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Ben Macintyre on Agent Sonya

Posted on 11th September 2020 by Anna Orhanen

The master of espionage writing and the author of the bestselling The Spy and the Traitor, Ben Macintyre has explored various characters central to twentieth century secret intelligence. In his new book Agent Sonya, he turns his attention to the most exceptional female amongst them – Ursula Kuczysnki. 

In this exclusive piece, Macintyre lifts the curtain on the life this unique woman: a lifelong communist and high-ranking Red Army operative, who – under the cover of a respectable Oxfordshire housewife and mother – was in charge of retrieving the information that enabled the Soviet to build an atomic bomb.

Women spies have a peculiar hold on our cultural imagination, from Mata Hari to the heroines of Britain’s Special Operations Executive operating behind the lines in wartime France.

But female spies are almost always, properly speaking, agents or informants: people employed by others to gather intelligence, pass covert messages or extract secrets, almost always at the behest of men.

Ursula Kuczysnki was a spy of a different stamp. She was a highly trained military intelligence operative, and an officer in the Red Army. She was a professional, who adopted a career in espionage and never looked back.

Professional female spies are rare today. In 1930, when Ursula was recruited, they were virtually non-existent. She was not only the highest-ranking woman in Soviet military intelligence, she was virtually the only one. Working undercover in conditions of extreme peril, she was a lone pioneer, the only woman to thrive and survive for two decades in the male-dominated world of espionage.

From 1930 onwards she gathered intelligence for the Red Army, at extreme risk to her own life, and that of her family. She spied in Shanghai, Japanese-occupied Manchuria, Poland on the eve of German invasion, and Switzerland, running one of the most important anti-Nazi spy networks of the war. In 1942, she came to Britain, on Moscow’s orders, to begin spying on Britain, first as a wartime ally, then as a Cold War foe.

Unlike most spies, she made a difference to world history. Usually espionage merely oils the wheels of traditional diplomacy or cancels out the advantages of the opponent. Ursula was different: her spies inside the British atomic weapons programme furnished information that enabled the Soviet Union to build its own bomb. By helping to maintain the nuclear balance of power, she may have made the world safer. That, at least, was how she saw it.

She did all this while falling in love, raising a family, marrying, divorcing, remarrying and attempting to keep the domestic ship afloat in the middle of a war.

I have long been fascinated by the story of Agent Sonya, a spy quite different to any I had come across before. I had hitherto written about spying largely from the male, Western perspective. Here was a woman spy who was a lifelong, utterly dedicated communist. This was a chance to look at espionage through the other end of the telescope, in a life that spanned almost the whole of the 20th century. In many ways, Ursula’s story is that of communism itself, from its tumultuous beginnings to its cataclysmic downfall. She was ten years old when the Bolshevik Revolution took place and eighty-two when the Berlin Wall came down. Her life spanned the whole of communism, in all its vastness and complexity.

Spies tend to cover their tracks, but not this one. Setting out on this venture, I had no idea how much material would emerge: Ursula spent her life in secrets, but her own writings, published and private, are astonishingly candid and revealing, allowing me to delve deeply into her emotional and internal life. Together with an unexpurgated copy of her memoirs in the Stasi archives and the diaries, letters and photographs kindly furnished by her family, these create a picture of an extraordinary and multifaceted woman.

Why did she do it? 

Ursula was a Jewish, bookish, tender, middle-class German-born intellectual who enjoyed the ordinary pleasures of shopping, cooking, and bringing up children. As the world slid into war, people of similar backgrounds were fleeing for sanctuary, but she deliberately turned in the other direction, running toward danger, relishing the risks. Although Ursula was open and direct by nature, her existence was shaped by intense secrecy and deception, concealing the truth from people she loved as well as those she detested. Soviet espionage was a job for life, and, not infrequently, death. 

She was a dedicated communist, but here was more than ideology at work.  Spying is highly addictive. The drug of secret power, once tasted, is hard to renounce. Survival against the odds brings with it an adrenaline high and a sense of destiny from cheating fate. Espionage is finally a work of the imagination, a willingness to transport oneself, and others, from the real to an artificial world, to seem to be one sort of person on the exterior but another, secret human on the inside. Ursula became a spy for the sake of the proletariat and the revolution; but she also did it for herself, driven by the extraordinary combination of ambition, romance, and adventure that bubbled inside her. 

Ursula Kuczynski was not a feminist. She had no interest in the role or rights of women in the wider world. Like other independent-minded women of her time, she had entered a male-dominated profession and excelled at it, using every possible advantage that her gender gave her. She escaped detection for so long because men simply could not believe that a woman, a wife and a mother, could also be a spy.

But the final chapter of Ursula’s life was, in some ways, its most remarkable. In 1956, she became a full-time writer, adopting yet another name, a new vocation, and a fresh identity. Henceforth she would be Ruth Werner, novelist. 

Spies and novelists are not so very different:each conjures up an imagined world and attempts to lure others into it. Some of the greatest writers of the twentieth century were also spies, including Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, Ian Fleming, and John le Carré. Ursula went on to write fourteen books, mostly stories for children and young adults. With only slight exaggeration, she was described as East Germany’s answer to Enid Blyton.

In many ways Ursula’s life had always been a fiction, presenting one sort of person to the world, while being someone else in reality. As Ruth Werner she became, once again, another person. 

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