Spies like us: 50 yrs since Cold War Swap

Gary Powers (L) and Rudolf Abel
At 8:52 on February 10, 1962 two men steadily walked in opposite directions across a bridge that divided East and West Berlin, barely noting each other. Their appearance was ordinary, but their fates had been decided by the world’s most powerful men.

­Within minutes, as the men got inside different cars and sped off, the bridge once again stood deserted – not needed by either side.

This was the end of a key episode in the Cold War.

It was the first of many spy exchanges between the USSR and the USA (eventually even the Glienicker Bridge, an ordinary steel construction where the exchange took place, became a landmark – dubbed The Bridge of Spies). It was also the end of two stories that had held the attention of leaders and ordinary people for years as the two superpowers bitterly fought each other without firing a single bullet.

­The man with many names

­One of the men walking down the bridge was Rudolf Abel. This was not his real name. In previous decades he had been variously known as Andrew Koyotis, Martin Collins and Emil Godfus – but none of these were real either. He told friends he was an artist and had once worked as a lumberjack in Canada. But although he could paint competently, Abel was actually a key Soviet spy.

Born into a family of Socialist Russian-German émigrés in Northern England in 1903, William Fisher only moved to the USSR with his father in 1921. As a native English speaker with foreign citizenship, he was used by the foreign arm of the dreaded NKVD to set up spy networks in Europe. Although he was fired for political reasons, the secret service called upon him again during World War II, when he served the Soviets with distinction, training radio operatives behind the enemy lines in deception and radio operations.

Arriving in the US in 1948 (using the identity of Andre Koyotis, a Latvian-American who had come back to visit his motherland and conveniently died just before the mission was scheduled to begin) Abel’s mission was to create a network of agents that would be activated if the diplomatic relationship between the US and the Soviet Union broke down and to co-ordinate the passing of secret research plans from ideologically sympathetic American atomic scientists.

Culpability for his downfall could be placed in the hands of another agent, Reino Hayhanen. A comically inept Finnish drunkard, Hayhanen was sent to assist Abel. Instead, he caused scenes of public disorder, once paid with a coin containing a secret microfilm that was found by the CIA, and dug up and stole a $5000 package intended for another agent. But when he was told by his paymasters in the Lubyanka to return to Russia to receive a “promotion as a reward for his services” (ironically after the endless complaints of Abel), Hayhanen figured that the offer was perhaps not all it seemed, and instead turned himself in at the US Embassy in Paris in May 1957.

Using Hayhanen’s tip-offs, FBI arrested Abel less than two months later.

He was accused of conspiring to obtain and transmit classified information, and of illegally serving a foreign government. But despite prolonged interrogation, Abel refused to reveal any detail of his activities. Afraid of the potential repercussions for US secret agents, and aware of his value as a bargaining chip, the prosecutors did not push for a death sentence. Nonetheless, he was convicted to serve 30 years in a US prison.

­A mission too far

Francis Gary Powers Sr. with his son, 1976 (personal archive of Gary Powers)
Francis Gary Powers Sr. with his son, 1976 (personal archive of Gary Powers)

­The man who was walking from the Russian side to the American was ace pilot Gary Powers.

Powers was only 30 but had already participated in 26 missions in a U-2 spy plane when he strapped himself into the cockpit on May 1, 1960.

His skills were unquestioned, but his mission was difficult – to fly from Pakistan across a large portion of the USSR and to photograph nuclear missile launch sites and a plutonium-processing plant before landing in Norway. It was also important as many Cold War decisions taken by both countries worked on (often incorrect) assumptions about the other side’s strength.

Powers had one main ally – the altitude of his flight. At 21,000 meters above ground, most missile defense systems and interceptor planes could not reach him.

But not for a lack of trying.

Already on red alert after another humiliatingly successful flight a week earlier, the entire Soviet defense network hunted down the single plane. He was chased by MiGs firing at him, and even an unarmed plane (lightened to allow it to reach greater altitudes) given a fatal mission to ram into the spy plane. Eventually, a barrage of rockets was unleashed and hit the U-2, alongside the luckless kamikaze MiG pilot, who died before he had the chance to complete his assignment.

Staying calm despite his rapidly falling plane, Powers managed to climb out of the plane and parachute downwards. Although the American had had 7,500 roubles and jewellery on him just for such an occasion, villagers near the crash site detained the alien invader.

The fallout from the international incident was spectacular.

Gary Powers in front of Lockheed U-2 (personal archive of Gary Powers)
Gary Powers in front of Lockheed U-2 (personal archive of Gary Powers)

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev indignantly announced to the world that an American spy plane had been shot down, but did not mention Powers. Assuming there was no debris left of the plane, and that the pilot was dead, the US authorities tried to pretend that the flight was a weather mission gone awry, going as far as to paint another plane in NASA colors, and show it off to the press.

When Khrushchev revealed that the Soviets had managed to recover both the plane and pilot, the US authorities were left red-faced. Subsequent international talks broke down, when despite being faced with the facts, President Dwight Eisenhower refused to apologize.

Meanwhile, Powers was sentenced to ten years in prison, of which he only served two before the exchange

­No place for heroes

Although there is little evidence to suggest that Rudolf Abel succeeded in his mission, his return was a propaganda coup for the USSR, his face was put on stamps and his achievements exaggerated.

Despite receiving the customary role for former Western agents, that of lecturing and inspiring up-and-coming spies, close relatives said that Abel was increasingly disillusioned. Critical of the bureaucracy of the new-style KGB apparatchiks compared to the idealism and derring-do of his more adventurous age, Abel was also deprecating about his own role “I am a museum exhibit now.” Forced into retirement by superior officials, Abel died of lung cancer in 1971. For decades, his spy alias was on his tombstone, until a vigorous campaign by his family to give him back his real name.

Despite being reimbursed $52,000 in back salary upon his return, Powers complained about being cold-shouldered by his colleagues. Many in the media openly questioned why Powers had not taken the poison pill with which he had been equipped, though an enquiry before the Senate cleared him, describing the ace as a “as a fine young man under dangerous circumstances.”

Nonetheless, Powers quit the Air Force and became a helicopter pilot for a Californian TV station. He died in 1977 when his helicopter ran out of fuel, due to his misreading of an often-faulty fuel gauge, and crashed in a field. He was 47.

Speaking to RT, his son, Francis Gary Powers Jr., said that his father knew that what he did was the right thing to do under those particular circumstances. Power Jr. believes that the spy exchange between his father and Rudolf Abel was a defining moment in the Cold War that helped to ease US-Soviet tensions.

The ordeal did change my father in that it made him much more aware of international politics and how he was used as a pawn between the Soviets and the Americans,” Powers’ son added.

Francis Gary Powers was finally recognized as a hero and given a number of posthumous medals in 2000.

­RT's interview with Gary Powers Jr.

­Igor Ogorodnev, RT