The Spy Who Got Away

Dr. Thomas Boghardt, Historian

In the Pantheon of spies, George Blake deserves a special place. An SIS (British intelligence) officer recruited by the KGB in 1955, he provided Moscow with prodigious amounts of classified information at the height of the Cold War. He betrayed not only a joint CIA-SIS tunnel project, designed to tap into Soviet and East German communication lines underneath East Berlin, but also the identities of hundreds of British agents, many of whom were consequently executed. “I don’t know what I handed over because it was so much,” he later commented.

Why did he do it? Blake claims his witnessing of U.S. bomber attacks on “completely defenseless Korean villages” in the Korean War converted him to communism. Perhaps, but I suspect an additional, more personal motivation. After World War II, Blake reportedly fell madly in love with an SIS secretary whose father forbade her to marry him because of Blake’s Jewish background. Whether the story is true or not, Blake certainly was keenly aware of, and deeply resented his outsider status in the rigidly class-structured British society.  Decades later, he tellingly said: “To betray, you first have to belong. I never belonged.” Was espionage his way of getting back at a society that had never fully accepted him?

Blake’s post-espionage career is no less remarkable than his spying. Betrayed to the West by a Polish defector in 1960, Blake was sentenced to 42 years in prison, after the judge proclaimed his case “one of the worst that can be envisaged in times of peace.” In 1966, sympathizers sprang him from Wormwood Scrubs prison, possibly with KGB assistance, and Blake fled to Moscow. Unlike many Western defectors, who quickly descended into alcoholism and depression behind the Iron Curtain, Blake thrived. He married a Russian woman and was made a KGB colonel—an unusual honor for a Western defector. In 2007, President Vladimir Putin paid tribute to Blake as one of Russia’s greatest spies by conferring the Order of Friendship on him. Today, Blake still lives quietly in a government-owned apartment by Moscow. In his own words, he has led a “very full and, in the end, happy life.”

Nothing is What it Seems

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