In Stephen Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies (2015) the character of Rudolf Abel – birth name William Fisher – played by Mark Rylance with a Scottish accent, might have been more accurately depicted with a Geordie lilt. Fisher was in fact born in Benwell, Newcastle in 1903 and later served in a traditional north eastern industry – not in the mines (which would have made the pun in the title more fitting), but in Wallsend, at the Swan Hunter shipyard, as an apprentice draughtsman. In fact, Fisher’s true accent is shrouded in mystery, and none of his New York contemporaries reported that he had a Geordie accent – but it is not clear if any would have recognised it even if he had. Accent or no accent, how did a Geordie lad end up being exchanged for the US spy plane operative, Gary Powers, shot down in May 1960? Why was he so celebrated in the Soviet Union that 19 years after his death in 1971 the USSR issued a commemorative stamp bearing his image?
Part of the answer lies in the simple fact that Fisher was the son of German-born Russian revolutionaries of the Tsarist era, Heinrich and Lubyov, who escaped the long arm of the Okhrana and the threat of being sent back to Germany, by moving to England and settling in Newcastle in 1901. Fisher’s father had taught at St Petersburg Technichal institute where he had agitated alongside Vladimir Lenin himself. He found work as an engineer at Armstrong Whiteworth and Co. Ltd., builder of armaments, ships, locomotives and aircraft, based in Elswick.
Vin Arthey, author of Abel: The True Story of the Spy They Traded for Gary Powers, believes the years Fisher himself spent in the North East would have helped shape his own political views: “The north-east of England at the beginning of the 20th Century was textbook territory for Marxism: heavy industry, the wealth concentrated in few hands, the working class living in pretty grim conditions.” It seems more likely that his views were inherited from his father, even if Newcastle provided plenty of contemporary examples to reinforce the message. During WWI he helped his father distribute ‘Hands off Russia!’ literature around Newcastle.
And it was from his father, that Fisher (shown on the top left in this family portrait) inherited an interest in amateur radio, constructing rudimentary spark transmitters and receivers as a schoolboy at Monkseaton High School (his brother attended Whitley Bay) where he also demonstrated flair in sciences. languages and music. His political convictions, together with his youthful fascination with radio, helps explain his later career in one of the Red army’s radio battalion’s in the mid-1920s after he and his family returned to a very different Russia in 1921, after both the Revolution and the Civil War had settled matters in favour of Lenin’s regime. Fisher’s fluency in English, German, Russian, Polish and Yiddish, made him useful to the Comintern as a translator and in the 1930s he began to work for the Russian Intelligence service OGPU.
Fisher’s radio work took him to Norway, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and France where he trained others, including the British born spy Kitty Harris, who played a critical role in the leakage of confidential information from the Manhattan project in the 1940s. However, no career was guaranteed in Stalin’s Russia and his foreign birth brought him under suspicion during the purges of the mid 1930s. In 1938 he was dismissed from the NKVD (formerly the OGPU) but survived with his life intact.
During WWII Fischer was once again employed in radio work, this time training radio operators for clandestine operations behind German lines. In 1944 he took part in Operation Scherhorn whose objective was to fool the Nazis into believing there existed a German armed group behind Soviet front lines and thereby to deplete Nazi intelligence resources by the capture of operatives sent to assist these non-existent groups. Despite Germany’s own use of such tactics against the British (with considerably less success), and known to them as a ‘funkspiel’ or ‘radio play’, the German response developed exactly as predicted by the Russians, with German commandos sent by the Nazis routinely arrested and themselves forced to take part in the deception. Described by the Russians as ‘the most successful radio deception game of the war’, German command maintained radio contact with the fictional “Group Scherhorn” right up until May 1945.
After the war, Fisher was rewarded for his part in the funkspiel with a posting to the United States – considered the most prestigious posting in the field. Identity theft these days makes us think of online security and credit fraud by the dark forces of the criminal underworld. In the Cold War, identity theft was state-sponsored (so no change there then) and used as a means of secreting agents across borders undetected. The Soviets had a habit of ‘hanging on’ to identity documents whenever they allowed visitors from the west into the Soviet block. The original identity stolen by the Soviet authorities and given to Fisher was that of a Lithuanian born American citizen whose papers were retained by the authorities during a visit to his family in Vilnius during which he died. Fisher ‘became’ Andrew Kayotis for the purpose of entering the US, and then, once inside, changed his identity for a second time, this time adopting the name of Emil Robert Goldfus, the son of an American fighter on the side of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, who had died at 14 months, and whose identity papers, including birth certificate, had been obtained from his father at the end of that conflict by the NKVD. Once in New York, Fisher took the name Godolfus, posed as a painter and a photographer, whilst working on behalf of the KGB to re-activate the volunteer network to transmit atomic secrets to Russia.
The hollowed-out nickel that appears at the beginning of Bridge of Spies was an actual device used by soviet agents to pass on information to contacts and was in fact indirectly related to Fisher’s eventual capture. Just such a nickel had been in the possession of Fisher’s assistant, the drunk and incompetent Reno Häyhänen who had, in an inebriated state, allowed the coin (complete with a ciphered message) to enter into general circulation. It was discovered by a paper-boy who dropped the nickel, causing it to break apart and spill its tiny contents. These were turned over to the police and then to the FBI who, perhaps lacking the equivalent of a Turing machine, spent four months trying to decipher the codes to no avail. It became significant to Fisher’s story when Häyhänen himself attempted to defect to the West rather than return to Moscow where he was promised a promotion that he knew meant death or the gulags (much the same thing). Only when Häyhänen proved his credentials by deciphering the code in the nickel were his claims to being a Soviet spy believed. Asked to give up other members of the spy network, Häyhänen (shown on the right) identified Fisher whom he knew by his code name MARK and later confirmed his identity from an FBI photograph of a man fitting the description given by Häyhänen taken by a secret camera nearby to Fisher’s Brooklyn residence. Fisher was tracked down and arrested at the Latham Hotel in Manhattan.
It was only after his arrest in 1957 that Fisher adopted what was at least his third but certainly his final decoy name, telling the authorities that his “real” identity was that of Rudolf Ivanovich Abel, the name of a deceased friend and colonel in the KGB. Why did he do this? Despite the fact that the FBI had found espionage equipment (including shortwave radios, cipher pads, cameras and film for producing microdots, a hollow shaving brush, and numerous “trick” containers including hollowed-out bolts, a hollow ebony block containing a 250-page Russian codebook, a hollow pencil containing encrypted messages on microfilm and a key to a safe-deposit box containing fifteen thousand dollars in cash), they never succeeded in finding any members of his ‘network’. This may have been due to Fisher’s wall of silence under questioning; or it may simply have been the case that no such network was ever developed and that the results of Fisher’s work in America for the last nine years had been the square route of zero. In any case, Fisher knew that if he co-operated with the American authorities he would never see his wife and daughter living in Moscow, again. Unike Häyhänen, Fisher had something to live for behind the Iron Curtain and he knew that as soon as KGB Centre saw the name Abel on the front pages of American newspapers they would realize he had been captured but had not given away his true identity and, therefore, had neither defected nor given up secrets.
The insurance lawyer James B Donovan played in the film by Tom Hanks, who agreed to act as Fisher’s defence attorney after many others had refused, did not succeed in having Fisher acquitted but did persuade the judge that his sentence should be custodial rather than terminal. Donovan then took an appeal to the Supreme Court arguing that the evidence used against Fisher was inadmissible, and was only defeated by a narrow 5-4 majority verdict. The Chief Justice, Earl Warren, praised Donovan for his efforts which are rightly celebrated in the film. Had it not been for Gary Powers’ apparent failure in the line of duty (merely to destroy his plane and himself after being shot down on May 1st, 1960) that would have been that, and Fisher would probably have spent the next 45 years of his life behind bars in America. However, four years after Fisher’s arrest, on 10th February 1962, Donovan successfully negotiated the swap of Fisher for Gary Powers, and for the American economist Frederic Pryor who had found himself on the wrong side of the wall when it went up on 13th August 1961. Pryor was released at Checkpoint Charlie on the same day as the main handover at Glienecke Bridge, which connects the Wannsee district of Berlin with the Brandenburg capital, Potsdam, over the Havel river, which marked the border between East and West. (This was the first of several such swaps that took place on the bridge between 1962 and 1968, thereby acquiring the nickname used as the title of Spielberg’s film.)
Fisher returned to Moscow to a hero’s welcome, and was awarded the Order of Lenin in 1966, whilst Powers was received in America somewhat frostily at first. He was soon exonerated of wrong doing, but Powers’ own efforts to hold out for almost two years under harsh interrogation at Lubyanka Prison in Moscow was only recognised posthumously, when on 15 June 2012 he was awarded the Silver Star medal for “demonstrating ‘exceptional loyalty'”, an award received by his children at a ceremony at the Pentagon. Reno Häyhänen, the man who betrayed Fisher perhaps also received his just deserts. He would die in ‘mysterious circumstances’ in an automobile accident at the Pennsylvania Turnpike in 1961.
In the film, Fisher is portrayed as principled believer in the communist cause, but I think he deserves recognition for different reasons. Back in the USSR, re-united with his family, Fisher was perhaps the only one to truly ‘beat the system’ and he did so against three different ideological and bureaucratic regimes. Having survived the Soviet purges in the 1930s, having outwitted the Nazis in the 1940s and having escaped the electric chair in the United States in the 1950s, he was allowed to live the rest of his life in peace, giving lectures about his experiences as a Spy in the Soviet Union. He was never held to account by the unforgiving Soviet authorities for his failure to achieve anything of significance during his nine years as an illegal resident in the United States. Instead, it suited the purposes of the KGB to build the myth of the ‘spy who never broke’ and it was only in 1971, when Fisher died of lung cancer that foreign journalists were invited to his funeral to confirm his real identity. If nothing else, our very own Geordie spy was a survivor.