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Agent Sonya

Moscow’s Most Daring Wartime Spy

By Ben Macintyre
15-minute read
Audio available
Agent Sonya by Ben Macintyre

Agent Sonya (2020) is the biography of a respectable housewife, who also just happened to be one of Soviet intelligence’s most intrepid and high-ranking spies. The book traces the life of Ursula Kuczynski, code-name Sonya, from her birth in Berlin, through her radicalization as a communist and her career as a spy who both foiled the Nazis and arguably kicked off the Cold War.

  • World War II history buffs
  • Espionage enthusiasts
  • Anyone who loves the thrill and suspense of a good spy story

Ben MacIntyre is a journalist for the Times, a BBC presenter, and the best-selling author of several true spy stories, including The Spy and the Traitor, A Spy Among Friends, Double Cross, and Operation Mincemeat. He is renowned as an expert on spycraft during World War II and the Cold War.

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Agent Sonya

Moscow’s Most Daring Wartime Spy

By Ben Macintyre
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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Agent Sonya by Ben Macintyre
Synopsis

Agent Sonya (2020) is the biography of a respectable housewife, who also just happened to be one of Soviet intelligence’s most intrepid and high-ranking spies. The book traces the life of Ursula Kuczynski, code-name Sonya, from her birth in Berlin, through her radicalization as a communist and her career as a spy who both foiled the Nazis and arguably kicked off the Cold War.

Key idea 1 of 9

Before she was a spy, Ursula Kuczynski was a committed communist.

Ursula Kuczynski was born in 1907, into a Berlin family that was wealthy, intellectual, and Jewish. The Kuczynskis’ social circle included great thinkers like the Marxist Karl Liebknecht. The Kuczynskis themselves were left-leaning. In theory, they deplored fascism, while they supported socialism and workers’ rights.

But Ursula was interested in more than socialist theory. She had a passion for political activism. At just 17 years old, she was a card-carrying member of the communist party.

The key message here is: Before she was a spy, Ursula Kuczynski was a committed communist.

As a young woman, Ursula distributed communist literature out of a cart and organized protests. She even learned to use weapons for the revolution she and her comrades were sure was coming. But her life wasn’t just activism. She also met and fell in love with architect Rudi Hamburger who, while left-leaning, was no communist.

In 1930, Rudi accepted a job in Shanghai. Ursula decided to go with him. At the time, China was governed by Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist Kuomintang party, but Chinese communism was a growing force and Ursula was eager to take part in the communist struggle in the country.

This was easier said than done. Expatriate society in Shanghai was stifling. As an upper-class woman, Ursula was expected to rub shoulders with the other ladies at garden parties, not connect with political revolutionaries.

But she did connect with one. Agnes Smedley was a journalist, a socialist, and, as Ursula would later learn, a spy. The pair met over drinks at Shanghai’s ritzy Cathay Hotel, and Agnes saw something in Ursula. She told the young woman to expect a visitor soon.

Three weeks after she first met Agnes, a man who called himself Richard Johnson visited Ursula at home. His real name was Richard Sorge and he was the highest-ranking Soviet spy in China. Sorge knew Ursula was a communist, and he asked her outright if she was prepared to support her Chinese comrades in their revolution. Without hesitation, Ursula replied that she was. Sorge then asked to use her apartment as a safe house. When Rudi was at work, Ursula stood guard while Sorge conducted meetings with revolutionaries. 

Shortly after her first meeting with Sorge, Ursula gave birth to a son, named Michael. Ursula and Rudi were thrilled. Richard Sorge, when he came to visit the new parents, was pleased, too. Michael would be the perfect cover for Ursula’s revolutionary activities. Who would suspect that this elegant, feminine, upper-class mother was aiding and abetting the Soviets?

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