Looking for a good read? Here is a recommendation. I have an unusual approach to reviewing books. I review books I feel merit a review. Each review is an opportunity to recommend a book. If I do not think a book is worth reading, I find another book to review. You do not have to agree with everything every author has written (I do not), but the fiction I review is entertaining (and often thought-provoking) and the non-fiction contain ideas worth reading.
The Perfect Spy
“Agent Sonya: Moscow’s Most Daring Wartime Spy,” by Ben Macintyre, Crown, 2020, 362 pages, $28.00 (Hardcover)
The Soviet Union was known for its spies. Some were good at their craft. Others were hopelessly inept.
“Agent Sonya: Moscow’s Most Daring Wartime Spy,” by Ben Macintyre is a biography of a woman who might have been the Soviet Union’s best and most effective spy.
Ursula Kuczynsky was born into a rich, leftist Jewish German family in 1907. In 1924, Ursula became a committed Communist. She never deviated from that belief in socialism, although Communism’s collapse in the late 1990s disillusioned her.
Macintyre’s book describes her life and career. She joined the German Communist Party at 18, going to America in 1928 before returning to Germany. There she married architect Rudi Hamburger, also Jewish and leftist, but not then a Communist. With architectural jobs scarce in Depression-era Germany, Hamburger took a job in Shanghai in 1930.
In Shanghai’s expatriate community, Ursula was recruited as a spy by Soviet superspy Richard Sorge. He assigned her the code name Sonya. The pupil eventually surpassed her teacher.
Macintyre details Ursula’s career as an agent; spying on Japan in Shanghai, Dalian, and Mukden in the early 1930s, receiving specialized training in Moscow in 1933 and 1938-39, serving in Poland in between. She relocated briefly to London in 1938 before going to Switzerland, running a spy ring inside Germany for the Soviets.
Along the way she had three children by three different men (the first by her husband Rudi), leaving and returning to Rudi as directed by Moscow. In Switzerland she finally abandoned Rudi, marrying a British citizen who served in Communist International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War. That allowed her to relocate to Britain in 1941. There she ran another spy ring, where she funneled atomic bomb information from Klaus Fuchs to Moscow.
Macintyre shows how she escaped to East Germany after the war, just ahead of British counterintelligence. She then retired from espionage and eventually became a popular children’s books author. By then she was a Soviet army colonel.
She was also extremely lucky. She escaped the Stalin purges that enmeshed many colleagues and superiors (first husband Rudi spent years in a GuLag). She escaped notice from counterintelligence agencies because she was a woman and a mother with small children. She was allowed to retire from espionage.
“Agent Sonya” tells the story of a remarkable woman who served an ugly cause. While she was not the “good guy,” her story is fascinating.
Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.