Along the way, Agent Sonya is fascinating as a window on to a set of convictions relatively common at this time among communists. If building a new world matters most, then it matters more than your children or marriage. Socialism in the 30s coincided with a relatively free moral era among the intelligentsia. Nonetheless, she took motherhood seriously, and this is one of the most interesting aspects of the story. Reading it, I believed fully in her love for her children, but also found myself sharing her conviction that it was necessary to leave her two-year-old son with his grandparents for several months while she learned to blow up railway lines in Russia (if the toddler had picked up any Russian words, he would have incriminated them). After this, she almost always managed to take her children with her, preferring to put them in danger than to be separated from them. It’s rather moving watching her manage as an often single mother while also committing to a life in which she allows her work to define motherhood.
Macintyre’s page-turner is a dazzling portrait of a flawed yet driven individual who risked everything (including her children) for the cause. Drawn from unpublished memoirs and letters, plus Kuczynski’s voluminous writings, it reveals an idealist addicted to danger. Above all it is the portrait of a lucky survivor. Virtually all her comrades were murdered, yet she was to have a successful retirement. She even travelled back to the UK to publicise her memoirs. A few powerful voices called for her arrest, but they were overruled. Intelligence chiefs had no desire to be dragged into an embarrassing trial that would expose their own incompetence and Kuczynski’s genius.
Ben Macintyre’s Agent Sonya makes a notable – and, as always, very readable – contribution to the little-researched gender history of intelligence agencies. The German-born Ursula Kuczynski (1907–2000; codenamed “Sonya”) was probably the most successful female spy in Soviet history – the first woman in military intelligence (later known as the GRU) to be promoted to the rank of colonel. For more than twenty years, there has been reliable evidence from Russian sources that, in the middle of the Second World War, Kuczynski was case officer for both Klaus Fuchs, the most important of the British atom spies, and Melita Norwood, who became Britain’s longest-serving Soviet agent. Macintyre, however, is the first to piece together her extraordinary, peripatetic intelligence career, which ranged from Britain to Manchuria.
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.
When Ben Macintyre’s name is on the cover you know you are in for a thrilling ride. He’s a master at unearthing the daring and deceits hidden deep in that extraordinary half century in which Britain fought first Nazi Germany and then the cold war. His world exists in a half-light of men in Burberry Macs and Trilby hats, of Cambridge spies and suburban disguises, of an era in which it was possible to believe in a murderous cause so strongly that you were willing to betray your country for it. But in Agent Sonya, he has pulled off his most remarkable trick: he leaves us admiring, and even cheering for, the woman at the heart of his story, someone who not only wanted to destroy our democracy but helped Russia get a nuclear bomb.