A trip down memory lane –to ex-British spy George Blake’s dacha.12 January 2021
A table tennis table in the garden was a focal point for the family’s entertainment.
Tracked down to his country villa, Blake, wearing a black beret and a scuffed, lilac-coloured coat, said he was unable to give an interview to a foreign newspaper.
“That [an interview with the state newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta] only happened because I had permission from the Service,” he explained.
When a photographer presented him with a magazine featuring a portrait of one of Blake’s former KGB spy colleagues, he said: “Thank you, but I will not be able to read it. I have only 20 per cent vision now.”
His wife Ida, 77, who was escorting him on his walk, said: “He doesn’t see at all well now and he suffers from the changes in air pressure: they affect the capillaries in his eyes.
“But we go out for regular walks and I read to him. This week I’m reading to him from a tome on the 1812 war with Napoleon’s army.
“He also enjoys the novels of Gogol and Chekhov. He listens to classical music on Radio Nostalgie and programmes on the Kultura channel on television.
“Several of the neighbours have already been to congratulate Zhora [her nickname for Blake]. We’ve lived here so long now, everybody knows us.”
Before she went inside, Ida added: “I ought to go before I get into trouble for saying too much.”
Blake, who held the rank of lieutenant colonel in the former KGB, remains a Russian hero and to mark his 85th birthday in 2007 was awarded the Order of Friendship medal by Vladimir Putin, the Russian president.
Over the years he also received the Order of Lenin, the Order of the Red Banner, the Order of the Patriotic War 1st Class and the Order for Personal Courage.
In an official interview last week to mark his birthday, he told Rossiyskaya Gazeta: “These are the happiest years of my life, and the most peaceful. When I worked in the West, I always had the risk of exposure hanging over me. That is how it was. Here I feel free.
“All those twists and turns of fate led to a miracle. I have a connection with my children and grandchildren in England, who often come to visit. And here I have my wife and son whom I love very much.
“Looking back on my life, everything seems logical and natural. I have known how to adapt well wherever life has taken me, even when I was in the [Wormwood] Scrubs prison. I always try to find something positive.”
Unlike some of his fellow spies, who never really settled in the Soviet Union and – in the case of Guy Burgess drank himself to a lonely, early death, Blake adapted easily to life behind the Iron Curtain.
This may be because Blake – unlike the Cambridge spy ring of Burgess, Kim Philby and Donald Maclean – was never an Establishment figure, who may have missed Britain, but rather an outsider.
He was born George Behar in Rotterdam in Holland, the son of a Dutch mother and a Jewish father, who was born in Istanbul but who acquired British citizenship fighting for the British army with great distinction in the First World War.
Blake was a member of the Dutch resistance during the Second World war and eventually fled the Nazis, arriving in London in 1943.
A year later he was helping the Secret Intelligence Service and working for MI6 permanently from about 1947. He was posted to the British embassy in Seoul in 1950 where he was captured by the advancing North Korean army and taken prisoner by the Communist forces, who ‘turned’ him.
“I joined the Communist side not because I was well or badly treated. That had nothing to do with it,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I joined because of its ideals.”
He was released three years later and began working for MI6 in Berlin at the height of the Cold War where he began to spy for the Soviet Union, betraying agents until his capture.
Blake has always insisted – most would say naively – that he had an undertaking from his KGB handlers that nobody he named would be executed.
But his actions have been blamed for at least two known deaths – those of Lieutenant-General Robert Bialek, an east German who had defected to the West, was captured in west Berlin, smuggled back to the east and executed; and Petr Popov, a Soviet military intelligence officer who was working for the CIA and who was executed in Moscow in 1960.
“He always denied it and said he got a promise from his handlers that the people he unmasked would be punished but not executed,” said Roger Hermiston, a journalist and author. Was Blake really that naive?