I haven’t found a nonfiction book as compelling as I did Macintyre’s Agent Sonya since last year’s summer Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing. Though the books don’t have much in common by way of sensibility, or topic, they are both fascinating, stay-up-too-late-reading products of talented writers, who know how to tell a story and make you care about it.
The present volume tells the story of “Agent Sonya”, Soviet spymaster, aka Ursula Kuczynski, a woman whose long life spans the 20th century’s cataclysmic history, from post-WWI Weimer Republic to the fall of the Berlin Wall. A remarkable life, a remarkable story, as Macintyre concludes: “She lived several whole lives in one very long one, a woman of multiple names, numerous roles, and many disguises.”
I had read Macintyre’s account of another Soviet master-spy, Kim Philby, in A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal. In truth, I found it a slog, less because of Macintyre’s story-telling prowess than how incredibly unlikeable Philby was: his drinking and womanizing and poshy-posh affectations and then his avowal of true happiness in the Soviet Union, ughs to it all. But Ursula/Sonya was fascinating, likeable, even admirable at times in her convictions, her equal commitment to motherhood and spyhood, an Everywoman’s story, in the midst of the most harrowing aspects of 20th century history, about having a career and being a mother and lover/wife. Maybe this is why Macintyre tells us over and over again that in the double-crossing, dangerous world of spying, where careers rise and fall with régimes like lightning striking the ground, Sonya was never betrayed by any of her comrades, even under torture. Her likeability, intelligence, resilience, and the best spy’s disguise in the world, her womanhood/motherhood, ensured her survival time and time again and to the end of her life, her ability to remake her life, to start over and over again, in new countries, new careers, with new friends. I never understand anyone’s adherence to ideology, a skeptic I am and always have been; Sonya, Macintyre claims, wasn’t driven by ideology, but justice, Macintyre’s most interesting insight.
When Macintyre’s account opens, Ursula-Sonya is living in post-WWII Britain, as a housewife and mother in the Cotswolds, baking scones, caring for her three children, and feeding the West’s nuclear plans and secrets to the Soviet Union via a network of her very own recruited spies. Macintyre then backtracks to Ursula’s beginnings of political consciousness in the political hurly-burly of Germany’s post WWI Weimar Republic. Of a storied left-wing family, Ursula was in the streets protesting for worker’s rights and a socialist future. With the collapse of Weimar and the growing power of Hitler’s Nazi movement, we see Ursula, now married and with a baby on the way, meet the great love of her life (not her husband!), Richard Sorge, who recruits her, loves her, and leaves her. Ursula spies for the Soviet Union in Japanese-occupied China and then makes her way to Switzerland, where she continues to spy for the Soviet Union, with another lover, another baby, another family. She makes her way to Poland and manages to escape Hitler’s advancing armies; given she’s Jewish, her fate would have been different had she not, until she settles in England and becomes part of the network that sees a balance in nuclear know-how as the Cold War begins its incipient dread when Hitler’s armies collapse under Allied attacks and the approaching Soviet forces. Ursula’s story doesn’t end there and this is what makes it so incredibly compelling to read about, ending her life and career in Berlin, both in East and a re-unified Germany, as a successful novelist. The greatness of Macintyre’s book is in the details of my summary, his ability to draw characters and tell the sweep of history with aplomb and humour.
Macintyre is enamoured of his subject and she is eminently likeable, but he is equally enamoured of espionage: “Espionage is finally a work of the imagination, a willingness to transport oneself, and others, from the real to an artificial world, to seem to be one sort of person on the exterior but another, secret human on the inside. Since earliest childhood, in her writings, Ursula had used her rich imagination to explore an alternative reality, with herself at the centre of every drama. Now, as a trained intelligence officer, she would have the opportunity to write her own story in the pages of history. Ursula became a spy for the sake of the proletariat and the revolution; but she also did it for herself, driven by the extraordinary combination of ambition, romance, and adventure that bubbled inside her.” Except. Espionage is also an act of betrayal, of deception and mendacity, and it only looks heroic as far as we are on the spy’s side, or she is on ours. It is to Macintyre’s writing talent and to Sonya herself that she can be as sympathetic as she is.
If Macintyre romanticizes Sonya (and I love romance, but there is no place for it here), the fact remains that fiction contains a tacit pact between reader and writer: there is no deception in a fictive “lie”, but there may be a world of harm in real-life betrayal (something Radden Keefe never forgets). We only hear a hint of that world of hurt in the words of Ursula’s children, whom Macintyre quotes in his afterword. Macintyre never seems bothered by Ursula’s/Sonya’s expediency, not as he was by Philby’s. In describing Ursula’s response to Stalin’s killings, Macintyre writes: “Ursula later claimed to have been ignorant of the purges, the scale of the bloodletting, the flimsiness of the trumped-up charges, and Stalin’s personal agency in the criminal slaughter … Like millions of others, she kept her mouth shut, uttered no word of remonstrance, and wondered who would be next … She looked away, while constantly looking behind her. How she survived is a mystery. She put it down to luck, but there was more to it than that. Ursula had a remarkable capacity to inspire loyalty.” None more so than in Macintyre. And yet Macintyre is capable of incisive understanding of the figures he researched and who surrounded Ursula in one capacity or other. Every once in a while, Macintyre proved himself a writer of great subtle satire and I chuckled more than once at his quipping; for example, in describing Roger Hollis, Director General of MI5 when Sonya was active, and the rumours he may have been a Soviet spy: “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 ability. No one would have described Roger Hollis that way. He was a plodding, slightly droopy bureaucrat with the investigative flair of an omelet. … The weight of evidence currently suggests that Hollis was not treacherous, but incompetent. He was really quite thick.”
Maybe in the end spies and novelists are not so very different, says Macintyre: ” … each conjures up an imagined world and attempts to lure others into it. Some of the greatest writers of the twentieth century were also spies, including Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, Ian Fleming, and John le Carré. In many ways, Ursula’s life had been a fiction, presenting one sort of person to the world, while being someone else in reality.” Ursula’s capacity for self-re-invention saw her become a successful East German novelist under the name Ruth Werner. Maybe Macintyre is right about the novelist’s siren’s song, luring readers into an imagined and imaginary world, but readers don’t end up dead on the shore; they turn over and go to sleep, leaving their novel for the next day, the next snatched hour of reading. Macintyre’s book certainly lured beautifully: it’s well-written, compelling, carefully researched, and any reader who loves history and looks at our fleeting 20th century with a wondering backwards glance would enjoy it, but like Odysseus, make sure you’re well-tethered to the mast of your skepticism.
Ben Macintyre’s Agent Sonya is published by McClelland and Stewart. It was released in September of 2020 and may be found at your preferred vendors. I am grateful to McClelland and Stewart for an e-galley, via Netgalley, for the purpose of writing this review.