Spy novel – a way to present new research

A great deal of moral courage or a really desperate situation – these are the requirements for someone to disclose state secrets. And life will most certainly never be the same again. This is what emerges from the experiences of the Cold War’s first major defectors, Mr and Mrs Petrov, as from those of Edward Snowden, who will perhaps never be able to return to his homeland without risking severe punishment. Intelligence professor Wilhelm Agrell is among the few people in a position to present new research in the form of a spy novel.

Willhelm Agrell LITEN

Willhelm Agrell is Sweden’s only professor of intelligence analysis and has now written a spy novel based on a true story. Photo: Gunnar Menander. 

Wilhelm Agrell is basically a historian but, as Sweden’s only professor of intelligence analysis, he has worked for just over 30 years in the interdisciplinary environment at the Research Policy Institute. With the transformation of the institute about a year ago, he moved to the Department of Political Science. When asked who his closest colleagues are, he replies that he is usually the one with a vacant chair beside him in the lunch room. He appreciates unexpected meetings – “that way you can get new ideas for research”.

The idea for his latest book, about Mrs Petrova’s shoe, emerged not from any lunch room but rather from the British national archive, which Wilhelm Agrell often visits to search for material. While he was there for a different matter, he found out that the files on the Cold War’s first two defectors, Mr and Mrs Petrov, had just been released.


Mr and Mrs Petrova.

“The defections drew a great deal of attention in the 1950s; the world was outraged by images of Jevdokia Petrova, in tears and wearing only one shoe, being led away by the Soviet intelligence service”, says Wilhelm Agrell. Shortly after the pictures were taken, Mrs Petrova applied for asylum in Australia under dramatic circumstances.

The Petrov couple’s file shows that they provided detailed descriptions of international intelligence work in Stockholm, where the couple was stationed for a few years at the end of the 1940s.

“Stockholm was an important meeting place for agents from both east and west”, says Wilhelm Agrell. “One indication of this was that the great powers multiplied their embassy staff their after the war.”

Using the Petrov couple’s information, the Swedish Security Service was able to identify several Swedish agents and intelligence personnel at the Soviet embassy.
But as Wilhelm Agrell sat reading their file at the British national archive, it was more Mrs Petrova’s life which fascinated him, rather than the information that the Petrovs passed on to various intelligence services.

“Her tragic destiny was too interesting not to be recounted”, he says.

The tragedy lay in the fact that Mrs Petrova did not really want to defect at all. She was a Stalinist and a good Soviet citizen who had made a brilliant career within the intelligence service. But her husband’s defection had placed her in a situation which forced her to choose between returning to the Soviet Union, where she herself would most certainly have been unjustly convicted of treason, or to defect and stay in Australia, with an unquenchable longing for her homeland which she would never see again.

The story was so exciting that Wilhelm Agrell decided to write the book as a spy story, although without renouncing the facts and descending into fiction.

And Agrell is a good storyteller. The book provides an insight into the isolated life of the Soviet diplomats; social interaction with the local population was prohibited. It led to immediate repatriation to the Soviet Union and Stalin’s arbitrary purges of political dissidents.

Of all the University’s researchers, Wilhelm Agrell is perhaps the most in demand by the media. But the media’s interest is mainly in revelations other than those of the Petrov couple. Edward Snowden, the American computer engineer who revealed how the USA and their allies spy on the population through the mass collection of electronic data, raises many questions about what Agrell calls intelligence services 2.0.

“Previously, intelligence services knew what they should look for. Today their targets are largely unknown and limitless and would completely paralyse a spy from the Cold War”, says Wilhelm Agrell, who thinks that the most sensational aspect of Snowden’s revelations is actually the exposure of shortcomings in the intelligence work itself.

There are no search questions in today’s mass collection of data. Instead, agents look for deviations and correlations when analysing enormous quantities of data. Of course, this potentially allows both guilty and innocent individuals to be captured in the net of the intelligence and security services.

“We must ask ourselves what it means to have a system in which we are all suspects, albeit to a low degree”, says Wilhelm Agrell, who personally finds the situation unpleasant. “We do not yet know what the security service 3.0 will be like but it is clear in any case that the current system has completely failed to manage issues of integrity.”

Are there any similarities between today’s spies and those of the Cold War?

“Yes, there are actually major similarities. If one considers Snowden to be a spy, he acted in a similar way to Mr Petrov in preparing meticulously for his defection. Just as during the Cold War, he was aware that the price of his revelations would be high.”

Text: Ulrika Oredsson

 Footnote: ”Fru Petrovas sko: En rysk spiontragedi i 50-talets Australien” is published by Bokförlaget Atlantis.