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 innermost circles of Imperial Japan, but managed to do so in such a way that Nazi Germany thought he was working for them—which enabled him to spy on both Axis powers. The secret information he supplied to Soviet military intelligence from Tokyo over many years was consistently high quality, but his spymasters, from Stalin downwards, never appreciated just how valuable an asset Sorge was.

In 1941 alone, the last year of his espionage, he was able to warn his masters in Moscow of three impending events: the German invasion of Russia, called Operation Barbarossa; the Japanese refusal to oblige their Nazi allies by invading Siberia, which would have forced the ussr into a two-front war; and the Japanese decision to attack the Americans and British instead. Any one of these militarily decisive pieces of intelligence would have justified making Sorge an official Hero of the Soviet Union. Instead, when a weak link in his extensive Sino-Japanese spy ring led to his arrest by the Tokyo secret police, the Kremlin disowned him and left him to his fate. Only decades later did he receive posthumous recognition, which has resulted in a large literature in Russian, not to mention other languages, that has paid tribute to this extraordinary superspy.

Richard Sorge was not just a real-life James Bond—he was much more important than that.

So who was Richard Sorge? Owen Matthews’s An Impeccable Spy tells us.1Born in 1895, Sorge spent his first four years in Baku, the oil capital of the Russian Empire, where his father, a German engineer, had married his Russian mother. Having made his pile, Richard’s father moved the family back to Imperial Berlin but died when his son was fifteen, leaving his Russo-German family prosperous but still not entirely assimilated. At school, the youth acquired the doubtless ironic sobriquet of “Prime Minister” while establishing a reputation for intellectual precocity. In World War I, he volunteered and was wounded several times, leaving him with a limp. Later, he used to joke: “The Kaiser took two centimeters off my leg and gave me the Iron Cross in return.”

After Germany’s defeat and revolution, Sorge returned to Berlin and later, while studying for a doctorate in political science in Kiel and Hamburg, became involved in radical politics. A dashing figure in the salons of Weimar Germany, he ran off with his professor’s wife, became a Communist, and began a career devoted to the pursuit of ideology and utopia. It would take him to the ends of the earth, from Moscow to Shanghai and Tokyo, recruiting others along the way: women via his rugged good looks, men via his formidable capacity for drink, and everyone via his wit, charm, and intellectual brilliance.

What made Sorge all the more remarkable, perhaps even unique, was his ability to navigate the perils of Stalin’s government, whose tentacles extended even to the remotest regions and spared nobody. Sorge was in the highest risk category of all, being not only a lifelong Communist with extensive links to suspect organizations such as the Comintern, but also a foreigner with a cosmopolitan network of contacts. Such individuals always aroused Stalin’s paranoia and were murdered in their thousands during the Great Terror. So many of Sorge’s superiors were shot that by the end of his career Soviet military intelligence had succumbed to a kind of institutional amnesia—so much so that none of the officials in Moscow knew Sorge personally, and some were not even sure who he was. The greatest spy that Soviet Communism ever produced had become a stranger in his own state.

Caught between three diabolical regimes, Sorge chose to serve a cause that was unworthy of his genius, but which gave him the chance to make a difference to the outcome of the war.

Those who did meet him were mesmerized by Sorge’s devil-may-care refusal to play by any rules except his own. A good example of his magnetism may be seen through his recruitment of an unlikely spy whom he met during the years he spent in China, while under the guise of an American journalist called Johnson: Ursula Kuczynski, later also known as Ruth Werner and by the code name “Sonja” that Sorge gave her. She was the sister of the Communist historian Jürgen Kuczynski, who also spied for the Soviet Union. At the time she met Sorge, Ursula was married to the architect Rudolf Hamburger and had a two-month-old son. This did not stop her from falling for Sorge, with his “long face, thick curly hair and deep-set, bright blue eyes,” as she described him in her memoir Sonja’s Report (not Rapport, as cited by Matthews). Sorge won her over by taking her for a ride on his powerful motorbike: “I was in ecstasy from this ride and shouted to him to ride faster. He was racing the bike as fast as it would go. When we stopped I felt as though I had been born again. Maybe he used this ride to check my bravery and endurance.” Sorge’s obsession with danger, combined with his alcoholic binges, led to several near-fatal accidents. But Ursula later went on to be one of the most important Soviet agents in wartime Britain, where she recruited the scientist Klaus Fuchs, whose betrayal of American nuclear secrets to Moscow enabled the Russians to develop their own atom bomb. She lived on until the year 2000, while the baby whom she was nursing at the time of her fateful ride with Sorge grew up to be an East German theater director, Maik Hamburger, who died only this year.

Even under interrogation, Sorge played the part of the sexist by pretending to the Japanese that women were “utterly unsuited to espionage work,” thereby doing his best to protect the female members of his network. Unlike many spies of his era, however, Sorge never saw women purely in sexual terms. Not all the many women he seduced were aware of his true identity, but all of them were intelligent and would have seen through the macho style of a James Bond. Sorge, though ruthless, was also romantic and reckless—“forever a wanderer,” as he wrote of himself. There was something irresistibly heroic about him, which kept his Russian wife Katya faithful to her absentee husband for more than a decade during which they never saw one another for more than a few weeks at a time. Their relationship is one of the many human tragedies that followed Sorge like a funeral cortège. After his arrest by the Japanese, her desperate letters were never forwarded to him; instead, she was exiled to Siberia and died there, probably without ever learning his fate.

Owen Matthews is a brilliant biographer, and An Impeccable Spy is by far the best of the many books about Sorge. He has a personal reason for devoting years of his life to this Napoleon of espionage, which is explained in a short prologue. In November 1941, his wife’s grandmother Natalia Kravchenko and her half-sister were living in an artists’ colony near Moscow when news arrived that the German army had just captured the next village over. The terrified women put their father’s paintings in a steel trunk and buried it in the garden of their dacha, expecting to be evacuated, perhaps never to return. Instead, Russian reinforcements arrived from thousands of miles away in Siberia. Over the next few weeks, these Siberians helped to turn the tide of the war in the Battle of Moscow, which stopped the Nazis in their tracks. Natalia never left her dacha and indeed still lives there. Matthews tells us that his book was largely written in that house. It was Sorge’s intelligence, banishing the fear of a Japanese attack, that enabled the Soviets to transfer more than half their forces in the Far East to defend Moscow.

Perhaps it is this sense of a familial debt to Sorge that infuses this biography with a pathos quite unlike the countless other books about Soviet spies. Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs, Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean—none of them could compare with Sorge’s courage, cunning, and nobility. As a German working for the Russians, he was technically a traitor, but unlike the aforementioned American- and British-born spies, he was trying to undermine an evil dictatorship. In order to do so, he made himself indispensable to the Nazis: as a journalist filing regular reports for the prestigious Frankfurter Zeitung;as an expert contributor to the learned journal Zeitschrift für Geopolitik,edited by one of Hitler’s favorite academics, Professor Karl Haushofer; as the main Far Eastern source for General Georg Thomas of the German General Staff; but above all as the closest confidant of the German Ambassador in Tokyo, Major General Eugen Ott. Having planted his two main Japanese agents, Hotsumi Ozaki and Yotoku Miyagi, in the highest echelons of Imperial political and military authority, Sorge was able to create a virtuous circle, whereby he could enhance his own reputation by feeding Tokyo and Berlin each other’s secrets, meanwhile keeping the Kremlin far better informed about both than any of the Western democracies were.

To bolster his status and access to the inner machinations of the Third Reich, Sorge became a prominent and popular member of the Tokyo German community—perhaps the only card-carrying member of both the Soviet Communist and the Nazi parties. When he was finally exposed as a spy, he did not lie when he told the Japanese: “I am a Nazi!” Yet the conflict between his German Fatherland and his Soviet Russian Motherland became acute once the two were at war. And for the weakest link in his spy ring, the radio operator Max Clausen, this conflict of loyalties ultimately sabotaged Sorge and network. By then Sorge had begun taking absurd risks, including conducting an affair with Ambassador Ott’s houseguest, Eta Harich-Schneider, an anti-Nazi musician who became Sorge’s accomplice. He was under investigation by Colonel Meisinger, a Gestapo thug known as “the Butcher of Warsaw,” as well as by the Japanese secret police. He was able to pull the wool over Meisinger’s eyes, but good detective work by the Japanese led them to Clausen, whose faith in the Soviet cause had waned. His confession sealed Sorge’s fate.

The Japanese were nothing if not thorough: the trial documents fill three volumes. Sorge died as he had lived, reiterating his Communist loyalty in Japanese just before he was hanged. The prison governor declared that he had “never seen anyone act as nobly as Sorge and Ozaki at their deaths.” Sorge had told his story to the Japanese prosecutor, Mitsusada Yoshikawa, who was in awe of his prisoner: “In my whole life, I have never met anyone as great as he was.”

Caught between three diabolical regimes, Sorge chose to serve a cause that was unworthy of his genius, but which gave him the chance to make a difference to the outcome of the war. Tom Clancy considered him “the best spy of all time.” He was not wrong.

1 An Impeccable Spy: Richard Sorge, Stalin’s Master Agent, by Owen Matthews; Bloomsbury, 448 pages, $30.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 9, on page 71
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