Ian Fleming once described Richard Sorge as “the most formidable spy in history.” Despite being German and communist, and approaching middle age, in 1930 Sorge bore a distinct resemblance to the fictional James Bond, not least for his looks, appetite for alcohol, and prodigious, almost pathological, womanizing. Even Sorge’s sworn enemies acknowledged his skill and courage. After China, Sorge would move on to Tokyo, where he spied, undetected, for nine years, penetrating the innermost secrets of the Japanese and German High Commands and alerting Moscow to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. When he met Ursula, Sorge was just setting out on his espionage career in the Far East, a journey that would lead, eventually, to a place in the small pantheon of spies who have changed the course of history.
Born in Baku in 1895 to a German father and Russian mother, Sorge joined a student battalion in the kaiser’s army at the outset of the First World War and passed directly, as he put it, “from the schoolhouse to the slaughter block.” Most of his brigade was wiped out within days of arriving at the front. He was first wounded in 1915, then again a year later, and finally, almost fatally, in March 1916, when shrapnel tore into both legs and removed much of one hand. The young Sorge’s wartime experience turned him into a die-hard communist, convinced that only worldwide revolution would “eliminate the causes, economic and political, of this war and any future ones.” A strange mixture of bibliophile and brawler, pedantic scholar and hard-nosed functionary, he worked his way up through the Soviet secret world and finally into the ranks of the Fourth Department, the Red Army intelligence service, an organization described by its chief as a “puritan high priesthood, devout in its atheism . . . the avengers of all the ancient evils, the enforcers of new heaven, new earth.”
Sorge was a dissolute warrior-priest: self-indulgent, belligerent, and unquestioning of the brutal regime he served, a born liar equipped with lethal charisma, boundless conceit, and almost unbelievable good luck. He possessed a “magical facility for putting people at their ease,” and getting women into bed. He was rigorously disciplined in his espionage and exceptionally messy in his personal life. He was also snobbish, nit-picking, and frequently drunk, a loud and louche habitué of fast motorbikes and loose company.
In 1930, the Soviet exporters of communist revolution were looking east. To bolster the beleaguered CCP and spy on the Nationalist government, the Fourth Department envisaged a new network of illegals, spies operating under civilian cover. Agnes Smedley was one; Sorge, code-named “Ramsay,” was another. On orders from the Center, he secured a job as China correspondent for the thrillingly titled German Grain News and proceeded to Shanghai. Five months before Ursula’s arrival, Sorge set up home in the YMCA on Bubbling Well Road, bought himself a powerful motorbike, and paid a visit to Agnes Smedley, as instructed, to seek her help in “establishing an intelligence gathering group in Shanghai.” Agnes happily agreed to work with Sorge and then, with equal alacrity and gusto, slept with him.
Posing as a news-hungry journalist, Sorge joined the Concordia and Rotary Clubs, and went drinking with the German military advisers to the KMT. The German community (“all fascists, very anti-Soviet,” in Sorge’s estimation) eagerly embraced this convivial newcomer, “a good bottle man,” regarding him as one of their own. Agent Ramsay “gutted them like a fat Christmas goose,” wrote another Soviet spy. Smedley placed at his disposal her expanding network of Chinese communist intellectuals, writers, soldiers, academics such as Chen Hansheng, and a young Japanese journalist, Hotsumi Ozaki, who would become one of Sorge’s most valuable informants. Communism was on the run in the cities, but in the remote regions of the southeast it was gaining ground. In the mountains, the insurgents would soon establish the Jiangxi Soviet, a self-governing state within the state. The fifty thousand peasant soldiers led by Mao Zedong were as merciless as the Nationalist forces, hunting down and executing enemies of the revolution: missionaries, land-rich peasants, officials, and gentry. On her journalistic trips to the interior, Agnes reported on the bloody progress of China’s Red Army and declared herself as “hard and ferocious as many Chinese, filled with hatred, ready to fight at a moment’s notice, without patience of any kind for the comfortably situated in life, intolerant of every doubting person.”
Aided by an expert radio technician sent from Moscow, Sorge began providing the Center with a steady stream of information on Nationalist troop movements, command structures, and weaponry.
While Sorge respected Agnes Smedley’s “brilliant mind,” he was less complimentary in other respects: “As a wife [by which he meant sexual partner] her value was nil. . . . In short, she was like a man.” Agnes, however, had fallen in love with the dashing master spy she called “Sorgie” or “Valentino.” She could often be seen on the back of his motorbike, tearing up the Nanking Road, an experience that left her feeling “grand and glorious.” In breathless letters home, she extolled the virtues of this “rare, rare person.”
“I’m married, child, so to speak,” she wrote to her friend Margaret Sanger, the American birth control pioneer. “Just sort of married, you know; but it’s a he-man also and it’s 50-50 all along the line and he helping me and me him and we working together in every way. . . . I do not know how long it will last; that does not depend on us. I fear not long. But these days will be the best in my life. Never have I known such good days, never have I known such a healthy life, mentally, physically, psychically. I consider this completion, and when it is ended I’ll be lonelier than all the love in the magazines could never make me.” The incoherent letter is testament to the riot of Agnes’s feelings. Each new agent she recruited was a service to the revolution, and a love gift for Sorgie. In November 1930, with Moscow’s approval, she gave him Ursula, now six months pregnant.
Years later, Ursula recalled her initiation into Soviet espionage.
Having received Ursula’s assurance that the house was empty save for the servants, Sorge carefully closed the door to the sitting room and sat beside her on the sofa.
“I have heard that you are ready to support the Chinese comrades in their work?”
Ursula nodded eagerly.
Sorge then launched into a short but impassioned description of the monumental difficulties facing the Chinese communists. “He spoke of the struggle against the country’s reactionary government, of the responsibilities and dangers involved in even the smallest degree of help for our comrades.”
Again, she nodded.
Then he paused, and looked into her eyes.
“I want you to reconsider. At this point, you can still refuse without anyone holding it against you.”
Ursula was slightly affronted. She had already vouchsafed her commitment. And implicit in Sorge’s question was a threat that if she opted to play her part now but attempted to back out in the future, it would be held against her in a way that might be very unpleasant indeed.
Her “somewhat curt” response was framed in communist cliché: regardless of the danger, she was “prepared to take part in this work of international solidarity.”
Except from the audiobook published by Penguin Random House Audio, narrated by the author Ben Macintyre.
Sorge smiled. Her contribution would be strictly logistical, he said. Her apartment in the Woidts’ residence would be used as a safe house, where Sorge could conduct meetings with revolutionary comrades. Rudi never came home during the day. She would let the visitors in, provide refreshments, warn if anyone approached the house, and otherwise stay out of the way. “I was simply to let them have the room, but not to attend the discussions.”
Before departing, Sorge remarked that in a few days’ time workers and students would be staging a demonstration in downtown Shanghai. She might like to go and observe the protest.
Then Mr. Johnson was gone. Ursula still did not know his real name.
If they could face certain death with equanimity, then she would try to do the same.
A few days later she was standing on Nanking Road, outside the Wing On department store, her arms filled with shopping bags. The shopping, she calculated, would make her presence there on the day of the demonstration appear coincidental; she had also found a rather beautiful silk skirt in Wing On that fitted her figure perfectly. Crowds of students and workers were filing down the street in silent protest, flanked and observed by long lines of expressionless police. The tension was palpable, the atmosphere reminiscent of the May Day demonstration in 1924 when she had been hit by a policeman’s truncheon. In Shanghai, the mere act of marching was a provocative statement of rebellion. Suddenly the police surged forward, batons and fists flying. They dragged one man into the doorway of a shop and began systematically beating him. Dozens of protestors were herded into side streets, where they were kicked and punched onto waiting trucks. They offered no resistance, wearing the blank-eyed look of the condemned. “I looked into the faces of young revolutionaries whose death sentence had been pronounced at that moment, and I knew—if only for their sake—that I would carry out any task asked of me.” If they could face certain death with equanimity, then she would try to do the same.
As she hurried away from the violent scenes on Nanking Road clutching her parcels, Ursula did not spot the balding, bespectacled man standing on a corner, watching her closely. Gerhart Eisler was a senior figure in the German communist hierarchy: he would eventually move to the United States, where he was rumored to be the covert leader of the American Communist Party. In 1929, after a stint in Moscow, he was acting as a liaison between the Comintern and the CCP, and “purging the party of spies and dissidents.” He had earned himself the nickname “The Executioner.” Eisler was checking up on Sorge’s latest recruit, observing her reactions to the demonstration. In the world Ursula had now entered, snooping on friends was as important as spying on enemies. Eisler was satisfied with what he saw. His only reservation was that Mrs. Hamburger did not appear sufficiently bourgeois. She should “look more ladylike on such occasions,” said the Comintern enforcer, because the more feminine she appeared, the less she would be an object of suspicion. Eisler had strong views on the sartorial aspect of spying: “She should at least wear a hat.”
A pattern for clandestine meetings was swiftly established. Richard Sorge would arrange a time to come to the house when Rudi and the Woidts were out. He always arrived first, followed, at staggered intervals, by his “guests,” usually Chinese, occasionally European, and never identified by name. After a few hours, they would leave again, at different times. Ursula asked no questions. She did not tell Agnes when a meeting was planned. If the servants or neighbors spotted that the same handsome gentleman paid frequent afternoon calls on the lady lodger in the upstairs apartment, they said nothing. This was 1930s Shanghai.
Ursula knew Richard Sorge was a Soviet spy, but not what sort, or the true nature of the regime they served. The cause of revolution and the military interests of the USSR were indistinguishable in her mind: whatever benefited Moscow also advanced the march of communism. “I knew that my activities served the comrades of the country in which I lived. If this practical solidarity was an initiative of the Soviet Union—so much the better.”
Excerpted from AGENT SONYA by Ben Macintyre Copyright © 2020 by Ben Macintyre. Excerpted by permission of Crown, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.