Agent Sonya: Moscow’s Most Daring Wartime Spy — A Book Review and History

by Peter Scheckner. December, 2020

In many respects the early decades of the last century resembled our own disordered and perhaps calamitous moment, though the differences between the two periods were equally apparent. In the two decades between the two world wars, fascism was on the rise, particularly in Western Europe, notably in Italy, Spain, and Germany and, in the East, China and Japan. Benito Mussolini, the head of the Italian National Fascist Party, became Prime Minister in 1922. In the decade before Hitler became the Chancellor in January, 1933, post-war Germany was roiling with street battles between fascists belonging to roughly thirty different parties and at least eight left-wing parties, most significantly the KPD (the pro-Soviet German Communist Party) and various factions of the Social Democratic Party.

Soviet-Inspired Communists Versus Fascists

The capitalist world after World War One, from Europe to Japan, was a world dominated by militarists, fascist heads of state, and their financial backers, all of whom espoused various forms of racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, jingoism, militarism, and imperial conquest. Germany was in a perpetual economic crisis and, no surprise, a wide gulf existed between the ultra-rich and everyone else—not unlike our own gross social inequalities, USA, 2020. The Weimar Republic, 1919-1933, was characterized by mass unemployment, economic insecurity, and savage political conflict as the polarized forces of the extreme right and radical left clashed with growing fury. By one estimate in one year alone, 1918-1919, roughly 900,000 Germans died of hunger, which, inevitably, led to class and ideological struggle. In 1920, the Nazi Party—the National Socialist German Workers Party—was founded. A year later Adolf Hitler became its leader.

The rise of fascism in Germany came but a few years after the successful Bolshevik revolution in Russia, which inspired communist organizing in many countries, including Germany. But on January 15, 1919, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, who had founded the German Communist Party (the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands, or KPD) only two weeks before, were captured and assassinated by right-wing German army officers. It is entirely possible that their murders were sanctioned by leading members of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) who were bitter enemies of the communists. By the end of the 1920s fascists and communists were battling to the death on the streets of Berlin. The Nazis and the Communists were thereafter locked in a fatal struggle that only ended in May, 1945, with the (temporary) destruction of German fascism.

In July, 1921, with the help of the USSR’s international leadership body the Communist International (the Comintern, also known as the Third International, founded by Vladimir Lenin in 1919), the Chinese Communist Party (the CCP) was officially organized in Shanghai, China. In 1927 Chiang Kai-shek, a leader of the Nationalist Party, the Kuomintang (KMT), broke with the communists with whom they had been allied in a joint war against indigenous warlords.  The following year, in 1928, Chiang and his troops took control of the central government of China. Thereafter the CCP and the KMT fought each other in a war that lasted from 1927 to 1949. The violence of the early days of this conflict dwarfed that of the street battles in German cities. In one day, on April 12, 1927, during the so-called Shanghai Massacre, military forces loyal to Chiang Kai-shek allied with local organized Chinese gangs, killed between 5,000 and 10,00 students and workers loyal to the communists.

A Red Heroine

Little more than two decades after the First World War ended, the world was again plunged into a second and much more deadly imperialist war. In such a world it was impossible to remain neutral for long. This was the political and social cauldron into which Ursula Kuczynski was born in 1907 to a middle-class Jewish family in Berlin. By the time she was sixteen and just entering radical politics, she was beaten by the police in Berlin during a May Day demonstration. She learned a lesson she would never forget: politics is at bottom a power struggle, most often decided by mortal combat.

In a book published this year called Agent Sonya: Moscow’s Most Daring Wartime Spy, Ben Macintyre describes the evolution of this youngster’s life, from an incipient revolutionary into a career as one of the most successful Soviet spies before, during, and after World War Two. Ursula Kuczynski, code named Sonya, was a professional spy who also ran agents and networks against the fascists in her own country, in Japanese-occupied China, in Poland, Switzerland, and then, during the Cold War period beginning in the late 1940s, in Great Britain. She eventually became a Red Army colonel and, among her other espionage successes, ran Klaus Fuchs, the German physicist who enabled the USSR to get the atomic bomb, thus breaking the American monopoly on atomic weaponry.

After the Second World War and throughout the Cold War she continued to spy for Moscow. She was never caught, although for years Great Britain’s counterspy agencies MI5 and MI6, as well as the F.B.I. investigated her. She died in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) on July 7, 2000, at the age of ninety-three. By the time of her death she had written thirteen works of fiction, hundreds of letters, and a memoir published in German in 1977 called Sonjas Rapport (Sonya’s Report). Within a month of her death even Vladimir Putin, certainly no communist, signed a decree proclaiming Ursula Kuczynski, a “super-agent of military intelligence,” and awarded her the Order of Friendship. Had she been alive, the spy almost certainly would have laughed (or cried) at the irony of being called a friend by the current kleptomaniac running Russia. In 1943 when the Second World War was still very much in contention, the Director of Soviet intelligence, the GRU, said this about his spy: “If we had five Sonyas in England, the war would be over sooner.” Her son, Peter, summed up his mother’s long life this way: “There were two important things to her, her children and the communist cause. I don’t know what she would have done if she had had to choose between them.”

The book Agent Sonya, which is far from being a paean to communist ideology, is fascinating because it contextualizes how from the 1920s to her death nearly eighty years later, a young woman born into a rich family (her grandfather was a successful banker and president of the Berlin Stock Exchange) became a radical communist and never relinquished her commitment to fighting fascism and trying to bring a better world, a socialist world, into being. In February, 1950, though she was given the option of settling in England, she chose instead to live in the GDR. She still believed, however deeply and then fatally flawed it was, socialist East Germany was a more humane place than the other, capitalist Germany.

Even as the GDR was falling apart in 1990, as did the Soviet Union, Ursula, in her eighties, reaffirmed her basic belief in communist principles. Her enemy had always between fascism, and “for that reason I hold my head up high.”

In spite of the fact that the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the GDR was about to dissolve, Agent Sonya addressed a huge rally in Berlin telling the crowd not to lose faith in the Communist Party. “Go and become part of the Party, work in it, change the future, work as clean socialists! I have courage. I am optimistic because I know it will happen.”

Perhaps the most significant and long-lasting aspect of this remarkable woman’s life is not merely how successful she was as a spy for over two decades, but how she was able to maintain her ideological values during the most turbulent political and social period of the last century—a world-wide economic depression, the rise of virulent fascism across two continents, the protracted communist revolution in China, a six-year-long world war, a forty-year Cold War era, and then the dissolution of the Soviet Union and its eastern European allies with the ostensible triumph of Western capitalism.

How Fascism Created a Communist

This is how, as a teenager, Ursula was “educated” by the fascists and became a life-long communist revolutionary. As described by Macintyre:

“For several hours, thousands of Berliners had been trooping through the city streets in the May Day parade, the annual celebration of the working classes. Their number included many communists, and a large youth delegation. These wore red carnations, carried placards declaring “Hands Off Soviet Russia,” and sang communist songs: “We are the Blacksmiths of the Red Future / Our Spirit is Strong / We Hammer out the Keys to Happiness.” The government had banned political demonstrations, and police lined the streets, watching sullenly. A handful of fascist Brownshirts gathered on a corner to jeer. Scuffles broke out. A bottle sailed through the air. The communists sang louder.

At the head of the communist youth group marched a slim girl wearing a worker’s cap, two weeks short of her seventeenth birthday. This was Ursula Kuczynski’s first street demonstration, and her eyes shone with excitement as she waved her placard and belted out the anthem: “Auf, auf, zum Kampf,” rise up, rise up for the struggle. They called her “Whirl,” and, as she strode along and sang, Ursula performed a little dance of pure joy.”

For this teenager and for the communists in Germany, fascism was the principal enemy of working people, of social progress, and of any chance for peace in Europe. It was an article of faith for Ursula, her immediate circle of allies, and then in the years to come of millions of progressives around the world, that only communism could defeat the scourge of fascism. The capitalist West had, after all, made compromise after compromise with Hitler’s Germany. From the end of the First World War to the end of the Second, most anti-fascists fought and died with the conviction that the only hope for a better world would have to be based on Marxist ideology, and in those early years communism was unambiguously embodied by the Soviet Union, then in its infancy. “The Soviet Union is the future,” Ursula’s father declared after 1922.

As for the future spy herself, in Macintyre’s words, “Every day Ursula witnessed the grotesque disparity between the urban poor and the wealthy bourgeoisie, of which she was a part. She devoured the works of Lenin and Luxemburg, the radical novels of Jack London and Maxim Gorky…. Shocked by the human degradation she witnessed, appalled by fascism, and entranced by these swirling new ideas of social equality, class war, and revolution, Ursula was drawn inexorably to communism. ‘Germany’s own Socialist revolution is just around the corner,’ she declared. ‘Communism will make people happier and better.’ The Bolshevik Revolution had proven that the old order was rotten and doomed. Fascism must be defeated. In 1924, she joined the Kommunistischer Jugendverband Deutschlands, the Young Communist League, moving into the ideological home she would occupy for the rest of her life. . . . Ursula’s fellow young communists came from all corners, classes, and communities of Berlin, united in a determination to overthrow capitalist oppression and usher in a new society.”

She was seventeen. A few weeks before her nineteenth birthday in 1925, Ursula joined the KPD, the largest communist party in Europe under the leadership of Ernst Thälmann. Of the roughly eight left-wing radical parties in Germany between the wars, only the communists in Germany understood that making deals with the Nazis was suicidal. Therefore, the KPD, as did the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (the NSDAP the Nazi Party), had a paramilitary wing, which was in perpetual conflict with the Nazi Brownshirts. Thalmann was a dedicated Stalinist who argued that whereas the Nazis were obviously their mortal enemy, the SPD) represented an adversary just as pernicious. The KPD adopted the position that the social democrats were “social fascists,” always ready to compromise with the fascists in brown shirts.

The Brownshirts, (in German Sturmabteilung, the SA), or Storm Troopers, were founded by Hitler in Munich in 1921. They were a paramilitary organization, eventually a million strong, dedicated to building a fascist party. And a principal component, if not the only essential one, was dedication to the belief that they alone could save Germany from Jewish-inspired Bolshevism.  As Agent Sonya makes crystal clear, it was this nearly global ideological struggle to the death between communists and fascists of different stripes that was the fundamental backdrop of Moscow-run spies like Ursula Kuczynski.

On January 30, 1933, Hitler was made Chancellor. On February 27, 1933, after the Reichstag fire was falsely attributed to communists, the Communist Party was banned. By the next month, 7500 communists had been arrested. Thalmann was arrested on March 3 and spent over eleven years in solitary confinement. In August 1944, he was transferred from Bautzen prison to Buchenwald Concentration Camp, where he was shot on August 18 on Hitler’s personal order and his body was immediately cremated.

The Influence of Proletarian Literature

One fascinating element that went into the making of Ursula Kuczynski was the enormous effect literature—Marxist-Leninist literature as well as literary fiction—had on radicalizing her and thousands of other future communists, making her a communist and then a spy for Moscow. A number of American writers—communists or socialists, but all them considered America’s greatest “proletarian” writers during the first half of the last century—made a lasting impression on the young woman, not yet a professional spy. The proletarian movement in America, books written by working-class writers for a class-conscious, mostly working-class audience, largely took its stimulus from the Russian Revolution.

These authors espoused radical solutions to the obvious hardships imbedded in capitalist society. The net effect of radical literature, both political and fictional, during the post-World War One period on a generation of soon-to-be revolutionaries cannot be overstated. Most certainly left-wing books and the authors who befriended her went into the making of Agent Sonya.  Many of the authors, especially the most prominent ones like Jack London, Michael Gold, Upton Sinclair, and Agnes Smedley were socialists or communists. Some were published by the American Communist Party, and many of these writers were friends of or corresponded with the spy-to-be.

In 1928, Ursula came to New York, got a job at Prosnit Bookshop in upper Manhattan, and then joined the American Communist Party. Many of the writers featured in as well as customers of this bookstore were radicals. It was here Ursula met the American communist writer Michael Gold, the author of Jews Without Money (1930), one of Ursula’s favorite books and a major example of American proletarian literature, translated into fourteen languages. Gold was also the founding editor of the Marxist journal The New Masses (1926-48), associated with the Communist Party. For over twenty years The New Masses published a legion of America’s greatest writers, artists, and composers, and it is no exaggeration to say that, as in the example of “Sonya” herself, this publication and proletarian literature in general helped to produce a generation of left-wing radicals.

Urusla named her first-born child Michael, after the author. Later, as a spy in China she was friends with another American socialist writer, Upton Sinclair, whose 1906 proletarian novel The Jungle was about immigrant workers in the American meatpacking industry. Jack London, America’s most successful (and socialist) novelist by the time of his death in 1916, described The Jungle as “the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of wage slavery.”

However, by far, Ursula’s most enduring influential literary friend was the author Agnes Smedley who Ursula met when was twenty-three and in China working with the Chinese communists then fighting against the Kuomintang. Smedley’s 1929 novel Daughter of Earth featured a young woman Marie Rogers who becomes a champion of international socialism. “I have no country,” declares Smedley’s protagonist. “My countrymen are the men and women who work against oppression….I belong to those who die for other causes— exhausted by poverty, victims of wealth and power, fighters in a great cause.”

As Macintyre puts it, for Ursula “the book was a call to arms: a woman fiercely defending the oppressed, demanding radical change, and prepared to die for a cause that sounded romantic, glamorous, and risky.” As for the author herself, this is how Macintyre describes the effect Smedley had on the future spy: “[Agnes Smedley] was a communist who never joined the party; a violent revolutionary and romantic dreamer. . . .Ursula was entranced. Agnes Smedley seemed to embody political passion and energy, the very antithesis of the smug complacency she found in the bourgeois boudoirs of Shanghai. ‘Your very existence is not worth anything at all if you live passively in the midst of injustice,’ Smedley insisted. Agnes was everything Ursula admired: feminist, anti-fascist, an enemy of imperialism and defender of the oppressed against the forces of capitalism, and a natural revolutionary. She was also a spy.”

By the time the two women met, Macintyre writes, “Smedley was already an important cog in the machinery of Soviet espionage, supporting the Chinese communists in their desperate struggle to survive the White Terror, the Nationalist government’s continuing campaign of political extermination: she recruited other writers and intellectuals sympathetic to the cause, used her home for covert meetings and mail drops, and passed secret information back and forth between the CCP and the Soviet Union. Her reports and instructions were sent by radio, or via the Soviet vessels sailing in and out of Shanghai. Back in Moscow, she enjoyed a ‘very high standing.’

Smedley would end up working for both the Comintern and the Fourth Department [the GRU –the foreign military intelligence agency of the Soviet army], but she did not know, or much care, which branch of Soviet intelligence she was serving, so long as she was fighting for ordinary Chinese workers. ‘The revolutionary movement out here is not a romantic idea or theory,’ she wrote. ‘It is either rebel or die.’” By the time Agnes Smedley and Sonya met in Shanghai, Smedley had become a dedicated communist, had been imprisoned in 1918 under the espionage Act, moved to Berlin and declared the USSR to be “the grandest, most inspiring place on earth,” and then went to China to battle the growing fascist movement there at the end of the 1920s. There, in 1930, Smedley introduced Ursula to a “Mr. Richard Johnson.”

His real name was Richard Sorge (born October 4, 1895, executed by the Japanese on November 7, 1944), a German journalist and Soviet military intelligence officer  who worked undercover as a German journalist in both Nazi Germany  and the Empire of Japan. He was without doubt one of the most successful and significant Soviet spies during World War Two, and possibly Ian Fleming’s model for James Bond, Agent 007. The British spy author described Sorge as “the most formidable spy in history.” It was Sorge who recruited Agent Sonya.

Every major combatant in World War Two—most notably Great Britain, France, Italy, Poland, the USA, Germany, and the USSR– employed spies. Starting in 1918, the USSR recruited spies all over the world. Among its most successful agents were the British “Cambridge Five” (John Cairncross, Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, and Anthony Blunt), the German physicist Klaus Fuchs, and Richard Sorge. Agent Sonya—Ursula Kuczynski– was Moscow’s most famous and “daring wartime spy” (Macintyre’s epithet).

What characterized and motivated the spies who worked for Soviet intelligence was their ideological dedication. They were not merely nationalists or patriots fighting for a particular country against the scourge of fascism. Spies like Sonya dedicated their lives to bring a new world into being after the defeat of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. They were communists who believed they were riding the world of a reactionary and pernicious ideology. Agent Sonya and her fellow agents from Shanghai to Berlin were also fighting for the liberation of mankind.

The World Today

On May 25, 2020, a black man, George Floyd, was murdered by police in Minneapolis. Thereafter in more than 150 American cities, as many as twenty-three million people demonstrated against police brutality and against systemic racism for months. The National Guard was activated in at least twenty-one states. It was the largest example of civil unrest in American history, focused principally, though not exclusively, on the inherent racism of America’s judicial system. Over the following three months, from May 26 to August 31, police in the U.S. killed 288 people, according to data from both The Washington Post and Mapping Police Violence two organizations that have kept comprehensive lists of people who have been killed by police. Blacks, who make up roughly 13.4% of the U.S. population, accounted for about 20% of people killed by police during that time period. During the first eight months of this year, police have killed 164 black people.

The essential and critical difference between the 1920s and early 1930s in Europe and right now in the streets of America and in Europe is certainly not the savagery and violent racism of capitalism and the growing physical confrontations between progressives and American-style brown shirts, but the existence of an international communist movement. The Bolsheviks had had a revolution in November, 1917 and the Chinese in 1950. The undeniable reality was that, even if it was not sustained, communism—societies based on social egalitarianism and not on private property and profit and explicitly anti-racist—held sway in the largest countries in the world. And furthermore, during the 1920s and early 1930s revolutionary communist movements in Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, and China were battling the fascists for state power.

The Soviet Comintern, led by Joseph Stalin who became the General Secretary of the Communist Party in April 1922, gave material and ideological support to this international communist struggle. Our task is to analyze the mistakes made that caused the formerly communist countries tp devolve into capitalism so that we may again build a movement that leads to a world the likes of which inspired Agent Sonya and millions like her.

3 thoughts on “Agent Sonya: Moscow’s Most Daring Wartime Spy — A Book Review and History”

  1. It’s amazing how many communist fighters for the international working class remain relatively unknown. Knowing of the heroics of women and men like Sonya can become an inspiration to millions who devote their lives struggling for the future she fought for. Thank you Peter for this review, bringing our attention to Sonya.


  2. Anyone who wishes to learn more about the period between the two World Wars will benefit by owning this book. Thank you, Peter Scheckner.


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