Thursday, 26 November 2015

Tyne Bridge of Spies: The KGB Agent from Benwell

Glienicke Bridge, Berlin, adapted for Bridge of Spies
Photo by Biberbaer
At the culmination of Tom Hanks' espionage thriller, "Bridge of Spies", there is a tense exchange of intelligence officers over Glienicke Bridge between East and West Berlin. For KGB Colonel Rudolf Abel it is a return home - except that he was actually born in the shadows of bridges far removed from the battlefields of the Cold War! Abel was in fact born William Fisher, in Benwell, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

His father was a revolutionary exile from Tsarist Russia at the start of the 20th century, caught spreading Marxism in the company of Lenin himself, in St. Petersburg. A German by birth, Heinrich Fischer faced deportation back to his native country and either conscription or imprisonment. However, he was a skilled engineer and easily found work in the booming industrial North-East of England.

Not that Heinrich left his revolutionary ideals behind, and preached to British socialist groups in the area. He was even murkily involved in a plot to ship arms from Newcastle to rebels in Russia, but escaped conviction after his links to the group couldn't be established clearly enough. After exoneration, Fisher and his young family - Henry, born in 1902 and William, born in 1903 - moved to Whitley Bay, where the sons were enrolled at Whitley Bay & Monkseaton High School in 1914.

The Fisher family in 1917,
William at rear on left.
From The Kremlin's Geordie Spy,
Dr. Vin Arthey
The First World War broke out across Europe at the same time, and for Russia concluded bloodily in the October Revolution of 1917. Finally, the Russian Marxists had seized power in the motherland, and in time the Fishers would return to what had now been proclaimed the Soviet Union. In the meantime, young William left school at fifteen and became an apprentice draughtsmen at Swan's Hunter Yard in Wallsend, builders of many famous naval vessels.

However, as post-war depression seized England and William's father Heinrich found it harder to keep working, he began considering a relocation to Lenin's Russia. His sons, nearing eighteen, seemed destined for university places he could never afford, and the possibility of revolution in England seemed less likely every day. By 1921, the Fishers were on their way to Moscow, now the capital of the Soviet Union, and William Fisher left behind his home in the North-East and Newcastle, for good.

The young William's life developed quickly in the new Russia. Tragedy struck first, when his brother Henry drowned late in the summer of 1921. The family fractured irreparably from this accident, and it formed in the developing William a quiet reticence that would mark him for the rest of his life.
His past is somewhat difficult to decipher, as befits an intelligence officer. It is stated that, like many young men in Russia, he was part of the Komsomol, the Red Army as a radio operator, and then the OGPU, the Russian state security organisation - which, after many years and changes of name, would become the dreaded KGB.

Academic and writer Dr. Vin Arthey, whose book The Kremlin's Geordie Spy inspired this article, includes an anecdote related to him by Fisher's daughter Evelyn about William's recruitment into the OGPU;
"In this document you say that you're German. Here you say you're Russian. Here British. What are you?"
Fisher replied, "I don't know what I am according to your rules. I'll be whatever you say I am."
"You're Russian."
Indeed, by 1929 William had a wife, Yelena, and a daughter, as well as a brand new name for his Russian life - Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher. He would begin to move about Western Europe, working within established communities of Soviet spies, often as their radio operator. Returning to Moscow in 1934, the OGPU became the NKVD and Fisher found himself training the next generation of spies in radio work - including the infamous Kitty Harris, lover and KGB contact for Donald Maclean of the "Cambridge Five".

Fisher narrowly dodged Stalin's purges from 1938, receiving only a dismissal instead of a bullet, but was reactivated for duty with the intelligence service in 1941 as Soviet Russia reeled from Nazi Germany's lightning invasion, with a dearth of skilled intelligence operatives after the Purge.
After the major battles of Stalingrad and Kursk turned the tide in favour of the Soviets, Fisher was involved in several successful operations, including the astounding Operation Berezino.

Certainly, Fisher emerged from the war unscathed and awarded the prestigious Order of the Red Banner. Powerful individuals high in Soviet state security took more notice of Fisher, and he received the most prestigious assignment for a Russian spy - North America.
From 1948, Fisher was to resurrect the 'Volunteer' network, which had smuggled atomic secrets out of Los Alamos during the war. Within the space of a year from Fisher's arrival, the Soviet Union detonated their own atomic bomb, a near-replica of the American design. Conversely, he dodged the fallout from the arrest and execution of the Rosenbergs in 1951, who confessed nothing and left the network more or less concealed.

It would be the enemy within that would ultimately bring down Fisher, however. An assistant was assigned by Moscow, Reino Häyhänen, who posed as a Finnish-American and joined Fisher in 1954. However, Häyhänen had none of the drive and self-control required by an intelligence operative, and was an abrasive drunk. The first message he received upon being assigned to Fisher's New York based network was concealed in a fake nickel, which he subsequently lost. It was discovered, a year later, when a paperboy dropped some change and the nickel cracked open.

Colonel Rudolf Abel, aka William
Fisher, arrested in 1957.
From History vs. Hollywood
The FBI analysed the encrypted message within, but luckily for Fisher were not successful. Less successfully, Häyhänen was finally recalled by Moscow in 1957, only to defect when he arrived in Paris. Returned to New York by the CIA, he provided the American security services with a description of his superior, known to him as "Mark", and on 21st June 1957 FBI and Immigration agents arrested William Fisher, identified as 'Martin Collins' according to one set of documents, in his Brooklyn safe house.

Fisher, under interrogation, claimed his identity as Colonel Rudolf Abel, a very close friend; Fisher's motives for this new disguise were seen as a way of communicating his situation to his superiors in the KGB, without actually admitting to his real birth name of William Fisher. Sadly, Fisher had no idea the real Abel had passed away not long after Fisher's final mission to the US had begun.
This total unwillingness to supply any information to the Americans - even when offered reimbursement for defection - could have stymied the entire operation against him, leaving the US Government no legal place but to deport 'Abel' as an illegal alien and nothing more.

Nevertheless, with the alcoholic Häyhänenin the stand, testifying about Fisher's activities, there was sufficient grounds to bring charges of espionage against the United States. Going before a grand jury, the Bar Association had to appoint a lawyer for Abel's defence, as no-one would volunteer for the role.
They chose wisely it was seen, in the form of James B. Donovan, now an insurace lawyer but at one point had served as Assistant Prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials of 1946, and had also served as legal counsel to the Office of Strategic Services; he was eminently qualified to handle matters of espionage and law.

He was also an honorable man, determined to ensure his client received a fair trial under the requirements of the Constitution of the United States. Abel would be facing three charges
  • Conspiracy to transmit defense information to the Soviet Union
  • Conspiracy to obtain defense information
  • Conspiracy to act in the United States as an agent of a foreign government without notification to the Secretary of State
After only two days, the jury returned a verdict of guilty on all counts, for which he received concurrent life sentences of thirty, ten and five years imprisonment. For the 54-year-old Abel, this was a life sentence in all but name. That he evaded execution, unlike the Rosenbergs, was in part due to the near-prophetic urging of Donovan prior to sentencing;
"It is possible in the foreseeable future an American of equivalent rank will be captured by Soviet Russia or an ally; at such time an exchange of prisoners through diplomatic channels could be considered in the best interest of the United States."
It was only a few years later, in 1960, when US pilot Francis Gary Powers was flying the high-altitude U2 spy plane over Sverdlovsk in the Soviet Union, seemingly out of range of Russian air defences. A missile in fact successfully crippled his aircraft, forcing Powers to bail out - right into the waiting hands of the Soviet security services. He too was put on trial, and sentenced to imprisonment on 19th August 1960.

The ground was laid for an exchange however; the American press were calling for a swap of Abel and Powers, the CIA began making plans as soon as Powers was shot down, and Donovan had been receiving messages of thanks from 'Mrs. Abel' in Leipzig, which the US intelligence services believed to be a cover for the KGB to communicate directly with them.

It was indeed, and for the next two years delicate diplomacy between Donovan and an East Berlin lawyer called Wolfgang Vogel led to an exchange on the Glienicke Bridge that linked the West and the East - in many ways.
Donovan stood with Abel, and across the bridge stood Ivan Shishkin, a member of the Soviet embassy to East Germany, with Powers. The two men crossed, the Russian spy and the American pilot, joined their former colleagues, and were both whisked away for intense debriefing. After many months of careful, utterly secret negotiation, the exchange had concluded flawlessly.

Officials and guards await the prisoner exchange at Berlin's Glienicke Bridge (top).
Soviet officials arrive for the prisoner exchange in the Bridge of Spies movie.
From History vs. Hollywood
 Abel's career had concluded as well. No longer of use as a spy to the KGB, he had been 'burned' in the lingua of espionage, and was deployed more as a propaganda tool, lecturing high school students as the successful 'Colonel Abel' who had spied for nine years in the heart of America. His KGB superiors declared he would have to use the name Rudolf Abel to maintain this fiction - whilst privately acknowledging that Fisher had not discovered a single agent during his tenure in New York.

His health was deteriorating rapidly as well. He referred to his vice of smoking cigarettes as "coffin nails", a slang term he recalled from his childhood and teenage years on Tyneside, and by 1971 had been diagnosed with lung cancer. His final words to his daughter, Evelyn, came in English and were "Don't forget we're Germans". In his later, final and bitter years, it is accepted that Rudolf Abel, aka William Fisher, came to regret the career of a spy that estranged him from his family, his country, and even his name.

He died on 15th November, 1971, and his ashes were interned in Donskoi Cemetery in Moscow beneath a headstone inscribed with the name Rudolf Ivanovitch Abel. A year later, his widow Yelena successfully campaigned to have it changed to Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher, before passing away herself in 1974. Their daughter Evelyn died in 2007.

So concludes the odd story of a boy from Benwell, who ended up shaking the world from Washington to Moscow via Berlin in one of the greatest spy stories of the Cold War.
I am deeply indebted to Dr. Vin Arthey for writing The Kremlin's Geordie Spy and for answering the questions that helped form this article. I asked him if William Fisher had ever expressed a desire to return to his childhood home in the North-East. Vin replied that he had not, and even if he had, it would have been far too dangerous. Such, it seems, are the prices paid by spies.

The grave of Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher
Donskoi Cemetery
From Find A Grave

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Sir Terry Pratchett - Professional and Personal Grief

My plan had been to write about a recent project launch I helped with the media on, which has some painful bearing on this article.
It kept sliding as these things do - and then was utterly derailed by today's heartbreaking, if not surprising, news that acclaimed writer Sir Terry Pratchett has passed away.

Pratchett started work as a journalist, then became a press officer before his books exploded in popularity - and now, we learn that the beloved author has finally succumbed to the encroaching, indefatigable and unusual variant of Alzheimer's Disease that plagued him.

A lot of Sir Terry's books are on my shelves, and I can appreciate the similarities now that I am a trained journalist, who works as a press officer - for the National Health Service's research department specifically tasked with looking into dementia and Alzheimer's Disease.

Just a few months ago, I was floating the idea that we might approach Sir Terry for some patronage, but he was already involved with the massively successful Dementia Friends campaign. Professionally, I regretted not being able to net such an influential and passionate patron. The awkward gangly boy who still lurks in my memory regretted missing what could have been a golden opportunity to meet a hero.

Even so, I do have a copy of The Last Continent, when the awkward gangly boy gangled up awkwardly to a tired man still dutifully signing books, a long, long time ago. The memories of that encounter are hazy - ironically enough - but the goose pimples and awe I recall feeling have remained indelibly marked on my mind. Here was someone who had shared the most valuable and incomparable gift of all with us - an entire world!

So, I hope Sir Terry will forgive me today, when I used the work account to mourn his passing - and mention how people could help contribute to research into dementia conditions like his. I hope he will appreciate how we can in some way benefit from what has happened, and work towards - hopefully - preventing such things in the future.

That was what the professional press officer did with Twitter, anyway. The gangly, awkward boy read the last tweets sent from Sir Terry's account, and grieved and mourned. 

These two very unalike halves are nevertheless utterly appropriate for discussing the Discworld. It's where wizards and heroes, dragons and elves, vampires, werewolves and Corporal Nobby Nobbs - all fantastical and unreal creatures - nevertheless had a beautifully human, down-to-Disc side, that allowed Sir Terry to spear our world with such acidic, satirical brilliance. That's the side of all of us that grieves the most. 

Much can be said about your work living on after you, that no person is gone until their creations are forgotten as well - but at the heart of it, the creator of those magical words, the living human responsible for an impossibly huge amount of work has gone.
Each of us felt a connection, through this vast and shared fantastical universe, and probably none more so than Neil Gaiman, an equally brilliant creator who collaborated frequently with Sir Terry. The tweet from his wife, multi-talented performer Amanda Palmer, struck a very deep chord with me.

My heart goes out to every person today who needs to be held - because we've lost more than just an author. A world-maker, a brilliant and funny and kind and wise man who invented an entire world that so many of us lived and breathed in.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Dylan Sharpe's Ironic Justice

Like many opposed to The Sun's Page Three feature, I was part of the mad rush to dance on its' supposed grave on Wednesday. Then, when the tabloid pulled the rag out from under us all, I was smarting and bitter at their - non-existent - duplicity!
I was wrong, I'd committed a cardinal sin of journalism by making an assumption, a leap of faith without the evidence to back it up. Call it a valuable lesson, and hopefully all of the media commentators who made the same mistake will also come away wiser and more cynical.

What they didn't need is Dylan Sharpe's superior tweet to some of the most well-known journalists, as well as a sympathetic politician who sincerely hoped her campaign had made a difference.
Even Sharpe, in his apology - published on Buzzfeed oddly, not The Sun itself - acknowledges a pot-shot at Harriet Harman was unnecessary. "Guilty of gloating", he conceded.

In reality, he has done a fantastic job of Public Relations. Not only has The Sun pulled off one of the greatest bait-and-switch moves in journalism history, Sharpe has stoked the fires by taking to that great media battlefield and throwing oil on the inferno. There's no such thing as bad publicity!

I fully expect the entire operation has galvanized the legions of otherwise apathetic white van men, who feared for the loss of the morning totty, and whose brand loyalty can only improve with this swerve towards cancellation.
I expect the increased polarisation of discussion about Page Three online will keep The Sun riding high in press coverage and media discussion.
I believe that Sharpe's jibing swipe at his detractors eggs the argument on, creating a vortex of ardent conversation that this article itself is just one bubble of.

It all contributes to a major PR coup for Murdoch's flagship tabloid, back from the dead more than Vlad Dracula. What did interest me was Sharpe's closing wish...
So there it is. I continue to be told I’m a c*nt by people who know my name, my job and one tweet I sent. Guilty of gloating I most certainly am. Icarus has well and truly plummeted to earth. But I never meant to offend and I want to apologise to all those I @’ed in that tweet. It was supposed to be funny but clearly I misjudged that one. Now I see if Twitter can forgive as quickly as it can hate….
Really. A white male employee of a sexist British tabloid, asking for forgiveness from Twitter. If this isn't a delightfully ironic parallel to the entire concept of media self-regulation, of toothless press watchdogs forgiving one another their myriad sins, then I don't know what is.

I honestly can't tell if Sharpe is concealing another 'cheeky swipe' in his apology, fully acknowledging the hypocrisy of begging for mercy from Twitter for giving the MRAs and trolls exactly what they wanted. Compare his two days experience to what someone like Caroline Criado-Perez has endured for years, and try and accommodate how disingenuous it is.

Caroline's twitter feed included this retweet that I particularly like, and find very appropriate.
However, we must resist the urge to relish Sharpe's experience of mistreatment at the hands of Twitter. As tempting as it is for an evident supporter of patriarchy to suddenly be on the grim receiving end of that institution's crude online 'justice', we should not wish that punishment on anyone.

That punishment should not exist. Nobody, no-one at all should have to endure threats of harm, death, and violence online. We should condemn those who threaten Dylan Sharpe with all the fire and fervour we condemn those who threaten Criado-Perez, or Anita Sarkeesian, or Brianna Wu, or anyone else who has dared come out and state that women are treated as second-class citizens.

Nobody is a second-class citizen - and the last person who should be regarded as so is Dylan Sharpe. Even if it seems like he doesn't agree with the concept.


One closing thought - much of the debate about Page Three swirls around rendering the models as mere objects, objectification being a major plank of feminism, I believe. To counter that, Channel Four conducted a brilliant interview with author Germaine Greer, Harriet Harman MP, and model Chloe Goodman - you can watch it here.

I'd be curious to know what Nicole, 22 from Bournemouth thinks about the debate swirling around her decision - and it is hers - to appear on Page Three.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Armageddon Will Not Be Televised

There has been a flurry of online interest in the surfacing of the fabled 'doomsday' tape from the vaults of the Cable News Network.

Ted Turner, founder of the first dedicated news channel in the US, famously claimed on the launch of his channel in 1980, that
"We gonna go on air June 1, and we gonna stay on until the end of the world. When that time comes, we'll cover it, play 'Nearer, My God, to Thee,' and sign off."
Now, a former CNN intern has proven that this was indeed Turner's plan. Hunting through the famous news network's video archives, Michael Ballaban found the clip that is only to be played upon confirmation of the end of the world. Thankfully it isn't specified what form that confirmation will take.

Created during the 1980s, with the Cold War ever at risk of going hot, we shouldn't question the merit of creating an emergency broadcast for use in the likelihood of worldwide Armageddon. We might question the choice of music, which was rumoured to be the final song played by the band on RMS Titanic.

What is surprising is, well, the surprise this discovery is being met with. Perhaps, being British, I have a more phlegmatic attitude towards "We interrupt this broadcast...", as the BBC and the British Government's plans have long been well known. In 2005, the media was discussing recently declassified files detailing planned broadcasts should a nuclear attack on the United Kingdom be confirmed, drawn up as early as the immediate post-War period.

Such a broadcast was laconically referred to as the "four minute warning", so named for the brief period between confirmation of inbound missiles and their impact on target within England. This in fact was the maximum possible time for British-based detection systems, and it could have been even less time.
On confirmation, the Wartime Broadcasting Service would have been activated, overriding all existing BBC transmissions to inform in classical, RP tones, the grave news.

Delivered by familiar BBC Radio Four continuity announcer Peter Donaldson, part of the broadcast has been spliced, aptly enough, into the song Four Minute Warning by Radiohead. Peter also briefly discusses recording the automated warning on this clip from The Culture Show.

These painfully real-world examples are chilling, but far more people are familiar with the fictional portrayals of nuclear devastation in England. The leading example must be Threads, the BAFTA-award winning drama produced in 1984 and broadcast to record viewing numbers for the week.

Set within the northern English city of Sheffield, it explores the true reality of nuclear war on a very personal level, introducing us to characters and their lives which are unfortunately being led in the vicinity of a high-priority strike target. Below is an amateur trailer of this powerful and eye-opening show.

The following year, Threads was shown again on the fortieth anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. In conjunction was the first ever showing of The War Game, a documentary from the 1960s that had been banned by the BBC. Although they have never stated precisely why, the bleak nature of the psuedo-documentary style would no doubt have swung a great deal of opinion against the nuclear arms race.

The War Game does indeed make for disturbing viewing. To show it in the Eighties, when nuclear weapons had become even more powerful than the cruder atomic bombs of the post-War period that featured in the production, must have been even more disturbing.

Or perhaps people were numb to the dangers of nuclear warfare? Perhaps they'd become accustomed to the reality of annihilation, delivered so calmly by familiar BBC voices ever since the end of the Second World War?

This is why I regard the surprise and fascination surrounding the CNN tape with some bemusement. I don't doubt every network has such an ominous pre-recorded piece, for such a dire emergency. We've had ours for quite some time.

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial
Taken by Aiden on November 24, 2006.