The stress of espionage

Media release: Thursday, 20 October 2016

Spying is a stressful occupation, especially if you choose to defect. It took its toll on Russia's top spies in Australia in the 1950s, Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov.

The stress of defecting and living with a new identity may even have been the reason Vladimir Petrov let his hair down in a Surfers Paradise hotel in 1956, ending up drunk in the local watchhouse. There, he forgot his assumed name, and let the world know he was Petrov.

Greg Cope from the National Archives in Brisbane came across this little known fact in an ASIO file as he trawled the archival vaults for secrets on the Petrovs.

'Many Australians are aware of Petrov's defection in April 1954 and the headline attempt by the Russians' to kidnap Mrs Petrov,' he said. 'But not many know what happened after the defection when, fearing for their lives, the two went to ground, living in safe houses and eventually settling in Melbourne under assumed names.'

'The ASIO file shows the Petrovs went on holiday to Queensland in 1956. Vladimir decided to go for a walk against his wife's wishes and ASIO's instructions,' said Greg Cope. 'When, hours later, he arrived home drunk and tried to enter the wrong flat, a fight broke out and police were called. At the Southport Watchhouse he told them his name was Petrov. When the Truth newspaper picked up the story, ASIO denied he was the defector. But the archival file confirms it was him.'

Evdokia – a top code breaker – didn't know her husband was going to defect and spent years afterwards haunted about the fate of her family in Moscow. For her, staying in Australia meant the end of her proud career as a Captain in Russian intelligence.

The information spilt by the Petrovs was 'a world coup' that put the fledgling ASIO on the map. British MI6 agents, who flew to Australia to interview the Russians, saw Evdokia as the more reliable and intelligent source of information. Between them, the Petrovs revealed the whereabouts of two missing British diplomats – Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean – and identified over 600 Soviet intelligence officers working in Britain, Sweden and the USA.

After their defection, in constant fear of execution by the Russian secret service, both were hospitalised at times for stress. Their fears were real as they were on KGB assassination lists up until 1983.

In Melbourne they were given new identities of Sven and Maria Allyson. He worked developing film at the Ilford Film Co. Evdokia worked as a typist with William Adams Tractors Pty Ltd and volunteered for Meals on Wheels.

In 1974 Petrov suffered a series of strokes and remained in a geriatric hospital until his death from pneumonia 17 years later. Evdokia was a regular visitor but could not attend his funeral for security reasons. Evdokia died in 2002 at the age of 88 following surgery. A neighbour described her as 'a nice lady and really feisty' but said her husband had been 'a drunken sod'.

Greg Cope is giving three seminars on the Petrovs at the National Archives' Brisbane office on Wednesday 26 October (10am) and Friday 28 October (10am and 2pm).

NOTE: Greg Cope is available for interview from Monday 24 October.

Contact information

  • Elizabeth Masters (Media Officer)
    t (02) 6212 3957 m 0417 247 157 e elizabeth.masters@naa.gov.au

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Copyright National Archives of Australia 2017