The Perfect Spy

 

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.

“Agent Sonya: Moscow’s Most Daring Wartime Spy,” by Ben Macintyre, Crown, 2020, 362 pages, $28.00 (Hardcover)

This review was written by Mark Lardas who writes at Ricochet as Seawriter. Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, historian, and model-maker, lives in League City, TX. His website is marklardas.com.

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  1. ToryWarWriter Thatcher
    ToryWarWriter
    @ToryWarWriter

    I maintain that there best WW2 Spy was Leopold Trepper and the Red Orchestra operation.

    They would not have been uncovered except by Moscows Centres total incompetence.

    • #1
  2. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    ToryWarWriter (View Comment):

    I maintain that there best WW2 Spy was Leopold Trepper and the Red Orchestra operation.

    They would not have been uncovered except by Moscows Centres total incompetence.

    Possibly, but Ursula Kuczynsky/Hamburger/Buertron had a career that spanned two decades and was producing high quality information during the entire period. She was peripherally  involved with the Red Orchestra, running a parallel organization at the time. 

    • #2
  3. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    The best spy in the war was Juan Pujol Garcia, codenamed Garbo. He moved to Lisbon, Portugal and volunteered to spy for the British. They turned him down – three times. Undeterred, he volunteered with the Abwehr, German intelligence. They accepted and ordered him to London. He stayed put and generated fake intelligence on an industrial scale based on London papers in the Lisbon public library, plus travel brochures, and whatever else he could dig up. He invented entire sub-networks of spies and reported their obsevations as well. His reports to the Germans were superficially accurate but otherwise wholly fictitious. He approached the Americans, who had just entered the war. By then, the British had noticed that the Germans had spent enormous resources trying to track down a transatlantic convoy that just wasn’t there. It wasn’t there because Garcia had made it up. This was a talent that the Allies could make use of. So they did.

    The same Ben Macintyre wrote a book, Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, that covers Garbo and the rest of the spies used to convince Hitler that Patton would be landing with the entirely imaginary First U.S. Army Group at Calais.

    Great review, Seawriter. I’ll be looking for it.

    • #3
  4. Giulietta Coolidge
    Giulietta
    @giuliettachicago

    Percival (View Comment):

    The best spy in the war was Juan Pujol Garcia, codenamed Garbo. He moved to Lisbon, Portugal and volunteered to spy for the British. They turned him down – three times. Undeterred, he volunteered with the Abwehr, German intelligence. They accepted and ordered him to London. He stayed put and generated fake intelligence on an industrial scale based on London papers in the Lisbon public library, plus travel brochures, and whatever else he could dig up. He invented entire sub-networks of spies and reported their obsevations as well. His reports to the Germans were superficially accurate but otherwise wholly fictitious. He approached the Americans, who had just entered the war. By then, the British had noticed that the Germans had spent enormous resources trying to track down a transatlantic convoy that just wasn’t there. It wasn’t there because Garcia had made it up. This was a talent that the Allies could make use of. So they did.

    The same Ben Macintyre wrote a book, Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, that covers Garbo and the rest of the spies used to convince Hitler that Patton would be landing with the entirely imaginary First U.S. Army Group at Calais.

    Great review, Seawriter. I’ll be looking for it.

    Macintyre’s accounts of Garcia’s reports were very amusing! His seemingly endless capacity for inventing ridiculous (yet borderline plausible) characters was remarkable. Garcia also appears in Macintyre’s Agent Zigzag, focusing on Eddie Chapman.

    • #4
  5. Giulietta Coolidge
    Giulietta
    @giuliettachicago

    Thank you for the overview! As a devoted Macintyre fan, I’m very much looking forward to reading it.

    I’m currently reading An Impeccable Spy by Owen Matthews which is about Richard Sorge who spied for Stalin in Japan. It’s interesting that these two books by Matthews and Macintyre on Russian spies-neither double agents- have come out now. I don’t think that this side of the Cold War has gotten a very good look by Western historians so perhaps this is new for us?

    • #5
  6. colleenb Member
    colleenb
    @colleenb

    Giulietta (View Comment):

    Thank you for the overview! As a devoted Macintyre fan, I’m very much looking forward to reading it.

    I’m currently reading An Impeccable Spy by Owen Matthews which is about Richard Sorge who spied for Stalin in Japan. It’s interesting that these two books by Matthews and Macintyre on Russian spies-neither double agents- have come out now. I don’t think that this side of the Cold War has gotten a very good look by Western historians so perhaps this is new for us?

    Thanks @giuliettachicago and @Seawriter for these reviews. I’ve had Macintyre’s books on my never-to-be-finished reading list. I will add this new one and An Impeccable Spy to my list. Is this part of the Cold War getting more attention because of the opening of Russian archives and/or the release of the Verona Papers? 

    • #6
  7. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    colleenb (View Comment):

    Giulietta (View Comment):

    Thank you for the overview! As a devoted Macintyre fan, I’m very much looking forward to reading it.

    I’m currently reading An Impeccable Spy by Owen Matthews which is about Richard Sorge who spied for Stalin in Japan. It’s interesting that these two books by Matthews and Macintyre on Russian spies-neither double agents- have come out now. I don’t think that this side of the Cold War has gotten a very good look by Western historians so perhaps this is new for us?

    Thanks @giuliettachicago and @Seawriter for these reviews. I’ve had Macintyre’s books on my never-to-be-finished reading list. I will add this new one and An Impeccable Spy to my list. Is this part of the Cold War getting more attention because of the opening of Russian archives and/or the release of the Verona Papers?

    You have got me on that one. AFAIK the archives got opened up in the 1990s, and the Russians have been trying to put that genie back in the bottle. 

    • #7
  8. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    colleenb (View Comment):

    Giulietta (View Comment):

    Thank you for the overview! As a devoted Macintyre fan, I’m very much looking forward to reading it.

    I’m currently reading An Impeccable Spy by Owen Matthews which is about Richard Sorge who spied for Stalin in Japan. It’s interesting that these two books by Matthews and Macintyre on Russian spies-neither double agents- have come out now. I don’t think that this side of the Cold War has gotten a very good look by Western historians so perhaps this is new for us?

    Thanks @giuliettachicago and @Seawriter for these reviews. I’ve had Macintyre’s books on my never-to-be-finished reading list. I will add this new one and An Impeccable Spy to my list. Is this part of the Cold War getting more attention because of the opening of Russian archives and/or the release of the Verona Papers?

    You have got me on that one. AFAIK the archives got opened up in the 1990s, and the Russians have been trying to put that genie back in the bottle.

    The Russians closed the archives back up again, but not before the Venona Papers guys combed through them.

    • #8
  9. ToryWarWriter Thatcher
    ToryWarWriter
    @ToryWarWriter

    Percival (View Comment):

    The best spy in the war was Juan Pujol Garcia, codenamed Garbo. He moved to Lisbon, Portugal and volunteered to spy for the British. They turned him down – three times. Undeterred, he volunteered with the Abwehr, German intelligence. They accepted and ordered him to London. He stayed put and generated fake intelligence on an industrial scale based on London papers in the Lisbon public library, plus travel brochures, and whatever else he could dig up. He invented entire sub-networks of spies and reported their obsevations as well. His reports to the Germans were superficially accurate but otherwise wholly fictitious. He approached the Americans, who had just entered the war. By then, the British had noticed that the Germans had spent enormous resources trying to track down a transatlantic convoy that just wasn’t there. It wasn’t there because Garcia had made it up. This was a talent that the Allies could make use of. So they did.

    The same Ben Macintyre wrote a book, Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, that covers Garbo and the rest of the spies used to convince Hitler that Patton would be landing with the entirely imaginary First U.S. Army Group at Calais.

    Great review, Seawriter. I’ll be looking for it.

    I dont know if I consider Garbo really a spy.  More like a disinformation agent.  Spy in my mind is someone who actually gets real info out from the other side.

    • #9