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Agent Sonya by Ben Macintyre

Ben Macintyre is an accomplished writer with an interest in spies who has turned his attention to writing this biography of Ursula Kuczynski, whose communist ideals were shaped by her upbringing as a Jew in Germany in the 1920s. When I began reading, I expected ​to find a survival story of a person persecuted, but ​instead I found a woman who chose her own path and lived an amazing life shaped by skill, fortitude, commitment and also luck.

Macintyre has painted a portrait of a woman prepared to take risks. Following her new husband to China, Ursula was presented with the opportunity to put her communist and anti-Nazi beliefs into action and she became a spy for the Russians.

Over the ensuing years she had three children to three different fathers and continued to work as a spy moving from Shanghai to Russia, Poland and Switzerland and then to Britain. Agent Sonya was a skilled radio transmitter, a steady and reliable operative whose most significant success was to help pass on British and American nuclear weapon secrets from scientist Klaus Fuchs to the Russians during the Cold War. At the same time​, she appear​ed to be a mother and housewife with a​n unremarkable domestic life. Her success and survival as a spy can be attributed to her own abilities, discipline and discretion but also to good fortune. The clumsy attempts of the family nanny to report her as a spy in Switzerland were misunderstood and later, the MI5 in Britain, while suspicious, somehow failed to recognise the part she played in the Fuchs affair and she was able to escape with her family to East Germany.

Macintyre has compiled a detailed dossier on the events in Ursula Kuczynski’s life, from being batoned while marching in a Communist rally in Berlin in 1924 as a teenager to her latter years in East Germany as a rare bird, the retired spy. This biography is compiled from thorough research, using many sources including archives and memoirs, Ursula’s diaries, letters and writings and her own memoir,​Sonjas Rapport​, published in the 1970s under the East German regime, and with the assistance of her two sons. The resulting story is full of texture as we hear the voices of Ursula and others blended into the factual account of events. The maps, notes on sources and an afterword detailing the fates of other players in this drama add to the depth and clarity of this study.

Ursula is idealistic in her commitment to a cause and with the strength of mind to pursue the path she had determined upon but we see she is a woman not without fear and feeling, passionate in her relationships and in her love for her children. The author has shown her clear-thinking and calm​ness when transmitting radio messages in the dead of night, fleeing wartime Europe with her young children, and in Britain being questioned by MI5, and meeting other operatives in dark and dangerous alleys. But she is ​also seen in very human terms, passionately in love even if the relationship was destined to be transient, an overjoyed new mother but one who was also able to leave her toddler son for months while training in Russia, and whose son felt his life was underpinned by uncertainty and secrecy, despite his admiration for his mother. And we see also a woman who had to deal with the realisation that her commitment to the ideal of communism did not marry with the brutality of Stalinist Russia.

Thanks to Macintyre​, Ursula Kuczynski’s remarkable life has been told. ​Although celebrated in the Communist bloc as a patriot and hero from the 1950s, the Western world has not until now known about her exploits.

I found this an absorbing read, fascinated as I was by this person who, regardless of the norms and circumstances of the times​, followed her own path, flirting with the danger of discovery, moving to different places at the behest of her Russian superiors, hiding radio transmitters, pedalling off on her bicycle to meet other operatives and relay messages but also able to be a wife, a lover, a mother and a friend. And one who was able to stand up to her military superiors and turn her back on that life, becoming Ruth Werner, novelist and popular children’s author, in her later years. A strong woman indeed.

Reviewer: Clare Lyon

Penguin Random House


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