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Almost 58 years after the event, municipal and federal officials are marking what many historians say was the opening shot of the Cold War, the defection in Ottawa of Soviet embassy code clerk Igor Gouzenko.

In a simple ceremony on Wednesday, officials will unveil a plaque in a city park across the street from the two-storey apartment building where the Gouzenko family lived at the time of the defection on Sept. 5, 1945.

That it took almost four years of relentless lobbying by Andrew Kavchak, an amateur local history buff, to have the plaque erected highlights the controversy and the international political intrigue that still surrounds the Gouzenko case.

Mr. Kavchak, 40, has personal cause to want to explore the dark past of Soviet perfidy. His grandfather was among the thousands of Polish soldiers executed on Stalin's orders in the Katyn forest massacre in 1940.

Mr. Kavchak became intrigued by the Gouzenko story as a university student in Toronto. He read Mr. Gouzenko's autobiography and prowled used bookstores for other accounts of the early days of the Cold War.

Years later, living in Ottawa, Mr. Kavchak often walked his young son in the park across from the Gouzenko apartment at 511 Somerset St. West. He sat on the park bench where RCMP undercover officers kept watch the night four thugs from the Soviet embassy came looking for the missing Gouzenko family -- Igor, Svetlana and their baby boy -- to haul them back to Moscow.

Mr. Kavchak thought about the drama of that night, the Gouzenko family's narrow escape and all that followed.

Mr. Gouzenko unmasked Soviet spy rings in Canada, the United States and Britain, Moscow's wartime allies, and he disclosed Stalin's efforts to steal the secrets of the atomic bomb.

The defection, Mr. Kavchak said, "was the very first significant international event of the Cold War" -- coming just three days after the Japanese surrender ending the Second World War. And yet "there was no marker, no plaque, no nothing."

Mr. Kavchak decided to remedy the situation.

A federal public servant, he thought he knew all about bureaucracies. But he was unprepared for the false starts, U-turns and the back and forth between municipal authorities and branches of the federal government on the issue of whether the defection is worthy of commemoration.

The project was almost shelved when some Canadian diplomats, worried about how the Russian government might take a Gouzenko memorial, advised the city against the idea, Mr. Kavchak said.

"When Kim Philby [the former British diplomat who spied for the Soviets]died, they gave him a state funeral in Moscow. When Igor Gouzenko died [in 1982] he was buried in an unmarked grave because people were afraid the Soviets or their sympathizers would deface it. . . . We have a difficult time dealing with the concept of heroes in Canada."

Soviet code clerks, privy to the darkest secrets of Moscow's military and political intelligence officers abroad, "could have defected from any embassy anywhere in the world, but they didn't. It happened here in Ottawa. Gouzenko did it here because he knew he was in a free country, that Canada is a wonderful country," Mr. Kavchak said.

The hesitation of officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs parallels the concern of wartime prime minister Mackenzie King, who feared the defection would jeopardize relations between the Western allies and Stalin.

Mr. King tried to keep the defection secret, and when the facts leaked out he was almost apologetic.

Mr. Gouzenko defected a full six months before Churchill's famous speech in Fulton, Mo., warning that an "Iron Curtain" was descending across Europe. The Russians were still being hailed as close friends and allies. The full extent of Stalin's expansionary ambitions was not yet evident to many observers in the West.

The importance of Mr. Gouzenko's defection cannot be doubted, said Martin Rudner, the director of Carleton University's Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies. "It was absolutely explosive, probably the single most important event in counterintelligence."

Mr. Gouzenko's information and the secret documents he brought with him from the Soviet embassy were the first pieces of hard evidence that the Soviets were spying on their allies, Prof. Rudner said.

Mr. Gouzenko disclosed the existence of Soviet "sleeper networks" -- spy rings consisting of secret agents recruited at early ages and kept in place for years until they attained positions from which to influence the policies of their native countries or steal important scientific, military or political secrets.

Until that point, Western leaders could not conceive of the idea that there might be traitors at high levels in their own governments, Prof. Rudner said.

The Gouzenko case probably prevented the sleepers in place in 1945 from recruiting second- and third-generation agents in Canada, Britain and the United States who could have done damage for decades, he said.

The secret documents not only provided direct evidence of Soviet treachery; they gave Western code breakers texts that helped them decipher many other intercepted Soviet messages.

"This was a great breakthrough. . . . If Gouzenko hadn't defected, the Soviets probably could have continued tracking American nuclear technology, missile technology, and saved themselves remarkable effort right through the Cold War," Prof. Rudner said.

A later defector to the West, former KGB officer Vasili Mitrokhin, brought a treasure trove of documents that included a damage-assessment report on the Gouzenko case. It indicated that Mr. Gouzenko's defection effectively paralyzed Soviet espionage efforts in Canada for 15 years.

The Mitrokhin archive, however, also suggests that the Soviets had a Canadian sleeper who survived the Gouzenko affair and whose identity is still a mystery.

People made wildly exaggerated claims about the extent of Communist infiltration and influence from almost the moment of Mr. Gouzenko's defection.

On the very day the King government confirmed the defection, syndicated U.S. newspaper columnist Drew Pearson reported in The Globe and Mail that "the Russian agent taken by the Canadians has given the names of about 1,700 other Soviet agents operating not only in Canada, but also in the United States."

Despite the continuing controversy, Mr. Kavchak persuaded the city and the federal government to recognize the defection officially as a historic event.

If the Russians can confront their past since the collapse of Soviet communism, certainly Canada, with the kind of freedom and democratic tradition that so appealed to Igor Gouzenko, can remember its role, Mr. Kavchak said.

"History is history."