The Soviet Union’s secret police, the infamous KGB, praised her savvy and erudition, even as she frustrated their attempts to spy on her in Cold War Ukraine. They tagged her with the code name Frida. But today we know Chrystia Freeland as Canada’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance.
Ms. Freeland’s ties to Ukraine are no secret, but materials uncovered from the KGB archives in Kyiv illuminate her role in the Ukrainian independence movement while on exchange there from Harvard University.
In the former Soviet republic – now Moscow’s antagonist – access to information on the communist period is guaranteed, both as part of reckoning with Ukraine’s past and explicitly as a rebuke to Russia, which is seeking once again to impose itself on the country.
The materials show what drew the Soviet intelligence services’ attention to the then-troublesome young Canadian, who was the subject of denouncements in the Soviet press and even warranted a feature in top-secret KGB documents.
In articles bearing titles like “Abuse of Hospitality,” Soviet newspapers publicly lambasted the Canadian visitor for recklessly meddling in the Soviet Union’s affairs with malice aforethought.
What business, the Kyiv newspaper Pravda Ukrainy asked, did someone from Edmonton have leading a civic organization for the preservation of the Ukrainian language in Ukraine? Why did someone in Ukraine to study Ukrainian spend so little time doing so at the university sponsoring her visit – and why study when, as the televised rallies at which she spoke time and again clearly showed, she spoke the language flawlessly?
Even Pravda, the official broadsheet of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, condemned her by name, and others like her, for their efforts to tear Ukraine away from the USSR.
Ms. Freeland, in a written statement to The Globe and Mail, said: “I am aware that my work with pro-democracy and environmental activists invoked the ire of the Soviet KGB. I remember being the target of smear campaigns in the Soviet press.
“Though I was eventually forced to leave the country, I have no regrets about my time in Ukraine during the Soviet period. Out of this experience, what struck me, very powerfully, was how quickly a rotten political system could collapse, and how important the work of brave dissidents could be.”
Ms. Freeland was part of a flood of tourists; activists; missionaries; students; and even historians, purporting to work in the archives (but suspected by authorities, including the KGB, of having ulterior motives), visiting the Soviet Union during its final years. But she is unique in having become a top-secret published case study for the KGB in just how much damage one determined foreigner could do to the USSR as they knew it.
The Soviet Union’s state media tended to adopt a breathless style when exposing what it saw as the wicked machinations of foreigners such as Ms. Freeland. However, the KGB’s Colonel A. Stroi, based in Kyiv, dispensed with the feigned indignance in his report on the woman giving him so much grief in the pages of Sbornik KGB SSSR (Digest of the KGB of the USSR), the KGB’s top-secret, in-house journal.
Ms. Freeland, and her ilk, were a threat to the Soviet Union – but one which had to be handled delicately: Treating her too harshly could give credence to the “libellous” stories told in Ukrainian émigré communities about how the KGB treated national minorities in the Soviet Union.
According to the KGB, Ms. Freeland was more than just an agitator for, as Col. Stroi derisively put it, “the liberation of Ukraine” who coerced Soviet citizens into staging marches and rallies to attract Western support. She delivered cash, video- and audio-recording equipment, and even a personal computer to her contacts in Ukraine.
All of this took place under the watchful eye of the KGB, which surveilled Ms. Freeland. Its officers tailed her wherever she went; tapped her phone calls to Ukrainians abroad; bugged her accommodation; read her mail; and had an informer, codenamed Slav, insert himself into Ms. Freeland’s circle and gain the young Canadian’s trust.
But Ms. Freeland knew the rules of the road. She used a Canadian diplomat at the embassy in Moscow, known to the KGB as Bison and suspected of being a spy, to send material abroad in a diplomatic pouch that could not be intercepted or read.
She increasingly avoided major gatherings, lest her participation draw too much attention to her. And the Soviet secret police’s subtler attempts to curtail her activities failed: Her teacher at Kyiv’s Taras Shevchenko University, on the KGB’s orders, increased her workload. But the student, ostensibly on a visa to study Ukrainian, was so fluent that she did not need to attend class in the first place in order to make grades – much to the KGB’s chagrin.
Instead, she spent her time traversing Ukraine, purporting to visit far-flung family members, but in fact working as a fixer for visiting journalists from Canada, Britain and the United States, for example taking a BBC film crew to Lviv to meet leaders in the Ukrainian Catholic Church. Countless “tendentious” news stories about life in the Soviet Union, especially for its non-Russian citizens, had her fingerprints as Ms. Freeland set about making a name for herself in journalistic circles with an eye to her future career prospects.
Col. Stroi certainly objected to what Ms. Freeland was doing in Ukraine, but the KGB officer could not help but be impressed. She was “a remarkable individual” with “an analytical mindset.” The young Canadian was “erudite, sociable, persistent, and inventive in achieving her goals,” nefarious as they may have been in the eyes of Soviet intelligence.
The student causing so many headaches clearly loathed the Soviet Union, but she knew its laws inside and out – and how to use them to her advantage. She skillfully hid her actions, avoided surveillance (and shared that knowledge with her Ukrainian contacts) and expertly trafficked in “misinformation.” The conclusion is inescapable: Chrystia Freeland, this KGB officer was saying, would have made an excellent spy herself.
Ms. Freeland’s time in the Soviet Union came to an end when customs agents at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, tipped off by the KGB, searched her luggage as she returned from a trip to London and found anti-Soviet materials. Even more worrying, they discovered a veritable how-to guide for running an election destined for use by non-Communist Party candidates campaigning for Ukrainian independence in the Soviet Union’s first-ever free elections. She was denied re-entry on March 31, 1989.
Some 30 years later, there is no love lost between Canada’s Deputy Prime Minister and the current leader of Russia, himself a former KGB officer, Vladimir Putin. And she still cannot fly into Moscow – since 2014, Chrystia Freeland has once again been the target of Kremlin sanctions, barred from entering the country.
Simon Miles is assistant professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.
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