Agent Sonya by Ben Macintyre review – housewife, mother and communist spy

Lara Feigel
·4-min read

In November 1930, the 22-year-old Ursula Hamburger was visited at her Shanghai home by a good-looking man with a strong German accent, and three fingers missing from his left hand. Here was the stuff of spy movies and Ursula was delighted at the sudden drama. Born Ursula Kuczynski, she was a well-educated German newly married to an architect husband who didn’t share her passion for building a new world. Bored of expatriate life among women she described as “little lapdogs”, she allowed the visitor, Richard Sorge, to recruit her as a communist spy and soon became his lover as well. Some women might have been deterred from the danger by being six months pregnant; Kuczynski was pleased that her maternal appearance would make her less suspicious.

Over the next decade, Kuczynski had three children with three different men and moved to the Soviet Union, Switzerland, London and rural Oxfordshire, spying relentlessly and brilliantly in all of them. She rose to the rank of colonel in the Red Army and was responsible for passing on the scientific secrets that would enable Russia to make an atomic bomb (with the code name Sonya, she was the handler of physicist Klaus Fuchs, with whom she went on country walks; they held hands to look like trysting lovers). Throughout she was also a wife to two husbands (she divorced in 1939), tending to her children, baking scones.

It’s an appealing story, well suited to Ben Macintyre, the popular author of fast-paced books about mid-century spies. Kuczynski herself wrote an autobiography, and she’s given Macintyre plenty of material to work with. Reading this book, I could see the film it will become. His is a genre well-suited to the excitement of the story but it’s ultimately too focused on the individual to address the moral travails of the 20th century satisfyingly. Because he’s gone for cinematic speed, Macintyre doesn’t always pause to ask questions. Most importantly, why was she so fervently committed and why did she keep going for so long?

Even when her name did come up, she escaped detection, partly because MI5 couldn’t believe a housewife would do all this

In The Golden Notebook Doris Lessing wrote that “any communist in the west who stayed in the party after a certain date did so on the basis of a private myth”. It’s hard to tell here how much of an intellectual life Kuczynski had as a communist. When young she read Marx, and her father was a prominent leftwing intellectual in Germany and then London, but we don’t get a sense of someone caught up in debating socialism with other party members. Macintyre suggests that she was addicted to danger. Presumably she was also terrified that her life would lose its purpose and meaning if she stopped submitting to a higher power.

Along the way, Agent Sonya is fascinating as a window on to a set of convictions relatively common at this time among communists. If building a new world matters most, then it matters more than your children or marriage. Socialism in the 30s coincided with a relatively free moral era among the intelligentsia. Nonetheless, she took motherhood seriously, and this is one of the most interesting aspects of the story. Reading it, I believed fully in her love for her children, but also found myself sharing her conviction that it was necessary to leave her two-year-old son with his grandparents for several months while she learned to blow up railway lines in Russia (if the toddler had picked up any Russian words, he would have incriminated them). After this, she almost always managed to take her children with her, preferring to put them in danger than to be separated from them. It’s rather moving watching her manage as an often single mother while also committing to a life in which she allows her work to define motherhood.

Her children seem to have accepted her divided loyalties once they knew about them. Clearly, there was something very lovable about Kuczynski, perhaps because there was also something inaccessible. It’s certainly remarkable that no one turned against her, and that even when her name did come up, she escaped detection, partly because MI5 (which comes across as decidedly plodding here) couldn’t believe a housewife would do all this. As a teenager, Kuczynski wrote in her diary: “I am a hot-head, a cross-breed with a black mane of hair, a Jew’s nose, and clumsy limbs … I want to stride out, jump, run, and love every human being.” She seems, in her way, to have managed this.

Agent Sonya: Lover, Mother, Soldier, Spy is published by Viking (£25). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.