Friday, April 16, 2004

The Petrov Affair 

Interesting, Peter, that you should recall the Petrov Affair in such detail.
People need to be well into their sixties now to have any worthwhile
personal recall.
I was in External Affairs, serving in Canberra at the time.
I knew many of the people involved or at whom suspicion was, rightly or
wrongly, directed.
It was easy in those days to call masses of people "communists."
We'd grown up in a period in which capitalism had failed and many saw the
virtues of socialism or "communism" in some form or other.
I was at university in the early 'forties and we had our fair share of
''commie" lecturers there - as well as students of course. By the time I
joined the Army in early 1942, we were calling Stalin ''Uncle Joe.''
All that changed abruptly after the war and the return of the Liberals to
power at the end of 1949.
In 1951, Dick Casey claimed that there was "a nest of traitors" in External
He did not say who precisely they were.
However, he meant that there were many left-wingers whose sympathies lay to
some extent with the Soviet Union.
To Casey - and of course to Menzies - Petrov was a blessing who proved all
that they'd been saying, for so long, about the "communists", the
socialists, the fellow-travellers, the left sympathisers - and, of course,
the Labor Opposition.
We never had quite the gross McCarthy obsession in Australia that there was
in the United States, but Petrov gave an excuse for developing it and
declaring that anything short of Menzies' liberalism was "communism" and
The strange thing is that Menzies, right through to his resignation in
January 1966, turned out to be as good a socialist revolutionary, in most if
not all of his substantive economic and social policies, as Ben Chifley.
He turned back very little of Chifley's revolution - and that almost
entirely at the presentational edges.
It was those who followed Menzies who didn't know where they were going.
McMahon was the ultimate in slapstick incompetence but those who preceded
him after Menzies were not much better.
Whitlam still tried to stick to some socialist and mixed-economy positions.
The unions - a vital part of democratic stability - were still strong and
dedicated, pretty much in the traditional sense, to the working man.
It was after Whitlam that the whole careful socialist construct fell to
It did that, not under Fraser, but under the sham left-wing misgovernments
of Hawke and Keating. The pathetic Howard found no model in Menzies but in
the two preceding Labor leaders - and of course they all found their
inspiration in the likes of monetarism as an economic "theory" and the likes
of Reagan and Thatcher as political models.
So Petrov's impact was great in keeping Menzies and the Liberals in power.
The defection sent Evatt crazy and split the Labor Party more deeply and for
a longer period than ever before or since.
However, his impact on the underlying economic and social environment was
less than we might have expected and much less than many of us may have
His impact on some individuals was cruel. I have in mind such a decent man
as Ric Throssell whose treatment reflected the shallowness and meanness of
those who run our government and our public service.
The effect on our relations with the Soviet Union was not long-lasting. I
happened to be in Austria for the Hungarian revolution in 1956, about two
and a half years after Petrov defected. I crossed into Hungary to join in
the celebrations before Soviet and other Eastern European forces moved in to
crush the rebels.
Australia's denunciation of the Soviet action and those who supported it,
was fierce. At the same time, of course, Menzies' service to the British
cause on Suez was less easy to condone.
However, by 1959, I sat with Casey during an international conference on the
Gold Coast to work out what was called, if I remember rightly, the
Casey/Firyubin Understanding. The result was that the Soviet Diplomatic
Mission, which had been withdrawn at the time of Petrov's defection,
returned to Canberra and we began to mend our relations with Budapest. By
1975, I was myself Ambassador to Hungary and dealt normally with Moscow's
Altogether and whatever our assessment from 50 years later, the Petrov
affair has an important place in our national story. We can't help feeling a
sadness about what it did to the Petrovs themselves. I did a piece on it
once called ''The Outcasts'' but, in fact, they seem to have lived out their
days in reasonable content.
If so, that is a comfort.

James Cumes

----- Original Message -----
From: "Peter Myers"
To: "clem clarke"
Sent: Thursday, April 15, 2004 6:56 AM
Subject: 50 years since the Petrov Affair

50 years since the Petrov Affair

(1) Petrov, Vladimir - Soviet spymaster in Australia
(2) Evdokia Petrov - Soviet envoy's wife whose plight highlighted cold
war spy fever
(3) Mrs Petrov's death brings bizarre affair to end
(4) Spies who loved us

(1) Petrov, Vladimir - Soviet spymaster in Australia

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