The spy at home in the cold
The extraordinary life story of the former spy George Blake forms part of this year’s – online – Jewish Book Week
18 March, 2021 — By Dan Carrier
From The Happy Traitor: George Blake at home in Moscow in around 1997. Photo: Will Stewart/Shutterstock
WHEN George Blake fed information to his KGB handlers, he asked of them one thing: don’t cause anyone any harm. Use this information to protect the USSR, but do not hurt anyone in doing so.
Such a request was, author Simon Kuper states, a preposterous wish and that the KGB were going to do whatever they liked.
Simon Kuper writes columns for the Financial Times and is also known for his books on football.
Speaking online at an event at this year’s Jewish Book Week about his new book, The Happy Traitor, which retells Blake’s story and considers his motivations, Simon revealed his interest in the George Blake case, and how he came to meet the former spy. He tells the audience that this naivety was a sign of the idealism that motivated Blake – and inability to come to terms with the fact that his actions, more than 50 years ago, led to the deaths of others.
“He was a peaceful man at heart and he had to live in denial,” the author says.
The Blake escape from Wormwood Scrubs in 1966 shook the establishment – how did a notorious spy, said to be responsible for the deaths of 40 British agents and serving a 42-year sentence, disappear into the night, only to re-emerge in Moscow?
Drawing on East German police files and an interview Blake gave the author in 2012, this fresh narrative offers a recognition of the deadly effect Blake’s actions had, while trying to understand what made him turn.
Simon was fascinated by a man who had fought in the Dutch Resistance, spied for M16, been a Korean war prisoner, and then became a double agent.
“He had an astonishing life story, part of the central drama of the 20th century,” said Simon.
That Blake was still alive drove Kuper to arrange a meeting, the last face-to-face interview he gave to a Western journalist before his death four months ago aged 98.
Held at Blake’s KGB-owned Dacha in Moscow, Simon describes it as being “like something out of a John le Carré novel”.
“I walked down this little lane, and there was this little man with a stick and a dog, waiting for me – it was George Blake,” he recalls. “He walked me into his pre-revolutionary home and started speaking in Dutch.
“I have been a journalist for more than 30 years and have never sat down with someone who had such a remarkable life story and be able to tell it. He was self-reflective and very intelligent.
“He was able to self-criticise and laugh at himself, and was a good conversation partner.”
Simon struck a gentleman’s agreement with Blake that he would not publish a book until after his death.
“[The former East German Stasi records] were a goldmine,” he says. “He’d be flown into Berlin to give a lecture – and they would be recorded. His espionage career by then was over, so he was very revealing.”
Blake’s actions can be understood better when you consider his character, adds Simon. “He was genuinely idealistic,”he says. “He’d been working for British Intelligence, a committed anti Nazi.”
Blake watched Germany invade Holland, had fought for the Resistance and then found his way to Britain – via the Spanish Pyrenees – in 1943.
When the Second World War ended, Blake stayed on at M16. He began to experience the harsh realities of the Cold War.
“He was organising former German naval officers to spy on the Soviet Union – and he is uncomfortable about this,” says Simon. “He is being asked to work with former Nazis to spy on his former allies.”
Blake learned Russian, and M16 sent him to Korea. It was his experience there that saw him switch sides.
“Britain enters the war as a poodle of America, thinks Blake, and he became disillusioned,” adds Simon. Blake had believed the British stood for a set of honourable standards – and Korea made him doubt this as he watched a bombing campaign lead to a fifth of the population either dead or injured.
In captivity, Blake is given Marx and Lenin to read. He found their arguments compelling.
“He went to the camp guard and handed him a note for the Russian embassy,” says Simon.
It set him off on a career of espionage.
When Blake was caught, he denied everything – but broke when M16 said they thought he had turned because he had been tortured.
He took offence: “They did not make me! I did of my own accord!” Simon reports Blake as saying.
Simon covers Blake’s daring escape and how, despite becoming cynical about Russian communism, he built a new life – and was eventually reconciled with the British family he had left behind.
“Many will say I do not deserve happiness, but I have it,” Simon said Blake told him.
He died in Moscow on December 26, 2020, aged 98.
• The Happy Traitor: Spies, Lies and Exile in Russia – the extraordinary story of George Blake. By Simon Kuper. Profile Books £14.99
• The online event with Simon Kuper discussing his book with Helen Fry – a specialist in the history of British Intelligence – is available until March 31. For a ticket, price £9.50, go to: https://jewishbookweek.com/event/the-happy-traitor-spies-lies-and-exile/
Jewish Book Week’s extensive range of talks and discussions are all available to watch online until March 31.
• Kosher Poker: a consideration of poker, Jews and writers, with actor and screenwriter Patrick Marber, author and journalist Peter Alson and broadcaster and poker player Shelley Rubenstein.
• Why Do Jews Love The Godfather?, a discussion on the 1972 Francis Ford Coppola film with journalist Jonathan Freedland, The Godfather Legacy author Arlon Lebo, and Tough Jews author Rich Cohen.
• Taking Liberties: Jewish Women Poets, a talk by writers Aviva Dautch and Jacqueline Saphra that includes everything from Bible stories to re-interpreting great art.
See the website for more information on how to buy digital passes for the entire programme at https://jewishbookweek.com/