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Canadians gleaned naval intelligence from Russian defector, newly released files show

OTTAWA — The young Russian seaman who turned up exhausted and bleeding on the British Columbia shore struck a Canadian intelligence official as well mannered, sincere and athletic, built like Tarzan of the movies.
Pages from the RCMP file on defector Sergei Kourdakov, a Russian seaman who turned up bloody and exhausted on the British Columbia coast in September 1971 are photographed in Ottawa on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service, which assumed counter-espionage duties from the Mounties in 1984, released the 802-page file to The Canadian Press in response to an Access to Information request. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jim Bronskill

OTTAWA — The young Russian seaman who turned up exhausted and bleeding on the British Columbia shore struck a Canadian intelligence official as well mannered, sincere and athletic, built like Tarzan of the movies.

Less than two years later, defector Sergei Kourdakov would die in a California motel room — apparently by accidentally shooting himself — after joining an evangelical Christian group dedicated to smuggling Bibles behind the Iron Curtain.

Newly released archival records of the RCMP Security Service shed fresh light on Kourdakov's tragic odyssey, which made international headlines in the early 1970s. The classified memos, messages and reports also detail RCMP efforts to glean valuable intelligence from the unexpected visitor.

"He fully appreciated our interest in him and his information, and expressed a sincere desire to co-operate to the best of his ability," reads one memo.

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service, which assumed counter-espionage duties from the RCMP in 1984, released the 802-page file on Kourdakov to The Canadian Press in response to an Access to Information request.

Some portions of the dossier, though half a century old, were considered still too sensitive to disclose.

Kourdakov was a 20-year-old nautical school trainee in early September 1971 when his ship, the fishing vessel "Shturman Yelagin," moored in the waters near Tasu in B.C.'s Queen Charlotte Islands.

Born in Siberia, he was keen on economics, history and politics, and enjoyed photography, writing and amateur radio. If Kourdakov had returned to the Soviet Union, he likely would have received a junior naval commission with duties as a radio operator.

But he had become disillusioned with the Russian system, contemplating defection as early as age 17.

"I don't believe in the idea of the Communist Party of Soviet Union. I think it is not Utopia," he wrote in a two-page account, translated from Russian, shortly after his arrival in Canada. "It is an invention of fanatically incited leaders like Khrushchev and Brezhnev."

Late in the evening of Sept. 3, Kourdakov sealed his personal documents and photos in a plastic bag and plunged off the ship into the chilly water. He became disoriented in the strong wind and rain, but kept swimming until he finally made his way to shore.

He cut himself climbing a rocky slope and wandered in the cold before spotting village lights. "I lost a lot of blood, and my wounds were stinging from the salt water," Kourdakov wrote. "I don't remember how I reached the village. I woke up in a clean bed and a nice girl was offering me a cup of tea."

An RCMP constable later reported "it was miraculous that Kourdakov was able to survive in the cold water and his survival could only be attributed to his excellent physical condition."

After time in a local hospital, he was turned over to Canadian authorities. Within weeks of his arrival, he was granted landed immigrant status.

The Mounties began debriefing Kourdakov just days after he came ashore. 

In addition, reports based on interviews by the Special Research Bureau, a division of the External Affairs Department, were shared with the United States, Britain and Australia. 

"Source made an excellent impression," read one bureau report. "Athletic, built like 'Tarzan' of the movies with a West European countenance as opposed to the 'Khrushchev' type of Russian, he could blend into any North American milieu."

The Canadians were particularly curious about naval matters, submarine sightings and fishing fleet operations.

"Kourdakov had no personal knowledge of the use of Soviet fishing vessels for intelligence purposes," said one debriefing summary. "He did say that it is the general understanding of crew members that photos and information of potential value are collected when or if the opportunity presents itself, but he knew of no one trained for that express purpose."

He told interviewers that in the event of war, the fishing fleet would go immediately to wartime status and head for a Soviet port. "Trawlers would be converted to transport boats," said the summary. "All trawlers contain specially prepared locations and mountings for armaments. Three times a month the ship had practice drills, and would take up positions as if the armour was in place." Kourdakov would be responsible for broadcasting any attack warning.

The Canadians would have taken a keen interest in what Kourdakov had to say about Soviet radio operations and activities related to SIGINT, or signals intelligence, said University of Toronto history professor Timothy Sayle, who has studied Canada's dealings with Cold War defectors. "I think that would have been the most pertinent and valuable bit of information he could have provided."

A federal interdepartmental committee agreed Kourdakov was a legitimate defector and that $4,000 should be set aside for him, to be administered by the RCMP, to supplement federal funds to help him learn English and settle in Canada. 

Committee members hoped the additional money would discourage him from depending too greatly on a private source such as the Russian Orthodox Church in Canada and to allow them "to exercise at least some measure of control over Kourdakov's activities," said a letter signed by the committee chairman.

However, keeping a tight rein on the young defector would prove challenging.

His sensational arrival in Canada attracted all kinds of attention. Kourdakov reported being followed by a Russian man. He was treated to lavish lunches and dinners. He even claimed to have received a letter from the militant Quebec separatists of the FLQ advising him not to criticize the Soviet Union. 

An RCMP sergeant suggested in January 1972 that Kourdakov wasn't trying too hard to learn English, adding the attention from the media and security officials "has boosted his own self-importance out of all proportion."

By May, the RCMP lamented that Kourdakov was rebuffing the force's efforts to stay in touch. He had "inexplicably" moved out of his Toronto apartment and "reports from some quarters imply concern over his well-being," said an internal Telex message.

Kourdakov had also developed an interest in the evangelical movement, "we suspect for monetary reasons," the message said. "He is assessed as immature, easily influenced by flattery, and extremely mercenary."

In early June, the RCMP informed External Affairs that Kourdakov was living in Calgary and had embarked on a cross-Canada speaking tour with a reverend who served as Canadian manager of Underground Evangelism, a U.S.-based group that raised money to smuggle Bibles into Communist countries.

"No additional effort will be made to contact him."

Kourdakov began to tell stories of being enlisted by police in the Soviet Union to carry out raids on Christian worship meetings, often beating participants, but later abandoning his ways and embracing spirituality — details he did not share during his sessions with Canadian intelligence personnel.

The RCMP would later state that Kourdakov was "known to have embellished accounts of his activities," noting his comments during the speaking tour about his conversion to Christianity "changed from time to time" and did not always agree with information he provided during the debriefings.

"I think he actually becomes a major headache, especially with these stories he's telling on the evangelical circuit," Sayle said.

Kourdakov went on to join Underground Evangelism and was living with a sympathetic family in California toward the end of his life. He had borrowed a gun for self-protection and shot himself accidentally while clowning around during the New Year's weekend of 1973 at a ski resort, according to the family's daughter. Following an inquest, the death was ruled an accident.

In probing the shooting that January, the San Bernardino sheriff's office contacted the RCMP with a flurry of questions about the mysterious Russian's background. The homicide division wanted to know about any threats against Kourdakov's life, whether he was once a member of the Russian secret police, and if it was true the Mounties had furnished him with a submachine-gun.

An RCMP response said there was no reason to suspect Kourdakov's life might have been in jeopardy while in Canada and at no time did he request — or receive — a firearm from police. Nor did Kourdakov ever mention being associated with the secret police, the Mounties added.

"Unfortunately the obvious lack of facilities to verify his background with agencies in his homeland often makes it difficult to separate truth and fiction."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 22, 2022.

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press