Every chapter of Matthews’s superbly researched biography reads like something from an Eric Ambler thriller. Sorge was born in 1895 in violent, sleazy, oil-rich Baku, the son of a German drilling engineer and a Russian merchant’s daughter. After volunteering for the German Army in 1914, he went over the top at Ypres, was wounded in Galicia, won the Iron Cross and suffered a severe nervous breakdown, during which he read Marx and Engels and converted to communism. Despite everything that followed, his faith never wavered.
The short biographical sketch of Berzin in An Impeccable Spy contains some mistakes, but Matthews’s most important error is to seek to distinguish Berzin from the people he recruited. They, he claims, were idealists, dreamers, intellectuals, well-meaning types. Berzin, in contrast, was a ruthless, violent protégé of Dzerzhinsky, head of the much feared Cheka. Wrong. All the major achievements of the Fourth Department, as Soviet military intelligence came to be known (penetration of the British Foreign Office and intelligence in the 1920s, the creation of the Rote Kapelle, or Red Orchestra, which had spies in the highest echelons of the German military both in Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe, and Sorge’s astonishing successes in Japan in the 1930s), were planned in detail by Berzin.
Owen Matthews builds on Whymant’s material, as well as on a formidable archive. A Russian-speaker, he also uses several Russians’ memoirs. He tells the dramatic story well, not least the final twist.
This is much more than a book for spy buffs, though. Jargon is avoided, the complexities of Soviet, German, Chinese and Japanese politics and infighting of the time are skilfully navigated and the personalities brought vividly to life. With this book as our evidence, we can say that Sorge was an impeccable spy, and also that Matthews is an impeccable biographer.
Sorge’s dramatic story is well-known. Several biographies have been written; a film was made in France. Owen Matthews, though, is the first to use newly available sources in the former USSR, including KGB archives. It is a vividly told story, thoroughly researched and well-crafted... I love a thrilling spy story, especially one as superbly narrated as this, full of Bond-like drama about Sorge’s brushes with death, his love of fast cars and women. But there’s a flaw common to many true espionage tales. The cold war and its fictions created an exaggerated idea of spooks as “masterminds” that has been exported into real life.
The final chapter of this magnificently written book dramatically highlights the contrast between the lofty professed ideals of the Soviet Union and its squalid reality, along with the sad fates of those people unwise enough to trust the communist state with their lives. Stalin didn’t deserve Sorge, and these poor women deserved far better than Sorge too. An Impeccable Spy is packed with humour and insight and all served up with a rare lightness of touch. Ben Macintyre and John le Carré fans alike will find themselves very much at home.
Though much of the detail is already well known, thanks to the detailed confessions of Sorge and his confederates after their arrest by Japanese police in late 1941, Matthews adds two important elements: more about the Soviet side of the story that he has gleaned from archives in Russia (particularly the military intelligence archives in Podolsk); and a convincing portrayal of Sorge’s inner life or, as the author puts it, “his doubts and fears”... Matthews [...] has done him proud, with this clear-eyed, deeply researched and finely judged portrait. Sorge may not have been a good man, writes Matthews, but he “became a great spy – indeed one of the greatest spies who ever lived.” It is hard to disagree.
This is a superb biography, alive to Sorge’s human flaws as much as his professional competence, and with a salutary vein of anger running through it. “His masters were venal cowards who placed their own careers before the vital interests of the country he laid down his life to serve,” writes Matthews.
Matthews has few illusions about his subject — ‘a bad man who became a great spy’ — or the challenge that he faces in exhuming him. A former foreign correspondent himself, he has a Russian wife whose family home outside Moscow was preserved largely thanks to vital information that Sorge sent back to the Fourth Department (regarding Japan’s preparedness to go to war with Russia). Drawing on the Soviet military intelligence archives in Podolsk, Matthews tells ‘for the first time’ the Soviet side of this eye-rubbing story.
Owen Matthews tells the story of Sorge’s extraordinary life with tremendous verve and expertise and a real talent for mise en scène. Shanghai in the 1930s and prewar Tokyo, Sorge’s stamping grounds, come vividly alive in these pages and the portrait of Sorge himself that emerges is richly authentic, giving real credence to the title’s unequivocal claim: for all his feet of clay, Richard Sorge was indeed an impeccable spy.
For all Sorge’s talents, An Impeccable Spy seems an odd title for a biography of him. Better than any previous biographer, Matthews lays bare the absurdity of Sorge’s narcissism. ‘Do you know what Sorge is?’ he asked Hanako, his chief Japanese mistress, two months before his arrest. ‘Sorge is a God … God is always a man … People need more Gods … Do you know what Sorge has done? I have arranged that the Japanese government will be defeated soon.’ He spent the last night before his arrest sleeping with Frau Ott, probably boasting about his godlike qualities.