This is the true story of Agent Sonya – wife, mother and Soviet spy. Ursula Kuczynski was born into a secular Jewish family in Germany. Like many Jews of her generation, there was no choice in 1930s Europe in the ideological struggle between Communism and Fascism. It had to be Communism. For three decades Sonya moved between China, where she was first recruited as a Russian spy by Richard Sorge, to Switzerland, London and rural Oxfordshire. In a tiny middle-class village in the Cotswolds, she was known as ‘Mrs Ursula Burton’.
Ben Macintyre’s fast-moving narrative reveals how Agent Sonya managed to hold her cover for three decades. With exclusive access to her diaries and papers, he uncovers a life which on the surface seemed ordinary, simple and unadventurous. Her neighbours suspected nothing: she was a woman, a wife and a mother. But it was precisely these three roles which enabled her to hoodwink MI6 because the “old boys” network of the Secret Service had preconceived ideas of women. She ran agents into Britain’s atomic weapon establishment to enable the Soviet Union to build an atomic bomb. Even after physicist Klaus Fuchs served a jail sentence for handing secrets to the Russians, as his handler, Sonya was never discovered. Astonishingly, she was so accomplished that she rose to the rank of Colonel in the Red Army. As a Russian ‘super-spy’ she eluded the Nazis, MI5, MI6, American intelligence and the Japanese. Agent Sonya successfully concealed a complex life of espionage – from everyone. There was one possible exception, and that was Millicent Bagot, a female officer in MI5. Bagot’s concerns about Sonya fell on deaf ears in MI5 and were ignored. It meant that Sonya could continue her subterfuge and slip easily from the world of domestic housewife and mother to secret agent. There was no moment in her life when she considered a different path.
During the Cold War, Kuczynski lived in East Germany as a bestselling novelist under the pseudonym Ruth Werner, even taking her children with her as a cover. She loved them, but even they came second place in her allegiance to Communism.
What is extraordinary is that she remained loyal to the Communist cause beyond the defeat of Fascism, which is understandable on one level, but even in spite of her friends being taken to the Gulag and in the face of such brutality in Stalin’s purges after the Second World War.
As Macintyre says, ‘she did it for the sake of the proletariat and the revolution; but also for herself, driven by an extraordinary combination of ambition, romance and adventure.’ Turning the pages of the book, there is a sense of privilege that we as readers are peering into a forbidden pandora’s box. Macintyre leaves us feeling admiration for Agent Sonya; but there’s still mystery, and surely that is the skill of a good historian and story teller.