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 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 written a 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.
Ben Macintyre is a writer-at-large for The Times (U.K.) and the bestselling author of The Spy and the Traitor, A Spy Among Friends, Double Cross, Operation Mincemeat, Agent Zigzag, and Rogue Heroes, among other books. Macintyre has also written and presented BBC documentaries of his work.
An Entertaining and thrilling story of one woman’s life as a spy for the Soviet Union. A Non fiction story that reads like fiction
Born to a German Jewish family, Ursula Kaczynski was a German communist activist who worked for the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s. From planning an assassination attempt on Hitler in Switzerland to spying on the Japanese in Manchuria to preventing nuclear war (or so she says) by stealing the science of atomic weaponry from Britain to give to Moscow.
I really enjoyed this book and couldn’t stop listening. It’s impeccably researched and extremely well written. Reading this you just cant help getting caught up in Sonya’s life as a spy. The lengths she went to for a cause she believed in. I found myself conflicted as to why she would risk her children for her beliefs. This is my first Ben Macintyre book and I just wished I had purchased a hard copy of this book for my real life book shelf.
I listened on Audible and the narrator was excellent but I cant help wonder if the Hardcopy had photos and maps to go with the story. This Is always a concern I have with listening to Non Fiction on Audible. Occasionally the audible has a file attached with photos but nothing came with this book which was disappointing but perhaps the hard copy didn't have photos.
I wish the book had more information on Agent Sonya’s life in Berlin in her latter years and not sure why the author choose to gloss over this period of her life.
Having said that, a terrific book for readers who enjoy spy stories, history or non fiction reads.
Secret agent Sonya, real name: Ursula Kuczynski, was probably one of the best foreign agents the Soviets ever managed to engage. Ben Macintyre wrote about her outstanding record as an agent for the Soviet Secret Service, later the KGB, in great detail. Although I admired Macintyre’s very indepth research, I must say that, reading along, you get a bit too overwhelmed with all the information on the individuals and situations in Sonya’s very active spying endeavours, causing that your attention starts to diminish.
Living in Shanghai where her husband was employed as an architect and seeing the extreme poverty and hardship of the Chinese people, she started in earnest to act as a spy in the early 1930s, when she started to provide details of the enemies of the communists of Mao to the Soviet secret agents. Subsequently, after some years and extensive training in Moscow, she moved onwards to Europe where she resided in Switzerland and sent out German speaking spies into Germany to spy on the nazi’s. She was then more or less forced to move in Britain in 1939 where she managed to contract the brilliant theoretical mathematician Klaus Fuchs and was able to transfer his top-secret information and detailed research on the British/American original atom bomb development to the Soviets. Providing this information made her even more invaluable to the Soviets and Stalin even granted her the title of Colonel of the Soviet Secret Service, declaring that it was a shame that the Soviet Secret Service did not have 4 more Sonya’s because then the war with Germany would have been won in no time. Fuchs was asked to join the atom bomb development team in Los Alamos in the States, but even from there he still transferred information to Sonya in Britain. He was a witness to the first atom bomb test which he had participated in to develop. Fuchs’ spying activities were eventually discovered by the U.S. Secret Service, causing Ursula to flee to East Germany in a hurry before she would be arrested as well in Britain where MI5 and MI6 had a secret eye on her for years but could never catch her red-handed.
What puzzled me greatly when reading this biography was how blind-sided Sonya chose to be to the atrocities of the Stalinist Soviet regime, even when several of her old spying friends and a former lover were killed by the KGB and her first husband was put in a Gulag camp for 9 years for no discerning reason. I found her blind fanatic behaviour quite loathsome, although I am sure she thought she was helping to create a new just world order with equality for all people which was, of course, the message that the Soviets wished to proclaim. Thus, when reading about all her activities, I personally felt an ever increasing dislike for her and I know that this should not have bothered me, but it did. It may be unfair of me, but I only want to rate this biography 3*, purely because of the overload of information and my feeling towards Sonya’s personality which, I agree, is unfair as Ben Macintyre is just reporting on the actual history of her life.
There is a Wikipedia article on her if you wish to learn more about her: Ursula Kuczynski. She was married twice, thus her other names are: Ursula Hamburger and Ursula Beurton. She also wrote quite a number of books under the pen name: Ruth Werner.
Ben Macintyre is a badass writer of narrative nonfiction about lesser known historical figures from the World War II era. I read and reviewed his blockbuster, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, which was published in 2014; when I was invited to do the same for Agent Sonya, I didn’t hesitate. My thanks go to Net Galley and Crown Publishing for the review copy. You can buy this book now.
Her real name was Ursula Kuczynski, and she was a German Jew. Hitler came to full power when she was visiting China, and her entire family fled. Born before the Russian Revolution, she lived until after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and so her lifespan encompassed the entire duration of the Soviet Union. An unusually intelligent woman, she was drawn to Communism by the horror of Fascism, and by the misery created by disparate wealth that was right in front of her. The Chinese peasantry were so wretchedly poor that she found dead babies in the street; starving mothers sometimes concluded that they might be able to save one child, but they surely couldn’t save more than that, and they were forced to make a tragic choice. This, in spite of the vast and opulent wealth of the most privileged classes; it was obviously wrong, and there appeared to be only one way around it. She signed on to be a spy for Moscow.
Kuczynski’s career in espionage spanned twenty years and took place in myriad locations across Europe and Asia. She briefly harbored doubts about her career at the time of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, but shortly after its creation, Hitler broke it by attacking the USSR, and the matter became moot. Others around her were apprehended and either jailed or executed, but Ursula always got away clean. As she advanced in the Red Army, ultimately receiving the rank of Colonel, she was given increasingly important work, and her ultimate achievement was in recruiting a scientist that was placed at a high level within the Manhattan Project. More than 500 pages of important documents made their way to Moscow, and because of his defection and Ursula’s skill, the USSR soon had the atomic bomb also.
Though Ursula never considered herself a feminist, she never hesitated when commanding men—a thing few women did at this point in history—and she didn’t let the men in her life shove her around. One of my favorite passages is when she is pregnant at an inconvenient time, and her estranged husband and lover put their heads together to decide what should be done. The two of them agree that Ursula needs an abortion, and Ursula tells them she’s decided to have the baby. Mansplainers never stood a chance with Ursula.
There were many instances when motherhood conflicted with her professional duties, and she had to make a lot of hard choices, but being a mother also provided her with an excellent cover. Sexist assumptions on the part of M15, M16, and other spy-catchers were also responsible for part of her success; how could a mother of three children who baked such excellent scones be a foreign agent? Don’t be silly. And consequently, her husband (whichever one) often drew scrutiny, but nobody ever dreamed that Ursula herself was the high level spy they sought.
The one thing I would have liked to see added to this excellent work is a photo of this woman; perhaps it is included in the final publication, but my digital review copy showed none.* I found photos of her online and understood right away why she was so effective. That disarming smile; that engaging face. Who could help loving her? She looks like everyone’s best friend. She appears incapable of duplicity.
Although the biography itself is serious in nature, there are some hilarious passages involving the nanny, and also an imbecilic British agent that couldn’t find his butt with both hands.
Finally, one of the most fortunate aspects of this biography is that although it is absorbing, it isn’t written like a thriller, and so it’s a great book for bedtime. You already know that Ursula isn’t going to be executed, right? Her story is told in linear fashion, so although it’s a literate, intelligently told story, it’s never confusing. With autumn upon us, I cannot think of a more congenial tale to curl up with on a chilly evening.
This book is highly recommended.
* An alert reader tells me that the final copy of the book shows photographs of all the major players.
I found the blurb and title of this book somewhat limiting as I'm not sure that 'Sonya' (real name Ursula) really was 'Moscow's most daring' and her career which starts in the 1930s extends far beyond 'wartime'. That aside, this is a gripping story of one woman's astonishing life through a large swathe of the twentieth century.
Ursula was a German Jew growing up in the Weimar Republic where her early political idealism was nurtured by her abhorrence and life-long hatred for fascism as well as the entrenched social injustices that she saw around her. Throwing convention aside, she travels to study alone in the US, goes to China in the 1930s where she really cuts her teeth in the espionage game, is trained in Moscow, works in Switzerland during WW2 against the Nazis, and eventually ends up in the UK where she joins her family, her academic father and brother both being on Hitler's death lists.
Ursula is not just extraordinary for the way she overturns all kinds of strictures on women's relationship to work but also falls in and out of love, gets married and divorced, has lovers and combines spying with motherhood.
For me, the first half of the book feels more concentrated and focused on Ursula - the second starts following her ex-husband, also a Soviet spy, in China, her various lovers and associates and Ursula's own exploits feel diluted. Still, it's a fascinating story that challenges all the clichés about gender, work, desire, spying and maternity in the early to mid-twentieth century.
I received a free digital advance reviewing copy from the publisher, via Netgalley.
Ben Macintyre has done it again; produced a jaw-dropping book about 20th-century espionage. Sonya, born Ursula Kuczynski, lived a long life in service to the causes of anti-fascism and communism, starting 10 years before the Russian Revolution and extending decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. Her travels and accomplishments would be unbelievable as fiction. As history, they are flat-out amazing in themselves and even more so because she did it all while being a loving wife and mother.
Born into an intellectual German Jewish family, she was keenly aware of the growing power of the Nazis. Much of it she viewed from afar, though, because she and her architect husband were living in Shanghai, where he was working. Appalled by the state of the Chinese working class and the growth of fascism, Ursula was soon recruited to spy for Soviet military intelligence, working with famed agent Richard Sorge.
Always willing to obey the orders of Moscow Centre, Ursula moved from Shanghai to Poland to Switzerland to England, shedding husbands/partners along the way, but accruing children. Her hair-raising escapes from danger are mostly attributable to her wiliness, but as Macintyre makes clear, there’s a little secret sauce in there too. And that’s sexism. Ursula was so outgoing, so charming, so at ease with all kinds of people (even Nazis), and so housewifely, that nobody ever seemed to think she could possibly be a Soviet spy, no matter what the evidence—and it reached the point where there was plenty.
Macintyre is particularly scathing about British intelligence’s failure to figure out that Ursula was involved (and how!) in the smuggling of nuclear bomb secrets to the USSR. She was a handler for Klaus Fuchs, the physicist who handed over copies of all the nuclear bomb work he was involved in. Interestingly, it was only their one high-level female employee who was suspicious of Ursula from the moment she arrived in England—and even before.
While I was astonished by Ursula’s story, so much of the time I was reading I kept thinking about her three children. Her eldest, Michael, had moved from Shanghai to Manchuria to Poland to Switzerland by the time he was 10 years old, and knew four languages. When she had to flee England after the arrest of Klaus Fuchs, her children were suddenly wrenched from their comfortable English village life to East Berlin. Just imagine that.
If you’ve read Ben Macintyre books before, you won’t need any encouragement to read this one. But if you haven’t, this is as good a book as any to start with, especially if you have an interest in reading about women in espionage.
Buddy read with Simon. It was truly enthralling! Narrated superbly by the author himself.
"The wheels of British bureaucracy tend to turn slowly, or at least unpredictably. Village gossip, by contrast, can travel with almost magical speed."
There was speculation that Roger Hollis, director of the UK’s MI5 was he a Soviet Agent. However, MacIntyre writes, "To hide inside MI5 for nearly thirty years, while protecting a host of Soviet spies and covering his tracks, would have required a spy of rare intellectual agility."
And apparently, "No one would have described Roger Hollis that way. He was a plodding, slightly droopy bureaucrat with the imaginative flair of an omelette. Lying is easy. Maintaining a panoply of lies, cover-ups and diversions for years, and remembering them all, is exceptionally difficult."
Note: GRU stands for Glavnoje Razvedyvatel'noje Upravlenije. It was the Main Intelligence Directorate in the Soviet Union.
"The profession of Soviet spy is not an easy one to resign from. The GRU was a difficult club to join, and an even harder one to leave. Intelligence officers tended to depart the service when they were old, disgraced, or dead."
"the GRU allowed [Ursula] to leave its ranks in a way that no other officer would have been permitted to do. Stalin’s power was founded on abject obedience, but Ursula, as in so much else, was an exception to the rule. It was a mark of her prestige that she walked away from the spying business without recrimination, reprisal, or regret."
"This, then, is the main objection to the theory that Hollis protected Ursula: if the head of MI5 had been a Soviet supermole, Putin would be unable to resist boasting about it."
"Ursula outlived all her lovers."
"Hosting dinners for Rudi's British colleagues was like wading through social glue."
"She had loved Rudi for his kindness, Patra for his revolutionary strength, and Len for his long, sweet comradeship. But she had found the love of her life in 1931, screeching through Shanghai on the back of a fast motorbike. The framed photograph of Richard Sorge hung on Ursula’s study wall for the rest of her life."
Although 'Sonya' is the main subject of the book her two husbands and Richard Sorge are also significant characters and this adds a new dimension to this wonderful account. I have enjoyed all of Macintyre's books and like his journalism but I think this is his finest achievement to date. He has the gift of a conversational style which manages to convey facts easily but without being trite or facile. A great gift.
Sonya spied in China and Switzerland but her big hit was when she operated from a sweet English village. Bicycling along country lanes she could have been a vicar's wife out for some innocent brambling rather than checking out a dead drop with instructions from her Soviet handler.
The bravery of the men who parachuted into Germany just before the collapse of the Reich to assess bomb damage took my breath away. They used cutting edge technology to communicate with high altitude Allied planes - and Sonya made sure Stalin's subordinates got a peek at the kit. Just one highlight of this excellent book.
I can't imagine being Sonya! What a life! "Sonya" is the code name for a woman of German Jewish descent who was enlisted as a Soviet spy in her 20s. She lived in China, the Soviet Union and Switzerland and ended up living in England for several years, seemingly as an English housewife, but meanwhile passing important secrets to the Soviets. Later in life, she lived in East Germany, where she became a children's author. Meanwhile, she had three children, none of them knowing her background until later in life. Ben McIntyre does a great job of depicting "Sonya"'s life and personality and what motivated her. It's a sympathetic portrait of an unconventional, fearless and adventurous woman. I listened to the audio, which McIntyre narrates in his beautiful British accent. I would have liked to know more about the perspective of Sonya's children on their mother but, otherwise, his was great. Highly recommended to anyone with an interest in 20th century cold war history.
Ursula Kuczynski Buerton was a mother, housewife, novelist, expert radio technician, spymaster, courier, saboteur, bomb maker, Cold Warrior, and secret agent, all at the same time. Her code name was “Sonya.” This is her story.
True story of Soviet communist spymaster Ursula Kuczynski (1907-2000), called Agent Sonya. It spans her life, focusing on her time as a spy. Originally from Berlin, and born in a Jewish family, she fought against nationalism in many forms. The story is structured around her journey, as she practices spy craft in China, Poland, Switzerland, and England in the 1930s and 1940s. It follows her life, multiple marriages and children, and almost naïve acceptance of Stalin’s form of communism. A colonel in the Red Army, she somehow survived the Great Purge. She inspired fierce loyalty and was never betrayed. This account is well-written and engrossing. I found it interesting that she managed to hide in plain sight by using the camouflage of motherhood. I appreciated the inclusion of photographs at the end to put faces with the many names. Definitely a book for those interested in the history of the Cold War.
Colonel Kuczynski of the Red Army, meanwhile, was running the largest network of spies in Britain: her sex, motherhood, pregnancy, and apparently humdrum domestic life together formed the perfect camouflage. Men simply did not believe a housewife making breakfast from powdered egg, packing her children off to school, and then cycling into the countryside could possibly be capable of important espionage. Ursula ruthlessly exploited the natural advantage of her gender.
A really enjoyable book. McIntyre at his best. Non fiction told like a novel. McIntyre brings out very clearly the stressful existence of being a spy. It’s not a glamorous occupation. His subject, Ursula Beurton, is a woman who puts her spying activities for the Soviet Union above the needs of her children and her three husbands. And, like many spies, eventually becomes disillusioned about the perceived “utopia” of Communism. The story moves from Berlin to Shanghai to Poland and Switzerland, to Britain and finally East Germany. In many ways, its a sad story. A story about a person who spied for the Soviet Union out of some idealistic notion of the equity of Communism, but when they were exposed fully to its brutality and vacuousness, saw Communism for what it was. The biggest sufferers out of this story were Ursula’s children - never given any home roots, constantly on the move, having to speak different languages, with a mother they didn’t really know. Like many spies, Ursula deceived herself into thinking that she achieved something. Unlike many others - for example, Philby, Blake, Cairncross - at least her spying didn’t lead to the deaths of other loyal agents.
Ben Macintyre has done it again! I’ll officially follow this author anywhere, this is not just one of my favourite books of the year but potentially one of my favourites of all time. Ursula Kuczynski lived an incredible life, and le Carré’s maxim about spies being the reflection of their country’s soul has never been truer. Highly, highly recommended.
Šioje knygoje britų istorijas Benas Macintyre pasakoja apie sovietinės karinės žvalgybos GRU pareigūnę Ursula Kuczynski, kurią pagrįstai galima vadinti garsiausia moderniųjų laikų šnipe.
Per savo įspūdingą karjerą Kuczynski sugebėjo:
1) Užauginti tris vaikus (beje, vienos dukros tėvas buvo lietuvis jūreivis);
2) Padaryti aukščiausio lygio karjerą GRU;
3) Užverbavo atominės energetikos specialistą Klausą Fuchsą, kuris perdavė sovietams amerikiečių ir britų žinias apie atominę bombą;
4) Antrąjį pasaulinį karą amerikiečių žvalgybai prakišo savo suformuotą sovietinių agentų tinklą ir vėliau per juos gaudavo svarbiausias žinias apie tikrąją padėtį nacistinėje Vokietijoje ir naujausias JAV žvalgybos technologijas;
5) Pabaigusi karjerą Kuczynski tapo rašytoja, bestselerių autore Ruth Werner.
Perskaitęs knygą, išskirčiau tris esmines mintis:
– Fanatiškas tikėjimas yra galinga jėga. Ursula Kuczynski tapo komuniste ankstyvoje jaunystėje ir išliko komuniste netgi griuvus Berlyno sienai ir išaiškėjus Stalino nusikaltimams. Ji gyveno nepaprastai sudėtingu laiku, matė kovą tarp liberalizmo, fašizmo ir komunizmo, tačiau tokioje aplinkoje sugebėjo atlikti bemaž neįmanomas užduotis. Sakyčiau, jos motyvacija buvo fanatiškas tikėjimas. Aišku, ir sekėsi jai ne ką mažiau.
– Seksizmas yra siaubingai kvailas ir juokingas dalykas. Britų kontržvalgyba MI5 turėjo patikimų žinių, jog Kuczynski šnipinėjo sovietams neutralioje Šveicarijoje, tačiau smarkiai susimovė, nes Kuczynski jų panosėje užverbavo Klausą Fuchsą ir dar kelis labai svarbius agentus. O susimovimo priežastis – buitinis seksizmas. Ursula Kuczynski buvo moteris, todėl MI5 vadovai nedviprasmiškai nurodė savo pareigūnams stebėti ne ją, o tuometį jos vyrą. Juk vyras turi būti Tas Esminis Šnipas, o ne moteris :)
Britų žvalgybos požiūris į moteris toks apgailėtinai juokingas, kad vienas iš „kiečiausių“ MI5 tardytojų, atėjęs pas ponią Kuczynski išgauti prisipažinimo dėl šnipinėjimo Šveicarijoje, džentelmeniškai papasakojo viską, ką kontržvalgyba žinojo apie jos veiklą ir pažadėjo neskriausti gležnos, nekaltos būtybės :) Taip Ursula Kuczynski sugebėjo išgyventi tada, kai jau rodėsi yra pagauta už rankos
– Skaitant šią knygą kilo retorinis klausimas: ar panašią knygą galėtų parašyti lietuvių istorikai? Neabejoju jų profesionalumu ir sugebėjimu pasakoti, tačiau smarkai abejoju mūsų visuomenės branda ir gebėjimu priimti nešališkai parašytas istorijas apie priešus. Juk šios knygos autorius – britų istorikas Benas Macintyre – jau ne pirmą kartą atlieka istorinį tyrimą ir įdomiai aprašo šnipus, kurie kenkė britams ir netgi pražudė daug žmonių. Tačiau Macintyre pasakojimai visuomet labai įdomus ne tik dėl kruopštaus tyrimo ir pasakojimo stiliaus, bet ir dėl nešališkumo.
O dabar Lietuvoje atsirado teigiančių, esą profesionalūs istorikai turėtų tyrinėti vien tokias temas, kurios padėtų mums kariauti informacinius kartus ir kurti patriotinius naratyvus. Tai jeigu šitoks požiūris neduok Die įsitvirtintų, tai galėtume tik pasvajoti apie nešališkumą ir istorijas „iš kitos pusės“.
In this age of demagogy and liberal use of truth, it is easy to forget that not very long ago, people actually carried beliefs in various political ideologies, and some politicians made decisions according to ideology rather than according to what's in their best interests. In view of the current political climate, this may seem like a positive thing, but the story of the 20th century proves it wrong. Taken to the extreme, ideologies are no less dangerous than political opportunism. This is the story of a group of people who adopted communism so fanatically, that they agreed to put themselves and their loved ones in great danger, betray the trust of everyone around them and sometimes take actions that would have terrible consequences. Above all, it is the story of Ursula Kuczinsky, who had many other names throughout her life, and who was a major spy and spymaster for over 20 years. As a woman, I was happy to read about a strong woman who lived by her own rules and beliefs, was talented, successful at everything she did, and enjoyed her free love life. However, this story is much more complex and has many dark sides. It is a story of a Jew fighting against Fascism with everything she's got, but also a story of a mother who puts her own children in grave danger. It is the story of great loves based on common ideals, but also of adultery, abandonment and betrayal of lovers and good friends. It is the story of a woman who wanted to help create a much better world and life for many, but who ended up supporting murderous and monstrous regimes. Ben Macintyre, yet again, did amazing research and brings us a comprehensive picture of her life and work, her thoughts and emotions, as much as it is possible to reconstruct them now. The story may not be as thrilling and suspenseful as his last novel, "The Spy and the Traitor," which made my heart race at times, but it is very engaging and brings to life the spirit of the times and significant moments in history, as well as builds a portrait of a highly intelligent and impressive woman who lived in secrets, paradoxes and lies, but also had a great capacity for love and who lived for what she believed in, for good or bad. Ben Macintyre seems to be able to turn any story from the past into a fascinating and compelling read and is definitely my favorite espionage history writer. eARC received from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.
Another corker by Ben Macintyre. I have to wonder if I'm being unfair by giving this only four stars, but I have to maintain rank around the amazingly five-star The Spy and the Traitor.
In this book, an ambiguously cosmopolitan woman spies for the Soviets and secretly rises to a high rank in the Red Army, while appearing to be an expat housewife and mother. We have the usual near misses and amazing escapes here, but a big part of the fun is seeing Ursula alias Sonya run circles around clueless officials who can't overlook the fact that she's a woman. At one point, she evades a would-be MI5 interrogator simply by excusing herself to finish baking her son's birthday cake. Her schedule, "swept up in an exhausting whirlwind of espionage, child-rearing, and housework," might feel especially resonant to some people in 2020! I enjoyed the presentation of her life in China and of her peregrinations during the long run-up to WWII. As Macintyre notes at the end, her career spanned the entire 20th century story of communism, and she was a believer until the end.
Agent Sonya....... From planning an assassination attempt on Hitler in Switzerland, to spying on the Japanese in Manchuria, to preventing nuclear war (or so she believed) by stealing the science of atomic weaponry from Britain to give to Moscow, Ursula Kuczynski Burton conducted some of the most dangerous espionage operations of the twentieth century.
Born to a German Jewish family, as Ursula grew, so did the Nazis' power. A fanatical opponent of the fascism that ravaged her homeland, she was drawn to communism as a young woman, motivated by the promise of a fair and peaceful society. She eventually became a spymaster, saboteur, bomb-maker and secret agent.
In Agent Sonya, Britain's most acclaimed historian vividly reveals the fascinating tale of a life that would change the course of history.
Classic Ben Macintyre - a gripping ride, based on meticulous research.
A Book that took six days to read, why?
Well this book is filled with detail, names, stories, places, spies, that it took an enormous about of concentration, re-reading to understand all the many different p0werful characters from the past, each spies back story, dates, times.
A four star as I have to deeply respect the enormous research and time it takes to write a book like this, heavy going, oh yes, difficult to keep us with sometimes, yes, but filled with so many stories, spies.
You read this and think " Who works for who", who's good who's bad, what right and what's wrong.
Three for the book, four for the research.
His best book is about a spy in Jersey ! Where I live.
Ben MacIntyre is one of the most prolific producers of nonfiction books about espionage in the English language. Of the thirteen books he’s written to date, nearly all are about spies, saboteurs, and partisans, and five of those books have been made into documentaries by the BBC. In his latest venture, MacIntyre tells the tale of an extraordinary Soviet spy in World War II, a German-Jewish Communist named Ursula Kuczynski (1907-2000). During her nearly two decades as an officer of Soviet military intelligence, Kuczynski played a pivotal role in one of the most spectacular intelligence coups of the twentieth century. As a colonel in the Red Army working for what was later called the GRU, she handled the agent who stole Britain’s and America’s most critical atomic bomb secrets for Josef Stalin. Her code name was “Sonya.” MacIntyre’s biography of her is endlessly fascinating.
An actor in the history of the twentieth century
Ursula Kuczynski’s life spanned the history of the Soviet state. “She was ten years old when the Bolshevik Revolution took place and eighty-two when the Berlin Wall came down.” She was born into a wealthy family of left-wing intellectuals in Berlin—”Albert Einstein was one of [her father’s] closest friends”—but sometimes suffered privation as an adult in war-torn China, Switzerland, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and East Germany. She was married twice and gave birth to a son by a third man, but the love of her life was the superspy Richard Sorge (1895-1944), who seduced and recruited her to the GRU. And, as MacIntyre concludes, she came to view that history like so much of the rest of the world. As a Soviet spy, “She spent her adult life fighting for something she believed to be right, and died knowing that much of it had been wrong.”
A life peopled with extraordinary characters
Some of the most intriguing individuals in the history of the past century crossed paths with Ursula Kuczynski, and many of them, not just Richard Sorge and Klaus Fuchs, played important roles in her life.
** Robert Kuczynski (1876-1947), her father, and Jürgen Kuczynski (1904-97), her older brother. Both were prominent economists, and her brother, a Communist like herself, also became a Soviet agent in World War II.
** Agnes Smedley (1892-1950), an American journalist who worked as a spy for the Comintern in China and wrote sympathetically about the Chinese Communist Party. Like Ursula Kuczynski, she was one of Richard Sorge’s many lovers.
** Alexander (Sandor) Radó, the Soviet spy rezident in Switzerland who directed the “linchpin” in the Soviet spy ring that Heinrich Himmler called the Rote Kapelle (Red Orchestra)
** Millicent Bagot (1907-2006), the MI5 Communist-hunter who came closest to exposing Agent Sonya. She “would eventually achieve literary immortality as the model for Connie Sachs, the eccentric and obsessive spinster in the novels of John le Carré.”
** Sir Roger Hollis (1905-73), the senior MI5 operative who eventually became the agency’s Director General (1956-65) and who, to this day, remains controversial because so many believe he was a KGB mole (although Ben MacIntyre does not)
Sigint, not humint, was preeminent
Spies and saboteurs were not a major factor in the Allied victory in World War II. The spies and saboteurs of the many national Resistance and partisan movements and the officers of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) made valuable contributions—but, with the exception of a few extraordinary individuals, achieved little impact on the outcome of the war. What today we understand as intelligence was a significant factor, but it was sigint, not humint—the work of the codebreakers, not spies; the people who broke the German Enigma code and the Japanese naval and diplomatic codes. Their work enabled the Allies to win the Battle of the Atlantic and the Battle of Midway, among many other crucial episodes in the war.
But there were exceptions, Ursula Kuczynski among them
However, there were exceptional spies who did, in fact, impact the course of history. The most prominent of them were:
** The German Communist working from Japan for the USSR, Richard Sorge, whose intelligence enabled Stalin to move half a million men from the Far East to the defense of Moscow in 1941;
** The motley collection of double agents recruited by MI6 who played critical roles in the D-Day deception that misdirected German forces toward the Pas de Calais instead of Normandy;
** And the young refugee German physicist Klaus Fuchs who passed along the nuclear research secrets of the British Tube Alloys program and American Manhattan Project to the Soviet Union—and directly to Josef Stalin himself—through the hands of Soviet spy Ursula Kuczynski during Fuchs’ years in Great Britain (1941-43).
I have enjoyed all of Ben Macintyre's book so far and, although this was not my favourite, it is certainly a fascinating tale. Agent Sonya was really Ursula Kuczynski, later Mrs Burton. Born Jewish in Germany and an early member of the Communist party in a country which turned to facism, she was nicknamed 'whirl,' and was full of political idealism in an intoxicating time for the young, when political upheaval left millions in her country politcally radicalised on either the left, or the right.
This follows Ursula through her early marriage and time in Shanghai, where she threw herself into the seeming romance of espionage - finding new friends and new lovers along the way. In her long career in spycraft, Ursula is trained in Moscow, worked in Poland, Switzerland and Britain. She married twice, had a child by her lover in Shanghai and found herself balancing her political beliefs along with motherhood. Often her spying put herself, and her children, in danger and she found herself fleeing, with one or more children in tow. She did, to be fair, struggle with this, but it is one thing to act on your own beliefs and another to involve others and so it is interesting to read of a woman - rather than a man - in this position. Male spies can defect without having to consider others, or seem to do so. This story does make the reality of how others are affected by the actions of spies more immediate.
This book sat unread for a while, as I suspected I would find it a less gripping tale then Macintyre's previous work and this was the case, but I did still enjoy it and am glad that I read it. Macintyre writes non-fiction almost like a thriller and I relaxed into his easy style - also listening to parts on Audible, which the author read himself. At his best, Macintyre is brilliantly engaging and, even here, where I found myself not drawn to the central character, I found this a very readable account of an astonishing life, which saw one woman engaged in some of the major events of the twentieth century.
DNF! I really wanted to like this book but there are so many strange names that work for so many different levels of so many different countries that I finally said, enough! I hate when books bog you down with this information and it just goes on and on! Maybe someone else will see it differently, but that was my opinion. Too many other really good books to read!
A master historian and a story that will make your jaw drop. A incredible rich combination of fact and narrative, pulls the story along and builds curiosity for the reader to want to know every little detail of Ursula Aka Sonya. I’m not a big reader of NF, and if your like me, I absolutely recommend it in audio book. This story also makes an excellent book group discussion.
Always preview a book if possible, especially if you are new to the author. Seems like a lesson I would have taken to heart long ago, but the current lack of library access due to the pandemic and my lazy need for something new, made me vulnerable to good reviews and impulse purchases online. So here is my review to balance out the overall positive glow surrounding this author.
This author is not for me. I was struggling to figure out why. This was the sentence that broke me:
“Simultaneously glamorous and seedy, shiny and grotty, Shanghai was home to a teeming international throng of beggars, millionaires, prostitutes, fortune-tellers, gamblers, journalists, gangsters, aristocrats, warlords, artists, pimps, bankers, smugglers, and spies.”
A word list is not a description I want to read. There are better ways to invoke a sense of place or give an idea of the variety of people the main character is surrounded by.
I also like running across words that are new to me, but the author’s use of “pullulating” just felt off. I was already struggling with the writing style, so the aversion to that word was just a symptom of my overall dislike.
This book feels written like a breezy tv show, with quick camera shifts to try and spice up dry or sparse material.
Ben Macintyre can do no wrong. I've loved every single one of his books so far and this one does not disappoint.
This is the true female spy tale you've been looking for.
A German Jew, Ursula Kuczynski lived in many different countries working as a spy for Moscow. During her 20 year career, she also had a three children which proved to be great cover—no one suspected her even when those around her were caught.
Fascinating, extremely well-researched, excellent writing, and often more wild than fiction.
If you haven't read Macintyre yet, what are you waiting for? Anyone who loves history and nonfiction spycraft needs more Macintyre in their life.
I'm veering between 3 and 4 stars for this. I do love a good spy story, and this is definitely daring and how Ursula got away with her activities for so long is quite amazing to me. She was born in Germany and was a supporter of the communists from a very early age. Thrilled by their ideaology and enamoured by the prospect of change that they offered, it is easy to see how she got caught up in the world they offered. She was the daughter of an academic, had wealth and a loving family. Yet she went from this to a world of danger few of us would have the mettle to survive, let alone thrive in. Ursula's life is full of romance, her love for her children, dodgy dealings in dark alleys and travel to the most dangerous of places in times of war. You can't help but admire her while feeling utterly sorry for her kids. This is a fascinating look at a life fully led. Really engaging and I think an important record of the kind of spy who just gave everything for the things they believed in.
Ben Macintyre writes the best spy biographies! This particular spy, Ursula Burton (alias Sonya) started out in Germany resisting the fascists and ended up being a spy for the Soviet Union in many parts of the world. She was definitely dedicated to her beliefs, sometimes even giving up her children for lengthy periods of time. While I admire her for her dedication, I don’t think she was all that great of a person. Macintyre follows Sonya’s journeys around the world, the comrades she encountered, and the work she did. It was fascinating to read that she was trained in bomb making in the Soviet Union! Recommended. Also recommend his book on Kim Philby: A Spy Among Friends. Philby makes an appearance in Agent Sonya, too.
Ursula Maria Kuczynski is a German Jew who becomes a communist from a young age. She is from a very privileged background which certainly helps when you want to fight for the ‘cause’. Being born in 1907 her primary reason to be a communist is to oppose fascism that is rearing its ugly head in Germany in the 1920s.
Macintyre writes in such a way that you forget this is non-fiction as it reads like a spy thriller novel. Impeccably researched as you come to expect from this author. He brings an atmosphere to each location that Ursula finds herself in be it Berlin, Shanghai, Warsaw or the Cotswolds. The Cotswolds I hear you cry if you are not from England. What is he talking about? Well, the Cotswolds are the most middle-class place in England. To the west of the country with the most picturesque villages imaginable. A really beautiful part of the world. The one place where you would not expect any communists to be lurking.
Ursula becomes embroiled in the spy business while out in Shanghai with her architect husband who was working out there. A little bored she meets Agnes Smedley an American journalist who was also a spy passing information to the Chinese Communist Party and the Soviet Union. Her journey into being a spy begins. It is 1930. It is a dangerous business. Exciting, yes; deadly, possibly but it beats boredom. After a couple of years Ursula became a ‘professional, dedicated and increasingly self-confident spy.’
This was certainly noticed in Moscow as she is awarded the highest honours for her missions. She still carries on spying for them even after the famine and the Great Purge which saw a lot of her spy friends killed. I can only put this down to her wanting to defeat fascism. Why else would you want to work for such a brutal dictatorship that has killed millions of innocent people?
There is a slight lull in the book when Ursula is looking after the children and not being a spymaster. Macintyre takes us on a tour of other spies. Other than that, the book fairly flies through Ursula’s life. I don’t mean that the book is short more that it flies due to good storytelling.
Μέσα στην παραζαλη των υποχρεώσεων κατά πιάστηκα με μια καινούρια κυκλοφορία των εκδόσεων Κλειδάριθμος. Ενα κατασκοπευτικό και αγωνιώδες μυθιστόρημα από τον Ben MacIntyre, μαέστρο του είδους!
Στο βιβλίο βλέπουμε την ζωή της Ursula Kuczynski, γεννημένη στο Βερολίνο από μια πλούσια Εβραϊκή οικογένεια. Ατίθαση και γεμάτη πάθος για την πολιτική εμπλέκεται με την GRU (Σοβιετική στρατιωτική υπηρεσία πληροφοριών) ξεκινάει ως πληροφοριοδότης και φτάνει να γίνει η μεγαλύτερη κατάσκοπος της ιστορίας της.
Ένα κείμενο γροθιά για την Κουμουνιστική τότε Σοβιετική Ένωση και την πίστη των ανθρώπων της παρά τα απανωτά λάθη που καταγράφονταν μπροστά στα μάτια τους.
Ένα κείμενο σφιχτό που ρέει αβίαστα, καθώς βλέπουμε την μελέτη που έχει ρίξει ο συγγραφέας για να μας δώσει ένα άρτιο αποτέλεσμα. Το φωτογραφικό υλικό βοηθάει να οπτικοποιήσουμε την ιστορία σαν να βλέπουμε ένα καλογραμμένο ντοκιμαντέρ στο σινεμά!
I have enjoyed every one of Ben Macintyre's books thus far, he excels in taking a fairly obscure character and event in spycraft and turning it into an enjoyable and insightful tale. Ursula Kuczynski led an interesting life as spy for Communist Russia across two continents in a time when she could easily have been killed for her role. Male assumptions of female capabilities in the era certainly helped her, but she was a remarkable person in her own right. I listened to the audio version narrated by the author which was excellent.
In the annals of espionage, whenever successful female spies get discussed, the reference is often to their ‘femme fatale’ looks and how they used sex to gather intelligence. At least, this is what popular imagination suggests. Famous spies like Mata Hari and Anna Chapman reinforce this belief. The term, “sexpionage” has come into usage to refer to the use of sex, romance, and seduction by female spies in their intelligence work. This book by Ben Macintyre is about Ursula Kuczynski who is perhaps the most successful female spy in history, without being a femme fatale. Ursula was a Jewish woman born in Germany in 1907. As a teenager, she hates fascism and becomes a communist. Her adventurous life takes her to Shanghai, Warsaw, Geneva, and the Cotswolds in the UK. She works as a Soviet spy in all those cities in the 1930s and 40s, supplying the highest quality intelligence. She had the stunning record of evading the Chinese secret police of the Kuomintang, the Japanese Kempeitai, the Swiss and Polish secret services, the MI5, and the Gestapo. A major reason for her success was her image as a homemaker, living with three children and doing the normal chores like shopping and cooking. The intelligence services were male-dominated and assumed spies and spy chiefs cannot be women living in domesticity.
Ursula Kuczynski was born in a rich Jewish family in Berlin in 1907. Germany was in the throes of radical change in the 1920s and communism attracted Ursula as a teenager, just as it did her elder brother Jürgen. She marries her love, Rudi Hamburger, a Bauhaus architect and leftist, but not a communist. The Kuczynskis were a left-leaning family. With the rise of fascism in Germany, Ursula senses the urge to respond to the call for action against fascism. Rudi and Ursula settle in Shanghai, where their son Michael is born. Agnes Smedley, an American journalist and communist, befriends her in Shanghai, and introduces her to espionage. Ursula meets Richard Sorge, a dashing German who was a top spy for the USSR in China. She has affairs with him and feels intensely attracted to Sorge. But Sorge leaves her after setting her up as a spy for the Soviets. Ursula goes to Moscow and gets trained for seven months in the art of espionage, learning to set up wireless transmitters and the use of Morse code. The Soviets give her the code name ‘Sonja’ (Agent Sonya).
The GRU (Soviet intelligence services) sends Ursula to Shenyang in Manchuria which was under Japanese occupation in 1934. She meets another Soviet agent, Johann Patra, there with whom she works, providing intelligence on the Japanese by setting up radio transmitters. They get romantically involved, have a daughter, Nina, out of wedlock. The GRU (Soviet intelligence services) then transfers her to Poland for three years and then to Geneva, Switzerland. The country was a cesspool of international spies because of its neutrality in the war. Ursula was one among them. She meets Len Beurton, an Englishman and Soviet agent in Geneva and marries him after divorcing Rudi Hamburger in absentia without informing him. As Nazi aggression looks dangerous enough to swallow Switzerland in the 1940s, Ursula escapes to England and settles down in the rural ambience of the Cotswolds in Oxfordshire. Beurton joins her later and they have a son, Peter, together. Ursula establishes contact with her brother Jürgen in the UK who introduces her to Klaus Fuchs, a top nuclear scientist working on the Atom bomb. Fuchs was anti fascist and believed he must give the USSR all the details of making the bomb to make the world safe and fair. Ursula works as the messenger transferring all the top secret technical documents to the USSR that Fuchs supplies to her. In the late 1940s, suspicion grows about Ursula being a spy and MI5 closes in on her. But Ursula escapes to East Germany in late 1949. She lives in communist East Germany till its collapse in 1990, writing her autobiography and fourteen other story books. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, she makes a call for working towards a humane socialism even as Germany gets unified again. Ursula dies in Berlin in the year 2000, at age 93.
The book is not only about Ursula’s life as a spy. It is also about the many others who denounced fascism and fought it by her side. Apart from Ursula, two others in her life stand out by their personalities and achievements. One was her brother, Jürgen Kuczynski, and the other was Rudolph Hamburger, her first husband. Jürgen was the standard-bearer of German anti-fascism all his life as an adult. As a young communist, he works hard against the Nazis inside Germany till 1936 and then goes into exile in England. As an economist and anti-fascist, he tours the UK giving lectures, raising funds for the refugees, and nurtures contacts with the British Left. Books, pamphlets, reports, and essays pour out of him. Author Ben Macintyre says that Jürgen wrote over four-thousand titles during his life. While doing all this in plain sight, he also spies for the Soviet Union in secret. He recruits the top nuclear scientist Klaus Fuchs to supply the secrets of the nuclear bomb to the USSR. He remains a committed communist all his life, choosing to live in communist East Germany after the war. He survives long enough to see communism collapse in the USSR and Eastern Europe and Germany getting unified again.
Rudolf Hamburger (Rudi) was Ursula’s first love and first husband. He emerges as a fine specimen of a human being in the book. He grows up in Germany in the 1920s and leans leftwards in politics as idealistic young people did in Germany then. But Rudi was not a communist to start with. His love for his wife lets him accept her as a Soviet spy and risk the lives of his son and himself. Even though Ursula moves on with her lovers, Rudi remains devoted to her and their son, Michael. Years later, Ursula does not even inform Rudi when she divorces him in absentia and marries another man. Still, Rudi works with Johann Patra, his wife’s lover, spying together in the interests of Communism. He accepts Nina, the daughter of Johann and Ursula out of wedlock, as his own in order to protect Ursula. Rudi emerges as a philosophical intellectual, a decent man, good at heart, and one devoted to communism and the Soviet Union.
The book shows that the lives of Ursula, Rudi, Jürgen and Klaus Fuchs are a testament to the perceived promise of communism in Europe in the 1930s. It reflects the mindset of young Europeans in the turmoil that prevailed in Europe after first world war. Many young Europeans were seeking an answer to the economic deprivation and chaos, political turmoil, and ethnic conflicts that engulfed much of Central Europe. Marxism seemed to provide a hope for many of them. The triumph of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia acted in 1917 as a further catalyst. The Kuczynski family reflected this thinking in embracing Communism and dedicating their lives to its cause. However, socialist construction in the Soviet Union happened with much violence and terror even in its first decade in the 1920s. The collectivization campaign killed thousands of Kulaks and their family members through arrests, deportations and executions. Millions died in the famine that followed. In the 1930s, Stalin acted just like his fellow-fascist, Hitler, and murdered 700,000 of his fellow-citizens in cold blood in his purges. Tens of thousands got despatched to far-off Gulags. Stalin made a Faustian bargain with Nazism by signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Still, thousands of faithfuls like the Kuczynskis accepted all of it as a necessary evil to protect and advance the cause of Communism. If ever psychology needed evidence for ‘confirmation bias’, we have it here in full measure!
Ursula’s life makes one wonder who she really was in her life. She was a vibrant, open, and direct woman with three children who enjoyed shopping and cooking. She longed for romance and adventure in life. But she put herself and her children at monumental risk spying for the Soviet Union. Why did she do it? Was communism more important to her than her children? Macintyre says she reviled fascism and believed communism was the answer. However, the adrenaline rush of espionage had its pull on her. She found espionage a work of imagination, one that transported her from the real to an artificial world. She enjoyed being a secretive person inside and a different one outside. Macintyre says Ursula became Sonya for the proletariat and for herself, driven by ambition, adventure, and romance. Her life was a bizarre mixture of danger and domesticity. She had a home with her husband and children, a social life spying on fascists and a hidden life as a Red Army officer co-ordinating spies and transferring secret nuclear documents. She is difficult to encapsulate in neat, consistent compartments.
Many analysts have spelled out the glaring failures of MI5 in not acting on Soviet moles inside its corridors despite information identifying them. MI5 failed to nab Jürgen Kuczynski, Klaus Fuchs and Ursula when they were in the UK despite repeated pointers to suspect them of espionage for the USSR. Most of it was because of the incompetence, prejudice and clumsiness of MI5 agents and officers. But Macintyre also identifies a more fundamental problem in his earlier book, ‘A spy among friends’. In that book, Macintyre says Britain’s Intelligence services always recruited males belonging to the social class that was educated in Eton and Oxbridge. This class was very much inbred and loyal to its tribe, irrespective of their shortcomings. It believed in foisting genuine friendships amongst its own groups through its shared interests in cricket, alcohol and jokes. MI5 just believed that this class wouldn’t betray its own. Four of the famous ‘Cambridge Five’ spies did not come under suspicion because they belonged to the same elite social class. With Ursula Kuczynski, the typical male prejudice of the times was a major cause. Her being a woman, a homemaker in rural England, having three children, her interest in cooking and shopping came in the way of her being seen as a spy. Only one MI5 officer, a woman named Millicent, suspected Ursula and wanted to investigate her more deeply. But her male superiors ignored her and didn’t allow her to pursue Ursula. Again in 1949, MI5 assumed that the head of a KGB spy ring cannot be a woman, and it allowed Ursula to escape to East Germany.
Though Britain was inept at dealing with spies in their midst, we note that the British establishment and the public did not have the blood-thirstiness to hang ‘traitors’. Britain looked at people like Ursula, Jürgen, Philby and others as misguided idealists rather than heartless traitors. It was amazing to read how scholars like Dr. Jürgen Kuczynski and Klaus Fuchs and an activist like Ursula trusted Communism. As refugees, the UK treated them well and enabled them to live a meaningful life after they came to the country as refugees. All of them continued to spy on Britain and send secret documents on the atom bomb to the USSR. Their trust in communism made them believe they were not committing treason against the country that gave them asylum. However, this seems to have been the case with most of the famous spies from Britain, like Kim Philby, Donald McLean, Anthony Blunt and others. Over time, Britain discovered Blunt and Cairncross were the last two of the notorious ‘Cambridge Five’. They were in their eighties and living in London and Paris then. It is enchanting to note that Britain showed no thirst for the blood of these ‘traitors’. Instead, it was magnanimous and laissez-faire in letting them live out their old age in freedom rather than incarcerate them. Britain showed its maturity yet again when it allowed Ursula to come to the UK at age eighty-four to promote her autobiography. Author Macintyre does not say whether ‘Sonya’ appreciated this magnanimity from the UK.
Ben Macintyre is a superb storyteller. He demystifies the art of spycraft and holds the reader in his spell with a gripping narrative. The book is a remarkable account of a woman who became a spy not only to fight fascism and help communism but also to indulge her passion for romance and adventure. I enjoyed the fast pace of the book and its intricacies on espionage.