For those of my generation, the Cold War cast a huge shadow over every corner of the globe, all the way from 1945 till 1991. One one side you had the US, the UK and their allies and on the other you had the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics( USSR) and its Communist satellite countries. Spying and counter spying was the order of the day. As a result we grew up reading many spy thrillers by writers like John Le Carre, Ian Fleming, Joe Weisberg, Karen Cleveland amongst others.
Recently, I read the story of a man who didn’t write such books but was the cause of such books to be written. This book was, ” Spies, Lies, and Exile” by Simon Kuper . It is the fascinating story of a Soviet double agent who betrayed the British who he was working for.
The story of George Blake was not as well known as others of his ilk such as Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, and Guy Burgess. He was born in Rotterdam in The Netherlands, in 1922, the son of Albert Behar, a Jew and his Dutch wife, Catherine Beijderwellen. During his childhood he was known more by his Dutch pet name of Poek. His father who had fought for the British in the First World War had a British passport, so his son was born a British citizen though he saw himself as being more of a Dutch boy.
During the Second World War, Poek fought the invading Nazis by joining the Dutch Resistance as a teenager. He then undertook a long and complex route until he reached England, where his mother and sisters had taken shelter years ago. Here he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve but was soon selected by the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) His British father having been a veteran of World War 1 , his own contributions fighting the Germans during World War II and his flair for languages made him a good choice for a career- as a spy! He joined the Dutch section of the SIS and after the War spent a few years in The Netherlands.
He was sent for a course in Cambridge which was to change his life. He met Professor Elizabeth Hill who proved to be a great influence on his politics. His next posting was in Korea where the War raged between the Communist North Korea and the US supported South Korea.He was taken prisoner here and it was when he was in captivity that he became a double agent for the Soviets.
The book spells out in great detail what he did as a double agent, and some of the coups he pulled off for his Russian employers while never being even remotely suspected of betraying the British. Things couldn’t go on like this for ever! He was arrested by the British in 1961 and after a famous trial was sentenced to 42 years imprisonment, the length of his sentence being considered most unusual because many other spies had been sentenced to far less sentences.
His dramatic escape, after 5 years of captivity, from the British prison at Wormwood Scrubs, how he reached Russia and stayed there for the rest of his long life make up the rest of the story.
In the course of the book, you get an understanding of how Blake’s mind worked; what drove him to do what he did; and why people sometimes make – what most would consider -unusual career and life choices.
George Blake, later known as Georgy Ivanovitch, died in Moscow in December 2020 aged 98.
Overall, an interesting book if you like spy thrillers and war stories.