He was a Canadian consultant working on a humanitarian project to build homes for demobilized Russian soldiers in the ruins of the former Soviet Union.
She was his translator and girlfriend, and later his wife. Two decades later, the federal government is calling her something else: a spy.
A Federal Court justice in Ottawa will hear arguments Wednesday in the extraordinary case of David and Elena Crenna.
She has been deemed inadmissible to Canada by an immigration adjudicator who sided with a border agency assessment that concluded she helped the Russian security service spy on the housing project in the mid-1990s.
“I can only laugh. I should think the Canadian government should have better things to do,” Elena Crenna said in a Skype interview Tuesday from Russia. “They have nothing else on their plate than chasing me?”
A make-work project for ex-soldiers
The story began in 1994 when David Crenna, a Canadian citizen, ex-civil servant and policy adviser to former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, worked on a demonstration housing program in Tver, a city located 182 kilometres northwest of Moscow.
Former Russian soldiers were taught to build wooden frame houses under a program, funded by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation and the World Bank, which aimed to give them skills to compete in the emerging market economy.
While doing translation and marketing for the course, Elena said, she was approached by an agent of SVR (formerly known as the KGB and later the FSB) who wanted to know what the Canadians were doing.
With David’s blessing, she said, she cooperated and answered the agent’s questions.
David Crenna said he and Elena were obliged to be transparent with Russian authorities to avoid being shut down by the Russian government.
“Not to have agreed to it would have led to a situation where we were not trusted by the whole of government apparatus, potentially, and [we] would not have been able to do the project the Canadian government had asked,” he said, adding that the Russian ambassador to Canada at the time had told the consultants to liaise with the SVR.
Elena said she never passed along secret information about the Tver project and did not covertly gather intelligence.
The project’s model home was completed and opened in 1996 by the Russian housing minister of the day. David Crenna returned to Canada, while Elena remained in Russia. She eventually became a U.S. citizen after marrying an American and moving to California.
The two did not reunite until the early 2000s. Around that time, a FSB defector wrote a tell-all book that alleged a Canadian disarmament program in the 1990s had been penetrated by Russian intelligence. Without naming Crenna and his former girlfriend, Sergei Tretyakov claimed Russian intelligence had set a “honey trap” to collect information about the humanitarian housing project.
(In intelligence circles, a honey trap is an operation that uses sex or romantic entanglements to trick or blackmail targets into giving up information.)
The allegations were false, said David, who was interviewed by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service about the matter. He said the spy agency had no concerns.
It was only after he married Elena and she applied to stay in Canada that the Canada Border Services Agency took an interest in them. She was interviewed by both CSIS and the FBI and they expressed no concerns, the Crennas said.
‘A specialist in disinformation’
Immigration officials approved her application to stay in 2018 following a hearing, but the federal government appealed the decision.
Last June, the Immigration and Refugee Board’s appeal section ruled Elena had “engaged in acts of espionage contrary to Canada’s interests.” It ordered her deported.
The adjudicator wrote that Elena’s actions may have seemed straightforward and harmless in the context of the time, but the immigration system must protect Canada’s fundamental values.
The Crennas said they were flabbergasted.
“They latched on to [Tretyakov’s] book, which we told them about to repeat its false allegations,” said David Crenna.
“This colonel in the KGB [the forerunner of the FSB] was a specialist in disinformation and it seems highly ironic that a Canadian security service would place more credence in what he would say than what the FBI, CSIS, etcetera would say about us and about her.”
Tretyakov died unexpectedly in Florida in 2010.
The federal government, in court filings last month, argued it didn’t matter what kind of information Elena passed along — that her actions still amounted to espionage.
“The nature of the information is not relevant” when it comes to espionage,” the submission said, adding the intelligence was “intended to be used in one way or another by the Russian state.”
Elena quietly left Canada in late December to visit friends in the U.S. She is now in Russia, but will return to the U.S. to await the court decision.
“I’m honestly still perplexed by the position they took,” said David.