The Petrov Affair (1987)

Director: Michael Carson
Starring: Alex Menglet, Eva Sitta, Swawomir Wabik, Simon Chilvers
Composer: Paul Grabowsky
Musical Producer: Red Symons
Writers: Cliff Green, Mac Gudgeon

The Petrov Affair is a strange bird indeed. The titles are presented over a series of watercolour images, giving it a classic feel, rather than an action feel. It seems to have allusions of being a BBC drama. But despite this genteel approach and some pedestrian pacing, The Petrov Affair is a very Australian series in (possibly) the worst sense of the word.

This mini-series opens at Mascot Airport in Sydney. Three MVD (Ministerstvo Vnutrennikh Del) agents are escorting Edvokia Petrov to a plane that will take her back to the USSR. Surrounded by a horde of reporters, with flash bulbs going off, she is clearly distressed. Before we can make sense of this, we flash forward to a Royal Commission. An A.S.I.O. (Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation) Officer makes the following statement:

“…in 1951 we were studying Soviet personnel with a view to penetrating the embassy and identifying members of the embassy staff who were engaged in intelligence gathering and potential espionage…The activities of the Petrov’s suggested they may be KGB officers.”

And before we can make any sense of the Commission the series flashes back to an even earlier time. It’s now 1951, and we are at the Russian Social Club in Sydney.

I’ll pull apart these opening two minutes to illustrate how sloppily put together this series is. All these flash-forwards and flashbacks are extremely confusing and are only there to make the opening of this series seem more interesting than it is. Believe me – this series is a slow starter. And unless you are familiar with the events being depicted, there is no way you can follow the story. In my description above, I have been very generous in background detail to help unravel the plot. To the uninitiated the series could play as an unknown woman is shuffled through a crowd of reporters at Sydney Airport. Where is she going and why is she upset? Next the Royal Commission. Timewise, we (the viewers) aren’t even told that this is a flash-forward. It could be a flashback or simply the next day. And they don’t even have the courtesy to tell us that this is a Royal Commission investigation. And finally, we flashback to the Russian Social Club. Again, we are not told where we are and in what context. (On initial viewing I thought it was the Russian Embassy in Canberra). Granted, that these events will make more sense as the story progresses, but when you are telling a story, based on ‘true events’, surely establishing time and place is a key element in the film-makers / story-tellers tool-kit.

Back to the synopsis. At the Russian Social Club in Sydney, the Oktoker Revolution is being celebrated. Pictures of Stalin line the walls; vodka is flowing, and everybody is having a good time. Among the revellers are diplomats Vladimir Petrov (Alex Menglet) and his wife Evdokia (Eva Sitta). Vladimir holds many positions at the Russian Embassy. He is the third secretary of the Embassy, a cultural attaché and it is rumoured that he is the head of the KGB. Despite his position, Petrov is not portrayed as a hard line communist. During the evening, as the Soviet Anthem is being sung, his dog attacks the Soviet flag. Not everyone is amused, but Petrov is falling over in fits of hysterical laughter.

During the evening Vladimir meets Michael Bialoguski (Swawomir Wabik). Bialoguski is a doctor, and also a violinist with the Sydney Orchestra. In general, he is a well respected gentleman in Sydney society – the perfect target for Vladimir to recruit as an agent.

In the following weeks, the two men are spending quality time getting drunk and visiting Sydney’s seedy strip clubs. I’ll digress here to explain a bit of Australian culture, particularly in the 50’s and 60’s. Despite Oz’s reputation as a nation of booze swilling yobs (thank you Barry McKenzie), until the 1970’s all the pubs and clubs had a 6:00pm curfew on selling alcohol. This curfew gave rise to what was called THE SIX O’CLOCK SWILL. Which is probably as debauched as it sounds. Basically all the workers would finish their shifts at 5:00pm and flood to the nearest pub and in the hour till 6:00pm they would drink as much as humanly possible. You will notice, that bars in Australia are quite long. This is so as many patrons can be served, as quickly as possible. A few of the older hotels (that haven’t been renovated and turned into delicatessens) still have tiles half way up the walls from where the publican has to ‘hose’ out the pub after closing.

I have explained all that, because Australia was basically dry after 6:00pm (except for take-away alcohol purchased before 6:00pm). And that is how Petrov would ingratiate himself on the people around him (or recruit agents). Wherever he was, in a club or restaurant, he would have a case of whiskey under his table. He would give away bottles to his friends and colleagues, in essence buying a lot of goodwill. Maybe in other countries with freer licensing laws, Petrov’s impact may have been lessened. But in Australia, he was a provider – what we’d call a ‘top bloke’. At the Russian Club in Sydney, people would mill around him and he’d be the centre of attention and activity.

It is very difficult to review this series withount giving away all the key events, so at the risk of seeming vague, I’ll try to discreetly outline events. The key to the rest of the events that follow, is Joseph Stalin’s death in March 1953. In the aftermath, Vladimir and Edvokia Petrov are recalled back to Russia. But Vladimir believes that if he returns to the Soviet Union he will be killed.

Through Vladimir’s drinking companion, Bialoguski, who had been working for ASIO all along, Petrov arranges to defect to Australia. A part of the deal includes, Vladimir supplying information about Soviet espionage activity in Australia. But as Vladimir makes plans to defect, he does not make plans for Evdokia. Seizing the opportunity, the MVD send two couriers to Australia to transport her back to mother Russia.

I have mentioned alcohol in almost every paragraph in this review. That in it self says a lot about this miniseries. Is it a spy drama, or a study in alcoholism with espionage overtones? Your guess is as good as mine. At the risk of being flippant, the amount of booze that is consumed in the first forty minutes of The Petrov Affair, you could be forgiven for thinking that you had stumbled upon a politicised version of The Adventures Of Barry McKenzie – hang on, that’s been done – Les Patterson Saves The World. Back to the synopsis and the series.

Is The Petrov Affair at least accurate? It’s hard to say. This series was made thirty years after the events portrayed, and the ‘print the legend’ ethos may have been applied to this production. The Petrov Affair has evolved into a bit of a ‘conspiracy theory’ in Australia and as such, there are many points of view, not all of them accurate. I preparing for this review, I thought it only fair to glean a bit more background information. There are quite a few books out there (whether you can find them is another matter). The Petrov’s themselves had a book written (well, ghost written by one of their ASIO minders: Empire of Fear) outlining their point of view, and Bialoguski has written a book revealing his side of the story . The only book I could find was Nest Of Traitors: The Petrov Affair, (1974, The Jacaranda Press) by Nicholas Whitlam and John Stubbs. It is in no way connected with this mini-series, and is a highly entertaining read. It suggests that Australian Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, may have used the incident to bolster his ‘governments dwindling popularity’ before the 1954 federal election. Menzies was the leader of the Liberal Party (in Australia, the Liberals are the conservative party) and he was not expected to win. It may be true that Menzies manipulated events to his advantage (far be it from me to speculate). But unfortunately one the writers of the book happen to be Nicolas Whitlam, the son of Gough Whitlam, who at the time of this book’s publication was the incumbent Prime Minister. In fact Whitlam was the first Labour Party Prime Minister, Australia had had, since the The Petrov Affair. The co-author is John Stubbs, a former journalist, turned press-secretary for the minister of labour and immigration. So both writers are linked with the Labour party and present a ‘leftist’ view of events.

At the end of the day, The Petrov Affair is an interesting piece of Australian history. Unfortunately the mini-series about it is rather flat and lacks cohesion. The filmmakers have tried to be too fancy with their telling – too many points of view – a simple linear telling of the tale, with tighter editing at the beginning, and a few titles telling us where and when events are happening would have improved this production immensely. (I make it sound simple, don’t I?)

This review is based on the Umbrella Entertainment Australia DVD

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