Spies matter a great deal to their spymasters and sometimes to those on whom they spy, but hardly to anyone else. Intelligence is one of the most secret functions of the state, and a necessary one, but it seldom changes history. Still more rarely does “humint” (human intelligence) play a big role in war and peace. The sad truth is that most intelligence-gathering is humdrum drudgery done by unremarkable individuals who live and die in obscurity. James Bond is not merely a glamorized example of the breed—even in his original literary incarnation, as Ian Fleming’s alter ego, he bore the same relation to actual spooks as Cerberus the hellhound does to the average pooch.

Richard Sorge, however, was not just a real-life James Bond—he was much more important than that. Working on behalf of the Soviet Union, he not only penetrated the...


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