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Former KGB spy's past threatens his life as a Canadian

Mikhail Lennikov is on the brink of deportation to Russia over a Canadian law barring residency to onetime employees of antidemocratic spy agencies. Canadians have rallied to his defense.

July 12, 2009|Kim Murphy

VANCOUVER, CANADA — For the last 12 years, Mikhail and Irina Lennikov have lived unremarkable lives, not unlike countless other immigrants who came to Canada from Eastern Europe looking for a fresh start in a prosperous and quiet land.

He found a job as a software developer. She got hired in an insurance office. Their son, Dmitri, who barely remembers Russia, graduated last month from Byrne Creek Secondary School in the comfortable suburb of Burnaby.

The difference is that Mikhail Lennikov's employer in the Soviet Union was the KGB.

Citing a law that denies permanent residency to employees of agencies that engage in espionage or subversion against democratic governments, a Canadian judge last month ordered Lennikov deported to Russia.

The legal decision has touched a nerve in British Columbia, where the former KGB agent's friends and neighbors, along with thousands of other Canadian citizens and 36 members of Parliament, have rallied to his defense -- holding marches, parades and petition drives.

So has his church, which has allowed the soft-spoken, graying Asian studies expert to take sanctuary within its walls on an east Vancouver side street, in defiance of the government's attempts to put him on a plane back to his hometown of Vladivostok in Russia's far east.

"From our perspective, he's one of us. He's part of this congregation. And when we said we were going to support him, we didn't just mean with e-mails and phone calls and faxes. We weren't going to let this happen without doing everything we can," said Richard Hergesheimer, pastor at First Lutheran Church, which Lennikov has called home since June 2.

Unlike law enforcement authorities in the United States, Canadian officials have honored churches' exercise of the age-old tradition of sanctuary to those fleeing what religious leaders see as unjust laws.

But the Canadian Border Services Agency has refused to rule out going after Lennikov, prompting everyone at the church -- whether its music leader or its Sunday school teachers -- to adopt an anxious regimen of heightened security. Doors are locked; visitors who ring the bell are quizzed before being admitted.

"We have not entered into a church to arrest someone in the past, but there is no law preventing us from doing so," said Faith St. John, spokeswoman for the border agency.

No one has suggested that Lennikov, 48, engaged in acts of violence or intimidation when he held the rank of captain in the KGB for six years in the 1980s.

Lennikov has said he was not given much choice when recruited to work for the agency after his graduation in Japanese studies from the Far Eastern National University in Vladivostok, and he left the KGB's employ as soon as he could.

Fluent in Japanese, Lennikov spent his years with the Soviet Union's much-feared security and intelligence agency monitoring Japanese businesses and translating documents. He said he never felt comfortable with what he saw as the organization's antidemocratic culture.

"Many of them didn't value other people's lives," Lennikov said of his former colleagues, as he sat on a small chair behind the church's pulpit.

"They were obsessed just with their advances in career, and you know, the whole morality of the organization, believing that they're kind of gods, deciding other people's lives.

"For myself, I was swept away by [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev's new policy, openness and honesty, and just was not careful enough in expressing my views at one of the officers' meetings, and it turned out to be that I angered some people. I just sensed it, that something bad was going on behind my back," he said.

His friends in the agency let him know that his resignation in 1988 was seen as the act of a traitor. As soon as he could, Lennikov left Russia, first to work in Japan and then in 1997 to enter graduate school at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

His wife and son moved to Canada with him. Lennikov had not revealed his employment history on his student visa application, but listed "Committee for State Security" on his permanent residency application in 1999.

Canadian authorities appeared not to notice its significance until he underwent a personal interview in March 2000, when he explained that the agency was known in the West as the KGB.

That triggered an automatic denial. Lennikov appealed, arguing that -- as a result of his meetings with Canadian security services, during which he gave them full details about his employment with the KGB -- he would be in danger of arrest for treason should he return to Russia.

In a final ruling June 1 from which no further appeal except a humanitarian exemption is possible, Federal Court Judge Russel W. Zinn cited the findings of an assessment officer, who acknowledged that other former agents who left the KGB and its successor agencies had faced reprisals, including arrest.

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