Espionage story, family story, incredible story — that’s the essence of Victor and Frances Metianen’s journey from the cricket-club social scene of suburban Sydney in the 1930s to the dark world of what they believed in their fervent innocence to be Stalin’s workers’ paradise.
When “Sally” met “John” she was wearing a green headscarf and her shoes, European size 36, were new. Carefully positioned, “on the left hand side of the bosom”, was a white brooch. The place was Eighth Avenue, New York, in late August 1943. The first words they exchanged were passwords, crafted for them in Moscow. She was an illegal, a spy about to begin living in New York as an American citizen. He was her contact with the Soviet Naval GRU, or military intelligence, based in Washington. Since the previous December coded cables, planning her voyage from Moscow to Vladivostok, then to San Francisco and onwards to the “Big Town”, had been volleying back and forth between Washington and Moscow. The American-based operatives asked her shoe size so that she could be outfitted with suitable local footwear. In the cables, tantalising parts of which were decoded in the Venona project, she was called the Australian Woman and Sally.
Behind the two cover names the Venona investigators found an Australian-born Soviet woman. Her real name, they suggested, was Francia Yakil’nilna Mitynen—“exact spelling not verified”. FBI information claimed she had been known as Edna Margaret Patterson and had remained in America until she disappeared in 1956. In the cables there is no indication of what her operational objectives had been. Until the highly secret Venona transcripts were made public, few outside the intelligence world had known that the Soviets operated a Naval GRU. At that point the story generally comes to a stop. Suggesting an unsuccessful search by ASIO, a security file, now in the National Archives of Australia, has the Venona spelling of her name on the cover, but she is not mentioned in the few pages it holds.
The reason for the lack of progress in the Australian search may simply be in the confusion of the spellings of her family name. It is highly likely the Australian Woman was Frances Metianen, born at 85½ Morehead Street, in the Sydney suburb of Redfern on January 31, 1914.
Frances was the second daughter of James and Julie (as they were known in Australia) Metianen, an émigré Russian family who arrived in Australia before the revolution, and returned to the Soviet Union in the 1930s, straight into Stalin’s mincing machine.
Interesting as it is, the Venona spy story is a part of an extraordinary family story.
Metianen’s parents had arrived in Sydney on a Japanese liner from Nagasaki with their two-year-old-son Victor in May 1912. Her elder sister Leonore (Lena) was born the following year, though there does not appear to be an Australian birth certificate, and was followed by Frances in 1914. At the time of her birth, James claimed to have been born in St Petersburg in 1886 and married in Siberia in 1906. In the years they lived in Australia none of the family appears to have taken out Australian citizenship. When they left the country in the 1930s they probably travelled on laissez-passers without the return visas which may have offered some slight protection against the Stalin purges, or not.
James was employed as a fitter in the Eveleigh railway workshops. Perhaps there had been a political motive for leaving Russia, for after the 1917 revolution and coup he actively supported the Bolshevik dictatorship. On a Sunday in 1919, amidst the public speakers in Sydney’s Domain, he was arrested for selling an illegal communist newspaper, the Brisbane-published Knowledge and Unity. He was sentenced to a fine of five pounds, or one month imprisonment. Presumably he paid the fine.