Agent Sonya

AGENT SONYA
Ben Macintyre
Penguin Random House

REVIEWED BY PETER STUPPLES

In 2018 Ben Macintyre published The Spy and the Traitor, relating the exploits of the double-agent Oleg Gordievsky, which John Le Carre considered ‘‘the best true spy story I have ever read’’.

Two years later and Macintyre has now published a book about Ursula Kuczynski (Agent Sonya) which is equally compelling, recounting the undercover life of one of the most tenacious, brave, daring and redoubtable spy-ring organisers and minders from the late 1920s to 1950.

Sonya (her code name) relayed reams of material, over two decades, to her Moscow controllers, including, most significantly, all the atomic secrets handed over to her by Klaus Fuchs describing the West’s latest research, and eventual construction of the atomic bomb. Sonya evaded discovery, often by a hasty departure from one country to another, moments before the local police and security agents came knocking at her door. As she recalled in her old age: ‘‘A nightmare haunts my sleep: the enemy is at my heels and I have no time to destroy the information.’’

As a young Jewish woman in Germany she became a convinced communist and anti-fascist, as did her parents and elder brother. She first married an architect, and both escaped the chaos of Weimar Germany by going to work in Shanghai, where she was recruited to carry out work for the infamous triple-agent Richard Sorge, conveying information from Moscow to the Chinese Communists.

During the Japanese invasion of China, she was transferred to Manchuria, living always in a vortex of mortal danger, before being sent to run networks in Warsaw, going for training to Moscow at the height of the Stalinist purges, then briefly to London before spending  the first years of World War 2 in the Swiss Alps. Eventually fear of her cover being blown came to a head once again and she escaped via Spain and Portugal to England, in 1941.

Her years in Britain were her most successful, in terms of the value of her information for the Soviet Russians. The infiltration of the British security apparatus by the Cambridge Five meant that when questions about Sonya were raised they were simply brushed aside by those sympathetic to the Soviet cause. However, when Fuchs gave up himself and his minders, she had to beat a hasty retreat to East Germany, where she ended her days as a successful writer of novels.

These adventures were accompanied by a personal life that was equally rich, two marriages, affairs of the heart, and three children - moved from one country to another in quick succession. Her eldest son recalled that by the age of 10 he had lived in six different countries and more than a dozen homes.

Macintyre has done a wealth of research, aided by the availability of a great deal of public material, from which he has assembled an exciting narrative, supported by such intimate detail that you feel almost part of Ursula’s family, living through each and every turn of events, as one crisis gives way to the next, wondering how this spy-mother-lover, through her brave and loyal attachment to a cause in which she believed without wavering, managed to keep such a cool head and heart for so many years.

A very worthy successor to The Spy and the Traitor.

Peter Stupples, now living in Wellington, used to teach at the University of Otago

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