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My Mother, the Spy

The daring and tragic double life of ASIO agent Mercia Masson



Cindy Dobbin and Freda Marnie Nicholls

Allen & Unwin, 2023

Paperback     320pp     RRP: $34.99


Reviewer: Neville Taylor, September 2023


This is a fascinatingly sad story told by a daughter who was virtually estranged from her mother, and, in her passing, was not really able to obtain a very satisfying picture of the extent of her activities as an ASIO agent.

Mercia Masson possessed both talent and personality that enabled her to seamlessly fit into the upper echelons of society and politics, making her ripe for recruitment by ASIO. She had well-meaning advice from ‘both sides of the fence’ in order to not reveal her involvement as she was regarded as a valuable to both ASIO and the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). There were numerous changes in her employment engineered to make her accesses attractive to the CPA. The constant weekly business shuttling between Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra was quite amazing for the 1950s and 60s – and it is obvious that she was in no position to be a constant and loving parent to her daughter Cindy.

The key players mentioned in ASIO, and the CPA are not very numerous. Betty Vassilieff, one of her Warrandyte neighbours, wished to attend the 1952 Peking Peace Conference, but had had her Australian passport cancelled and sought Mercia’s assistance. [Betty was married to Russian-born artist Danila Vassilieff, who two years later appeared as my Art class teacher in a Victorian country high school.]

As the 50s progressed, Communist activities in Australia continued to grow. On Christmas Eve 1953 Russian Third Secretary Vladimir Petrov had a serious car accident, and considered he was shown little sympathy and extremely poorly treated by his colleagues and the newly-arrived Russian Ambassador. In an effort to counter a likely information leak from the Attorney General’s Department, ASIO was eager to recruit someone from inside the Russian Embassy. Mercia’s colleagues were instrumental in achieving the official defection of the disillusioned Petrov in April 1954. ASIO’s restraining of Mrs Petrov’s subsequent boarding of an aircraft in Darwin became world headlines.

Despite a plea from Colonel Spry, Head of ASIO, Mercia was called in February 1955 to give evidence at a Royal Commission investigating Soviet espionage in Australia. She broke down on several occasions while giving evidence, knowing that her life as an ASIO agent would be exposed and she would have no hope of living a normal life in future. Consequently she turned to alcohol as her solace despite returning to country journalism with the ABC. Mercia suffered from stomach cancer and passed away in 1975. The holiday home that played such a part in her life sits on Masson Lane, Killcare

In 2011 Cindy Dobbin, Mercia’s daughter, was given two day’s access to the ASIO files, with no opportunity to copy or record any of the heavily redacted information. She came away knowing very little more about the life of her mother as a spy.



The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.

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