Lover, Mother, Soviet Spy

From The Wall Street Journal:

Though little known to the broader world, Ursula Kuczynski, born in 1907 into a wealthy, cultured Jewish family in Berlin, was one of the most successful spies of the 20th century. She worked for the GRU—Soviet Military Intelligence—in China, Eastern Europe, Switzerland and, most damagingly, Britain. Beginning in the early 1930s as the provider of a safe house for spies to meet, she was soon trained as a radio operator, courier and liaison between communist underground activists and Moscow. Eventually she ran her own network of Soviet spies in Nazi Germany and, after war broke out, in Britain. There she served as a courier for Klaus Fuchs, the émigré physicist who later worked at Los Alamos and betrayed its secrets to the Soviet Union.

Kuczynski—whose code name was “Sonya”—never endured prison or torture or the other gruesome fates that befell many of her comrades, though she was pursued by the security services of the Chinese Nationalists, the Japanese, the Nazis and various British governments. She spent most of her 20-odd years as a spy living in fairly comfortable surroundings with her children, posing as a middle-class foreigner and friendly neighbor. Only when Fuchs himself was arrested in 1950, and she faced the possibility of exposure and arrest, did she board a plane to return to East Germany. She then transformed herself into a novelist and published, under a pseudonym, an autobiography that resulted in a triumphant book tour in Britain, the country that had given her refuge and that she had betrayed.

With “Agent Sonya,” Ben Macintyre, the author of several popular works about espionage, has written a lively account of Kuczynski’s remarkable career. He has been aided by the cooperation of her family and by his research in the British and (in a limited way) Russian archives. Inevitably, as the reader should keep in mind, much of Kuczynski’s life is filtered through her autobiography, which was written in East Germany under the scrutiny of censors by a woman whose survival depended on lying about many of her activities. Her account of Stalin’s purges of the GRU, for example, is limited to the statement that, “unfortunately, comrades in leading positions changed frequently at that time.” While government files and private letters offer a partial reality check, GRU archives remain inaccessible, limiting the best source for our knowing how far-reaching her career was.

Kuczynski was an early rebel, Mr. Macintyre tells us, participating in communist demonstrations in Berlin at age 17. Her father, a demographer, and her brother, an economist, had connections to many government officials throughout Europe and the United States, and both later fed her information for transmission to the U.S.S.R. Jurgen, her brother, led the underground Communist Party in Britain during World War II and was the first to put her in touch with Fuchs.

Her entry into espionage came in Shanghai, where she was living in 1930 with her husband, Rudi Hamburger, an architect. Appalled by the poverty and brutality of the city, and repulsed by the racism and luxurious lifestyle of the Western community there, she was recruited by Agnes Smedley, the American journalist, and Richard Sorge, the legendary Soviet spy. Kuczynski and Sorge (a compulsive womanizer) ended up having a passionate affair. Mr. Macintyre observes that she was “intoxicated by the thrill of her own destiny, the entwining of danger and domesticity, living one life in public and another in deepest secrecy.”

. . . .

Fearing deportation from Switzerland to Germany in 1940, she concluded that marriage to a British citizen would enable her to obtain a British passport. She arranged to divorce Rudi and married Len Beurton, a veteran of the International Brigades in Spain.

One of the great mysteries of Kuczynski’s career is how she managed to avoid detection by British authorities. 

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)