The Royal Commission on Espionage, 1954–55 – Fact sheet 130

Vladimir Petrov and Evdokia Petrov inside the safe house - 1954
Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov - 1954 (A6285, 11)

Defection of the Petrovs

On 3 April 1954, Vladimir Mikhailovich Petrov, who had been Third Secretary of the Soviet Embassy in Canberra since February 1951, defected in Sydney. Some two weeks later, on 20 April, his wife Evdokia, who worked at the embassy, also defected, after having been freed from Soviet couriers by Australian police at Darwin airport. These defections led to an extensive inquiry into Soviet espionage in Australia and resulted in the withdrawal of the Soviet Embassy from Australia and the expulsion of the Australian Embassy from Moscow.

Royal Commission

On 13 April 1954, Prime Minister Menzies told Parliament of the defection and announced the establishment of the Royal Commission on Espionage (RCE) to inquire into and report on Soviet espionage in Australia. Lengthy debriefings by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) following the defections revealed that Vladimir Petrov was a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Soviet intelligence service and had been responsible for Soviet espionage in Australia. Mrs Petrov was also an intelligence officer.

The Royal Commission opened in Canberra's Albert Hall on 17 May 1954 before Commissioners W F L Owen (Chairman), R F B Philp and G C Ligertwood, judges of the New South Wales, Queensland and South Australian Supreme Courts respectively. During the next 10 months, the Commission sat on 126 days in 3 venues, examined 119 witnesses, received over 500 exhibits, including the documents that Petrov handed Australian authorities following his defection (which became known as the 'Petrov Papers'). It published almost 3000 pages of transcript.

An interim report dealing with the authenticity of exhibits H and J, two of the 'Petrov Papers', was presented to the Governor-General on 21 October 1954 (printed as Appendix No. 2 of the final report). The Commission's final report was presented to the Governor-General on 22 August 1955 and to Parliament on 14 September 1955 (see Parliamentary Papers 1954–55, Volume III, pp.187–677). The principal findings of the Commission included that:

  • the 'Petrov Papers' were authentic documents and the Petrovs were truthful witnesses;
  • from its establishment in 1943 to its departure in 1954, the Soviet Embassy in Canberra had been used for espionage in Australia; and
  • the only Australians who knowingly assisted Soviet espionage were Communists.

The Commissioners recommended that no prosecutions be launched as a consequence of their inquiry.

Records about the Royal Commission

Most records of the RCE are held by the Archives in Canberra. A selection of its records and those of other key government agencies held in Canberra is listed below.

Royal Commission on Espionage (CA 1882)

Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (CA 1297)

Prime Minister's Department (CA 12)

 Title or description of recordDate rangeSeries number
ItemCommunism – political asylum to Mr & Mrs Petrov1954A462, 211/2/24
ItemThe future of Mr & Mrs Petrov1954A1209, 1977/818
ItemPrime Minister's Office file on the RCE1954–55A6227, 1

Cabinet Secretariat (CA 3)

 Title or description of recordDate rangeSeries number
ItemPetrov defection policy1954A4940, C926
ItemVladimir & Evdokia Petrov – naturalisation1956A4940, C1293

External Affairs (CA 18)

 Title or description of recordDate rangeSeries number
ItemV M & E A Petrov – request for political asylum1954–61A1838, 1500/1/3/23 part 2
ItemNote delivered to Soviet Ambassador1954A4311, 445/1

Attorney-General's Department (CA 5 )

 Title or description of recordDate rangeSeries number
ItemPublication of book by Mr & Mrs Petrov1955A432, 1955/2784
ItemPersonal property of Mr & Mrs Petrov stored at USSR Embassy, Canberra1955A432, 1955/2825

KH Bailey (Solicitor-General) (CP 71)

Administrator, Northern Territory (CA 1070)

 Title or description of recordDate rangeSeries number
ItemMrs Petrov1954F423, S33

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019