The 90th birthday of a double agent from the height of the Cold War has been made the occasion for extensive celebration in Russia, with a documentary film, a rare newspaper interview stressing his happy retirement in Russia and a personal birthday greeting on Sunday from President Vladimir Putin.
The spy, George Blake, betrayed British intelligence starting in the 1950s; he was found out in 1961 and sentenced to 42 years in prison. But he escaped five years later using a ladder of rope and knitting needles, made his way to the Soviet Union and has been living out his last years serenely in a cottage outside Moscow.
His story contrasts sharply with those of other Russian moles in British intelligence from around the same time, most notably Kim Philby, who defected to the Soviet Union in 1963. Philby was said to suffer from depression and alcoholism afterward, which some said stemmed from disappointment and disillusionment with the Communist state he found there. He died in 1988.
Blake, on the other hand, has lived well and apparently happily on his Russian pension, and over the years has rebuilt his contacts with his children in England, who traveled to Moscow for Sunday's festivities.
"I am a happy person, a very lucky person, exceptionally lucky," Blake told an interviewer from Rossisskaya Gazeta, the official government newspaper.
Though condemned as a traitor in Britain, where he is believed to have caused the deaths of scores of British agents, he made it clear that he is not agonizing over the past.
"I do not believe in life after death," he said. "In my childhood, I wanted to become a priest, but that passed. As soon as our brain stops receiving blood, we go, and after that there will be nothing. No punishment for the bad things you did, nor rewards for the utterly wonderful."
It seems unlikely that Blake should end his days so comfortably.
A convinced Communist dating to a period when he was a prisoner of North Korean forces, he was responsible for a crushing defeat for American espionage, the discovery of a costly secret tunnel the Americans had dug into East Berlin to let the CIA tap buried Soviet telephone cables. Using information supplied by Blake, the KGB uncovered and thwarted the tunnel after 11 months and 11 days of operation, according to research published in the book "Battleground Berlin."
Blake was exposed by a Polish double agent a few years later.
After his escape from the Wormwood Scrubs prison in London, he was smuggled to Berlin in a wooden box in the back of a van. In the interview published last week, he said he then presented himself to border guards in East Berlin, asked to speak to a Soviet officer, and when told to wait, immediately fell into a deep sleep.
"These have been the happiest years of my life, and the most peaceful," he said of his life in Moscow. He described, quite fondly, how he and the other British defectors stuck together in their new lives in Russia. His mother, he said, had taken a liking to Philby because "Mum liked to drink martinis in the evening, and so did Kim." He recalled his naive intention, after the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service awarded him with a Volga car, to climb into it and drive across the country. "At that time," he said ruefully, "I knew very little about Russian roads."
Blake, known in Russia as Giorgi Ivanovich Bekhter, rarely appears in public. When a reporter from The Daily Telegraph tracked him down near his home recently, he explained that he could not give an interview without permission from the Foreign Intelligence Service.
Putin, himself a former intelligence officer, hailed Blake's service to the Soviet Union and told him that he had a place in the "constellation of strong and courageous men."
"You and your colleagues made an enormous contribution to the preservation of peace, to security, and to strategic parity," he wrote in a telegram made public Sunday. "This is not visible to the eyes of outsiders, but very important work deserves the very highest acknowledgment and respect."
© 2012, The New York Times News Service