Sutch: A 'recruit' or just a 'contact'?

BIG NAME: Bill Sutch was a former bureaucrat with a high profile and plenty of influence.
BIG NAME: Bill Sutch was a former bureaucrat with a high profile and plenty of influence.

Bill Sutch can find no rest. Nearly 40 years after his death, his KGB file has pitched him back into infamy.

The Left-wing intellectual was acquitted in 1975 after the only espionage trial in New Zealand's history.

But his KGB file, revealed this week, says he was "recruited" by the Soviets in 1950. This has set off yet another round of argument about Sutch, who was a controversial figure for most of his life.

ON THE RUN: Dimitri Razgovorov, a KGB officer, sprints down Aro St in Wellington when he realises Sutch has been arrested.
ON THE RUN: Dimitri Razgovorov, a KGB officer, sprints down Aro St in Wellington when he realises Sutch has been arrested.

Was this senior official and economist really a spy? And if so, what secrets might he have given the Russians?


The KGB file entry on Sutch is only one sentence long. "‘Maori', Englishman, born in 1907, New Zealand citizen, PhD, former high official in the government, retired in 1965, recruited in 1950, in contact with Drozhzhin."

It was sloppy of the KGB to give him the codename Maori, according to former Security Intelligence Service (SIS) officer Kit Bennetts, whose 2006 book Spy is about the Sutch affair.

"A golden rule of codenames is that the name should give no clues about the person it's assigned to," he told The Dominion Post this week.

Sutch's real name is not given, but the biographical details exactly match his.

"Drozhzhin" is Yuri Timofeyevich Drozhzhin, identified in the file as the leading KGB man in Wellington between 1968 and 1973.

The most important word is "recruited".

"It means he is a recruited asset and that the KGB had an element of control over him," says Bennetts.

"Invariably being recruited meant they'd be paid as well. It meant he was trusted and could get them information and would work under direction."

Sutch's daughter Helen has pooh-poohed the file entry, saying her father was not a spy.

"It is well known that KGB agents in general were desperate to talk up any contacts they had because they were under pressure from their superiors," she said.

Bureaucrats, of course, sometimes try to put themselves in a good light with the boss. But other forces in the KGB would discourage empty bragging by the spies.

"When you are working for an employer like the KGB," says one intelligence source, "you need to be very close to the mark - if you get caught out, there's more than your superannuation you're going to lose."

Very exact language was required in the KGB. "Recruit" was not a label given to someone an agent bumped into at a cocktail party. And someone "recruited in 1950" had had a long-lasting and significant relationship.

The file released this week comes from a huge trove of handwritten copies of files brought to Britain in 1992 by the former KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin.

Mitrokhin later published a KGB lexicon - a dictionary of the spies' technical terms. It is rich in words related to "recruitment" (in Russian, verbovka).

Recruitment is defined as "secret co-operation with [Soviet] intelligence". "Agent recruitment" is defined as "the covert involvement as agents of individuals who have opportunities to carry out intelligence tasks at the present time or in the future".

It is clear that recruitment was a serious business. Merely being "in contact" with the KGB did not make you a recruit.

In fact, immediately following the Sutch entry is one about a New Zealand Labour MP codenamed "Gerd", who was also "in contact" with Drozhzhin.

But being "in contact" with the KGB "could mean anything", Bennetts said. It might mean a person was in the early stages of "talent spotting" or was being groomed but had not been asked whether they would help the KGB.


If Sutch was a spy, as the KGB file suggests, a lot of his strange behaviour makes sense.

There were his repeated meetings in Wellington streets with KGB officer Dimitri Aleksandrovich Razgovorov leading up to the fateful encounter on September 26, 1974, when he was arrested.

Sutch said later that he met Razgovorov to discuss Zionism. This is a peculiar cover story, to put it mildly, and Bennetts says it was unnecessary.

At the time of his meetings, Sutch was chairman of the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council.

Razgovorov was cultural attache at the Soviet embassy. If they'd wanted to discuss art and culture, "they could easily have done so in public without raising suspicion".

The SIS knew about the meetings because the organisation regularly broke into Sutch's office and checked his diary, Bennetts says.

They tailed him when he met Razgovorov in August, and they also found in his office a series of pen portraits of colleagues, including other high officials.

"Some were quite critical of people who were very close to him," Bennetts says. They included personal details about their sexual proclivities and drinking habits.

But the prosecution of Sutch failed because, the night he was arrested, a sudden shower of rain interrupted the sting by SIS and police. Razgovorov's driver drove off in the confusion, reportedly bearing a parcel.

So the spies had no proof that Sutch had passed any secrets to the Soviet agent.


If the KGB file doesn't provide a smoking gun, says espionage writer Aaron Fox, "there's certainly a spent cartridge lying around".

"But what's frustrating about all of this is, what did he actually do?" What secrets might he have given to the Soviets?

The Mitrokhin file on New Zealand, Fox notes, could be the whole KGB file on Sutch or his country. But there is likely to be much more.

Mitrokhin had to be selective. He would copy material by hand and then smuggle it out of the office in his shoes or his clothing.

After many years, he had accumulated six trunkloads of material, hidden under the floor of his dacha (villa).

But there will be far more about Sutch in the KGB files.

Bennetts argues that Sutch could well have provided valuable material to his masters.

While head of the Department of Industries and Commerce (1958-65) "he would have known secret details of New Zealand's trade deals and would have known bottom-line figures for significant export deals such as butter".

"But it's more likely they prized him as an agent of influence. He had contacts in the highest echelons of government. He could actually influence policy."

Even though he had been out of government for nine years when he was arrested, "he still knew half the people in the Cabinet".

Bennetts says it is too simple to think of Sutch as a mere cynic who sold out his country. "Sutch was a deep and complex man who would never have dreamed of being a traitor to New Zealand."

He was, rather, "a paradoxical patriot".

The Dominion Post