I’m beginning to wonder if Soviet Cold War spy, Colonel Rudolf Abel was acquainted with anyone in the Jewish community of Newcastle upon Tyne, north east England.
Believe me, my daydream is no more fanciful than parts of Steven Spielberg’s film Bridge of Spies which offers audiences a brilliant, if lightly fictionalised account of the celebrated ‘spy swap’ on February 10, 1962, involving Abel being exchanged for US U-2 pilot, Francis Gary Powers and Frederic Pryor, a US economics student who had been studying in Berlin.
I muse on this because Abel, born William August Fisher on July 11 1903 in Benwell, Newcastle upon Tyne to Russian émigrés was educated in Whitley Bay and spoke several languages, including Yiddish.
It appears that Abel was a chip off the old block: His father, Heinrich who had served three years’ internal exile in Russia for sedition, fled to the U.K. from where he helped to smuggle arms via England’s north east coast to the Baltic states.
What the film does not – cannot – show in depth is Abel’s progress in his career as a Soviet intelligence officer. Neither does it explain that Abel was betrayed to the FBI by his own assistant, Reino Häyhänen after Abel complained to their Moscow superiors about his bad personal behaviour.
Nor, we must suppose, can it convey any sense of the poetic justice old Cold War enemies must have felt on learning in August 1977 that Powers had been killed in a helicopter crash. He had after all, infiltrated their air space and then served only a fraction of the sentence meted out to him.
Likewise, many movie fans must have drawn parallels when convicted US-Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard was coincidentally freed on parole after 30 years’ incarceration barely six weeks after the release of Bridge of Spies. But any similarities between him and Abel end there.
Where Pollard is just a criminal with an inflated ego, Mark Rylance’s filmic Abel is assiduous, phlegmatic and entirely honourable within the confines of the murky world in which he dwells. It seems quite natural that he and Tom Hanks’s James B. Donovan should form their odd friendship. It is also an excellent professional partnership for the two actors, who like everyone else involved in the production, should share full honours in the forthcoming movie awards season. Let’s see!
© Natalie Wood (07 December 2015)