- Agent Sonya, by Ben Mcintyre. Viking. $35.
In the autumn of 1938, a plucky Yorkshireman named Alexander Foote knocked on the door of a house on Lawn Road, Hampstead, the leafy north London enclave that has long been popular with artists, intellectuals and the well-heeled. A woman identifying herself as Mrs Bridget Lewis answered the door and let him in.
Recently returned from Spain where he'd fought alongside the International Brigades, Foote had come to London to discuss a mysterious job that a fellow member of the British Battalion had put him up for. After a comprehensive grilling over tea and biscuits, Foote was given £10 and a set of instructions worthy of an Eric Ambler thriller.
In faintly accented English, Lewis told Foote to travel to Geneva where, at midday the following Thursday, he was to wait outside the Post Office wearing a white scarf and holding a leather belt. Presumably, a copy of Le Courrier would have blown his cover. In any event, a woman carrying a string shopping basket would then approach and enquire about the belt's provenance to which Foote would reply, "I bought it in an ironmonger's in Paris".
The woman in Geneva was Ursula Kuczynski, codename "Sonya", the communist spy and subject of Ben Macintyre's pacey biography, Agent Sonya. Kuczynski had been dispatched to Geneva by the GRU, the notorious Soviet intelligence unit otherwise known as "the Center" to recruit a team that would target Hitler's regime. As Macintyre puts it, "she could hardly wait".
Kuczynski is the perfect subject for Macintyre, the author of a number of popular books about spies and espionage. And, in many ways, Kuczynski was the perfect spy.
Born into an affluent Jewish family in Berlin, Kuczynski enjoyed a privileged childhood that, on the face of it, did not suggest a career as a communist class warrior. However, in spite of their relative wealth the Kuczynskis were very much at home in the left-leaning, communist-sympathising milieu that much of the German-Jewish intelligentsia of the time inhabited.
"On any given evening, a cluster of artists, writers, scientists, politicians and intellectuals, Jew and Gentile alike, gathered around the Kuczynski dining table," writes Macintyre, and the atmosphere rubbed off on young Ursula.
As a teenager, Kuczynski inhaled the writings of Lenin and Luxembourg, as well as the novels of Jack London and Maxim Gorky. By 19, she was a member of the Deutsche Kommunistische Partei, the largest communist party in Europe, and actively preparing for revolution. But it was a chance encounter in Shanghai some six years later that would bring Kuczynski to the attention of Soviet intelligence and set her on the path to becoming a colonel in the Red Army.
Newly married and recently arrived in Shanghai, Kuczynski had tired of the ceaseless cocktail parties and the all-too-frequent rounds of mini-golf when she met the American writer and revolutionary, Agnes Smedley. For Ursula, Agnes was a welcome relief from the vapid expat set and the embodiment of everything she stood for. She was also a Soviet spy.
In November 1930, Kuczynski was recruited by Richard Sorge, Smedley's lover and handler and the man Ian Fleming regarded as "the most formidable spy in history". Kuczynski's first job was not especially onerous, and largely logistical in nature, but it was potentially dangerous: providing a safe space for Sorge to meet with his Chinese comrades. From there, her missions became increasingly risky - and complicated. Kuczynski was six months pregnant at the time she started working for the Soviets.
Macintyre's highly readable biography reveals a woman whose life was organised around two guiding principles: Communism and the care of her children. Kuczynski was undoubtedly committed to her work, but she was also a devoted mother. Over the course of her storied career in espionage, Kuczynski had three children to three different fathers and it seems fair to say that one of her greatest achievements was proving that she didn't need to choose between her career or her children.
For his part, Macintyre succeeds in illuminating a cultural moment that will, I suspect, seem incomprehensible to many modern readers, regardless of their political persuasions. This is because Agent Sonya offers a fascinating insight into a period of recent history that, in many ways, couldn't be further removed from our current circumstances.
Kuczynski's life spanned the rise and fall of communism and in charting her career as a Soviet spy, Macintyre portrays a culture in which big ideas could flourish and integrity was still considered a virtue. While the communist experiment ultimately failed, reading Agent Sonya in 2020, a time when capitalism is in tatters and trust in politicians sits at record lows, I wonder if now isn't the time for some revolutionary thinking.