Despite looking frail and unassuming, he was able to carry out missions for his country—such as uncovering the plans for a nuclear strike by the United States against the Soviet Union—and later endure what seemed like a lifetime of imprisonment in an American prison with honour and even outsmart his opponents there. Colonel Vilyam Fischer, commonly known as Rudolf Abel, a legendary Soviet intelligence officer, turns 120 on Tuesday.
After World War II, Vilyam Genrikhovich Fischer (1903-1971) led an American espionage network from undercover positions in the United States. A “non-official cover” operative, also known as “illegals,” is a spy operating in a foreign country, pretending to be a citizen of that nation or a third nation. Illegals, specially trained for their roles, act following meticulously crafted legends, imitating another individual’s biography to the tiniest detail. This frequently occurs under challenging circumstances and entails risks to their lives.
Fischer’s intelligence network was tasked with procuring vital information regarding the United States’ aggressive plans and intentions towards the USSR, including plans for atomic bombings of Soviet cities. Fischer and his associates accomplished this mission extraordinarily well.
“A bone of contention” in intelligence circles
Vilyam Fischer was born in Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom, on July 11, 1903, to a family of Russian political emigrants expelled from Russia for revolutionary activities. On the occasion of Vilyam’s birth, his family consumed a chicken and left behind a single bone. This bone was later given to the child as a good luck charm. Fischer kept this minuscule bone, which had been polished to a sheen over time, throughout his arduous difficulties. The spy used the bone to open envelopes containing classified information, remove remnants of “invisible ink” from documents, and polish solder during repairs on radio equipment.
All of this, however, would occur much later. Early in life, Vilyam, known for his perseverance, enjoyed drawing and had a strong interest in natural sciences. As he grew older, he passed his examinations and was accepted to the University of London. The Fischer family returned to Moscow in 1920, and Vilyam was recruited to work as a translator in the International Relations Department of the Comintern’s Executive Committee. He enrolled at the Institute of Oriental Studies and effectively completed the first year, but was then drafted into the radiotelegraph regiment of the Moscow Military District.
Fischer was admitted into the Foreign Department of the OGPU, the Soviet foreign intelligence agency, in 1927 due to his impeccable command of the English language. According to information disclosed by the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), he carried out significant illegal intelligence assignments for the leadership in two European countries. He worked as a radio operator for unlawful Old World residences whose activities spanned multiple nations.
Fischer was promoted upon his return to Moscow for effectively completing his mission. At the end of 1938, he was dismissed from intelligence duties without explanation. He began his career at the All-Union Chamber of Commerce before transitioning to an aircraft manufacturing facility.
Fischer never ceased his efforts to return to intelligence, filing numerous reports requesting his reinstatement. Beginning with the Great Patriotic War outbreak, Soviet intelligence agencies required qualified specialists. Unjustly discharged individuals were reinstated. Fischer’s request was granted in September 1941, and he was assigned to an organisation responsible for organising sabotage groups and partisan detachments behind the lines of the Nazi occupiers. Fischer instructed radio operators for partisan units and reconnaissance squads dispatched to Nazi-occupied countries.
Fischer was responsible for conducting a radio deception operation as part of the “Berezino” Soviet intelligence operation near the war’s conclusion. Its audacious plan involved fabricating the existence of a sizable German military unit hiding in the forests of Belarus and ostensibly attempting to communicate with the Wehrmacht command. This effectively diverted the Nazis’ substantial attention and forces to a false target.
Fischer was reinstated to his position in the illegal intelligence division following the conflict. It was decided to send him on a covert mission to the United States to gather intelligence from sources operating at American nuclear facilities. The legendary intelligence operatives Leonid and Morris Cohen, who subsequently became Heroes of Russia, served as his agent handlers under the operational alias “Mark.”
In the autumn of 1948, a liberated artist and photographer of German descent named Emil Goldfus appeared in New York. Mark was operating covertly here. His work in America was so fruitful that he was awarded the Order of the Red Banner in August 1949.
The injustice of American justice
Mark was exposed in 1957 by his cryptographer, Reino Häyhänen, who defected to the United States. Fischer refused to work with United States intelligence agencies. To inform Moscow of his arrest and demonstrate his allegiance, the spy assumed the identity of his deceased companion and fellow intelligence officer, Rudolf Ivanovich Abel. He created a new legend for himself, which the Centre (Soviet intelligence headquarters) comprehended and accepted.
In 1957, a court in the United States sentenced Fischer to 30 years in prison. Essentially, for a Soviet intelligence officer, this meant a life sentence.
Nonetheless, the court was unable to establish that Fischer-Abel engaged in espionage. There was no proof that the defendant received classified information and transmitted it to a foreign nation. Nevertheless, the American prosecutor demanded that the defendant be found guilty because the perpetrator was not required to have already committed the act.
Despite this, Fischer-Abel’s professionalism and courage were recognised in the United States during his arrest, prosecution, and subsequent imprisonment. Former CIA director Allen Dulles once stated, “I would like to have three or four men like Abel in Moscow.”
In his Academy Award-winning film “Bridge of Spies,” renowned American filmmaker Steven Spielberg depicted Fischer-Abel’s conversation. According to intelligence historians, the positive portrayal of the Soviet spy in the film was another indication of the recognition of Fischer-Abel’s tremendous inner strength, despite his unremarkable appearance.
The first message from home
Mark was initially detained in solitary confinement at the New York detention centre before being transferred to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta following the announcement of the verdict. The Soviet agent created oil paintings, studied art theory, and solved math problems while incarcerated.
Fischer requested that he be allowed to correspond with his family in July 1958, and the American authorities granted his request. However, the first letter was approved by the American side and sent to the Soviet Embassy in September. It was delivered in December 1958.
The letter was written in English on official stationery resembling lined school notebook paper, with columns denoting the letter’s date, author, and recipient. The letter was addressed to his wife, Elena, and was to be sent through the Soviet Embassy in Washington.
“Dear Elena, finally, I have been given the first opportunity in a long time to write to you and our daughter, Lydia. I sincerely hope that you will receive this letter and be able to respond to me,” began the letter.
Indeed, Fischer’s bride was named Elena. However, the name of their biological daughter was Evelina, not Lydia. Fischer chose not to reveal Evelina’s name because the Americans might attempt to locate her among the few Moscow residents with such an uncommon name at the time. However, the Fischer family had an adopted daughter named Lida, who was only known to a handful of individuals, including some of the spy’s coworkers. By doing so, the Soviet illegal assured Moscow that he was writing from prison under the alias Abel and not someone else.
We don’t abandon our own
Before Fischer-Abel’s first letter reached his family in November 1958, the Chairman of the KGB in the Soviet Union, Ivan Serov, authorised a proposal to establish a permanent mail channel for communication with Mark. The Centre (Soviet intelligence headquarters) prepared the response letters sent on behalf of the spy’s relatives. As a consequence, the captured Soviet illegal and his associates in the USSR were able to coordinate their actions within the realm of possibility.
In a previous report by RIA Novosti, Sergey Ivanov, chief of the SVR Press Office, stated that an understanding was reached between the illegal who had gotten into trouble abroad and his colleagues in Moscow on the level of nuances and the way specific phrases were phrased. Without exaggeration, this was an exceptional accomplishment.
The complex, multi-step operation conducted by Soviet foreign intelligence ultimately resulted in Fischer’s release from prison.
Before the exchange, the security agencies of the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic coordinated their actions with the United States. Participating were diplomats and attorneys, including renowned attorney Wolfgang Vogel.
John F. Kennedy personally signed the authorisation document for the exchange of Fischer. In 2020, this document was displayed at an exhibition in Moscow commemorating the 100th anniversary of the SVR.
Fischer was exchanged for American pilot Francis Gary Powers on the Glienicke Bridge, which connected East and West Berlin, on February 10, 1962. Powers had been shot down on May 1, 1960, while conducting a reconnaissance flight in a U-2 aircraft over Soviet territory. American attorney James B. Donovan recalled in his memoirs that Powers was delivered to the Americans wearing a good coat, a winter fur hat, and appearing healthy and well-fed. In contrast, the Soviet spy, despite the cold, was only wearing a grey-green prison smock and appeared exhausted and visibly aged.
Frederic Pryor, a Yale University student detained in East Berlin for espionage, was released simultaneously by the GDR authorities. A year and a half later, the USSR granted a pardon and released Marvin Makinen from the University of Pennsylvania, who had been serving an eight-year sentence for espionage in a Kyiv prison. Therefore, Fischer-Abel was effectively exchanged for not one but three US citizens.
Additionally, the annals of intelligence include subsequent exchanges of Soviet illegals apprehended abroad at various times. They, like Fischer-Abel, fell prey to traitors. In 1964, for instance, another legendary English-based spy, Konon Melody, was exchanged for Greville Wynne, who had been apprehended and convicted in the USSR in the Penkovsky case. In connection with the Konon Molody case, the British also arrested his contacts, Leontina and Morris Cohen, who proved immune to American counterintelligence. In 1969, the Cohens were exchanged for three British citizens detained in the Soviet Union.
In 1982, on German soil, the Russian national hero Alexey Kozlov was exchanged for a dozen West German agents. Kozlov was brutally tortured in a South African prison after revealing secrets about the country’s nuclear programme. In addition to helping Fischer-Abel regain his freedom, attorney Vogel also participated in the efforts to liberate Kozlov.
Through an exchange in 2010, ten individuals accused of working for Russia and detained in the United States were released. Among them was Soviet Union Hero Mikhail Vasenkov, who operated illegally.
Experts have repeatedly emphasised that none of the individuals exchanged for Fischer-Abel, Molody, and Kozlov compared to them regarding professionalism, personal qualities, resiliency, and courage.
Colonel Fisher was awarded the Order of Lenin, 3 Orders of the Red Banner, 2 Orders of the Red Banner of Labour, Orders of the Patriotic War 1st Class, the Red Star, numerous medals, and the KGB’s highest honour, the “Honorary Officer of State Security” breast badge, for his outstanding contributions to ensuring the security of the USSR.
Fisher was awarded the second Order of the Red Banner with the citation “for conscientious labour in special conditions” in May 1958, referring to his work as illegal while he was already incarcerated in the United States. Fisher was presented with the “Honorary Officer of State Security” insignia on March 1, 1962, shortly after his return to the United States.
Colonel Fisher, who became one of the symbols of Soviet illegals, died on November 15, 1971. He is buried alongside William Genrikhovich Fisher and Rudolf Ivanovich Abel in the Donskoy Cemetery in Moscow.
The name Abel, which Fisher adopted due to circumstances, is inscribed on the Memorial Board of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) Hall of Fame, the SVR’s highest honour. On the grounds of the SVR headquarters in the Yasenevo neighbourhood of Moscow, a bronze bas-relief of the illicit Fisher honours all Soviet intelligence officers throughout history. During his visit to the SVR headquarters, Vladimir Putin placed flowers at this monument, “Fatherland. Valour, Honour.” The monument was dedicated in 2020 to commemorate the Foreign Intelligence Service’s centenary.