‘Rudolf Abel’ (Willie Fisher), the Soviet spy exchanged for the American U2 pilot Gary Powers in 1962 (after having been in prison in the USA since 1957), was born at 140 Clara Street, Benwell, on 11 July 1903. He was the son of immigrants from Russia to Newcastle. His father, a fitter at Swan Hunter, was called Matvei Fisher, or, to give him his full name, Genrikh Matveevich Fisher (or Heinrich Matthäus Fischer, for the father was himself the son of an immigrant from Germany to Russia).
Matvei Fisher, Abel’s father, was a committed socialist. He speaks in his Russian-language memoirs of the ‘Newcastle Socialist Society’, a free-standing socialist club which came into being in the 1890s and was sometimes affiliated to the Social Democratic Federation. He participated in a covert gun-running operation from Newcastle to Russia in the course of the Russian Revolution of 1905-7 (storing the weaponry at 42 Leazes Park Road), and agitated on behalf of socialism among the Russian crews who were sent to the Tyne by the tsarist government in the course of the First World War.
The Fisher family stayed in north-east England until 1921, moving from Benwell to Eleanor Street in Cullercoats in about 1908 and later to nearby Lish Avenue in Whitley Bay. Then they moved to post-revolutionary Russia, where the future Rudolf Abel, or William Fisher to give him the name on his birth certificate, was recruited by what is now the KGB in the later 1920s.
At the point of his arrest in 1957, Abel had been working as a commercial artist in New York for some eight years. What he had really been doing in his time in north America has never been fully explained, but since he was skilled as a radio operator he was probably somehow transmitting to the USSR information collected by other Soviet spies in the USA.
After returning to Russia in 1962, Abel died there in 1971 and is buried with his father and other members of his family at the Donskoi Monastery in Moscow.
Vin Arthey, Like Father Like Son: A Dynasty of Spies (St Ermin’s Press, 2005); David Saunders, ‘A Russian Bebel Revisited: The Individuality of Heinrich Matthäus Fischer’, Slavonic and East European Review vol 82, № 3, July 2004, pp. 625-54.