The action remained secret until it was successfully completed. At around 8:50 a.m. on February 10, 1962, two men walked past each other on the Glienicke Bridge in the extreme south-west of Berlin. The 58-year-old Rudolf Ivanovich Abel (1903-1971) walked in the direction of Potsdam, i.e. GDR; traveling in the opposite direction to West Berlin was Francis Gary Powers (1929–1977), a 32-year-old CIA pilot.
But Abel was much more valuable - you could see that from the fact that two other prisoners were released by the Eastern Bloc secret services in exchange for him, although not on the Glienicker Bridge that morning. In fact, he was the highest-ranking Soviet spy to be arrested in the West up to that point. He also had the biography of a flawless communist revolutionary.
Abel's parents both came from Russia, his father was of German descent, but they had their children in northern England. Rudolf, born in 1903, turned out to be extremely clever and gifted in languages – he passed the entrance exam at the University of London at the age of 16, but was unable to study for lack of money.
Instead, the family emigrated to the newly formed Soviet Union - Abel's father had an old acquaintance with the revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin. Rudolf, who spoke fluent English, German, Russian and Polish, as well as Yiddish, made a career in the espionage business. Luckily, he escaped prosecution during Stalin's "Great Purges," but had to resign from the Secret Service. He did not return to the KGB until 1946, and two years later he entered the United States under an assumed name. His task: to set up an extensive espionage network, aimed primarily at the secrets of the US nuclear program.
Under a false name, Abel set up an apartment in Brooklyn in 1950 and worked as a photographer. Most importantly, he operated several hidden radio stations in the eastern, northern and even western United States, collecting and relaying information from his agents. He had long been the central figure in Soviet foreign espionage.
However, the FBI had been on his trail since 1953, when a nickel that had been hollowed out for microfilm had accidentally been used as change. At the end of April 1957, his assistant was called to Moscow “to report” – fearing punishment by the KGB, he turned himself in to the US Embassy in Paris. Abel went into hiding under the false identity of "Martin Collins", but was located in Brooklyn at the end of May and was under constant surveillance from June 13, 1957. Six days later, the FBI intervened and arrested him.
Initially, the reason for detention was only his false passport. But in the course of the investigation, the entire spy ring was dug up. Abel expected the death penalty, but his defense attorney, who worked for the CIA's predecessor OSS during World War II, argued: "You can't exchange a dead spy." The court imposed a 30-year prison sentence.
Four and a half years later the time had come: Abel was exchanged for Powers, who had been shot down in 1960 with his U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union. The top spy returned to the Soviet Union, where he spent a comparatively luxurious retirement as a respected KGB veteran. In 1971, heavy smoker Rudolf Abel died of lung cancer in Moscow.
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This article was first published in February 2021.