The tale of Toronto Sun Founding Editor Peter Worthington role in the escape of his interpreter from the Soviet Union in the 1960s is the stuff of legend. However, Worthington wanted to wait until all the protagonists — including himself — were dead before he told the story in complete detail. So here, for the first time in publication, is Olga’s breathtaking story as told by Worthington:
Some 45 years after defecting from the Soviet Union, Olga, my Russian translator when I was based in Moscow for the old Toronto Telegram, died in her early 90s.
At the time, her “escape” (she always called it that) in 1967 caused something of a sensation in the international journalists’ world, and caused me a lot of trouble in Moscow. As a translator for a foreigner, she worked for the KGB and regularly was expected to denounce her employer, and report any embarrassing foibles that might someday be useful for blackmail or coercion.
Olga’s husband, Vadim, had been a major in Russian military intelligence (GRU) and based in the Soviet embassy in Stockholm, Sweden, as resident spy-master. Vadim had links to Col. Oleg Penkovsky of the GRU, who was spying for Britain and the U.S. until he was caught by the KGB, put on trial and subsequently executed.
It was the espionage sensation of the time and books in the West depicted him as one of the significant intelligence breakthroughs. Olga and Vadim had socialized with Penkovsky, and Olga always viewed him as uncultured, boorish and reckless.
I knew none of this when I first arrived in Moscow and lived for a year in a suite ($15 a day) in the Ukraina Hotel (renamed in 2010 as the Radisson Royal) before getting my own apartment. I applied for a translator, supplied by a state outfit known as UPDK (Oopedika), and Olga was the third candidate who applied, but was the only one who was reasonably proficient in English.
Willowy with henna-dyed red hair, she was cynical about things Soviet, and disparaging about things western – especially western newspapers. Every journalist needs a translator as a sort of “fixer,” who knows people, could arrange interviews and meetings, since Moscow had no telephone book; phone-owners kept their number confidential, telling it only to select friends. Of course the KGB could tap into any phone it wanted, and was said to do so on a random basis.