Politics and Espionage. Rushcutters Bay: Pergamon Press Aust., 1987
  • Manne, Robert. ‘Mrs Petrov’s Death Brings Bizarre Spy Affair to End.’ Age (Melbourne), 27 July 2002, 1, 14
  • National Archives (UK). KV2/3440
  • National Archives of Australia. A6122, 96
  • National Archives of Australia. A6201, 12
  • National Archives of Australia. A6201, 156
  • National Archives of Australia. A6282, 14
  • National Archives of Australia. A6214, 3
  • National Archives of Australia. A6283, 14
  • National Archives of Australia. A6283, 80
  • Petrov, Vladimir and Evdokia Petrova. Empire of Fear. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1956
  • Petrova, Evdokia Alexeevna. Interview by Robert Manne, 21, 28 June 1996. Transcript, National Library of Australia
  • Petrova, Evdokia Alexeevna. Interview by Robert Manne, 5, 12 July 1996. Transcript. National Library of Australia
  • Thwaites, Michael. Truth Will Out: ASIO and the Petrovs. Sydney: Collins, 1980

Additional Resources

Citation details

Phillip Deery, 'Petrov, Vladimir Mikhailovich (1907–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/petrov-vladimir-mikhailovich-18740/text30429, published online 2016, accessed online 21 May 2019.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2019

Vladimir Petrov, 1954

Vladimir Petrov, 1954

National Archives of Australia, A6285:10

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Allyson, Sven
  • Shorokhov, Afanasii Mikhailovich
  • Proletarskii, Vladimir Mikhailovich
Birth

15 February 1907
Semipulatinsk, Siberia, Russia

Death

14 June 1991
Parkville, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

pneumonia

Cultural Heritage
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