The Petrov Affair shook Australia in the 1950s, splitting the Labor Party and setting the stage for an era marked by intrigue and suspicion. In this exclusive excerpt from her new book, Karen Throssell, daughter of Ric Throssell, one of the people "named" by Russian spy Petrov, talks about the impact on her family, which continues to this day.
My grandmother was one of Australia’s greatest novelists, my grandfather won the Victoria Cross for gallantry and my father was hounded all his life as a spy.
This is a three-generational story. It’s about my life; it’s about my father, Ric; it’s about my grandparents, the writer Katharine Susannah Prichard and the war hero Hugo Throssell.
It’s a study of the psychology of spies and those who obsess about them, a narrative of guilt and innocence told through poetry, prose and historical documents.
It’s a tale from another time – but one with obvious relevance, given how regularly governments rely on fear and scapegoating today.
Let me tell you what was done to my family.
I have in front of me two photos of my Dad, from different eras. One – the dad I remember best – in 1999, a year before he died at 76 from an overdose of the painkiller Doloxene (shown above left). The other is a newspaper photo taken 50 years earlier, accompanied by sensational headlines about the Royal Commission on Espionage 1954-55 (shown above right).
In the first photo, he is sitting beneath a portrait of his mother, Katharine Susannah Prichard, writer and founding member of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). Katharine’s portrait is in many shades of brown pastel. She is wearing her favourite corduroy jacket; I remember it — quite radical clothing for a grandmother in the 1960s. She looks benign, calm, her grey hair in waves across her forehead, and she has a slightly sad smile.
Dad is staring, even glaring, at the camera. Maybe he was being interviewed by a journalist. He has a face that declares he does not suffer fools.
He is hunched forward, hands clasped as if forcing them to be still. He is looking intensely at the camera, eyes boring in. His mouth is set in a tight, almost sardonic line.
My father has written pages and pages: letters to papers, articles in journals, chapters in books, even a book, in an attempt to make them get the story straight, trying constantly to correct the misinformation.
After 50 years of it, he was tired but still determined.
The second photo appeared on the front page of both the Herald Sun and The Australian the day after the start of the Royal Commission on Espionage in Australia. He looks so very young, about 30, very good looking, dark hair with a cowlick on the side. People told him he looked like Gregory Peck. He is wearing a dark suit, white shirt and pale tie, and he is smiling (they said "triumph"; he said "relief").
Beside him is his beloved wife Dodie (Dorothy), whom Vladimir Petrov, the Russian spy who defected in 1954, also "named". She appears cool and beautiful as usual, with her long hair and black beret. But he knows better, knows how traumatic the whole ordeal is for someone so painfully shy and reclusive, how offensive to her sense of justice is all the nonsense that is being hurled around.
In his own writing about the event [the Petrov Affair], Dad was first perplexed, then astonished and finally appalled at what transpired. Some deranged Russian whom he had never met accused him of passing secrets.
The ethics of what had been done by unscrupulous journalism in a sickening echo of the Cold War witch-hunts remains to be dealt with by those whose role it is to protect professional ethics and the individual journalists who hope to preserve some respect for their profession.
They’ve done it again. A friend rang last night to tell me about another article in The Australian flogging the same tired old horse. Again.
The true facts are that initially and almost immediately, Venona [the United States counterintelligence program] identified nine spies, all members of the CPA or closely aligned by family connections. Those spies were:
- Wally Seddon Clayton who was a senior member of the CPA and controller of the espionage ring
- Ric Throssell, external Affairs officer, son of well-known Communist author, Katharine Susannah Prichard.
- Dorothy Throssell, Ric’s wife, also a member of the CPA and a member of the department of post-war reconstruction.
- Katharine Susannah Prichard, a member of the CPA and involved in transmitting to Clayton information obtained by her son Ric Throssell.
- Retired ASIO officer (anonymous)
I feel the familiar knot of anxiety in my stomach, the same slight wave of nausea, as I contemplate bringing it all back. Do I really want to whip myself into a frenzy typing up yet another furious response that will be ignored?
And if I don’t, I will suffer all that guilt for letting them get away, yet again, with printing more deliberate misinformation.
I feel driven to defend Dad against these continuing lies, but at what point does it become obsessive, carping? When do people’s eyes glaze? When do they switch off at the mere mention of the topic?
I think of "poor old Shirley Shackleton", who was trying to expose the cover-up of an international murder in Balibo, Indonesia, in 1976. Obsessive because her ex-husband was one of the victims. Finally, a filmmaker heard her and made Balibo, the film that forced the Indonesian Government to admit that they had murdered five Australian journalists including Greg Shackleton. She finally got something like justice. No one says "poor old Shirley Shackleton" now.
I go for a long walk around the gully to calm down. All full of the smell of spring – wafts of wattle, boronia and the odd bit of that evil escapee – pittosporum – still pervading the bush with its sweet perfume.
Dad was so passionate about the bush, always told me to soak it in, be more observant.
He also said, you must always stand up for your beliefs, even when it is not what people want to hear.
Karen Throssell is an award-winning writer and poet with five poetry collections and another book of creative non-fiction. This excerpt from the book, 'The Crime of Not Knowing Your Crime: Ric Throssell against ASIO', by Interventions Press, is republished with permission. The book is due to be released on 25 July and will be launched by Jeff Sparrow.
Support independent journalism Subscribe to IA.