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Agent Sonya: Moscow's Most Daring Wartime Spy Hardcover – September 15, 2020
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“[An] immensely exciting, fast-moving account.”—The Washington Post
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY Foreign Affairs • Kirkus Reviews • Library Journal
In 1942, in a quiet village in the leafy English Cotswolds, a thin, elegant woman lived in a small cottage with her three children and her husband, who worked as a machinist nearby. Ursula Burton was friendly but reserved, and spoke English with a slight foreign accent. By all accounts, she seemed to be living a simple, unassuming life. Her neighbors in the village knew little about her.
They didn’t know that she was a high-ranking Soviet intelligence officer. They didn’t know that her husband was also a spy, or that she was running powerful agents across Europe. Behind the facade of her picturesque life, Burton was a dedicated Communist, a Soviet colonel, and a veteran agent, gathering the scientific secrets that would enable the Soviet Union to build the bomb.
This true-life spy story is a masterpiece about the woman code-named “Sonya.” Over the course of her career, she was hunted by the Chinese, the Japanese, the Nazis, MI5, MI6, and the FBI—and she evaded them all. Her story reflects the great ideological clash of the twentieth century—between Communism, Fascism, and Western democracy—and casts new light on the spy battles and shifting allegiances of our own times.
With unparalleled access to Sonya’s diaries and correspondence and never-before-seen information on her clandestine activities, Ben Macintyre has conjured a page-turning history of a legendary secret agent, a woman who influenced the course of the Cold War and helped plunge the world into a decades-long standoff between nuclear superpowers.
“Macintyre is fastidious about tradecraft details. . . . [He] has become the preeminent popular chronicler of British intelligence history because he understands the essence of the business.”—David Ignatius, The Washington Post
“Macintyre writes with novelistic flair.”—Entertainment Weekly
“Macintyre is a superb writer, with an eye for the telling detail as fine as any novelist’s.”—The Dallas Morning News
“Macintyre is one of the most gifted espionage writers around.”—Annie Jacobsen, author of Area 51 and Operation Paperclip
“Macintyre writes with the diligence and insight of a journalist, and the panache of a born storyteller.”—John Banville, The Guardian (UK)
“With Macintyre in charge, you’re virtually guaranteed a history book that reads like a spy novel.”—Richmond Times-Dispatch
“A scrupulous and insightful writer—a master historian.”—Alan Furst, author of Mission to Paris
“Macintyre is a master at leading the reader down some very tortuous paths while ensuring they never lose their bearings.”—Evening Standard (UK)
“Macintyre . . . has that enviable gift, the inability to write a dull sentence.”—The Spectator (UK)
About the Author
- Publisher : Crown; 1st edition (September 15, 2020)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 400 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0593136306
- ISBN-13 : 978-0593136300
- Item Weight : 1.55 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.46 x 1.37 x 9.68 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #118,805 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
Reviewed in the United States on January 29, 2021
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Top reviews from the United States
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Ursula Kuczynski was a member of a prominent and wealthy German Jewish family active in Berlin's intellectual and artistic circles. In her childhood she lived through Germany's defeat in World War I, and as a teenager she witnessed the mounting tensions and rising anti-Semitism that led to the fall of the Weimar Republic and its replacement with Hitler's Third Reich. Like many in her generation Ursula became a Communist, not so much for ideological reasons as because she saw the Soviet Union as the strongest enemy of Fascism. Helped by her family's left-wing connections, Ursula journeyed to the Soviet Union, was recruited as a spy by Stalin's many-tentacled intelligence services, and spent years in Shanghai, Mukden, Moscow, Switzerland, and eventually rural England on various espionage assignments using the code name Sonya. Along the way she had a passionate affair with another Soviet spy, Richard Sorge, married or lived with three different men by whom she had three children, and jumped from one hair raising adventure to another. Her sex was an asset, since the Soviet and other intelligence services with whom she dealt were all highly male chauvinistic, and she was able to fly under the radar for many years, seeming to be nothing more than a nice normal wife and mother. Her most important contribution to the Soviet espionage effort was her connection with the physicist Klaus Fuchs, who passed an enormous amount of information on British and American efforts to build an atomic bomb through her to the Kremlin. Eventually, after Fuchs was exposed and arrested, Ursula and her family escaped to East Germany, where she lived for most of the rest of her life.
Ursula's story seems too incredible even for the pages of a Fleming or Deighton spy thriller, but it all really happened, making Macintyre's extensively documented tale just as riveting as any James Bond adventure. If after reading Agent Sonya you are hungry for more such tales, I can recommend any of Macintyre's books, most especially A Spy Among Friends, which is about Kim Philby, another Soviet spy with whom Ursula had an indirect connection.
I found Agent Sonya a little more difficult to get into but once I did it did not disappoint. I have read reviews that have criticized the book for its subject matter. How can we relate to a Soviet spy? How can we feel anything for someone who worked for Stalin against the West? I think that is an over simplification.
I tried to put myself in the shoes of Ursula Maria Kuczynski, a young German Jew horrified at the rise of fascism in Europe in the 20’s and 30’s. Like Ursula I would like to think that I would do all I could to resist and to fight. The natural vehicle for Ursula to travel in to conduct that fight was the communist party and she joined in 1926, just as Hitler was rising to prominence.
European communists fought fascism in Spain, Germany, the Far East and Eastern Europe and were a major part of the French resistance. Ursula becomes a committed communist (and anti fascist) and an accomplished asset as we follow her from Germany to China and thereafter to Switzerland and finally to the UK.
This is where the story becomes a little muddy for many. Yes, Ursula spied for Stalin, a man as despotic and evil as Hitler. But at that time Churchill and Roosevelt were working with the Soviet leader and we were allies.
Ursula spied against the Nazi’s for the Soviets while in the UK but she also helped to infiltrate communist spies into the US atomic weapons program. In doing so she helped the Soviets to develop their own atomic bomb. Obviously this puts her beyond the pale for many people but the world was a different place 60 and 70 years ago. Who knows, without Ursula maybe we would not have had a world where both sides of the Cold War had the means to totally annihilate the other? Maybe in that scenario, without the promise of “mutually assured destruction”, a Nixon or a Reagan or, heaven forbid, a Trump may have been tempted to wipe out half the planet. We’ll never know.
A great read, chock full of exceptionally interesting characters like Agnes Smedley, Richard Sorge and Sandro Rado and another triumph for Mr Macintyre.
Top reviews from other countries
In this book, I actually found the political background more interesting than the main espionage aspects of the history. In this political respect, the book tells the sad story of a woman’s descent from praiseworthy idealism to her becoming a spy, and an apologist, for Stalin’s tyrannical regime in Russia.
Like the more famous Kim Philby, Ursula Kuczynski (Agent Sonya) was motivated by political principles. She genuinely believed that by spying for the USSR she was advancing the cause of a fairer and more peaceful world. Like many others in the 1920s and 1930s she could see that capitalism was a system based on exploitation and inequality, a system which was dragging the world into economic crisis and war, and a system which was giving birth to the monstrosity of fascism. (We see similar developments today.)
It is understandable that in the early 1920s “Sonya” should be inspired by Russia. The 1917 Russian Revolution, led by Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks, had been a genuine workers’ revolution, with working people exercising power through the “soviets” (elected workers’ councils). She also saw that the communists were the most determined opponents of fascism.
But by the late 1920s, before Kuczynski started to spy for the Russian GRU, the gains and democracy of the revolution had been destroyed by Stalin and the bureaucratic ruling class that had usurped power and turned Russia into a state capitalist tyranny.
Sonya’s tragedy is that she dedicated her life to a totalitarian state which called itself socialist, but which was just as exploitative a system as the one in the West. Perhaps there was some excuse at first for her being unaware of the true nature of the USSR, but she stuck loyally by the Stalinist regime even when its crimes could not be ignored, right through Stalin’s purges and mass murder, and right up until the eventual collapse of the state capitalist regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe. (China’s, Cuba’s and North Korea’s state capitalist rulers still falsely claim to be “communist”.)
Genuine Marxists had long been advocating the slogan of “Neither Washington Nor Moscow But International Socialism”, and pointing out that “The Free World is not really free and the Communist World is not really communist”. But there was none of that for Kuczynski: she remained a loyal Stalinist.
By sticking to the main story of Kuczinski's life as it was outlined in "Sonjas Report", Macintyre wastes too much space on the Chinese adventures of this diehard communist compared to her activities in England, where her basic actions - apart from being the operator of an illegal radio - seem to have been bicycling across Oxfordshire. The suspicions against Roger Hollis are treated rather summarily, but that is hardly surprising since MI5 is generally - with few exceptions- presented as a bunch of bungling incompetents.
There are almost a hundred files the Kuczinskis in the Stasi archives in Berlin. Surely it should have been possible to present a fuller picture of "Sonjas" life in East Germany after she returned in 1950.
All in all this book presents a far too positive picture of this diehard Stalinist, who remained one until well after the wall had been torn down.
Born to a German Jewish family, as Ursula grew, so did the Nazis' power. A fanatical opponent of the fascism that ravaged her homeland, she was drawn to communism as a young woman, motivated by the promise of a fair and peaceful society. She eventually became a spymaster, saboteur, bomb-maker and secret agent.
In Agent Sonya, Britain's most acclaimed historian vividly reveals the fascinating tale of a life that would change the course of history.
Classic Ben Macintyre - a gripping ride, based on meticulous research.
A Book that took six days to read, why?
Well this book is filled with detail, names, stories, places, spies, that it took an enormous about of concentration, re-reading to understand all the many different p0werful characters from the past, each spies back story, dates, times.
A four star as I have to deeply respect the enormous research and time it takes to write a book like this, heavy going, oh yes, difficult to keep us with sometimes, yes, but filled with so many stories, spies.
You read this and think " Who works for who", who's good who's bad, what right and what's wrong.
Three for the book, four for the research.
His best book is about a spy in Jersey ! Where I live.