Of all the many British and American spies who served the Soviet Union, George Blake was arguably the most intriguing and certainly one of the most effective: he betrayed hundreds of agents in the 1950s, including many working for the West in East Germany. Sentenced to forty-two years behind bars after his exposure in 1961, he escaped from a London prison five years later and spent the rest of his life in Moscow, dying there only last year, on Boxing Day, aged ninety-eight. He was also one of the least fathomable and least well known of Soviet spies, especially compared with the Cambridge Five, who still fascinate a wider audience of espionage aficionados. According to Simon Kuper, Blake considered himself to have been “a happy man.” Yet his motives for switching sides are still an enigma, which Spies, Lies, and Exile seeks to crack.
Though Kuper offers few new revelations, he probes subtly into Blake’s psyche, covers his life expertly, and asks all the right questions—particularly in a three-hour dialogue with Blake in 2012, which he promised not to release until after the spy’s death. Kuper hoped their similar peripatetic and cosmopolitan experiences would lull the canny Blake into a more relaxed and expansive rapport with his interviewer. They shared a Jewish heritage as well, in Blake’s case through his father, who was born in Constantinople. The writer and the retired spy both had a Dutch-British background, and Blake preferred to conduct their heart-to-heart in Dutch, the first language of both.
Though Blake often let inquisitive Westerners quiz him following the publication in 1990 of his autobiography, No Other Choice, he proved a wary and ungossipy interlocutor, trotting out the same careful résumé of his life and conversion to communism, giving nothing away that might embarrass or incriminate his KGB bosses—or himself. Kuper does extract a clutch of spicy nuggets but nothing close to a late-in-life confession, let alone a fresh outpouring of regret.
Well before he plunged into double-agency with the Russians, Blake’s life was packed with high adventure. Born in Rotterdam in 1922, he was a pious and bookish boy, in thrall to a loving Dutch Calvinist mother but distant from his erratically prosperous father, Albert Behar, a Sephardic Jew from Egypt who owned a factory that made gloves for shipworkers. The name George was bestowed in honor of the British king, for whom Albert, a British citizen, had fought in World War I.
Albert’s sudden death when Blake was thirteen and the family’s ensuing slump in living standards provided the first of several jolts in his upbringing, for he was wrenched away from his mother and sisters and dispatched to a kindly paternal aunt in Cairo. There he was cast into a cosseted, cosmopolitan, and broadly Jewish family milieu in a grand villa in Zamalek, an exclusive island in the Nile. But he continued to consider himself essentially Christian and Dutch; he had once thought he would become a priest. A new though not dominant influence was an older Cairene cousin, Henri Curiel, an intensely political figure who first espoused anticolonial Arab nationalism and then something close to communism. He opened young George’s eyes to the horrors of Egyptian poverty and inequality.
In 1939, at the age of sixteen, he suffered another jolt when he was shipped back to Rotterdam. In May of the following year, the Germans invaded Holland, and he witnessed bombs devastating much of the city. One day his mother and sisters, with whom he had been happily reunited, fled in haste on one of the last boats to England without being able to forewarn him, delivering one more blow to his youthful psyche. But he soon found yet another family by joining the anti-Nazi Dutch resistance under the gaze of a friendly pastor. He served as a courier, risking execution if caught, before escaping through France and Spain (where he was briefly imprisoned) to Gibraltar and thence by boat to Scotland. Subterfuge must by necessity have become an early habit.
After a joyful reunion of mother, sisters, and son in England in 1943, the family changed its name from Behar to Blake. George volunteered for the navy. But his courage, ingenuity, and linguistic skills were soon noticed, so he was quickly inducted into the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), also known as MI6, at first into its Dutch section. Soon after the war ended he was sent back to Holland to wrap up operations there, but a year later was moved to another branch to help check out former Nazis in Hamburg, where he took over a post from Charles Wheeler—the father of Boris Johnson’s second wife—who said he “smiled rather too much. Smiled at breakfast.” He was then sent to Cambridge for a course in Russian language and literature, which he loved and at which he excelled. By then he was settling into a promising career in the SIS. As he rose, he was entrusted with recruiting agents, at first mainly Germans, to penetrate the intelligence services of the Soviet Union and its satellites, with the broad aim of discovering the ideological enemy’s intentions.
Clearly Blake was brave and brilliant, in particular as a linguist. By his late twenties he spoke six languages—Dutch, English, French, German, Arabic, and Russian—and later acquired a smattering of Korean. (His English accent had a slight hint of Dutch; his old-fashioned upper-class lexicon was rather too precise and pedantic, as if he had been a pupil of Professor Higgins.) His colleagues generally found him genial and clever, though self-contained and somehow distant, all good ingredients for a spy; even before his switch to communism he seemed to be holding something back. As a boy he had enjoyed mimicry. He was not above embroidering his exploits in Holland, for instance by telling girls that he had been parachuted back in, which was untrue.
It is odd, with the benefit of hindsight, that Blake’s British recruiters failed to sniff out how plainly he lacked a solid grounding. He had been shuttled all over the place throughout his childhood and youth, losing a father and being torn from a beloved mother. Twice he was denied a homeland. “I am sure that I lived through an identity crisis in those years,” he wrote in his autobiography.
Where did I belong? A Jewish cosmopolitan home, an English school [in Cairo], which reflected the glory of British imperial power, of which I also felt a part, and in my heart, all the time, a longing for Holland and all things Dutch.
His longest period in Britain was his five years in Wormwood Scrubs, the London prison where he was locked up after his conviction for treachery in 1961.
In 1948 he was sent to South Korea as vice-consul in Seoul (in fact, as head of the MI6 station), a year and a half before the North Korean invasion in June 1950. Under the illusion that Britain would be neutral, Blake and a small band of compatriots stayed after Seoul was captured but were taken prisoner as soon as their country joined the American-led alliance against the Communist North. For nearly three grueling years he suffered in captivity under a harsh, monotonous, unhealthy routine. It was during this time that he went over to the other side.
The precise process of his conversion remains a puzzle that Kuper and others have sought gamely to unpick. In Blake’s autobiography and in various interviews, he offers the same account. During his SIS training he had been given a short course in Marxism—“know thy enemy”—and thought it made a lot of sense. As a diplomat in Seoul he despised the corrupt and ferociously right-wing regime of the South Korean dictator, Syngman Rhee, which the North Korean Communists sought to overthrow. After being carted off to the north as a prisoner, he was appalled by the bombing of Korean villages by the US Air Force. Among the reading material his Communist captors allowed him, along with Treasure Island, was Marx’s Capital and Lenin’s The State and the Revolution, both in Russian, which evidently impressed him. Even before his capture, he may have resented the futility of the mission he had been given in Seoul, which was to seek out and persuade Russians in Vladivostok, 150 or so miles north of the border with Korea, to work undercover for the British or defect.
One day, after a year in captivity, according to Blake’s own testimony, he passed a note to a guard, asking him to forward it to a Russian officer. Six weeks later he underwent a series of interviews in a nearby town to which his closest prison companions were also separately taken, so that he was not seen to be singled out or favored. Blake’s offer to work “for the cause,” as he often called it, was accepted. But for the next year and a half he had to suffer the same bitter privations, as though his status had changed not at all. After returning to Britain and being greeted as a hero in April 1953, he waited until October before meeting his Soviet handler.
In January 1954, within months of his activation in London, he pulled off a great coup for the Russians by alerting them to plans to drill a tunnel in Berlin that would allow the West to eavesdrop on telephone communications from the KGB’s headquarters. Blake compromised the entire operation, but the KGB considered him so valuable that it did not warn other branches of the Soviet apparat that their conversations were being overheard, lest too many of them realize that a British intelligence agent was working for them. Astonishingly, though for similar reasons, the Russians did not publicly hail their “discovery” of the tunnel for nearly a year after Blake tipped them off, so as to protect his identity as a mole from the British and Americans. In 1955 Blake was posted full-time to Berlin with his new wife, a former MI6 secretary, and their growing family. During his eight years as an active KGB agent he handed over several thousand secret documents photographed with a little Minox camera. He gave away the entire list of safe houses and agents serving the British in East Germany and many in the Balkans.
Despite Blake’s own explanation, it has never been certain what tipped him into working for the Soviets. On one occasion early in his captivity in Korea he tried to escape but was caught and sent back to the camp without being punished, whereas at least one other prisoner who had done the same was summarily shot. Nikolai Loyenko, his first KGB handler in Korea, later half-jestingly hinted that Blake’s semi-starvation diet of cabbage and rice had become unbearable. “I brought him bread, conserves, chocolate,” Loyenko is said to have told a retired KGB general. “I have been convinced ever since that the way to a spy’s heart is through his stomach.” “We were all obsessed by the thought of food,” Blake conceded in his autobiography. Yet there is no evidence that he got preferable treatment after his offer to work for the Russians was accepted or that he switched sides to avoid being shot.
After Blake was exposed in 1961 by the defection of a senior Polish intelligence officer, the British officials who interrogated him were keen to suggest, in order to prod him into a confession and a possible hush-up, that he had been tortured and then blackmailed into betrayal. In Blake’s telling it was this insulting notion, after three days of remorseless interrogation, that provoked him, as a man of principle, to drop his guard:
Suddenly I felt an upsurge of indignation and I wanted my interrogators and everyone else to know that I acted out of conviction, out of a belief in communism, and not under duress or for financial gain. This feeling was so strong that without thinking what I was doing I burst out, “No, nobody tortured me! No, nobody blackmailed me! I myself approached the Soviets and offered my services to them of my own accord!”
All the same, there is something odd about his conversion at a time when Stalin’s long reign of terror, carried out by the very organization to which Blake had apparently offered his services freely, was well known to any discerning observer, especially one with a knowledge of Russian. Blake would certainly have observed the viciousness of the police state set up by the Russians in Germany’s eastern zone immediately after the war. By contrast, the members of the Cambridge Five had sworn fealty to the cause in the 1930s, when fascism was the enemy and Marxist idealists could blind themselves to the gulag and the mass murders carried out by the NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB that Blake served.
Yet no other explanation for Blake’s path to treachery has been convincingly suggested, and the consensus, shared by Kuper, is that he was likely in this instance, despite his record of deceit, to have been telling the truth. During World War II, writes Kuper, he had
participated in a deadly struggle between good and evil…. Communism versus capitalism looked like the sequel. And for a prisoner in North Korea Communism was “something to give him strength, and fibre, and hope, to keep him alive,” as his barrister Jeremy Hutchinson would argue at his trial….
Blake in that North Korean farmhouse [where he was held captive] was a moralistic twenty-eight-year-old with an abstract cast of mind who needed a new cause. All his old moorings had gone. He was a failed SIS officer, an ex-Dutchman and an ex-Calvinist, a cosmopolitan adrift. He was making up his identity as he went along.
Communism was made for him.
Another key to cracking the conundrum of Blake may well be his religiosity, a constant thread throughout his life, before and after his conversion to Marxism. “His interest in religion is crucial,” wrote John le Carré in a letter to George Carey, who made a perceptive film about him, Masterspy of Moscow—George Blake (2015). Both Blake’s autobiography (note its title) and subsequent interviews contain plentiful references to his early belief in predestination and later in a kind of Marxist determinism, often wrapped in biblical quotations. “You swapped your religion for Communism,” suggested Kuper, expecting him to demur, as they chatted in his dacha outside Moscow. “Yes, that’s very clear,” says Blake.
Religion promises people, let’s say, Communism after their death. Because in heaven we are all equal and we live in wonderful circumstances. And Communism promises people a wonderful life here on earth—and nothing came of that either.
Blake freely admitted in later life, in his book and in interviews with Kuper and others, that the Soviet experiment, as he preferred to call it, was a disaster: “After a week in Moscow I knew that communism was the biggest disappointment of my life.” Yet he seemed to have had no fundamental regrets, except for his betrayal of his blameless and loving British wife, who was totally unaware of his double life. (Blake married again in Moscow and had another son, while his British wife also remarried and had another son.)
The enigma, however, remains uncracked. Did he not have qualms about serving the cause of Stalin—or about working for his chief executioners? This is where his explanations mix self-delusion, naiveté, denial, and rank humbug. At one point, asked by Kuper whether the purges had not deterred him from changing sides, Blake said that when he was recruited Khrushchev had already denounced Stalin, yet that did not occur until five years later, in 1956. The ogre was still in full command when Blake signed up. Later, using the rather prim and priggish language that characterized him, he conceded to Kuper that “the Stalin period did a lot of harm.”
The question of the harm that Blake personally did casts a further unpleasant light on him. It was often said, without any evidence, that the unprecedentedly severe sentence of forty-two years he received at his trial at the Old Bailey in London in 1961 represented a year for every agent betrayed and possibly executed. Blake in his autobiography says, “I do not deny that I did reveal the identity of a large number of agents to the Soviet intelligence service, not forty as alleged, but nearer four hundred.” In another interview he says, “I can’t say but it must have been—oh, I don’t know—but maybe 500, 600.” A KGB counterintelligence general, Alexander Sokolov, later put the figure at “several hundred.”
Blake invariably insisted that none had been executed. “I revealed their identities on the express understanding that they would not come to any harm,” he wrote. “I felt particularly strongly about this.” All the same, he adds, “the agents whose identities I revealed were not innocent persons.” Many had handed over information “for financial gain.” Besides, “they were betrayed in the same way that I was betrayed,” by agents on each side who had turned coat. And it was war, albeit of the cold kind. None of the agents, he noted, was British, though “to me, it makes no difference…whether a person is British or Hottentot. We are all human beings.”
It is likely that many of the agents betrayed by Blake were simply turned back into Soviet assets rather than killed. But Stasi records unearthed by Kuper show that many were sentenced to long terms, including life in prison, and it is likely that at least several, especially those handed to the KGB, were executed. The notion that Blake could have believed “assurances” that none would have been harmed suggests that he was either stunningly naive, which surely cannot have been the case, or stunningly self-deceiving.
Was it all worth it? Kuper quotes something Blake told another Dutchman, Hans Olink, who interviewed him in 1999:
Yes, I believe it was worthwhile…. I thought—and still think—that the communist experiment (and it always was an experiment) was worth trying. It was a very noble experiment. And had it succeeded, it would of course have been a great step forward for humanity.
Kuper neatly sums up the contradiction at the heart of Blake’s experiment in treachery for a good cause: he seemed “a gentle, well-meaning, peace-loving man who probably became a de facto serial killer.” In yet another intriguing exchange, as the two muse over history, Blake frets over Peter the Great’s methods. “I don’t like violence…. I’ve never had the need to use violence,” he says. “I must be honest, I have always tried to avoid it.” Kuper puts it succinctly: “Blake could morally compartmentalise.”
September 23, 2021
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