Review

Agent Sonya by Ben Macintyre, review: Russia’s master spy – in Marigolds

4/5

MI5 never suspected mother-of-three Ursula Kuczynski - but, as this lively biography reveals, she gave Stalin the secrets of the atom bomb

Smoke screen: Unlikely Soviet spy Ursula Kuczynski
Smoke screen: Unlikely Soviet spy Ursula Kuczynski Credit: Peter Beurton

I have often wondered why John le Carré has never convincingly shown us that there are competent, reasonably un-neurotic women in the intelligence services. Perhaps the ones he worked with told him to come up with a daft caricature like Connie Sachs so as not to give the game away.

Although she was slightly before his time, le Carré must have known about Colonel Ursula Kuczynski, who played a crucial role in passing to the Soviets the details of the development of the atom bomb, enabling Stalin to build his own. It is hard to think of another spy who so directly affected the course of history, and yet creating an equivalent female figure seems to have been beyond the imagination of our great espionage novelists.

Never mind: here is Ben Macintyre to tell Kuczynski’s story, in another of his page-turning spy histories. He begins in medias res with 16-year-old Ursula being bopped by a policeman’s truncheon while parading with Communists in Berlin. He then spools back to reveal how this girl, born in 1907 into a well-to-do family of German-Jewish intellectuals, was radicalised by the rampant inequality of the Weimar Republic, and later by the rise of the Nazis.

In 1930, her nice but unexciting husband Rudi, an architect, secured a job in Shanghai, where Ursula gave birth to a son, Michael, and was recruited into Soviet intelligence by the legendary spymaster Richard Sorge, who allotted her the cover name “Sonya” – Russian for “Dormouse”.

She sent Michael to live with his grandparents in Europe while she trained in Moscow, and then, unable to bear being separated from him again, took him with her on perilous undercover missions in Manchuria and Poland. Poor old Rudi was out of it by this time; having probably had an affair with Sorge, Ursula then fell for the man who was pretending to be her lover as part of her cover story, and had a daughter by him. She secured a divorce by falsely claiming that Rudi had been unfaithful, and married Len Beurton, an English colleague with whom she plotted an assassination attempt on Hitler.

Ursula Kuczynski’s homemade Morse Code tapper Credit: Collection of the Hamburger family

They settled in Switzerland and in 1943 had a son together. Today’s time-poor mums should not perhaps look for tips on how Ursula juggled childcare, espionage and a full love life: her solution was to bring her childhood nanny to Switzerland, but the old woman became insanely angry that Ursula spent more time on spying than mothering, and denounced her to the authorities. They didn’t believe her, but Ursula and her family rapidly decamped to England.

She went on to live in Oxfordshire, throwing herself into village life (“her scones were the envy of Great Rollright”) and becoming a committed Anglophile. But she believed that the whole world would be safer if the USSR had its own bomb, and, having constructed a radio transmitter in her privy, passed on various secrets, notably the invaluable material provided by the nuclear physicist Klaus Fuchs.

MI5 had her under surveillance but concluded that she had no time to be a spy because “her hands are fairly full with domestic duties”. Might George Blake, say, have been spared Wormwood Scrubs if he’d donned the Marigolds more often? No, of course not: Ursula was underestimated as a threat throughout her career because she was a woman.

When Fuchs was caught, Ursula and her family relocated post-haste to East Berlin, and it is a measure of the esteem she was held in that she was allowed to retire, when such a request would normally receive a punishment fit for treachery. She became an author of children’s books – “East Germany’s Enid Blyton”.

This biography bursts with lively portraits of the oddballs who make up the intelligence world. Perhaps most memorable of all is the ineffably decent but tragicomically inept Rudi, whose disastrous attempt to follow his estranged wife into the espionage business would have been a fine subject for a book in itself.

Ursula was not a particularly colourful figure, and yet of course that is the point: her ordinariness, perhaps an even greater asset as a cover than her sex, was not assumed, but just happened to exist alongside extraordinary courage and conviction. Macintyre’s masterstroke, however, is to make her as fascinating and three-dimensional as anybody else in the book.

He ticks her off sometimes, complaining about her “weasel words” when defending Stalin’s paranoid purges of her friends in Soviet intelligence; and demonstrates that if she often prioritised her work over her family it was not just because it was important but also because she loved the thrill of it. But deep affection for Ursula is clearly visible beneath the surface of Macintyre’s cool, wry prose.

Inevitably, as it is a biography rather than an account of a particular mission, the sense of jeopardy and excitement is more sporadic than in some of Macintyre’s other works, and this occasionally leads him to try to drum up the tension with some uncharacteristically bombastic writing. And when dealing with romantic matters, his style, perhaps infected by Ursula’s memoirs and letters, becomes unexpectedly novelettish.

But it is churlish to complain when Ben Macintyre offers to tell you a spy story. He has the unerring gift of uncovering those astonishing truths that make even the best novelists of espionage seem both earthbound and artificial in comparison.

Agent Sonya by Ben Macintyre is published by Viking at £25. Call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books