The Happy Traitor, by Simon Kuper

George Blake's death in 2020 led to the publication of this new biography from Simon Kuper.
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On a Saturday in 2012, journalist Simon Kuper had the highly sought-after opportunity to interview the last surviving traitor of the Cold War, George Blake, in his dacha (home) outside Moscow. As it turned out, Kuper is believed to have been the last Western journalist to interview Blake. Kuper recalls the moment the unexpected phone call came through to him from Blake agreeing to be interviewed. They agreed a day and Blake was already waiting for Kuper at the gate of his secluded garden. The three-hour interview, conducted in Dutch – a language common to both of them, both having lived in the Netherlands – had an extraordinary effect on Kuper. He came away from that interview trying to process and understand the man who, then in his 90s, was incredibly relaxed and content with life. It was this contentment which inspired the title, The Happy Traitor. Yet, always in the back of Kuper’s mind was Blake’s betrayal which led to the deaths of 42 agents. For all Blake’s charm that day, almost seducing Kuper into believing he was innocent, Kuper was convinced that he should research more and write not merely an article, but a biography. But he agreed informally with Blake that it would not come out in his lifetime.

Blake’s death at the age of 98 was announced on Boxing Day, 26 December, 2020, and Kuper could finally publish his biography. Kuper sets out to answer important questions: what impact did Blake have on history? And did he have any regrets?

From Blake’s early years, to his arrival in England in 1942/43, he soon found himself at the heart of British intelligence during World War Two and the early Cold War. After incarceration in prison during the Korean War, Blake began to pass secrets to the Soviets, including the names of British agents. He did face justice, albeit temporarily, after having admitted to his actions in interrogation. If he had not confessed then, the British would not have had enough evidence to convict him. Blake was tried and sentenced to 42 years in jail – one year for every agent believed to have been killed as a result of his betrayal. But five years into the sentence, Blake made a dramatic escape from Wormwood Scrubs Prison with the help of other inmates. After a period in hiding, Blake was smuggled out of Britain in a secret adapted compartment of a camper van, taken through Europe and over the border behind the Iron Curtain. Throughout his life, and even reflecting in his twilight years with Kuper, Blake appeared unable to take responsibility for his actions.

The human interaction of that 2012 interview is woven into the sub-text of this biography to produce a vivid and honest portrayal of the traitor who has so far defied understanding. Kuper compares Blake’s excessive idealism with today’s European jihadis and acknowledges that, in the end, Blake lived to see the collapse of the ideology that he had risked everything for. Still, he cannot admit that it was all in vain. This is an extraordinary and compelling fresh look at one of the most notorious traitors of the Cold War.

Helen Fry is the acclaimed author of books based on the intelligence services. Her latest is Spymaster: The Man Who Saved MI6.