Willie Fisher was born in 1903 at Benwell, Newcastle upon Tyne, the second son of a man who had been a revolutionary agitator alongside Vladimir Lenin in the 1890s in Saint Petersburg. Charged with sedition, Willie's father, Heinrich, fled to England, arriving in the Newcastle area in September, 1901.
Heinrich found work at the Armstrong Whitworth Company, manufacturers of naval craft and their heavy guns. He joined the Newcastle Socialist Institute and purportedly started smuggling rifles to Russia.
Willie displayed not only an aptitude for math and the sciences, but also for learning languages and the arts. His parents provided piano lessons while Willie picked up the guitar on his own. Both he and his one year older brother, Henry, earned scholarships to high schools.
World War I interrupted Willie's education. He took a job as a draftsman's apprentice while attending evening college courses before being accepted at London University in 1920. However, the relatively high costs of a college education caused Willie to drop out.
Reading and hearing about the early successes of the Russian Revolution provoked Heinrich to pack up the family for a move to Moscow. There were many "returneee" families in Moscow during the summer of 1921. As older teenagers Willie and his brother Henry's first working positions were something akin to counselors at a summer camp for younger children of "returnee" parents. The brothers accompanied a group of children about twenty miles northeast of Moscow to the banks of the Klyazma River, a tributary of the Volga. The kids slept in cabins and huts amid the piney woods and open meadows of the area. One afternoon, as they swam in the river an undertow dragged one of the smaller boys away. Henry jumped in to help, but the current swept both under.
The loss more or less destroyed Willie and Henry's mother. She could or would not overcome her grief and most damaging she directly and indirectly blamed Willie for the loss of her first born.
Willie sublimated his grief and survivor guilt through his ability to speak Russian, English, German, Yiddish and Polish. By the fall of 1921 the teenager took a position with the Comintern as a translator.
Even in London Willie had been fascinated by rudimentary radio transmitters. In Moscow he received more definitive training and by the mid 1920s he was serving in a radio battalion of the Red Army. Returning to Moscow in 1927, he was recruited by the secret police unit known as OGPU, a forerunner of the KGB. During this period Willie also met, courted, and wed harpist Elena Lebedeva, whom he first heard playing at the Moscow Conservatoire.
The couple had one child, Evelyn, born in October, 1929. Perhaps the chances for more were cut short when the OGPU stationed Willie, as a radio operator, in Norway, France, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. He did not return to the Soviet Union until 1936.
Thereafter, he worked for the NKVD, which had replaced the OGPU in 1934. Willie trained other radiomen and women for positions around the globe, essentially as spies. Heinrich Fisher died during this period, possibly saving Willie from Stalin's "Great Purge," which claimed the lives of most of Lenin's cronies, and their families, from the early years of Bolshevik rebellion in czarist Russia.
During the last year of World War II, Willie took part in Operation Berezino (sometimes called Operation Scherhorn). The Red Army captured the German Lieutenant-Colonel Heinrich Scherhorn in the summer of 1944, but the Germans did not know it. Men like Willie Fisher, as part of Operation Berezino, fed radio information to the Germans that Lt. Colonel Scherhorn was leading a large armed group behind the Soviet front lines. The deception prompted the Germans to send scores of commando units to assist Scherhorn. Dozens were captured by the Red Army almost as soon as they crossed the lines. Using these authentic voices in radio transmissions, the Germans were lured into continuing to send more commandos through the lines up until the closing hours of the war.
As a result of his highly praised work in Operation Berezino, Willie was granted one of the plum postings from within the Soviet foreign intelligence community: the United States. Under the codename MARK, he took up residence in New York City in 1949 using the passport of Emil Goldfus, an infant who died in 1902. Somehow, the NKVD had acquired Goldfus' birth certificate in the confusing aftermath of the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s.
For more than a year "MARK" traveled the U.S., with money provided through Soviet embassies, reorganizing a network of so-called "Volunteers" who had been trying to acquire diagrams from the Manhattan Project. Indeed, one of Willie's radio operation trainees from the '30s, known as Kitty Harris, had lived in New Mexico during much of the war, accumulating material from American physicists then passing the information on to Soviet couriers.
Willie/MARK also had some contact with Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the accused, and condemned, atomic spies. After their executions he expressed relief that they had seemingly not mentioned him to U.S. Authorities, though at some point in the early 1950s the FBI began compiling a file on a Soviet spy they alternately called “the Colonel” or Rudolph Abel, but the agents on the case could not match a face to the file.
In late October, 1952, Moscow sent MARK a new assistant. The confirmation of the assistant's arrival was his posting of a thumbtack on a specific sign in Central Park. The new assistant, Reino Hayhanen went by the alias Eugene Maki. Unfortunately for Willie/MARK, Hayhanen/Maki was a chronic alcoholic prone to slipshod spy work.
With the KGB now supplying money for Willie's network of spies, too often Hayhanen spent much of the funds on booze. By early 1957, Willie had had enough. He demanded that Moscow recall Hayhanen. This panicked Hayhanen, who thought he would be sent to Siberia or executed upon his return to the Soviet Union.
Instead of traveling directly to Moscow, Hayhanen cut his return trip short in Paris, where he entered the U.S. embassy to make the best deal possible for himself. Because he was inebriated at the time, CIA officials at the Paris embassy initially dismissed Hayhanen as mentally unstable. Eventually, however, Hayhanen/Maki's tales of espionage bore too many truths to be ignored. He was turned over to the FBI and the jig was up for Willie. Early in the morning of June 21, 1957 he answered a knock at his door in Brooklyn's Hotel Latham. It was FBI agents, come-a-calling. One of the agents addressed MARK as Colonel Abel.
It was under the name Rudolph Abel that the rest of the story was spelled out in James B. Donovan's written account, Strangers on a Bridge. Mr. Donovan's experience with the so-called Rudolph Abel is currently the subject of Steven Spielberg's film version of Willie's later years, Bridge of Spies (screenplay by Mark Charman, Joel Coen, and Ethan Coen).
*Malcolm Macdonald's website is malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com