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Rudolf Abel

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Rudolf Abel
A reproduction of a stamp showing a drawing of a balding elderly man wearing glasses
Soviet intelligence officer Rudolf Abel on a 1990 USSR commemorative stamp
Allegiance  Soviet Union
Rank Colonel
Operation(s) World War II
Soviet Cold War spy
Award(s) Order of the Red Banner
Codename(s) Andrew Yurgesovich Kayotis[1]
  Emil Robert Goldfus[2]
  Mark Collins[3]
  Martin Collins[2]
  Robert Callan

Birth name William August Fisher
Born (1903-07-11)July 11, 1903
Benwell, Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom
Died November 15, 1971(1971-11-15) (aged 68)
Moscow, Soviet Union
Cause of
Lung cancer
Buried Moscow, Soviet Union
Nationality  United Kingdom
 Soviet Union
Parents Heinrich Matthaus Fisher[4]
Lyubov Vasilievna Zhidova[6]
Spouse Elena Stepanovna Lebedeva[7]
Children Evelyn Fisher

Vilyam "Willie" Genrikhovich Fisher (Вильям "Вилли" Генрихович Фишер) (July 11, 1903 – November 15, 1971), best known under the alias Rudolf Ivanovich Abel (Russian: Рудольф Иванович Абель), was a Soviet intelligence officer. He adopted his alias when arrested on charges of conspiracy by FBI agents in 1957.

Born in the United Kingdom to Russian émigré parents, Fisher moved to Russia in the 1920s and served in the Soviet military before undertaking foreign service as a radio operator in Soviet intelligence in the late 1920s and early 1930s. He later served in an instructional role before taking part in intelligence operations against the Germans during World War II. After the war, Fisher began working for the KGB, which sent him to the United States where he worked as part of a spy ring based in New York City.

In 1957, for his involvement in what became known as the Hollow Nickel Case, the U.S. Federal Court in New York convicted Fisher on three counts of conspiracy as a Soviet spy and sentenced him to 30 years' imprisonment at Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, Georgia. Fisher served just over four years of his sentence before he was exchanged for captured American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers. Back in the Soviet Union, he lectured on his experiences before dying in 1971 at the age of 68.

Early life

Fisher was born William August Fisher[8] on July 11, 1903, in Benwell, Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom,[9] the second son of Heinrich and Lyubov Fisher.[10] Revolutionaries of the Tsarist era; his father was an ethnic German from Russia and his mother was of Russian descent.[6][9] Fisher's father, a revolutionary activist, taught and agitated with Vladimir Lenin at Saint Petersburg Technological Institute.[9] In 1896 he was arrested for sedition and sentenced to three years internal exile.[11] As Heinrich Fisher had served a sentence for offences against the Russian state, he was forced to flee to the United Kingdom in 1901,[12] the alternative being deportation to Germany or imprisonment in Russia for avoidance of military service.[10] While living in the United Kingdom, Fisher's father, a keen Bolshevik, took part in gunrunning, shipping arms from the North East coast to the Baltic states to help the proletariat.[9]

Fisher and his brother, Henry,[13] won scholarships to Whitley Bay High School and Monkseaton High School.[14] Though Fisher was not as hard working as Henry, he showed aptitude for science, mathematics, languages, art and music, inherited in part from his father's abilities. Encouraging their son's love of music, Fisher's parents gave him piano lessons; he also learned to play the guitar.[15] It was during this period that Fisher developed an interest in amateur radio, constructing rudimentary spark transmitters and receivers.[16]

Fisher became an apprentice draughtsman at Swan Hunter, Wallsend, and attended evening classes at Rutherford College before being accepted into London University in 1920.[17][18] Though Fisher qualified for university, the costs prohibited him from attending.[18] In 1921, following the Russian Revolution, the Fisher family left Newcastle upon Tyne to return to Moscow.[19]

Early career

Fluent in English, Russian, German, Polish and Yiddish,[20] Fisher worked for the Comintern as a translator, following his family's return to Russia.[8] Trained as a radio operator, he served in a Red Army radio battalion in 1925 and 1926.[21] He then worked briefly in the radio research institute before being recruited by the OGPU, a predecessor of the KGB, in May 1927.[22] That year he married Elena Lebedeva, a harp student at Moscow Conservatoire.[13] They had one child together, a daughter named Evelyn who was born on October 8, 1929.[23] During Fisher's interview with the OGPU, it was determined he should adopt a Russian-sounding name and William August Fisher became Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher.[8] Following his recruitment, Fisher worked for the OGPU as a radio operator in Norway, Turkey, United Kingdom, and France. He returned to Russia in 1936, as head of a school that trained radio operators destined for duty in illegal residences.[24] One of these students was the British-born Russian spy Kitty Harris, who was later more widely known as "The Spy With Seventeen Names".[25]

Despite his foreign birth and the accusation that his brother-in-law was a Trotskyite, Fisher narrowly escaped the Great Purge.[12] He was, however, in 1938 dismissed from the NKVD, which in 1934 replaced the OGPU. During World War II he again trained radio operators for clandestine work behind German lines.[12] Having been adopted as a protégé by Pavel Sudoplatov, Fisher took part in Operation Scherhorn (Операция Березино) in August 1944. Sudoplatov later described this operation as "the most successful radio deception game of the war".[26] Fisher's role in this operation was rewarded with what his superiors regarded as the most prestigious posting in Russian foreign intelligence, the United States.[27]

KGB service

In 1946, Fisher rejoined the KGB, and was trained as a spy for entry into the United States. In October 1948, using a Soviet passport, he travelled from Leningradsky Station to Warsaw. In Warsaw, he discarded his Soviet passport and using a U.S. passport travelled via Czechoslovakia and Switzerland to Paris.[28] His new passport bore the name Andrew Kayotis, the first of Fisher's fake identities. The real Andrew Kayotis was Lithuanian born, and had become an American citizen after migrating to the United States.[1] Kayotis had applied for, and had received a visa to visit the Soviet Union. However, the Russians retained his passport, which Fisher eventually used. Kayotis had been in poor health and died while visiting relatives in Vilnius, Lithuania.[1] Fisher, as Kayotis, then travelled aboard the RMS Scythia from Le Havre, France, to North America, disembarking at Quebec. Still using Kayotis' passport, he travelled to Montreal and crossed into the United States on November 17, 1948.[1]

On November 26, Fisher met with Soviet "illegal" Josef Romvoldovich Grigulevich.[1] Grigulevich gave Fisher a genuine birth certificate, a forged draft card and a forged tax certificate, all under the name of Emil Robert Goldfus, along with one thousand dollars. Fisher then handed back Kayotis's passport and documents, and assumed the name Goldfus. His codename was "MARK".[1] Goldfus's birth certificate was obtained by the NKVD at the end of the Spanish Civil War.[1]

In July 1949, Fisher met with a "legal" KGB resident from the Soviet consulate general, who provided him with money. Shortly afterwards Fisher was ordered to reactivate the "Volunteer" network to smuggle atomic secrets to Russia.[29] Members of the network had stopped cooperating after postwar security was tightened at Los Alamos. Lona Cohen and her husband Morris had run the Volunteer network and were seasoned couriers. Theodore "Ted" Hall (codenamed "MLAD"), a physicist, was the most important agent in the network in 1945, passing atomic secrets from Los Alamos.[1][30] The Volunteer network grew to include "Aden" and "Serb", nuclear physicists contacted by Hall, and "Silver".[31] Fisher spent most of his first year organizing his network. While it is not known for certain where Fisher went or what he did, it is believed he travelled to Santa Fe in New Mexico, the collection point for stolen diagrams from the Manhattan Project. Kitty Harris, a former pupil of Fisher's, had spent a year in Santa Fe during the war, where she passed secrets from physicists to couriers.[32] During this period, Fisher received the Order of the Red Banner, an important Soviet medal normally reserved for military personnel.[30]

In 1950, Fisher's illegal residency was endangered by the arrest of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. [33] Fisher was relieved the Rosenbergs did not disclose any information about him to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). He was safe but it heralded a bleak outlook for his new spy network. However, on October 21, 1952, as instructed by Moscow, Reino Häyhänen made contact.[34][35][36]

Attempting to make contact, Häyhänen found, then lost, a hollowed-out nickel, which ended up in the hands of the FBI. It was found to contain a microphotograph. From 1953 to 1957, the FBI was unable to solve the mystery.[3][37][38]

Late in 1953, Fisher moved to Brooklyn and rented a room in a boarding house on Hicks Street. He also rented a fifth-floor studio at the Ovington Studios Building on Fulton Street. Since he was posing as an artist and photographer, nobody questioned his irregular working hours and frequent disappearances.[3][39][40] Over time his artistic technique improved and he became a competent painter, though he disliked abstract painting, preferring more conventional styles. He mingled with New York artists, who were surprised by his admiration for the Russian painter Isaak Levitan, although Fisher was careful not to discuss Stalinist "socialist realism".[1] The only visitors to Fisher's studio were artist friends with whom he felt safe from suspicion. In particular, he became a friend of Burton Silverman.[41] Fisher would sometimes relate made-up stories of previous lives, as a Boston accountant and a lumberjack in the Pacific Northwest.[42]

The report never arrived.[37] Fisher was disturbed by Häyhänen's lack of work ethic and his obsession with alcohol. In the spring of 1955, Fisher and Häyhänen visited Bear Mountain Park, and buried five thousand dollars, destined for the wife of the Soviet spy Morton Sobell.[37][43]

In 1955, Fisher, exhausted by the constant pressure, returned to Moscow for six months of rest and recuperation, leaving Häyhänen in charge. While in Moscow, Fisher informed his superiors of his dissatisfaction with Häyhänen. Upon his return to New York in 1956, he found that his carefully constructed network had been left to disintegrate in his absence.[44] Fisher checked his drop points only to find messages several months old.[44]

By early 1957, Fisher had lost patience with Häyhänen and demanded Moscow recall his deputy.[44] Fearful he would be severely disciplined or even executed on his return to Moscow, Häyhänen entered the American embassy in Paris on 4 May 1957, announcing that he was a KGB officer and asked for asylum.[45]

Upon his arrival in the United States, Häyhänen was interrogated by the FBI and proved very cooperative. He was able to provide Fisher's codename, "MARK", and a description, as well as information about Fisher's studio and its location.[46] Häyhänen was also able to solve the "hollow nickel" mystery.[3]

The KGB did not discover Häyhänen's defection until August. As a precaution, Fisher was ordered to leave the United States.[45] Escape was complicated because, if he had been compromised by Häyhänen, his cover identities could have been exposed. Moscow Centre, with the help of KGB's Ottawa Rezident, set about procuring two new passports for Fisher in the names of Robert Callan and Vasili Dzogol, but this process would take time.[2] The Canadian Communist Party succeeded in obtaining a new passport for Fisher in the name of Robert Callan. Fisher, however, was arrested before he could adopt his new identity and leave the United States.[47]


A composite photo showing the front and left sides of a man's face. The man is wearing a dark jacket with a loose tie
Rudolf Ivanovich Abel FBI mugshot in 1957

In April 1957, Fisher told his artist friends he was going south on a seven-week vacation. Less than three weeks later, acting on Häyhänen's information, surveillance was established near Fisher's photo studio. On May 28, 1957, in a small park opposite Fulton Street FBI agents spotted a man acting nervously. From time to time the man got up, walked around, and eventually left. FBI agents were convinced he fit the description of "MARK". The surveillance continued on "MARK" and on the night of June 13, a light was seen to go on in Fisher's studio at 10:00 pm.[3][48]

On June 15, 1957, Häyhänen was shown a photograph of Fisher taken by the FBI with a hidden camera. Häyhänen confirmed that it was "MARK" in the photograph.[3] Once the FBI had a positive identification, they stepped up surveillance, following Fisher from his studio to the Hotel Latham. Fisher was aware of the "tail", but as he had no passport to leave the country, he devised a plan to be used upon his capture. Fisher decided that he would not turn traitor as Häyhänen had done because he still trusted the KGB and he knew that if he cooperated with the FBI, he would not see his wife and daughter again.[49]

At 7:00 am on June 21, 1957, Fisher answered a knock on the door to his room, Room 839.[50] Upon opening the door, he was confronted by FBI agents who addressed him as "colonel" and stated that they had "information concerning [his] involvement in espionage." Fisher knew that the FBI's use of his rank could have only come from Häyhänen. Fisher said nothing to the FBI and, after spending twenty-three minutes staring at Fisher, the FBI agents called in the waiting Immigration and Nationality Service officers who arrested Fisher and detained him under section 242 of the Immigration and Nationality Act.[49]

Fisher was then flown to the Federal Alien Detention Facility in McAllen, Texas, and held there for six weeks.[51] During this period Fisher stated that his "real" name was Rudolf Ivanovich Abel and that he was a Soviet citizen, although he refused to discuss his intelligence activities. The name "Rudolf Ivanovich Abel" was that of a deceased friend and a KGB colonel; Fisher knew as soon as The Centre saw the name Abel on the front pages of American newspapers they would realize he had been captured.[45]

During Fisher's detainment the FBI had been busy searching his hotel room and photo studio, where they discovered 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.[3] In Fisher's New York hotel room the FBI found four thousand dollars,[52][53] 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 another fifteen thousand dollars in cash.[54][55] Also discovered were photographs of the Cohens and recognition phrases to establish contact between agents who had never met before.[56]

As Fisher was no longer considered an illegal alien, but rather an alleged spy, he was flown from Texas to New York on August 7, 1957, to answer the indictment. Fisher was subsequently indicted to stand trial as a Russian spy.[57] The Brooklyn Bar Association approached several prominent trial lawyers with political ambitions, all of whom declined the case. They then contacted James B. Donovan. Because he had served as a wartime counsel in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and had years of courtroom experience, the Bar Association believed Donovan was uniquely qualified to act as Fisher's defense lawyer. At Donovan's initial meeting with Fisher, the latter accepted Donovan as his defense counsel.[58] Fisher was tried in Federal Court at New York City during October 1957, on three counts:[57]

  • Conspiracy to transmit defense information to the Soviet Union – 30 years imprisonment;[3]
  • Conspiracy to obtain defense information – 10 years imprisonment;[3] and
  • Conspiracy to act in the United States as an agent of a foreign government without notification to the Secretary of State – 5 years imprisonment.[3]

Häyhänen, Fisher's former assistant, testified against him at the trial.[3] The prosecution failed to find any other alleged members of Fisher's spy network, if there were any.[59] The jury retired for three and half hours and returned on the afternoon of October 25, 1957, finding Fisher guilty on all three counts.[3][60] On November 15, 1957, Judge Mortimer W. Byers sentenced Fisher to concurrent terms of imprisonment of thirty, ten and five years on the three counts and fined him a total of three thousand dollars.[3][61] The conviction was affirmed by the Supreme Court of the United States in the case of Abel v. United States on March 28, 1960.[3]

Fisher, or "Rudolf Ivanovich Abel", was to serve his sentence (as prisoner 80016–A)[62] at Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, Georgia.[60] He tried to busy himself with painting, learning silk-screening, playing chess, and writing logarithmic tables for the sheer enjoyment of it. He became friends with two other convicted Soviet spies. One of these was Morton Sobell, whose wife had failed to receive the five thousand dollars embezzled by Häyhänen.[60] The other prisoner was Kurt Ponger, an Austrian who had been sentenced for conspiracy to commit espionage.[63]

Release and later life

Four men sit facing each other around a table. Three of the men wear civilian suits, while one wears a military uniform
Vladimir Semichastny, chairman of the KGB, talking to Soviet intelligence officers Rudolf Abel (second from left) and Konon Molody (second from right) in September 1964

Fisher served just over four years of his sentence. On February 10, 1962, he was exchanged for the shot-down American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers. The exchange took place on the Glienicke Bridge that linked West Berlin with Potsdam, which became famous during the Cold War as the Bridge of Spies.[64] At precisely the same time, at Checkpoint Charlie, Frederic Pryor was released by the East German Stasi into the waiting arms of his father.[65] A few days later Fisher, reunited with his wife Elena and daughter Evelyn, flew home.[66] For the sake of its own reputation it suited the KGB to portray "Abel's" nine years of being an undetected agent in the United States as a triumph by a dedicated NKVD member. The myth of the master spy Rudolf Abel replaced the reality of Fisher's illegal residency. Yet the party hierarchy was well aware that Fisher had achieved nothing of real significance. During his eight years as an illegal resident he appears not to have recruited, or even identified, a single potential agent.[33][67]

After his return to Moscow, Fisher was employed by the Illegals Directorate of the KGB's First Chief Directorate, giving speeches and lecturing school children on intelligence work, but became increasingly disillusioned.[66][67] He made a notable appearance in the foreword to the Soviet spy film Dead Season and also worked as a consultant on the movie.[68][69] He died of lung cancer on November 15, 1971. His ashes were interred at the Donskoy Cemetery under his real name, and a few Western correspondents were invited there to view for themselves the true identity of the spy who never "broke".[70]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 Andrew (1999), p. 147.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Whittell (2010), p. 88.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 3.13 "FBI: Rudolph Ivanovich Abel (Hollow Nickel Case)". Federal Bureau of Investigations. Retrieved: January 4, 2012.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Arthey (2004), p. xvi.
  5. Whittell (2010), p. xi.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Arthey (2004), p. 10.
  7. Arthey (2004), p. 77.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Arthey (2004), p. 73.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 Whittell (2010), p. 9.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Arthey (2004), p. 11.
  11. Arthey (2004), p. 8.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Andrew (1999), p. 146.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Whittell (2010), p. 10.
  14. Arthey (2004), p. 49.
  15. Arthey (2004), p. 50.
  16. Arthey (2004), pp. 75–76.
  17. Damaskin (2001), p. 137.
  18. 18.0 18.1 Arthey (2004), p. 62.
  19. Arthey (2004), p. 63.
  20. Hearn (2006), p. 10.
  21. Arthey (2004), p. 76.
  22. Arthey (2004), p. 81.
  23. Arthey (2004), p. 84.
  24. Andrew (1999), pp. 146–147.
  25. Damaskin (2001), p. 140.
  26. Sudoplatov/Schecter (1994–1995), p. 168.
  27. Whittell (2010), p. 13.
  28. Arthey (2004), p. 163.
  29. Whittell (2010), p. 17.
  30. 30.0 30.1 Whittell (2010), p. 18.
  31. Andrew (1999), pp. 147–148.
  32. Whittell (2010), p. 16.
  33. 33.0 33.1 Andrew (1999), p. 148.
  34. Whittell (2010), p. 19.
  35. Arthey (2004), p. 187.
  36. Bernikow (1970), p. 52.
  37. 37.0 37.1 37.2 Andrew (1999), p. 171.
  38. Whittell (2010), pp. 21–22.
  39. Bernikow (1970), p. 21.
  40. Hearn (2006), p. 13.
  41. "New York Times: The Spy of Cadman Plaza". New York Times. Retrieved: February 2, 2013.
  42. Whittell (2010), p. 25.
  43. Bernikow (1970), p. 197.
  44. 44.0 44.1 44.2 Hearn (2006), p. 15.
  45. 45.0 45.1 45.2 Andrew (1999), p. 172.
  46. Whittell (2010), p. 81.
  47. Andrew (1999), p. 280.
  48. Whittell (2010), p. 89.
  49. 49.0 49.1 Whittell (2010), p. 94.
  50. Whittell (2010), p. 92.
  51. Whittell (2010), p. 95.
  52. West (1990), p. 91.
  53. Bernikow (1970), p. 111.
  54. Whittell (2010), p. 96.
  55. Arthey (2004). p. 205.
  56. Romerstein (2001), pp. 209–210.
  57. 57.0 57.1 Whittell (2010), p. 97.
  58. Donovan (1964), pp. 22–26.
  59. Whittell (2010), p. 107.
  60. 60.0 60.1 60.2 Whittell (2010), p. 109.
  61. Bernikow (1970), p. 244.
  62. Bernikow (1970), p. 253.
  63. Bernikow (1970), p. 255.
  64. Andrew (1999), p. 174.
  65. Whittell (2010), p. 251.
  66. 66.0 66.1 Whittell (2010), p. 258.
  67. 67.0 67.1 Andrew (1999), p. 175.
  68. Propaganda, KGB style The Secret Services Watchdog. Retrieved: May 13, 2014.
  69. Profession has degraded since the Cold war – former KGB officer Retrieved: May 13, 2014.
  70. Whittell (2010), p. 259.


  • Andrew, Christopher. (1999). The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB. Basic Books. New York. ISBN 0-465-00310-9.
  • Arthey, Vin. (2004). Like Father Like Son: A Dynasty of Spies. St. Ermin's Press in association with Little Brown. London. ISBN 1-903608-07-4.
  • Bernikow, Louise. (1970). Abel. Introduction by Burt Silverman. Hodder and Stoughton. London, Sydney, Auckland, Toronto. ISBN 0-340-12593-4.
  • Bigger, Philip J. (2006). Negotiator: The Life And Career of James B. Donovan. Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press. United States. ISBN 978-0-934-22385-0.
  • Damaskin, Igor with Elliott, Geoffrey. (2001). Kitty Harris: The Spy With Seventeen Names. St. Ermin's Press. London. ISBN 1-903608-06-6.
  • Hearn, Chester G. (2006). Spies & Espionage: A Directory. Thunder Bay Press. San Diego, California. ISBN 978-1-59223-508-7.
  • Romerstein, Herbert. (2001). The Venona Secrets: Exposing Soviet Espionage and America's Traitors. Regnery Publishing Ltd. Washington, D.C. ISBN 978-0-89526-225-7.
  • Sudoplatov, Pavel; Sudoplatov, Anatoli; Schecter, Jerrold L. and Schecter, Leona. (1994). Special Tasks: The Memoirs of an Unwanted Witness, a Soviet Spymaster. Little Brown. Toronto, Canada. ISBN 0-316-77352-2.
  • Whittell, Giles. (2010). A True Story of the Cold War: Bridge of Spies. Broadway Books. New York. ISBN 978-0-7679-3107-6.

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