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Rudolf Abel
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Spy
    (July 11, 1903-November 15, 1971)
    Born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, United Kingdom
    Birth name was William August Fisher
    KGB radio operator during World War II
    Sent to the US to take control of a spy ring in New York City (1948)
    Arrested by the FBI (June 21, 1957)
    Convicted of espionage and sentenced to 30 years in prison
    Exchanged for U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (February 10, 1962)
    Portrayed by Mark Rylance in ‘Bridge of Spies’ (2015)
    The FBI and KGB both exaggerated his importance as a spy.
    He apparently never recruited any agents during his time in the US.
    The FBI claimed they caught him after he mistakenly used a hollowed-out nickel containing microfilm to pay a newspaper boy.
    While a newspaper boy did end up with such a nickel that he handed over to the police (who forwarded it to the FBI), the feds never were able to either trace the coin back to anyone in Abel’s spy network or decipher the microfilm.
    He was actually identified far more prosaically: Reino Hayhanen, an alcoholic and incompetent member of the spy ring, defected and identified Abel to authorities.
    After his arrest, he told the FBI his real name was Rudolf Abel; Abel was actually a deceased KGB colonel.
    He went undetected for nine years in the US.
    As his cover story, he claimed to be a painter and photographer, and he actually was a competent artist.
    His lawyer spared him from the death penalty by arguing, rather presciently, that the US might someday want to trade him to the Soviets if they caught an American spy of similar value.
    Freakish coincidence department: novelist Norman Mailer lived in the same rooming house where Abel had his studio. At the time, Mailer was writing a novel titled ‘Barbary Shore,’ in which a minor character was a Russian spy. As he revised the novel, the spy evolved into the central figure. Shortly after the novel was finished, Abel was arrested.
    Mailer commented, ‘It made me decide there’s no clear boundary between experience and imagination.’

Credit: C. Fishel


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