Rudolf Ivanovich Abel (real name Vilyam "Willie" Genrikhovich Fisher), was a Soviet intelligence officer. He adopted his alias when arrested on charges of conspiracy by FBI agents in 1957.
Born in Benwell, Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom, to Russian émigré parents, became an apprentice draughtsman at Swan Hunter, Wallsend, and attended evening classes at Rutherford College before being accepted into London University in 1920. Though Willy qualified for university, the costs prohibited him from attending. In 1921, following the Russian Revolution, the Fisher family left Newcastle upon Tyne to return to Moscow.
When in Russia, being fluent in English, Russian, German, Polish and Yiddish, Willy worked for the Comintern as a translator. Willy later served in the Soviet military before undertaking foreign service as a radio operator in Soviet intelligence in the late 1920s and early 1930s. He later served in an instructional role before taking part in intelligence operations against the Germans during World War II. After the war, he began working for the KGB, which sent him to the United States where he worked as part of a spy ring based in New York City.
In 1957 the U.S. Federal Court in New York convicted Fisher on three counts of conspiracy as a Soviet spy for his involvement in what became known as the Hollow Nickel Case and sentenced him to 30 years' imprisonment at Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, Georgia. He served just over four years of his sentence before he was exchanged for captured American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers. Back in the Soviet Union, he lectured on his experiences.
In 1927, he married Elena Lebedeva, a harp student at Moscow Conservatoire. They would have one child together, a daughter named Evelyn who was born on October 8, 1929. During his interview with the russian secret service, it was determined he should adopt a Russian-sounding name and William August Fisher became Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher. Following his recruitment, he worked for the OGPU as a radio operator in Norway, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and France. He returned to the Soviet Union in 1936, as head of a school that trained radio operators destined for duty in illegal residences.
Despite his foreign birth and the accusation that his brother-in-law was a Trotskyist, Willy narrowly escaped the Great Purge. He was, however, in 1938 dismissed from the NKVD, which in 1934 replaced the OGPU. During World War II he again trained radio operators for clandestine work behind German lines. Having been adopted as a protégé by Pavel Sudoplatov, he took part in Operation Scherhorn in August 1944. Sudoplatov later described this operation as "the most successful radio deception game of the war". Willy's role in this operation was rewarded with what his superiors regarded as one of the most prestigious postings in Russian foreign intelligence, the United States.
After rejoining the KGB in 1946, Willy was trained as a spy for entry into the United States. In October 1948, using a Soviet passport, he travelled from Leningradsky Station to Warsaw. In Warsaw, he discarded his Soviet passport and using a U.S. passport travelled via Czechoslovakia and Switzerland to Paris. His new passport bore the name Andrew Kayotis, the first of the many Willy's fake identities. The real Andrew Kayotis was Lithuanian born and had become an American citizen after migrating to the United States. Kayotis had applied for and received a visa to visit the Soviet Union. However, the Soviets retained his passport, which Willy eventually used. Kayotis had been in poor health and died while visiting relatives in Vilnius, Lithuania. Willy, as Kayotis, then travelled to North America, disembarking at Quebec. Still using Kayotis' passport, he travelled to Montreal and crossed into the United States on November 17.
On November 26, Willy met with Soviet "illegal" Josef Romvoldovich Grigulevich. Grigulevich gave Willy a genuine birth certificate, a forged draft card and a forged tax certificate, all under the name of Emil Robert Goldfus, along with one thousand dollars. The real Goldfus had died at only 14 months old, having been born on August 2, 1902, in New York.
In July 1949, Willy met with a "legal" KGB resident from the Soviet consulate general, who provided him with money. Shortly afterwards Willy was ordered to reactivate the "Volunteer" network to smuggle atomic secrets to Russia. Willy spent most of his first year organizing his network. During this period, Willy received the Order of the Red Banner, an important Soviet medal normally reserved for military personnel.
In 1950, Willy's illegal residency was endangered by the arrest of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Late in 1953, Willy moved to Brooklyn. Since he was posing as an artist and photographer, nobody questioned his irregular working hours and frequent disappearances. Over time his artistic technique improved and he became a competent painter.
But the FBI was on his tracks, and finally arrested him. Willy was tried in Federal Court at New York City during October 1957, on three counts:
* Conspiracy to transmit defense information to the Soviet Union - 30 years imprisonment;
* Conspiracy to obtain defense information - 10 years imprisonment; and
* Conspiracy to act in the United States as an agent of a foreign government without notification to the Secretary of State - 5 years imprisonment.
On November 15, 1957, Judge Mortimer W. Byers imposed on Willy a total sentence of thirty years and fines of three thousand dollars.
Willy Fisher, or "Rudolf Ivanovich Abel", was to serve his sentence at Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, Georgia. He tried to busy himself with painting, learning silk-screening, playing chess, and writing logarithmic tables for the sheer enjoyment of it. Willy would serve just over four years of his sentence. On February 10, 1962, he was exchanged for the shot-down American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers.
After his return to Moscow, Willy was employed by the Illegals Directorate of the KGB's First Chief Directorate, giving speeches and lecturing school children on intelligence work, but became increasingly disillusioned. Willy, who was a heavy smoker, died of lung cancer on 15 November 1971. His ashes were interred at the Donskoy Cemetery under his real name, and a few Western correspondents were invited there to view for themselves the true identity of the spy who never "broke". Soviet union issued a post stamp in his honour.