Agent Sonya—bourgeois intellectual, committed Communist, fearless, charismatic and passionate—was the spy responsible for several of WWII’s most notorious espionage rings and the agent who most ensured that the Soviet Union became a nuclear power. MacIntyre's apparent affinity for mavericks, iconoclasts, rascals, rogues and spies, his unerring knack for finding a great angle, and the ability to write a captivating story, once again means a terrific thriller of a history lesson.
“[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.
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On May 1, 1924, a Berlin policeman smashed his rubber truncheon into the back of a sixteen-year-old girl, and helped to forge a revolutionary.
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, including 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.
The parade was turning onto Mittelstrasse when the police charged. She remembered a “squeal of car brakes that drowned out the singing, screams, police whistles and shouts of protest. Young people were thrown to the ground, and dragged into trucks.” In the tumult, Ursula was sent sprawling on the pavement. She looked up to find a burly policeman towering over her. There were sweat patches under the arms of his green uniform. The man grinned, raised his truncheon, and brought it down with all his force into the small of her back.
Her first sensation was one of fury, followed by the most acute pain she had ever experienced. “It hurt so much I couldn’t breathe properly.” A young communist friend named Gabo Lewin dragged her into a doorway. “It’s all right, Whirl,” he said, as he rubbed her back where the baton had struck. “You will get through this.” Ursula’s group had dispersed. Some were under arrest. But several thousand more marchers were approaching up the wide street. Gabo pulled Ursula to her feet and handed her one of the fallen placards. “I continued with the demonstration,” she later wrote, “not knowing yet that it was a decision for life.”
Ursula’s mother was furious when her daughter staggered home that night, her clothes torn, a livid black bruise spreading across her back.
Berta Kuczynski demanded to know what Ursula was doing, “roaming the streets arm in arm with a band of drunken teenagers and yelling at the top of her voice.”
“We weren’t drunk and we weren’t yelling,” Ursula retorted.
“Who are these teenagers?” Berta demanded. “What do you mean by hanging around with these kinds of people?”
“ ‘These kinds of people’ are the local branch of the young communists. I’m a member.”
Berta sent Ursula straight to her father’s study.
“I respect every person’s right to his or her opinion,” Robert Kuczynski told his daughter. “But a seventeen-year-old girl is not mature enough to commit herself politically. I therefore ask you emphatically to return the membership card and delay your decision a few years.”
Ursula had her answer ready. “If seventeen-year-olds are old enough to work and be exploited, then they are also old enough to fight against exploitation . . . and that’s exactly why I have become a communist.”
Robert Kuczynski was a communist sympathizer, and he rather admired his daughter’s spirit, but Ursula was clearly going to be a handful. The Kuczynskis might support the struggle of the working classes, but that did not mean they wanted their daughter mixing with them.
This political radicalism was just a passing fad, Robert told Ursula. “In five years you’ll laugh about the whole thing.”
She shot back: “In five years I want to be a doubly good communist.”
The Kuczynski family was rich, influential, contented, and, like every other Jewish household in Berlin, utterly unaware that within a few years their world would be swept away by war, revolution, and systematic genocide. In 1924, Berlin contained 160,000 Jews, roughly a third of Germany’s Jewish population.
Robert René Kuczynski (a name hard to spell but easy to pronounce: ko-chin-ski) was Germany’s most distinguished demographic statistician, a pioneer in using numerical data to frame social policies. His method for calculating population statistics—the “Kuczynski rate”—is still in use today. Robert’s father, a successful banker and president of the Berlin Stock Exchange, bequeathed to his son a passion for books and the money to indulge it. A gentle, fussy scholar, the proud descendant of “six generations of intellectuals,” Kuczynski owned the largest private library in Germany.
In 1903, Robert married Berta Gradenwitz, another product of the German Jewish commercial intelligentsia, the daughter of a property developer. Berta was an artist, clever and indolent. Ursula’s earliest memories of her mother were composed of colors and textures: “Everything shimmering brown and gold. The velvet, her hair, her eyes.” Berta was not a talented painter but no one had told her, and so she happily daubed away, devoted to her husband but delegating the tiresome day-to-day business of childcare to servants. Cosmopolitan and secular, the Kuczynskis considered themselves German first and Jewish a distant second. They often spoke English or French at home.
The Kuczynskis knew everyone who was anyone in Berlin’s left-wing intellectual circles: the Marxist leader Karl Liebknecht, the artists Käthe Kollwitz and Max Liebermann, and Walther Rathenau, the German industrialist and future foreign minister. Albert Einstein was one of Robert’s closest friends. On any given evening, a cluster of artists, writers, scientists, politicians, and intellectuals, Jew and gentile alike, gathered around the Kuczynski dining table. Precisely where Robert stood in Germany’s bewildering political kaleidoscope was both debatable and variable. His views ranged from left of center to far left, but Robert was slightly too elevated a figure, in his own mind, to be tied down by mere party labels. As Rathenau waspishly observed: “Kuczynski always forms a one-man party and then situates himself on its left wing.” For sixteen years he held the post of director of the Statistical Office in the borough of Berlin-Schöneberg, a light burden that left plenty of time for producing academic papers, writing articles for left-wing newspapers, and participating in socially progressive campaigns, notably to improve living conditions in Berlin’s slums (which he may or may not have visited).
Ursula Maria was the second of Robert and Berta’s six children. The first, born three years before her in 1904, was Jürgen, the only boy of the brood. Four sisters would follow Ursula: Brigitte (1910), Barbara (1913), Sabine (1919), and Renate (1923). Brigitte was Ursula’s favorite sister, the closest to her in age and politics. There was never any doubt that the male child stood foremost in rank: Jürgen was precocious, clever, highly opinionated, spoiled rotten, and relentlessly patronizing to his younger sisters. He was Ursula’s confidant and unstated rival. Describing him as “the best and cleverest person I know,” she adored and resented Jürgen in equal measure.
In 1913, on the eve of the First World War, the Kuczynskis moved into a large villa on Schlachtensee lake in the exclusive Berlin suburb of Zehlendorf, on the edge of the Grunewald forest. The property, still standing today, was built on land bequeathed by Berta’s father. Its spacious grounds swept down to the water, with an orchard, woodland, and a hen coop. An extension was added to accommodate Robert’s library. The Kuczynskis employed a cook, a gardener, two more house servants, and, most important, a nanny.
Olga Muth, known as Ollo, was more than just a member of the family. She was its bedrock, providing dull, daily stability, strict rules, and limitless affection. The daughter of a sailor in the kaiser’s fleet, Ollo had been orphaned at the age of six and brought up in a Prussian military orphanage, a place of indescribable brutality that left her with a damaged soul, a large heart, and a firm sense of discipline. A bustling, energetic, sharp-tongued woman, Ollo was thirty in 1911 when she began work as a nursemaid in the Kuczynski household.
Ollo understood children far better than Berta, and had perfected techniques for reminding her of this: the nanny waged a quiet war against Frau Kuczynski, punctuated by furious rows during which she usually stormed out, always to return. Ursula was Ollo’s favorite. The girl feared the dark, and while the dinner parties were in full swing downstairs, Muth’s gentle lullabies soothed her to sleep. Years later, Ursula came to realize that Ollo’s love was partly motivated by a “partisanship with me against mother, in that silent, jealous struggle.”
Table of Contents
1 Whirl 3
2 Whore of the Orient 22
3 Agent Ramsay 39
4 When Sonya is Dancing 51
5 The Spies Who Loved Her 65
6 Sparrow 79
7 Aboard the Conte Verde 93
8 Our Woman in Manchuria 102
9 Vagabond Life 113
10 From Peking to Poland 123
11 In for a Penny 136
12 The Molehill 152
13 A Marriage Of Convenience 170
14 The Baby Snatcher 184
15 The Happy Time 197
16 Barbarossa 207
17 The Road to Hell 217
18 Atomic Spies 230
19 Milicent of M15 245
20 Operation Hammer 255
21 Rustle Of Spring 271
22 Great Rollright 282
23 A Very Tough Nut 297
24 Ruth Werner 317
Afterword: The Lives of Others 331
Select Bibliography 351
Photo Credits 355
Reading Group Guide
1. Before reading Agent Sonya, how much did you know about Ursula Kuczynski, communism, and the Cold War era? Which historical aspects of the book surprised you the most? Did you learn new details about this period in history?
2. Why do you think Ursula was drawn to and became a champion of the communist cause?
3. How does this story reflect the great ideological clash of the twentieth century—between communism, fascism, and Western democracy?
4. Why do you think Ursula became and stayed a spy for so many years, despite all the risks and challenges? What was she drawn to most? Can you imagine ever doing what she did?
5. What is Ursula’s most commendable quality? Her least? Is she someone you would want to have known?
6. There were many important supporting characters (and spies) in this book—who will you remember most and why?
7. What did you think about Ursula’s husbands and lovers? How did they each support her? What did you think about their own life decisions?
8. What role did sexism play in potentially enabling Ursula to operate undetected throughout her career?
9. Is there a scene (or scenes) in Agent Sonya that will stay with you? What will you remember most about this book? Do you plan to read more about the Cold War?
10. What role do the different settings play? Do you think similar events or espionage could have occurred in any other era?
11. What were your impressions of the author’s voice and style? What specific themes did Ben Macintyre emphasize most throughout the book?
12. What did you like or dislike about the book that hasn’t been discussed already?
13. If this book were to be made into a movie, whom would you cast for the main roles?
14. What other books by Ben Macintyre have you read? Which have you enjoyed most?