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.
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.
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.