Category Archives: East Europe

Agent Sonya by Ben McIntyre (Viking, £25)

“Ursula never saw Richard Sorge again. Perhaps their romantic relationship was already over, but for Ursula it never really ended.
Ursula returned to her dreary dinner guests. No one noticed that her heart was broken.”

Hmm. This is the story of Ursula Kuczynski, a colonel in the Red Army and one of the world’s most successful spies – Agent Sonya of the title and of the sub-title Lover, Mother, Soldier, Spy. It’s not an untold story, or at least some of it is not untold, not least by Kuczynski herself in her autobiography, though this is the fullest version we are likely to read. Kuczynski was a German Jewish Communist who worked in several countries – including in a bookshop in America (you really have to watch that type) and spied in most of them. She was the handler of Klaus Fuchs and Melissa Norwood (the subject of the book The Spy Who Came in from the Co-op) and her work ensured that the Soviet Union was privy to the detail of Western plans for nuclear weapons, enabling the East and West to have Mutually Assured Destruction. She would argue that this helped create peace, or at least that it was able to defend the Soviet Union.

As the sub-title and the sub-Mills and Book opening quote suggest, this is a typical Ben McIntyre book aimed at the popular market. No bad thing, but over-writing is over-writing and we could have done with less. The story, however, fascinates and McIntyre calms down a bit.

Sonya – one of her many names – was a radio operator, a courier, an organiser and a handler. Her life was often at risk. Richard Sorge, a fellow spy mentioned earlier was tortured and hung, in Japan, and that could have been her fate too. She was, however, possibly even more at risk from her own side – on pages 138/139 there are details of friends, fellow spies, comrades “swept away in the butchery” that was Stalin’s Russia in 1937 and 1938, the period of the Great Purges that did so much to weaken the Soviet Union as the war with Germany approached. She was in the Soviet Union during this period and was only too aware of the fate of others. Despite this she kept the faith and her big successes were still to come.

In England, as Mrs Burton of Avenue Cottage, Summertown, Oxford she lived a quiet life, cycling around (taking in dead letter drops), drinking tea with her neighbours and making scones. Throughout her spying career she got away with a lot as a mother of three, because spies are never mothers of three. Yet sixteen days after the top secret “Quebec Agreement” between Churchill and Roosevelt to collaborate on building the atom bomb the Soviet Union knew, thanks to Sonia. This was before the Cold War when Britain, the Soviet Union and America were allies.

One of the particularly fascinating parts of the book is about the “Hammer” group of spies. This was a group of exiled German Communists parachuted into Germany to act as spies towards the end of the war, who would report on troop movements and provide information for bombing missions to the Americans. Their direct command was the OSS – the American intelligence organisation, the Organisation of Strategic Services – but they were under the real control of Sonya.

After Klaus Fuchs was arrested. Sonya skipped the country, moving to the German Democratic Republic. Although she had been under suspicion, nobody here knew of her real role in the UK. Or did they? McIntyre revisits whether Roger Hollis, the big cheese in the UK spy world, was really a double agent. Whatever, she escaped to a desk job in the GDR but was caught up in the Government anti-Semitic hysteria in the GDR in 1953. Astonishingly, a new career awaited as she became a successful writer – “Ruth Werner, novelist.” She’d outwitted everyone.

Available from Five Leaves here – fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/…/agent-sonya-lover-mother-soldie…/

Not a Novel: collected writings and reflections by Jenny Erpenbeck, trans. from German by Kurt Beals (Granta, £14.99)

“So what was I doing the night the wall fell? I spent the evening with friends, just a few blocks from the spot where world history was being made, and then: I slept, I literally slept through that moment of world history, and while I was asleep the pot wasn’t just being stirred, it was being knocked over and smashed to bits. The next morning I learned: we didn’t even need pots anymore.”
This was the night the Berlin Wall fell, the Wall being the subject of several of the essays in this collection, essays about the author’s childhood living in a street right next to the Wall which, as a child she saw as being the ends of the earth. Except though the physical boundary marked the end of the known earth, the flat she lived in enabled her to see into another world. A world that had double decker buses, then unknown in East Berlin, and a glowing clock. She writes “The whole time that I’m in school, I read the time for my socialist life from this clock in the other world.” On her side, Berlin was something of a construction site, but also a world of ruins. Nobody was that fussed about the bombed wartime remains of buildings which she climbed into to explore and, later, to meet her first boyfriend.
Several decades ago, in Aberdeen, skint and on the lookout for ways of getting a holiday on the sly, I attended a few meetings of the GDR (German Democratic Republic) Friendship Society in a rather posh house in the hope that I might score a holiday. The elderly woman who ran the Society kept getting awards from the GDR and was a bit batty, but not so batty as to allow me a subsidised holiday at her beloved GDR’s expense. Reading about the place was the nearest I got over the years, which included quite a lot by John Green who used to live there. John, in short, says it wasn’t as bad as its detractors made out, but not as good as its supporters have said.
This ambivalence seems to be shared by Erpenbeck. After the fall… “Many workers lost their jobs and university professors, lecturers and researchers were laid off in the East and replaced… When the common currency was introduced, rents increased by a factor of ten overnight. West German speculators bought up East German real estate. … Suddenly everyone was talking about money.” She goes on to analyse borders, their history and who gets mourned. But the Wall was very personal, She describes an old neighbour “who always bought his rolls at the bakery across the street… until suddenly that side of the street was in the West.” She describes as a child knowing that “the warm air that drifted up to us” was coming from ventilation shafts from the Western underground that passed beneath their feet, not stopping at “subway stations that had been closed off ever since the wall had been built.” … “But what I remember most of all… was an almost small-town sense of calm… in a world that was closed off, and thus completely and utterly safe.” Even if spied on – her thin Stasi file included details of those who had visited her house and copies of love letters sent to her by a teenage admirer!
Unfortunately, when she moves away from the subject of the Wall and her early years, Not a Novel is much less interesting. Chapter after chapter comprises speeches she gave after winning awards. There’s repetition that we could have lived without and several of the speeches are related to the particular books that won the awards. Attention wandered. I’m not sure who would be the audience for some of these chapters other than the audience at the award ceremonies themselves. Still, one chapter has reminded me that I have still not read Thomas Mann, despite having had The Magic Mountain on my shelves for most of my life and another introduced me to the work of Walter Kempowski whose books I have sold but never looked at. I will now.
I can’t end this review without mentioning one tiny chapter in a small section at the end called Society. There she writes an obituary for the most wonderful man, Bashir Zakaryau, a Nigerian refugee who, after “five years of flight” finally obtained a tiny apartment in Berlin which he immediately filled with other homeless refugees who also needed shelter.
Ross Bradshaw
Not a Novel is published in November of this year.