Sonya's story

Topics BOOK REVIEW | Spying | Russia

Book cover of Agent Sonya: Lover, Mother, Soldier, Spy
Any spy fiction writer would kill to create a character like Ursula Kuczynski. But Kuczynski was no fictional character. She was one of Joseph Stalin’s most dedicated agents, the famous courier for the British-German atomic physicist Klaus Fuchs to pass on technology that helped the Soviets build the atom bomb.

Ben MacIntyre’s Atomic Spy: The Lives of Klaus Fuchs  by Nancy Thorndike Greenspan — and could serve as a companion volume. 

Mr MacIntyre has been a lively chronicler of the colourful world of British wartime espionage, writing such classics as Double Cross. Ursula Kuczynski’s life offers a perfect outlet for his consummate story-telling skills.

Ursula came from an affluent and well-connected German Jewish family. Her father, Robert, was a distinguished demographic statistician, pioneering the “Kuczynski rate”, a method for calculating population statistics that is still in use today (when he fled Hitler’s Germany, he taught at the London School of Economics). He owned Germany’s largest private library and, despite his leftist instincts, his family lived in an exclusive Berlin suburb with a large household staff.

After Germany’s disastrous defeat in World War I, the teenaged Ursula saw the deprivation and hunger caused by high unemployment and inflation, which polarised politics between left and right. Having devoured the works of Lenin and Jack London’s novels from her father’s library, she followed elder brother Jurgen into the Young Communist League. A May Day parade completed her conversion. As Mr McIntyre writes, “On 1 May 1924, a Berlin policeman smashed his rubber truncheon into the back of a sixteen-year-old girl, and helped forge a revolutionary.”

Three years later, she joined the KPD, the largest Communist Party in Europe at the time. It was in this period that she became an excellent shot and met her future first husband, Rudi Hamburger, a Jewish architect.

One incident in Weimar Berlin was to find an echo when she moved to Shanghai with Hamburger who was employed by the city’s municipal corporation. It would interest Indian readers, too. At a Revolutionary Book Fair, she advised “an elegant dark-skinned foreigner” to read Agnes Smedley’s Daughter of Earth. “A little mournfully, the man explained he had already read it, since Agnes Smedley was his estranged wife. Ursula was stunned: this was the Indian revolutionary Virendranath Chattopadhyay”.

Agent Sonya: Lover, Mother, Soldier, Spy
Author: Ben Macintyre
Publisher: Penguin Random house
Price: Rs 799; Pages: 377
Smedley, who deserves her own biography, was to play a seminal role in Ursula’s life, introducing her to the rakish and charismatic Richard Sorge (believed to be the model for James Bond). Sorge was a brilliant intelligence officer, one of the first to warn Stalin of Hitler’s impending invasion of the Soviet Union (which the great dictator disbelieved). In Shanghai — its International Settlement was a hive of international espionage — Sorge gave Ursula her famous code-name, Sonya, and deployed her as a courier and training her in spy-craft, including how to assemble bombs and operate a radio transmitter. They also almost certainly had an affair.

By the mid-thirties, she had impressed Sorge enough for the Soviets to accept his recommendation to train her in Moscow. Later she was tasked to spy in Japanese-occupied Manchuria with a fellow-spy, Johann Patra, posing as her husband. Already estranged from Hamburger, she and Patra became lovers. Ursula’s job was complicated by the need to stay one step ahead not only of the brutal Kempeitai but also the British Secret Service.

When her cover was blown, she moved to Poland, where she was reunited with Hamburger, now also a Soviet agent, and gave birth to a daughter by Patra. At the age of 30, she was awarded the Order of the Red Banner, and in 1938 she was transferred to neutral Switzerland to provide information on the Nazi military build-up in Germany, recruiting two Englishmen who had fought with the International Brigade in Spain to run a network parachuting agents into the Reich. The three were also instructed to plan Hitler’s assassination, which the Nazi-Soviet pact forestalled.

Like many Communists, Ursula remained impervious to this pact as much as Stalin’s purges of the late 1930s. Indeed, her survival when many comrades and mentors were killed remains a remarkable tribute to her value.

Her Swiss spying idyll ended when she was betrayed by an unlikely source: Her childhood nanny. Ursula fled to the UK, where her family now lived, marrying Len Buerton, several years her junior, to obtain a credible false passport (a story in itself). Ensconced in an anonymous village near Birmingham, Ursula assumed the life of a housewife with three children (Buerton fathered the third). In reality she became the chief courier for Fuchs, transmitting his invaluable scientific intelligence via a transmitter set up in an outdoor privy, the triumph of an extraordinary career.

Ursula’s greatest achievement was never to be caught. Even when Fuchs confessed, her cover was so good that it was impossible to link him to a scone-baking housewife in Great Rollright, thanks in part to the blunders of the Secret Service.  Ursula’s story makes for a page-turner for any writer. Mr MacIntyre’s solid research and fluent prose bring to life with exemplary facility both her and the extraordinary times in which she lived.

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