An Impeccable Spy: Richard Sorge, Stalin’s Master Agent 
by Owen Matthews.
Bloomsbury, 448 pp., £25, March 2019, 978 1 4088 5778 6
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Theskills of the three top Soviet spies of the 20th century – Richard Sorge, Leopold Trepper and Ignace Poretsky/Reiss (better known as Ludwik) – remain unmatched. Sorge has always attracted particular attention. Ian Fleming called him the ‘most formidable spy in history’; other admirers included John le Carré, Tom Clancy and General MacArthur. Owen Matthews – whose new biography of Sorge is the fifth to appear in English – is well qualified to write this book: his Ukrainian maternal grandfather was Boris Bibikov, a factory worker in Kharkov who became head of the Communist Party’s regional committee and was killed during the purges. Bibikov was a supporter of Sergei Kirov, a party boss in Leningrad who although a loyal enough Stalinist was alarmed by the excesses of collectivisation and keen to allow some of the discarded oppositionists to rejoin the party. At the Congress of Victors in 1934, when Stalin claimed the success of collectivisation and the triumph of his own faction, Kirov obtained the highest number of votes in the elections to the Central Committee. Mysteriously, he was assassinated in December that year. Bibikov’s turn came in October 1937. He was arrested and forced to confess to his sins, which in his case included membership of a non-existent clandestine ‘anti-Soviet rightist-Trotskyite’ organisation. He was executed three months later.

Matthews wrote about his family in Stalin’s Children: Three Generations of Love and War (2009), but despite this background his new book isn’t strong on Sorge’s motivation, or on what led him and others to sacrifice their lives to the cause. There isn’t much new material in An Impeccable Spy, with the exception of Stalin’s crude marginal notes on the Sorge file, but it does confirm and expand on information included in earlier accounts, some of it from the records of Soviet military intelligence, which haven’t been made generally available.

Spying always accompanies war, revolution and counter-revolution. Information-gathering networks have always been needed to report on and infiltrate enemies within and without. Civil wars, in particular, made this an absolute necessity, as Cromwell, Washington, Robespierre, Lenin, Mao and Castro quickly understood. For centuries, the methods of obtaining and transmitting vital information barely changed. ‘Cromwell,’ Pepys wrote in his diary, ‘carried the secrets of all the princes of Europe at his girdle.’ The man who got them for him was a civil servant called John Thurloe. A rector’s son from Essex, Thurloe became head of intelligence in 1653, with access to all state papers and secret documents. He pioneered a system of spy networks which long outlasted the English Commonwealth. The documents and reports brought back by couriers from the Continent (still available in the British Library) were analysed in detail by a group that included John Milton and Andrew Marvell. Among other things, they helped support the operations of a navy engineered to preserve and extend British interests.

Thurloe had a tendency to overreact to any threat of dissent. He dealt harshly with Leveller factions and with the apprentices and joiners of the Fifth Monarchy Men, proto-anarchists based in Mile End who were allegedly preparing to assassinate Cromwell and unleash an insurrection. Some of the men didn’t deny the main charge but pointed out that mass uprisings can’t be ordered like a jug of water. The House of Commons thanked Thurloe for his vigilance. A silk-weaver of Whitechapel had revealed the plot. All this and much else was meticulously recorded in the seven volumes of Thurloe’s State Papers.

After the Restoration, the Earl of Clarendon was forced to negotiate with Thurloe to acquire his spy network for the post-revolutionary regime. In return, Thurloe was given the list of the people Clarendon planned to arrest (the regicides in particular), which gave him time to warn them to flee the country. Most went to Holland, but under heavy political pressure (and probably with the help of financial inducements) the Dutch betrayed them and handed over as many as they could catch to Clarendon, who had them executed, their heads displayed in Whitehall. Thurloe’s Europe-wide spy network was preserved more or less intact.

The French Revolution had a Jacobin equivalent of Thurloe: less straightforwardly a spymaster, he exercised just as much ideological control. Joseph Fouché was born in 1759 in a village near Nantes and educated at the city oratory. Unlike Thurloe he was not a civil servant but an ambitious revolutionary politician. He had always been an ardent Jacobin, particularly interested in the de-Christianisation campaign, which began in earnest under his leadership in 1793. He closed down churches, installed a bust of Brutus on the altar of the cathedral in Nevers and paraded a real dancing woman down the nave of Notre Dame to represent the Goddess of Reason. Inscriptions proclaiming that ‘la mort est un éternel sommeil’ – rather than something God could rescue you from – were displayed at the entrance of cemeteries. Religious burials were banned. Sacred objects – ‘ornaments of fanaticism and ignorance’ – were removed from churches and a number of Fouché’s supporters urged Catholic priests to get married: celibacy was out.

Robespierre, busy creating several Republican armies to combat the external military threats to revolutionary France, was unsettled by this display of secular fanaticism, both on principle and for reasons of Realpolitik. He was worried that it would upset the neutral states in Europe and unnecessarily alienate sections of the peasantry. He publicly excoriated Fouché’s excesses in Lyon, where he had crushed a Girondin revolt with startling ferocity. The subsequent public executions of sixty bankers, nobles and hangers-on were preceded by a vicious satirical and semi-pornographic tableau mocking the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection and the Holy Ghost. ‘The man who is determined to prevent religious worship is just as fanatical as the man who says Mass,’ Robespierre said. ‘The Convention will not allow persecution of peaceable ministers of religion, but it will punish them severely every time they dare to take advantage of their position to deceive the citizens or to arm bigotry and royalism against the Republic.’

Fouché went on the offensive and helped topple Robespierre, imagining he would replace him. But the events of 9 Thermidor (27 July 1794) marked a turning point in the revolution. What had initially appeared to be a struggle for power within the Jacobin Party sounded the death knell for the radicals. Thermidor led to the victory first of the Directory, then the Consulate and, finally, the Empire, with the bourgeoisie now firmly in command. Fouché served all three as minister for police, falling out with Napoleon over the plan to invade Russia, which he regarded as a combination of personal vanity and politico-military folly. Enraged, Napoleon sacked him. But neither harboured a grudge. After Napoleon escaped from Elba, Fouché was made de facto prime minister and attempted to stabilise the administration. Waterloo put an end to all that. Fouché died peacefully in his bed in 1820. Thurloe had similarly passed away in his chambers at Lincoln’s Inn in 1667, a pattern that would, alas, not be repeated in the Soviet Union.

Jan Karlovich Berzin (born Pēteris Ķuzis in 1889) recruited the first generation of Soviet spies. From a Latvian peasant family, he participated in the 1905 Revolution that swept the country soon after the crushing defeat inflicted on the tsarist navy by imperial Japan and in 1906 he was elected secretary of the St Petersburg branch of the RSDLP. He was arrested by the Cossacks and sentenced to death, but spared because of his age. He served two spells in Siberia and escaped. After the October Revolution he was given the task of organising Red Guards to defend the Bolshevik leaders, and following Fanny Kaplan’s assassination attempt on Lenin in August 1918 he set up a bodyguard composed of Latvians, Finns, Russians and Chinese migrant workers. In 1920, he became head of the GRU.

The short biographical sketch of Berzin in An Impeccable Spy contains some mistakes, but Matthews’s most important error is to seek to distinguish Berzin from the people he recruited. They, he claims, were idealists, dreamers, intellectuals, well-meaning types. Berzin, in contrast, was a ruthless, violent protégé of Dzerzhinsky, head of the much feared Cheka. Wrong. All the major achievements of the Fourth Department, as Soviet military intelligence came to be known (penetration of the British Foreign Office and intelligence in the 1920s, the creation of the Rote Kapelle, or Red Orchestra, which had spies in the highest echelons of the German military both in Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe, and Sorge’s astonishing successes in Japan in the 1930s), were planned in detail by Berzin. In Great Game, his memoir of the period, Leopold Trepper, who co-ordinated the Rote Kapelle network in Belgium and France, writes that Berzin was ‘universally respected’. He ‘never left his men in the lurch, never would he have sacrificed a single one’. ‘To him, the agents were human beings and, above all, communists.’ He recounts a conversation between Berzin and Sorge, as reported to him by Sorge (all of them were taught how to memorise messages and conversations). Berzin, Trepper recalled, had summoned Sorge from China just after Hitler’s triumph in 1933. Berzin had no doubt as to the consequences of that victory. He cut to the chase:

Berzin: What, in your opinion, is the greatest danger the Soviet Union faces at this time?

Sorge: Even if we grant a confrontation with Japan, I think the real threat comes from Nazi Germany.

Berzin: Well that’s why we sent for you. We want you to take up residence in Japan.

Sorge: Why?

Berzin: Rapprochement between Germany and Japan is coming; in Tokyo you will learn a great deal about military preparations.

Sorge: What? Go to Japan and become a spy? But I’m a journalist!

Berzin: You say you don’t want to be a spy, but what’s your idea of a spy? What you call a ‘spy’ is a man who tries to get information about the weak points of the enemy so that his government can exploit them. We aren’t looking for war, but we want to know about the enemy’s preparations and detect the chinks in his armour so we won’t be caught short if he should attack. Our objective is for you to create a group in Japan determined to fight for peace. Your work will be to recruit important Japanese, and you will do everything in your power to see that their country is not dragged into a war against the Soviet Union.

Sorge: What name will I use?

Berzin: Your own.

Sorge was stunned. Even Berzin’s assistants were taken aback, reminding their chief that Sorge had a police record in Germany. He had been a member of the German Communist Party at the end of the First World War before moving to the Soviet Union. Berzin knew it was risky to make Sorge play a German Nazi, but, as he argued,

a man always walks better in his own shoes. I’m also aware that the Nazis have just inherited the police files. But a lot of water will flow under the bridges of the Moskva before Sorge’s file comes to light … Even if the Nazis find out sooner than we expect, what’s to keep a man who was a communist 15 years ago from changing his political opinion?

Then he turned to an assistant: ‘Arrange to have him hired as the Tokyo correspondent of the Frankfurter Zeitung.’ ‘You see, this way you’ll feel at home and not as if you’re playing spy,’ he told Sorge.

Sorge went to Berlin in May 1933 and spent the next three months fulfilling the tasks set for him. He joined the Nazi Party, obtained a German passport – his profession declared as ‘journalist’ – and was accredited as the Tokyo correspondent of the Frankfurter Zeitung. He made a favourable impression on the publisher and editor of Zeitschrift für Geopolitik and from them got letters of introduction to key figures in the German embassy in Tokyo and to useful Germans living in the city.

Similar instructions were given, possibly by Ludwik, the third of these Soviet spies, who probably recruited Kim Philby, to Philby, Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean. Philby dropped all his communist contacts and joined the pro-Nazi Anglo-German Fellowship, which made it easier for him to get access to Franco’s forces in Spain as a ‘journalist’. Berzin and Ludwik were both in Spain in 1936, in the hope that a victory for the Spanish Republic would weaken the Axis powers. It was not to be. Berzin was recalled to Moscow in June 1937 and resumed his post as head of military intelligence. To his enormous credit he confronted Stalin with the realities of the Spanish Civil War and registered strong complaints against the NKVD’s murders of dissident communists such as the POUM leader, Andrés Nin, and others on the left. He must have known what lay ahead. Arrested by the NKVD later that year, he was shot in the cellars of the Lubyanka in July 1938. He was posthumously rehabilitated in 1956. Ludwik wrote to Stalin in July 1937, returning his medals, condemning the purges and the NKVD’s killings. He then went into hiding in Switzerland, but was tricked into a meeting with a fellow agent and murdered a few weeks later. Twenty years ago I met his son, who showed me his father’s bullet-pierced wallet.

Sorge avoided returning to Moscow, where he might well have met a similar fate, but as a disciplined cadre continued with his mission: whatever the cost, the Japanese empire must be prevented from joining the coming war against the Soviet Union. Most of his achievements are related in An Impeccable Spy. He quickly penetrated the German community of journalists and businessmen in Tokyo and became a close friend of General Eugen Ott, who was appointed Germany’s ambassador to Japan in 1938, and his wife, Helma, who had fallen in love with him (Ott knew Sorge was sleeping with his wife, but seems to have tolerated it in the belief that women found Sorge irresistible). The German embassy in Tokyo became a second base of operations for him. It was in the ambassador’s safe that he later discovered details of the plans for Operation Barbarossa – Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. He sent the information to Filipp Golikov in Moscow, where Stalin had wiped out most of his opponents in the Bolshevik Party, including almost every member of the 1917 Central Committee to which Berzin had belonged. Golikov, a timeserver by any standard, was in a state of permanent fright.

As Matthews reveals, Lieutenant Colonel Erwin Scholl of German military intelligence, who was stationed at the Tokyo embassy, returned from Berlin in May 1941. The news he brought back was sensational and Ott wasted no time in sharing it with Sorge. On 31 May, Sorge cabled Golikov:

Berlin informed Ott that the German attack will commence in the latter part of June. Ott 95 per cent certain that war will commence … Because of the existence of a powerful Red Army, Germany has no possibility to widen the sphere of war in Africa and has to maintain a large army in Eastern Europe. In order to eliminate all the dangers from the USSR side, Germany has to drive off the Red Army as soon as possible.

Ott had provided the barest of outlines, but Scholl provided the information in full: 170-180 mechanised divisions were already close to the Soviet border, he said, and the assault itself would encompass the entire front. The German general staff had few doubts that the Red Army would collapse and they would take Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev. Hitler would then take over the Trans-Siberian railway and establish direct contact with the Japanese forces in Manchuria. Stalin, still basking in the so-called triumph of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, refused to believe any of it. ‘You can send your “source” … to his fucking mother,’ he told Golikov. On the message itself he scribbled: ‘Suspicious. To be listed with telegrams intended as provocations.’ (Matthews writes that in 1961 Golikov and Marshal Zhukov, whose troops had liberated Berlin, went to see the Moscow screening of a film called Qui êtes-vous, Monsieur Sorge? Afterwards, Zhukov confronted Golikov: ‘Why, Filipp Ivanovich, did you hide these reports from me? Why did you not report such information to the chief of the general staff?’ Golikov replied: ‘What if this Sorge was a double agent, both ours and theirs?)

At around the same time, Sorge found out from his Japanese contacts that Japan was not going to invade the Soviet Union and was instead targeting the United States. This enabled Moscow to withdraw crucial divisions from the Far East, helping to frustrate the German attack on Moscow. Sorge had got much of this information from Ozaki Hotsumi, a journalist close to the Japanese prime minister. ‘Considered simply as spies,’ Chalmers Johnson wrote in An Instance of Treason: Ozaki Hotsumi and the Sorge Spy Ring, ‘Ozaki and his partner, Richard Sorge (PhD, Political Science, University of Hamburg, 8 August 1920), were possibly the most intellectually overqualified spies in modern history. Neither was a spy for financial gain; their motivations were political.’ Ozaki’s influence was based on his knowledge of Chinese politics and culture: he lived there for several years and wrote a number of sympathetic books and numerous essays on post-Sun Yat-sen China. For a while he had supported the notion of a Japanese-Chinese alliance that would drive the European empires out of Asia, but a closer look at the nationalists of the Kuomintang and the Japanese military leadership cured his illusions. Ozaki saw the KMT as clannish and corrupt, and predicted that the Chinese communists would ultimately defeat them. When Sorge suggested to Ozaki that he should argue for the entire Japanese army to be sent to China, where they would sooner or later be defeated, he presented this hallucinatory notion as allowing three victories: Japan’s defeat would open up the country to a revolutionary uprising; only the Chinese communists were capable of defeating the Japanese empire; the Soviet Union’s eastern border would be secured. Ozaki said bluntly that it was a bad idea, not worth the risk. Neither was aware that the hardcore military faction backed by the emperor was planning an attack on Pearl Harbor, a decision that meant restricting the number of armed forces they sent to China, ignoring the Soviet Union and concentrating on weakening American power in the Pacific.

Even​ without the Japanese opening a second front on the USSR’s eastern border, the Germans almost pulled off a victory. Sorge’s messages had been ignored, the best Soviet military leaders, including Mikhail Tukhachevsky, had been executed, and despite the military superiority of the Soviet Union, the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe almost took Moscow and Leningrad in the first wave attack. According to John Erickson, a historian of the Red Army, Tukhachevsky had carried out manoeuvres that predicted the lines of a German attack as early as 1933. In his last off the record question and answer session, restricted to senior Red Army officers, he again insisted that the Germans were preparing a military assault. They would strike suddenly, he said, and deploy everything available on land, sea and air to take the Red Army by surprise. He was accused of treason and shot in June 1937.

Contrary to popular legend, at no point did the Wehrmacht possess military superiority over the Red Army on the frontier. On the contrary, Soviet superiority was staggering: seven to one in tanks, with 24,600 in readiness against 3500 Panzers, four to one in planes. ‘As for the Blitzkrieg which is so propagandised by the Germans, this is directed towards an enemy who doesn’t want to and won’t fight it out,’ Tukhachevsky had claimed:

If the Germans meet an opponent who stands up and fights and takes the offensive himself, that would give a different aspect to things. The struggle would be bitter and protracted; by its very nature it would induce great fluctuations in the front on this or that side and in great depth. In the final resort, all would depend on who had the greater moral fibre and who at the close of the operations disposed of operational reserves in depth.

Unlike the Germans, who saw the Nazi-Soviet Pact as necessary but temporary, Stalin had illusions that it might be lasting. Matthews quotes from a 1966 interview with Zhukov, conducted by Lev Bezymensky, a Soviet historian and war veteran. In January 1941, Zhukov and others had warned Stalin of ominous German troop movements. Stalin wrote to Hitler, asking politely whether these reports were true. Hitler replied that they were, but he swore

on my honour as a head of state that my troops are deployed … for other purposes. The territories of Western and Central Germany are subject to heavy English bombing and are easily observed from the air by the English. Therefore I found it necessary to move large contingents of troops to the east where they can secretly reorganise and rearm.

Stalin believed him.

Zhukov told Bezymensky that in early June 1941 it was obvious to most of the high command that the Germans were preparing to invade. He had showed Stalin ‘staff maps with the locations of enemy troops entered on them’.

A few days passed and Stalin called for me … he opened a case on his desk and took out several sheets of paper. ‘Read,’ said Stalin … it was a letter from Stalin to Hitler in which he briefly outlined his concern over the German deployments … Stalin then said ‘Here is the answer’ … I cannot exactly reproduce Hitler’s words. But this I do remember precisely: I read the 14 June issue of Pravda and in it, to my amazement, I discovered the same words I had read in Hitler’s letter to Stalin.

It was Molotov who broke the news of the invasion to Soviet citizens. For a fortnight, Stalin made no public appearance. Finally, he addressed the nation. His speech was leaden at the start, but improved as he went on, even if its ideology and language were reminiscent of 1812 rather than 1917. He pledged fierce resistance and a scorched earth policy. As the emotional victory parade approached, when the captured flags and regimental banners of Nazi Germany were flung on the ground below Lenin’s mausoleum, he proposed a toast to the Russian people at the Kremlin banquet and made this apology:

Our government made not a few errors, we experienced at moments a desperate situation in 1941-42, when our army was retreating, abandoning our own villages and towns of the Ukraine, Belorussia, Moldova, the Leningrad region, the Baltic area and the Karelo-Finnish Republic, abandoning them because there was no other way out. A different people could have said to the government: ‘You have failed to justify our expectations. Go away. We shall install another government which will conclude peace with Germany …’ The Russian people, however, did not take this path … Thanks to it, to the Russian people, for this confidence!

In the updated 2001 edition of The Soviet High Command, Erickson makes clear that the Red Army’s response wasn’t a foregone conclusion:

The system lived perpetually on a narrow knife-edge. How frighteningly narrow was brought home to me in a singular exchange with Chief Marshal of Artillery N.N. Voronov … Knowing he was present at the very centre of events during the early hours of Sunday, 22 June, I asked him for his interpretation. His final remark was quite astonishing. He said that at about 7.30 a.m. the high command had received encouraging news: the Red Army was fighting back. The worst nightmare had already been overcome. Red Army soldiers had gone to war, ‘the system’ had responded and would respond.

Arming the people in Moscow and Leningrad prevented the fall of the two key cities of the revolution, and in Stalingrad and Kursk the Red Army broke the backbone of the Third Reich. Despite everything, Soviet resistance was decisive in defeating Hitler. The price was 27,000,000 dead, countless numbers disabled. Many who tried their best to ensure a victory at a lesser price had been killed before Barbarossa even began, murdered, in the words of Ludwik’s widow, ‘by our own people’.

Sorge had sent Golikov the details of Operation Barbarossa, but he was slandered and ignored. In October 1941, after the Japanese had become suspicious that a spy ring was in operation and had succeeded in intercepting some of Sorge’s messages, he and Ozaki were arrested. He spent two years in prison. The Japanese offered to exchange him three times but Stalin refused. He was hanged in Sugamo Prison in Tokyo on 7 November 1943, a few hours after Ozaki. It was the anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

Trepper was arrested in Paris in December 1942 and a year later escaped from prison. After the liberation of Paris he made his way back to Moscow, where he was arrested as a double agent. He was released in May 1954, less than a year after Stalin’s death. He returned to his native Poland, though he had no family left there: the entire Jewish population of Nowy Targ had been put on a train to Auschwitz. But antisemitism persisted in Poland and he eventually left for Israel – where, unlike Berzin, Ludwik, Sorge and many others, he died a natural death. In the epilogue to his memoirs he writes: ‘I do not regret the commitment of my youth. I do not regret the paths I have taken … I know that youth will succeed where we have failed, that socialism will triumph, and that it will not have the colour of the Russian tanks that crushed Prague.’

A few months after Chalmers Johnson’s book was published in 1964 Sorge was rehabilitated and made a Hero of the Soviet Union. A Post-Constructivist statue of him was erected in his native Baku, and a postage stamp issued. When Yuri Andropov was head of the KGB and a member of the Politburo in the early 1980s, he called in a popular thriller writer called Julian Semyonov and gave him access to some of the files on Trepper and the Red Orchestra. In the resulting thriller, The Red Mole, the hero, Issaev, penetrates the highest levels of the Nazi hierarchy.* Leonid Brezhnev was so taken by the book that he wanted Issaev to be honoured posthumously. Andropov had to explain that he was a fictional construct. Ludwik alone was left to bask in obscurity.

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