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An Impeccable Spy: Richard Sorge, Stalin's Master Agent

4.10  ·  Rating details ·  387 ratings  ·  56 reviews
The thrilling true story of Richard Sorge - the man John le Carré called 'the spy to end spies', and whose actions turned the tide of the Second World War

Richard Sorge was a man with two homelands. Born of a German father and a Russian mother in Baku in 1895, he moved in a world of shifting alliances and infinite possibility. A member of the angry and deluded generation wh
Paperback, 448 pages
Published March 21st 2019 by Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
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Mal Warwick
Jan 15, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
Who was the greatest spy of the twentieth century?

Was it Kim Philby (1912-88), who served Moscow for three decades? Philby’s revelations led to the execution of numberless British and American agents behind the Iron Curtain, and his defection in 1963 pushed the CIA’s James Jesus Angleton over the abyss into the full-blown paranoia that almost destroyed the Agency.

Or was it Eli Cohen (1924-65), whose undercover work in Damascus helped Tel Aviv win the lightning Arab-Israeli war in 1967?

How about
Mar 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An absorbing, easy read packed with previously unknown information. Sorge (pronounced Zorgae, as the author told a recent talk) was a fanatical Communist, a hard drinking, womaniser who took crazy risks with the network that he had built up.

Matthews' research has found the records from the GRU files in Podolsk that show that Sorge was largely untrusted by his Moscow handlers, due to his connection with many purged Soviet officials and the inability of his service chiefs to tell Stalin anything o
Apr 22, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
The first few hundred pages I found were hard reading but eventually once I got my head around the multiple names and plans I enjoyed this book.
It wasn't as 'unputdownable' as a Ben Macintyre book but actually I have probably learnt quite a bit more from this one. I always wondered how Japan fitted into the WW2 and whilst I'm still not 100%, I am someway to understanding. One of the most confusing things about this time I think are all the non-aggression pacts being signed, it's hard to underst
Steven Z.
Jul 06, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
As early as April 1941 British intelligence informed Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin of German intentions to discard the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 and invade Russia. Stalin seemed to ignore those warnings and others as he would do on June 21, 1941 when London once again warned him of the impending German attack. Unbeknownst to many in Europe Stalin did take certain precautions, for example, relocating Soviet industry east of the Ural Mountains and certain military accommodations as he had re ...more
Mar 04, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-2020
While I'd come across Richard Sorge's name in one of the many things I've watched and read about (in-)famous spies, I knew very little about his actual exploits. Detailed and informative, this biography sure made for an intriguing read.
An excellent biography of the famous soviet spy - read quite a few of them from the (hagiographic but still entertaining ) Russian ones almost four decades ago to more recent western ones and this one is entertaining and well written with the special touch the author brings from his Russian side of the family (as his grandmother was a neighbor of one of Sorge's handlers in the Soviet intelligence for example);

highly recommended whether one is new to the life and deeds of the arguably greatest s
Roger Mattson
Feb 07, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Excellent book, unique character, we’ll written. It is good to have the truth told lest Sorge be lost to history. I have great empathy for Matthews’s multilingual research. I share the same struggle in the case of Eric Krebs alias Jan Valtin.
Feb 17, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Brilliantly narrated book - the author is tied with Robert Massie for best historical non fiction prose that I have read
The book zooms in and out easily between the day-to-day of Sorge's dramatic life and the world stage on which it unfolded.
Very entertaining read and gives a lot of insight into how espionage can work, into how international politics are structured, and into the people who lived their lives through the interwar period and moved the world into WWII
David Wasley
Jul 07, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
How a charming, ruthless risk taker hoodwinked the intelligence services of Germany, China and Japan and obtained stupendous confidential information. This book is packed with names and details. I didn't find it an easy read but am glad I perservered.
Peter Grimbeek
Dec 03, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
It is a wonder that Richard Sorge survived working as a Soviet spy, both in Germany and Japan, as long as he did. The book makes the case that one would have to be mad in the way that he was to have done so.
John Davis
Apr 07, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An Impeccable Spy, by Owen Matthews; Bloomsbury Publishing: New York; $30.00 hardback

Richard Sorge is a name few Americans know. Yet he had more influence on the outcome of World War II than perhaps any spy in the history of that grand conflict. Why his remarkable, successful career is virtually a mystery to America is only one reason modern readers will value this work. Owen Matthews, Oxford educated British historian, author, and journalist for numerous first rank newspapers, offers a thoroug
Cormac Healy
Oct 08, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An interesting, if sometimes lacking, biography of one of the most compelling and successful spies in history.

The book covers the life of Richard Sorge, a man who was born in Azerbaijan, fought for Germany in WW1, became a committed communist, and spent the last decades of his life spying for the Soviet Union in China and Japan. One thing I enjoyed about the book is that it was willing to give context on certain issues readers might not be as familiar with, for example, the Japanese annexation o
Holly Morrow
You all know I love spy books - but this was kind of a slog.

The story itself is amazing - Richard Sorge was a German-born Soviet sympathizer who, as an agent for the Soviet Union, spends the 1930s in Shanghai and then Japan, where he becomes a prolific and effective spy-master. An incredibly charming and charismatic man, he manages to burrow his way into both the Japanese government and the German embassy in Tokyo - befriending the German ambassador and, amazingly, managing to have an affair wi
May 26, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: listened-2020
Matthews provides an excellent account of Sorge's life and spying from the 1920s to the 1940s. I am not familiar with the other accounts of Sorge's spying to say whether or not Matthews provides some new insight, but it is clear that he relies heavily on source documents from multiple languages to tell a thorough and compelling narrative. Notably, Matthews leaves the major questions regarding the ethics of Sorge's conduct and his place in history for the reader to discern.

People interested in wo
Sep 24, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
A truly fascinating life whose story is somewhat dulled by narration that is, at times, overly factual. For those who enjoy geopolitical intrigue, the events surrounding Sorge after he implants himself at the heart of the German Embassy in Tokyo make for compelling reading. Whether it is because the author had more sources to work with, or simply because the content is more exciting, this is where the book really shines. Its also amazing to see who dysfunctional the Soviet intelligence apparatus ...more
May 21, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography, history
A really exceptional book researched in minuscule detail. I really enjoyed, in particular, the tiny family anecdotes the author occasionally added. Unfortunately, these were counterbalanced somewhat by completely unnecessary judgements of the era and its major figures. Not only do these add nothing to the narrative, I doubt the readership needed to be told that the NKVD wasn't Russia's equivalent of a pensioners' tea and biscuits afternoon.

I really enjoy this current trend for journalists writin
Alex Frame
Aug 16, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The Ace of all spies.
Le Carre and others must have studied Sorges life and created many different fictional versions of him but here was the real thing.
He lived the life on the edge, drinking and womanizing but never forgetting why he was there. A true socialist who believed and was eventually stationed in Tokyo where he built his spy network and gave the Soviets everything including when the Nazis would begin operation Barbarossa (which was ignored) and then that the Japanese would not attack S
Aug 21, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Wow, what a superbly written book, I almost said novel, it is so easy to read and highly engaging.

Sorge, Russian born German who ends ups spying for an ungrateful and suspicious Stalin. He befriends the biggest German diplomats in Tokyo, and in doing so, has access to German military plans. Stalin distrusted him and so ignored his warnings about operation Barbarossa. However, he was listened to after reported that Japan was not going to invade Siberia, due to insufficient fuel. This allowed Sta
Benjamin Monckton
It seems that many individuals lead very interesting lives, and it also seems that a lot can be derived from their past experiences. What I loved about this book was the story and transformation of Richard Sorge from a smart, nationalist, outdoorsy German Russian boy into a cynical soldier for the empire in WW1, then into a radical and charismatic Soviet spy. This is all shown in the beginning of the book, mainly due to the fact that the book more so expands on Sorge’s adventures and misadventur ...more
michael flanary
Mar 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Terrific Espionage Thriller

Matthews does his homework in bringing to life this legendary Soviet Spy from World War II. It is amazing the risks, success and unmatched information that Sorge and his ring were able to deliver to the 4th Department of the NKVD. Amazing was the risk that anyone who aspired to be in Soviet Espionage under Stalin AKA 6 heads of the 4th Department were arrested and executed in Stalin's paranoid purges. Sorge may have been an impeccable spy and it is amazing the informat
Apr 23, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Sorge was a flawed individual, but an impeccable spy – brave, brilliant, and relentless.

The above line is among the concluding ones from the story of Richard Sorge as told by Owen Matthews. I mostly agree with it. Sorge was a Soviet spy in Stalin’s regime. Born to a Russian mother and a German father, Sorge fought for Germany in the wars, but his communist ideals made him spy for his motherland.

He was perhaps the only spy, in the history to spies, to have a flourishing career as a journalist (o
Jane Griffiths
Richard Sorge, the flawed master

I suppose all spies are flawed masters. Richard Sorge, a German born in Baku, and a spy for Moscow for years in China and then Japan, was one of the true masters. He lasted seven years in Tokyo, and it was not his weakness but that of a confrère that betrayed him. In the end it seems Moscow simply forgot about him. Before, of course, hagiographising him some years later. Sorge, with his drinking and womanising, hid in plain sight. That's the way to do it. A master
Oct 19, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
A bit clunky in parts, and a slightly tightened up narrative or extra run through from an editor could have taken this from good to great.

That said, damn. What a compelling life Richard Sorge led. That he could have offered so much of value, yet been derided, ignored, and forgotten is a bit sobering. If one of the best spies ever was wasted in so many ways, it really takes away from the "glamor" of the lifestyle.
Rod Zemke
Feb 05, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The story of Richard Sorge is a very interesting as Sorge was an incredible spy. Matthews has done a fantastic job of research in his writing of the story. The reason that it is not a five star is the writing. It is hard to put my finger on what was lacking, but somehow the mix of macro view and micro view just does not exactly work. For example I am not sure why Sorge was drawn into his communist ideology. However this is still a remarkable book that I would highly recommend.
Joe Healy
Apr 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
If you can get through all the names, places and dates, the story of Communist Spymaster Richard Sorge is jaw dropping. Matthews brings to life the fantastical exploits (espionage, drinking and womanizing) to life in great detail. Sorge’s brilliance and accurate intelligence wasn’t recognized by Stalin due to his own ego and narcissism. (Sound familiar today with Trump?) Regardless, Sorge was undoubtedly one of the 20th Century’s most brilliant of spies. This book brings it home.
Jun 11, 2020 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
02.23.2020: NF recommendation from NYTimes 02.23.2020 The Shortlist: Spies, Real and Imagined; This one is nonfiction, which I don't normally read...; 06.05.2020: I got through 3-chapters and decided I didn’t need to read about a horrible human being, a deceptive one at that: I put it down; 2019 non-fiction hardback via Madison County Public Library, Richmond. text 351 pgs. totaling 435 pgs.once all the notes, bibliography, author’s acknowledgements, picture credits and Index are included;
Ethan Everhart
May 27, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Strongest when it lets Sorge and the other characters speak for themselves, and falls into the trap of a lot of history of the time period of repeating the common anti-USSR narratives of the start of the war, but overall a very fascinating and well-sourced biography of a fascinating person.
Martin Ceglinski
Aug 18, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A very enjoyable book which showed the path of Sorges rise to the heights of classical spycraft. Easy to read and difficult to put down. I got through this book in a few sittings and leave this book with a vision of not only Richard, but of his close circle as well.
Pierre Lauzon
Incredibly researched and an historical piece glimpsing into the period from the 1920s to the end of World War II.

The book had almost too much information at times - trying to keep the players straight was difficult. This book could become a very interesting movie.
John Frasene
Apr 07, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a terrific read for anyone interested in 20th Century espionage. Sorge really was the Impeccable Spy, and his exploits in Shanghai and Tokyo make for a fun and suspenseful read. The period details of those two places are especially terrific, and the book left me wanting to know much more about the "Anything Goes" Shanghai of the between-the-wars era. Throughout it all Sorge is a larger-than-life character and is presented here warts and all.
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Owen Matthews is a British writer, historian and journalist. His first book, Stalin's Children, was shortlisted for the 2008 Guardian First Books Award, the Orwell Prize for political writing, and France's Prix Medicis Etranger. His books have been translated into 28 languages. He is a former Moscow and Istanbul Bureau Chief for Newsweek Magazine. Matthews has lectured on Russian history and polit ...more

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