The spy who stayed out in the cold: George Blake at 90
I've no regrets, says traitor who betrayed 400 British agents
In a village somewhere not far from Moscow, lives a man who will celebrate his 90th birthday this weekend. The pensioner, who goes by the name Georgy Ivanovich, is almost blind and walks with a stick, though he retains a sharp dress sense and an even sharper mind.
He is no ordinary resident of the small dacha community, however, but George Blake, one of the most extraordinary characters in the history of espionage and one of Britain's most notorious traitors.
During more than a decade of work for Britain's Secret Intelligence Services, Blake was a double agent, passing secrets to the Soviets that resulted in the unmasking of a number of British agents and the foiling of many British plans. He was jailed for 42 years for espionage in 1961, but five years later escaped from Wormwood Scrubs prison. He fled to East Germany and onwards to Russia.
In a rare interview before his 90th birthday, Blake told the Russian newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta that he has no major regrets. "I am a happy man," he said. "I am very lucky; exceptionally lucky." He still lives with Ida, whom he married two years after arriving in Russia, and with whom he has a 40-year-old son.
Blake is the last survivor of the group of British spies who turned traitor for ideological reasons. But unlike Kim Philby and the rest of the "Cambridge Five", Blake says he never really felt part of the British establishment, and indeed still refuses to accept the label of a traitor, saying that one has to belong to a country first in order to betray it.
Born in Rotterdam in 1922 to a Dutch mother and a Turkish-Jewish father, he fought for the Dutch Resistance during the Second World War before arriving in Britain and joining the secret service.
His world view was turned on his head during a long imprisonment by North Korean forces during the Korean War, where he read Marxist literature and spoke at length with his captors. "I felt very acutely that I was on the wrong side and that I should do something about it," he recalled in an interview.When he was sent to Berlin in 1955 with the task of recruiting Soviet agents, he was already working for the Soviets.
He is believed to have betrayed the names of more than 400 British agents to the Soviets, disrupting the MI6 network in Eastern Europe and leading to several executions. He was instrumental in warning the Soviets of British and US plans to build a tunnel to East Berlin.
"It is hard to overrate the importance of the information received through Blake," Sergei Ivanov, a spokesman for the SVR, Russia's foreign intelligence agency, said in 2007. "It is thanks to Blake that the Soviet Union avoided very serious military and political damage which the United States and Great Britain could have inflicted on it."
In the same year, President Vladimir Putin, himself a former KGB agent based in East Germany, presented Blake with the Order of Friendship, a top Russian honour, in a Kremlin ceremony.
Last year, Russia's state-controlled Channel One broadcast a two-part docudrama featuring Blake's exploits spying for the Soviets and then escaping from Wormwood Scrubs. Blake was on set for much of the filming and said that he liked the result. After his escape, carried out with the help of an Irish cellmate who had got to know and like Blake during his imprisonment, Blake took several months to make the journey to Russia.
On arrival, he was given an apartment in the centre of Moscow and a dacha, both rent-free, as well as a pension. Although he used to spend most of his time at the Moscow flat, the article published yesterday says that his journeys into the centre of the capital now are extremely rare; he prefers the country air of the dacha.
In an interview nearly a decade ago, he said that he did not read the British press as he did not have internet, and could not afford the hard copies, but said he enjoyed listening to the BBC World Service. Now his eyesight has deteriorated to the point where he cannot read at all, and he goes out of the house only when accompanied by his wife. Blake has said before that his biggest regret was the way he treated his first wife, who did not know he was a double agent.
She divorced him while he was in prison. He has three sons from his first marriage, about whom he has previously preferred not to talk. However, he said that they would all be attending his 90th birthday celebration this weekend.
According to Blake, one is the vicar of a church not far from London, one is a former soldier and now works as a fireman, and the third is a Japanese specialist. His son from his second marriage, Mikhail, is a financial specialist.
His unwavering faith in Communism was tested when he defected, and he has spoken of the "gradual realisation" that the Marxist ideals he held did not work in Soviet practice. The carefully selected Russian state media that is sent to interview Blake does not ask about his views on the current Russian government. However, until recently he still took part in the training of SVR recruits.
Even after nearly half a century in Russia, Blake still speaks Russian with a strong accent, but of all the British spies to end up in Moscow, he adapted to his new life better than any; perhaps because he never considered himself British in the first place.
"Once, when I was meeting up with the comrades from the service at Yasenevo [SVR Headquarters], I joked to them: 'What you see before you is a foreign-made car, that has adapted very well to Russian roads.' They found it funny."
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