Past Russian spies have found post-swap life gets a bit sticky
Russia's accused spies could be posing soon for stamp designers in Moscow instead of prison intake photographers here, if a swap deal comes through and the Kremlin follows its tradition of honoring its secret agents.
Ever since the depths of the Cold War, the Kremlin has used postage stamps to showcase operatives who managed to steal some of the West's most guarded secrets, from atomic bomb designs to diplomatic cables to sensitive technical information, before they were arrested.
Their stories are as well known in Russia as the legend of Revolutionary War spy Nathan Hale is here.
And while life in Moscow may be duller than New York, Boston, New Jersey, Seattle and Washington, D.C., where the 11 Russians charged last week allegedly lived as long-term, deep-penetration agents, it won't be too bad, either, if their predecessors' experience is any guide.
Their main worry will be keeping their minds.
“Throughout the Soviet era, such agents were rewarded with adulation,” the New York Times noted recently. “Illegals like Rudolf Abel and Konon Molody” -- the Cold War spy known in Britain as Gordon Lonsdale -- “became such national heroes that the External Intelligence Service, or SVR, still posts their biographies on its Web site.”
Abel, an ethnic German whose real name was Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher, was probably the most famous Russian spy ever unearthed here -- until last week.
Arrested in New York in 1957, Abel was swapped five years later for Gary Francis Powers, the U-2 spy pilot shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960. Abel died from lung cancer in 1971, a national hero.
In the last days of the Soviet Union, in 1990, he was honored with a stamp.
At least four other of Moscow's "illegals" in the West, and the infamous British double agent Kim Philby, who barely escaped capture by London's spycatchers, were also so honored.
And in general, they lived comfortable lives after they returned home -- on the outside.
In 1969, Heinz Felfe, a former Nazi SS officer who, in postwar years, spied for Moscow while he headed the West German office of Counter-Intelligence, was exchanged for three West German students who were held on charges of spying on the Soviets for the CIA.
After recovering on the Crimean from eight years of prison, Felfe settled in East Germany, lectured on criminology at Berlin’s Humboldt University, and leisurely wrote his memoirs, published in 1986. He died in his bed in May 2009.
He, in particular, had earned it: In the 1970s and ‘80s, he not only penetrated the CIA as a Soviet double agent, he survived suspicions by his own service that he was working for the Americans all along.
“After the exchange, Koecher and his wife received a hero’s welcome from the [Czech government] for their dedication to the communist party, a new Volvo car and a new villa near Prague,” according to a countryman's account. “Koecher was employed at the CSAV (Czech Academy of Sciences) and as an analyst at the Prague Institute for Economic Forecasting.”
But the espionage infamy reportedly grated on Hana, who, with her husband, had been a well-known denizen of Washington’s “swinging” scene during their assignment there, according to author Ronald Kessler. In 1995 a Czech court rejected her complaint “that publicizing information about her spy activity is damaging her business in Prague.”
Likewise, the lives of two other former Soviet spies, Morris and Lona Cohen, who stole atomic secrets in the United States and Britain during and after World War II, eventually turned sour.
Known in the West by their aliases, Peter and Helen Kroger, they were rewarded with a dacha and honors after they were swapped in 1969.
“The Cohens were awarded the Order of the Red Banner and the Order of Friendship of Nations for their espionage work,” according to one account. “After the collapse of the Soviet Union, they also were given the title of Heroes of the Russian Federation by the Yeltsin government.”
But their emotional lives remained unsettled, according to the British espionage writer Nigel West.
“After their release the Krogers lived as honored guests of the KGB at a dacha outside Moscow, refusing to learn Russian and declining all outside contact with their families in the U.S. or the Western media,” West wrote.
“While Helen Kroger's ideological commitment to the cause remained undimmed,” he added, “Peter was evidently dismayed by the harsh austerity of life under a totalitarian regime and was especially critical of Leonid Brezhnev. In 1991 they broke their silence and consented to be interviewed for a Soviet television program, in which neither Helen Kroger's strong Brooklyn accent, nor her domination of her husband, seemed changed by the years.”
She died in 1992, Morris in 1995.
Similarly, the spy known as Gordon Lonsdale, swapped during the Cold War, turned morose after his own hero’s welcome.
"For Molody, life back in the Soviet Union was not a happy one," according to an obituary in London's Daily Telegraph.
He became “particularly critical of the way trade and industry were handled,” according to another account. “As a result he was given a post of minor importance and took to drinking.”
Lonsdale “died during a mushroom-picking expedition in October 1970,” his obituary said. “He was 48.”
The biggest spy swap in history came in 1985, when Marian Zacharski, Poland's most famous spy, walked across the Glienicke Bridge as the key player in a swap for 23 Westerners jailed for espionage in East Germany and Poland.
Zacharski had lived in the United States from about 1977 until his arrest in 1981, during which time he became president of a machine tool company, giving him access to important industrial and trade secrets.
He, too, was honored upon his return. But eventually things turned bad. Prosecutors in Warsaw charged him with flagrant mismanagement of a chain of hard-currency exchange stores, and police wanted to question him about illegal car trading.
But then Zacharski proved that old spies don’t necessarily fade away. After all, they know how to vanish.
In June 1996, he left for Switzerland, never to be seen again.
In 2008, Polish TV did a six-part series on his life.
Anna Chapman, the sensational star of Russia's current batch of suspected spies, can probably look forward to a TV show, too -- on top of a postage-stamp portrait -- whether she survives happily or not.
Most of them don't.
| July 8, 2010; 12:10 AM ET
Categories: Foreign policy, Intelligence, Justice/FBI, Lawandcourts, Military | Tags: Anatoly Shcharansky, Anna Chapman, Gordon Lonsdale, Hana Koecher, Heinz Felfe, Helen Kroger, Karl Koecher, Kim Philby, Marian Zacharski, Peter Kroger, Rudolf Abel
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