History In The Headlines

Prisoner Exchanges Across the Bridge of Spies, From Powers to Shcharansky

By History.com Staff
Fifty years ago today, Francis Gary Powers, an American pilot imprisoned by the Soviet Union after his spy plane was shot down over Russia, walked westward across an unassuming bridge and into freedom. The Glienicke Brücke, a small steel structure that crosses the Havel River and links Berlin with Potsdam, spanned the front line of the Cold War for three decades. It was the setting for a few of the most memorable high-value prisoner exchanges between the Soviets and the West. Find out more about the “Bridge of Spies” and the swaps that took place there.

Glienicke Brücke

View of the Glienicke Brücke, which crosses the Havel River and links Berlin with Potsdam. (Credit: John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images)

February 10, 1962: Francis Gary Powers and Rudolf Abel
When Francis Gary Powers took off from Peshawar, Pakistan, in May 1960, there was no reason to think his flight above Moscow would differ from any of the other missions conducted by the CIA over the metropolis since 1956. Powers’ U-2 spy plane flew at 80,000 feet, an altitude believed to be out of reach of any Soviet anti-aircraft threat. That belief was shattered over the city of Sverdlosk when a surface-to-air missile hit the plane, forcing Powers to eject before he could arm the self-destruct charge on the aircraft. In the wake of the crash, the United States initially claimed that the U-2 was a weather plane, but the aircraft’s wreckage suggested otherwise. After a lengthy interrogation and show trial at the hands of the KGB, Powers was sentenced to 10 years in a Soviet prison for committing “crimes against the Soviet people.”

Francis Gary Powers

Francis Gary Powers in his flight suit. (Credit: Russian International News Agency/Wikimedia Commons)

Two years later, a prisoner swap was negotiated in which Washington would free convicted Soviet agent Colonel Rudolph Abel in exchange for Powers. Abel’s 30-year sentence was commuted by Attorney General Robert Kennedy to enable the trade. At 8:52 a.m. on February 10, 1962, Powers walked across the Glienicke Brücke from Potsdam toward West Berlin in a carefully orchestrated handover; Abel crossed in the opposite direction. While the deal was expected to ease tensions between the Americans and Soviets, the Cuban missile crisis soon erased the memory of the diplomatic overture and brought the two superpowers to the brink of nuclear conflict.

April 22, 1964: Greville Wynne and Konon Molody
By the time the Soviets caught up with Greville Wynne outside of Budapest in 1963, the agent had spent 25 years working for different organs of the British secret service. Wynne was supposedly an exporter, but in reality he was a spy who scored one of the largest coups in Cold War espionage. For years Greville received secrets from Soviet Colonel Oleg Penkovsky, an intelligence officer who revealed information about Russian ballistic missile programs to the West. The colonel’s disclosures proved vital during the height of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 and may have helped avoid nuclear war. Shortly thereafter, both Wynne and Penkovsky were arrested for their clandestine activities. Penkovsky was sentenced to death but is believed to have taken his own life in May 1963 in a Soviet prison, while Wynne served 18 months before crossing the Havel on the Glienicke Brücke.

Greville Wynne

Greville Wynne arrives in London after his release. (Credit: Keystone/Getty Images)

Wynne was traded for Soviet agent Konon Molody, who operated in London under the alias Gordon Lonsdale and posed as a jukebox salesman. After being arrested in 1961, Molody boasted of his exploits and claimed he “played some small part in saving the world” by warning Moscow of General Douglas MacArthur’s plan to extend the Korean War into China. He later wrote a book about his espionage career.

June 12, 1985: Marian Zacharski and 25 American agents
A Polish-born spy, Marian Zacharski adopted the guise of a legitimate businessman in the United States in the late 1970s. The reportedly handsome and resourceful agent befriended William Holden Bell, an engineer at Hughes Aircraft. Over the course of three years, Zacharski persuaded Bell to pass along plans for secret radar systems and some of the technology behind early stealth aircraft. Zacharski’s tactics in recruiting Bell were so impressive that they are still studied by the FBI decades later.

In 1981 a U.S. federal judge sentenced Zacharski to life in prison. Four years later he wound up across the Havel from 25 American agents ready to be traded for him. Along with three other Eastern Bloc spies, Zacharski traversed the Bridge of Spies into Potsdam and East Germany, eventually making his way back to his native country. After the fall of the communism in Poland, Zacharski found success in the private sector before unsuccessfully attempting to return to espionage. In 1994 he was tapped to head Poland’s intelligence service, but was later removed due to international criticism of the pick.

Anatoly Shcharansky

Anatoly Shcharansky (in hat) on the Glienicke Brücke. (Credit: STF/AFP/Getty Images)

February 11, 1986: Anatoly Shcharansky and Karl Koecher
The last transaction at the “Bridge of Spies” arguably garnered more international attention than any other. A direct result of a 1985 meeting between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the swap involving Anatoly Shcharansky and Karl Koecher was years in the making. Shcharansky had first run afoul of Soviet authorities in 1973 when he was refused permission to emigrate to Israel. Five years later, after vocally criticizing Moscow and joining an international dissident group, Shcharansky was tried and convicted of spying for the United States; he and President Jimmy Carter denied the charge. Shcharansky was sentenced to 13 years of prison and hard labor. After almost a decade of negotiations, the Soviets and Americans agreed to a prisoner trade that would free the Soviet Jewish activist.

As officials kept media at a distance from the Glienicke, Shcharansky traveled across the snow-covered bridge in a Mercedes. The U.S. ambassador to West Germany greeted him as he approached West Berlin, saying, “President Reagan and others worked and prayed for many years for this.” Shcharansky was whisked away in a waiting Israeli jet and enjoyed a hero’s welcome in his newly adopted country. In exchange, the United States released Karl and Hana Koecher of Czechoslovakia. Karl had worked for the CIA before pleading guilty to espionage charges in 1984; his wife was being held as a material witness.

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Categories: Cold War, Spies