Agent Sonya by Ben Macintyre

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

It doesn’t happen often, but just occasionally, with no warning whatsoever, along comes a book in an unprepossessing cover, that just glows with quality. It does not dazzle; it begins in a very ordinary way but, within a few pages, you know you will not put it down until the very last page.

Ben Macintyre tells the story of Ursula Kuczynski, later Mrs Burton, a woman codenamed Sonya, who in turn became a German Jew, a dedicated Communist, a Colonel in the USSR’s Red army, and a highly-trained spy. She is credited with planning an assassination attempt on Hitler in Switzerland, spying on Japanese activities in Manchuria, and helping the Soviet Union learn the secrets of the atomic bomb. She is regarded by scholars of espionage activities as the greatest female spy this world has ever produced. But that’s only part of the story.

Macintyre’s book begins with Sonya, a thin, dark-haired and elegant woman residing in the little English village of Great Rollright. It is 1945. And that year marks not a beginning but the near end of the spying activities of this German, now English, housewife. Sonya had conducted espionage operations in many countries, knew Stalin and his major lieutenants, survived that maniac’s Great Purge, and resided in Britain with her family on Stalin’s orders.

Macintyre shows how a young girl becomes besotted with communism and, through cleverness and inspired actions, works her way up the Soviet hierarchy. Readers are led, step by step, through a concise, yet detailed, review of this remarkable woman’s life. It becomes clear that Macintyre puts her phenomenal success down to her ability to sense when danger lurks and, therefore, take remedial action. He writes of her as a lover, wife, soldier and spy, each role compartmentalized. Her children, for example, do not realise until she tells them later in life that she is a Soviet agent.

The book is heavy on detail. It is a tertiary level publication but so easily read. It reveals all the details of a professional spy’s activities. Readers learn that, among spies, stupidity is as common as cleverness. Blunders others make will shock the reader who quickly realises how much Sonya’s welfare is important to him/her. Astounding is the news that an international network can grind to a halt because someone makes a trivial mistake. The action is minor, the effect massive. When others solve problems with murder, Sonya finds another way. Not once in a long career was she responsible for loss of life. Naivete, or a refusal to accept that Stalin is systematically murdering over six hundred thousand fellow Communists in 1938, explains her disbelief in reports of the massacres. Always prominent in the reader’s mind will be the question of what will happen to her when unmasked.

Some very well-known names appear in the narrative. Richard Sorge, who turned Sonya into a spy, trained her, loved her, and whose life was snatched from him at the end of a rope in Japan, is one such. Klaus Fuchs, the brilliant physicist, who passed information about the atomic bomb in huge bundles who, when caught, never identified Sonya, is another. Love, admiration or something else is the regard in which Sonya was held. She was outstanding in her conduct of the job and through the loyalty she generated among her colleagues. Macintyre brings this to the surface in his book.

Greatly tempted to reveal Sonya’s fate, I must nevertheless refrain. All I can do is recommend, in the highest terms, that you read about this remarkable woman.

Agent Sonya

(2020)

By Ben Macintyre

Penguin

ISBN: 978-0-241-40851-3

$35.00; 400 pp

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