Reviewed by BERNIE BELLAN I happened to have the radio on one Saturday afternoon – more as background noise than anything, when Elanor Wachtel’s CBC program on books, “Writers & Company”, came on. Normally I don’t pay attention to Wachtel’s program because it requires paying complete attention to the radio – something which I rarely do unless I’m out for a walk. However, as soon as Wachtel began to introduce her guest, a writer by the name of Ben Macintyre, the subject matter immediately grabbed my interest. Here is how she introduced Macintyre:
“Mrs. Len Beurton of Great Rollright, a tiny village in the Cotswolds, was an apparently ordinary housewife and mother of three, famous for her home-baked scones.
“In reality, she was Agent Sonya, a top Soviet operative, transmitting plans for the atomic bomb from an outhouse in her Oxfordshire garden. Her real name was Ursula Kuczynski and her intelligence work took her from her native Germany to Shanghai, Japanese-occupied Manchuria, Poland, Switzerland and England.
“Ursula’s eventful life is the subject of Ben Macintyre’s compelling new book. The British journalist is known for his bestselling accounts of international espionage — stories of intrigue, romance, betrayal, war, loyalty and conflicted morality. Over the past 30 years, he’s produced a dozen engaging, authoritative studies of high-profile figures ranging from Britain’s famed double agent Kim Philby to Moscow’s Oleg Gordievsky, who spied for Britain. He is also currently a columnist and associate editor for the Times U.K.”
As I listened with rapt interest to Macintyre describing the life of “Agent Sonya” I was determined to read his book – and I did, in less than a week.
Now, while I have somewhat of an interest in spy thrillers, including several I’ve read by Daniel Silva who features an Israeli spymaster by the name of Gabriel Allon (after being turned on to Silva two years ago during one of the meetings of the book club this paper co-sponsors with the Rady JCC, when our brilliant convener Sharon Freed who, unfortunately died much too young, included Silva’s “Rembrandt Affair” on the reading list that year), I much prefer reading non-fiction accounts of espionage, especially when they’re about the Mossad.
So, when Macintyre began to relate the story of an incredibly successful female spy for the Russians whose story has gone relatively unreported - and then happened to remark that she was Jewish to boot – well, he had me hooked.
Sonya Buerton (born Ursula Kuczynski, a.k.a. Sonya Hambuerger) was one of those rare individuals who not only succeeded brilliantly at her craft, she managed to live out her days dying a natural death in Moscow in the 1970s. That she survived the Stalin era in itself is rather extraordinary as Stalin’s paranoia led him to purge the ranks of his spy network on an ongoing basis – including a good many of the agents who had nurtured Sonya’s own career.
The fact that Ursula Kuczynski was born into an upper class Jewish family in Berlin in 1908 is something that I found most intriguing. The often pivotal roles that many Jews played in the spread of communist ideology in the first few decades of the 20th century is something that is widely known, but reading about someone who came from quite a prosperous family and who chose to commit herself to the pursuit of an ideology that was essentially antithetical to her own upbringing – and remained absolutely committed to that vision throughout her life, is not easy to understand.
Having experienced the chaos of the Weimar Republic in Germany one might well comprehend how someone as intelligent and well-educated as Ursula would have been drawn to communism in her late teens - at a time when Germany was being polarized into two camps – fascist and communist. It doesn’t seem, however, that the Kuczynski family’s being Jewish had much to do with what eventually became a thoroughly unquestioning loyalty to Soviet Communist ideology on the part of everyone of its members, including Ursula’s father, brother, and four sisters. That Ursula remained committed to communism throughout her life, however, despite all the betrayals of its goals perpetrated by Stalin and his disciples, is much more difficult to understand.
Macintryre doesn’t spend much time exploring the lure that communism held for Jews, but what I found particularly unsettling is how each member of this family was able to rationalize Stalin’s atrocities. Further, when the Russian Foreign Minister Molotov and his German counterpart Von Ribbentrop signed their non-aggression pact in 1939, the fact that so many communist sympathizers were able to twist themselves into pretzels defending a total betrayal of everything they had been espousing when it came to fighting fascism is really an indication how easily communist sympathizers could justify a 180 degree reversal in thinking without much compunction.
Ursula’s life, as told by Macintyre, was thoroughly documented throughout her lifetime, by her and by others, who kept detailed accounts all through the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. It turned out that Ursula was actually an excellent writer and her journals were not only detailed and very readable, when she eventually managed to escape to the Soviet Union shortly after the end of World War II, she managed to turn her fine writing talent into a craft as a writer of spy thrillers under the pen name “Ruth Werner”. (Her books, written in Russian and translated into several languages, actually sold quite well. As Macintyre notes, Ursula was merely one more former spy who was able to use their own experiences in order to turn out masterful spy novels. Included in that group also were Graham Greene and John Le Carré.)
Yet, as much as Ursula’s being Jewish does not play a central role in “Agent Sonya”, consider this: Her first marriage was also to a fellow Jew, an architect by the name of Rudolf Hamburger. Hamburger himself had no interest in Ursula’s communist leanings early on, and he was rather successful as an architect. But, in one of the most surprising twists in the story, once he and Ursula moved to China, where he helped to design some of the famous buildings along Shanghai’s Bund, and Ursula was first approached with the idea of becoming a Russian spy, even all the while that their marriage was falling apart, Hamburger was gradually transforming into a communist himself.
Further, even after Ursula left him – and the child that she bore while married to him, Hamburger became convinced that he too had to become a Russian spy! All the while he still loved Ursula too, even after he learned that she had become pregnant by another man and then again, by yet a third man.
It was in China that Ursula became a full-fledged Russian spy – with a change of name to Sonya. Several characters played key roles in leading to Ursula’s gradual induction into the world of Soviet espionage, including an America writer by the name of Agnes Smedley – a larger than life character who eventually became a leading apologist for Mao Tse Tung’s totalitarian rule.
The cast of characters in “Agent Sonya” is riveting. What Macintryre does so brilliantly is describe how ordinary individuals who would not stand out in any exceptional way possess the key ingredients that it takes to be a successful spy, including, among others: resourcefulness, an exceptional ability to lie one’s way through any situation, and what Ursula Kuczynski apparently possessed in spades: an ability to thoroughly compartmentalize one’s life.
Here we have a woman who, on the one hand, is a capable housewife – and mother – to three different children, by three different men no less! (and the children actually move with her from time to time as she’s relocated by her Soviet spymasters to different locations around the world, including Manchuria, Poland, Switzerland, and finally Britain), at the same time as she is able to insinuate herself into the upper echelons of enemy administrations wherever she is based.
In one passage that I found particularly compelling, “Sonya” describes how difficult it often was for her to sleep – and dream, without finding all the contradictory aspects of her various secret lives running up against one another. All the while she did this without resorting to alcohol or drugs – which is what almost inevitably become the crutches upon which spies lean. That she was also able to move from relationship to relationship with different men – twice at the order of her Soviet spymasters, and actually have honestly warm relationships with them to the point where she did love them yet, when ordered to leave those men, embark on a new assignment, is testament to her total acceptance of her role.
Here’s another interesting note about Sonya: As much as the intelligence she provided about various enemies, including: Chinese Republicans in Shanghai, Japanese occupiers in Manchuria, and German Nazis in Switzerland, was of great value to Russian intelligence, it was when she was able to move to England in 1941 that her greatest espionage coup was to come.
Living in a nondescript farmhouse in an out of the way village not too far from Oxfordshire – and by this time her name was now Sonya Buerton (the last man to whom she was married was also a spy by the name of Len Buerton), she was put in touch with a German-born scientist by the name of Klaus Fuchs. Fuchs was a brilliant physicist who was working on Britain’s own plan to develop an atomic bomb – separate and apart from what the Americans were doing at the same time. He was, however, a devout communist and determined to share whatever secrets he could with the Russians.
Sonya became his intermediary through which he was able to pass along reams of information to the Russians that proved to be of incalculable value in helping the Russians to leap frog what would undoubtedly have taken them years more to acquire on their own. Later, he moved to the U.S. to work on the fabled Manhattan Project. It was while he was in the U.S. that he had a change of heart, however, and turned himself in as a spy to the Americans. At the same time, though, he never betrayed Sonya.
Macintyre asks repeatedly how it was that Sonya was never caught by British intelligence, despite all the evidence that had been pointing for quite some time in her direction. Although he doesn’t arrive at a definitive conclusion, he suggests that more than anything, it was the total incompetence of the head of MI5 (Britain’s internal intelligence service), someone by the name of Roger Hollis, that led to Sonya’s being able to evade arrest.
At the time there was only one woman in a senior position in MI5, whose name was Millicent Bagot. Bagot was a dedicated – and thoroughly competent spychaser, far better qualified in her position than Hollis, who never believed that a woman could be a successful spy. Bagot was actually convinced early on that Sonya was a Russian agent and she bitterly fought to keep her from being allowed to enter Britain in 1941.
There is more than a little irony in the fact that one of Russia’s most successful spies of all time was a woman who was able to carry on her espionage precisely because she was a woman, while the one individual who would undoubtedly have been able to expose Sonya was also a woman but whose abilities were constantly underestimated, just as Sonya’s were, surrounded as she was by thick headed men.
“Agent Sonya” is a thoroughly compelling read. While the fact that Sonya was Jewish may be regarded as largely irrelevant to what became the story of her life since it never seemed to play any role in what ultimately ensued, I’m sure that for Jewish readers of this book the awareness that the person they are reading about was Jewish will lead to one’s wondering whether her being Jewish played a much larger role in her story than perhaps even Sonya herself was aware.
Here’s what Macintrye himself has to say in summing up Ursula’s life toward the end of his book: “If you had visited the quaint English village of Great Rollright in 1945, you might have spotted a thin, dark-haired and unusually elegant woman emerging from a stone farmhouse called The Firs, and climbing on to her bicycle. She had three children and a husband, Len, who worked in the nearby aluminium factory. She was friendly but reserved, and spoke English with a faint accent. She baked excellent cakes. Her neighbours in the Cotswolds knew little about her.
“They did not know that the woman they called ‘Mrs Burton’ was really Colonel Ursula Kuczynski of the Red Army, a dedicated communist, a decorated Soviet military intelligence officer and a highly-trained spy who had conducted espionage operations in China, Poland and Switzerland, before coming to Britain on Moscow’s orders. They did not know that her three children each had a different father, nor that her husband was also a secret agent. They were unaware that she was a German Jew, a fanatical opponent of Nazism who had spied against the fascists during the Second World War and was now spying on Britain and America in the new Cold War. They did not know that in the outdoor privy behind The Firs, Mrs Burton had constructed a powerful radio transmitter tuned to Soviet intelligence headquarters in Moscow. The villagers of Great Rollright did not know that in her last mission of the war, Mrs Burton had infiltrated communist spies into a top-secret American operation parachuting anti-Nazi agents into the dying Third Reich. These “Good Germans” were supposedly spying for America; in reality, they were working for Colonel Kuczynski of Great Rollright.
“But Mrs Burton’s most important undercover job was one that would shape the future of the world: she was helping the Soviet Union to build the atom bomb.
“For years, Ursula had run a network of communist spies deep inside Britain’s atomic weapons research programme, passing on information to Moscow that would eventually enable Soviet scientists to assemble their own nuclear device. She was fully engaged in village life; her scones were the envy of Great Rollright. But in her parallel, hidden life she was responsible, in part, for maintaining the balance of power between East and West and (she believed) preventing nuclear war by stealing the science of atomic weaponry from one side to give to the other. When she hopped on to her bike with her ration book and carrier bags, Mrs Burton (or, more precisely, Beurton) was going shopping for lethal secrets.
“Ursula Kuczynski was a mother, housewife, novelist, expert radio technician, spymaster, courier, saboteur, bomb-maker, Cold Warrior and secret agent, all at the same time.”
“Agent Sonya” – the story of the Soviet Union’s most important female spy
By Ben Macintyre
Published Sept., 2020
Available on Amazon