Spying doesn’t get any better than this

Murray Sayle

  • Stalin’s Spy: Richard Sorge and the Tokyo Espionage Ring by Robert Whymant
    Tauris, 368 pp, £25.00, October 1996, ISBN 1 86064 044 3

When Richard Sorge was hanged in Sugamo prison in Tokyo, on 7 November 1944, I was still a student and I regret that I never had occasion to take a drink or three with that wit, charmer, womaniser, tosspot, home-wrecker, author, journalist and master Soviet agent. I had better luck with my friend Kim Philby, Sorge’s only serious rival (that we know of) for the title Spy of the Century. Through one dizzying Moscow fortnight in 1968, Philby and I sampled the mind-expanding powers of Polish vodka, Cuban rum, Georgian wine, Armenian brandy and palate-cleansing Russian beer, with the odd mouthful of borscht to keep us going – and, as I now see, exactly the same descriptions apply to him. This enthralling new account of Sorge, by the veteran British journalist and old Asia hand Robert Whymant, confirms what I had long suspected: Sorge and Philby were psychic twins, two textbook examples of the rare species we might call Homo undercoverus – those who find the dull, unclassified lives that the rest of us lead simply not (Sorge literally, and Kim Philby had some close calls, too) worth living.

The parallels between the two are eerie. Both were born to peripatetic parents, far from what was to pass for home: Philby in Ambala, India, son of the eccentric explorer of Arabia (and Ford motor agent) St John Philby; Sorge in Baku, Russia to a German petroleum engineer and his Russian wife, the daughter of a prosperous capitalist from Kiev. Politically, Sorge’s lineage was even more exotic than Philby’s: while his father was a staunch subject of the Kaiser, his paternal great-uncle, Friedrich Adolf Sorge, knew Marx and Engels, and had served as Secretary-General of the First International when it moved to New York in the 1870s. Both Sorge and Philby enjoyed privileged educations which turned them, at least outwardly, into convincing representatives of their respective upper classes: Sorge at a gymnasium in the comfortable Berlin suburb of Lichterfelde and later at Berlin University; Kim Philby at Westminster and Trinity College, Cambridge. Both became Communists as impressionable students, both at times when Communism was high fashion among young intellectuals. The decisive influence in each case was war.

Not, however, the same war. Born in 1895, and Philby’s senior by 16 years, Sorge belonged to the generation that would shortly be plunged into the Kaiser’s great miscalculation. Three days after the war began, Sorge, still at high school, enlisted in an artillery regiment and was sent into action in Belgium after six weeks’ instruction at a drill field outside Berlin. He was lucky to survive the appalling kindermord, the massacre of the innocents, when ill-trained German students, glowing with naive patriotism, were slaughtered in droves by British and Belgian regulars stubbornly holding prepared positions on the cloverless fields of Flanders. Early in 1915, Sorge was wounded by shrapnel and invalided back to Berlin, where he finished high school and began university. Early in 1916, he volunteered again, was sent to the Eastern Front and was wounded twice more, the second time by a Russian shell which almost took off his leg. He recovered, but for the rest of his days walked with a romantic limp, a badge of courage to which a grateful Reich added the Iron Cross, Second Class, on his discharge in 1917, unfit for further service.

‘Even if I had never been motivated by other considerations, the World War alone would have been enough to make me a Communist,’ he told his Japanese interrogators an eventful 25 years later. Whatever the other considerations were, they did not include a profound study of Marx, or a notable confidence in the working class. On the contrary, Sorge was all his life something of a German-style toff, given to heel-clicking, hand-kissing and fine Rhine wine, when he could lay his hands on a case. He was one of the middle-class generation radicalised by the bloodbath in the trenches, the profiteering behind the lines and – particularly from a German viewpoint – the futility of a war that had killed two million fellow countrymen. That the war had been caused by competing capitalist empires seemed to these bright young men and women self-evident. Stalin’s terror and the Gulag were still far in the future, or unknown in the West.

If Sorge had a trade at all, it was, like Philby’s, journalism; the subject that really interested him was politics. In November 1918, he did his best to bring on Germany’s defeat by lecturing to mutinous sailors of the High Seas Fleet in Kiel on the evils of militarism; by 1920, with a doctorate in political science, he was the training chief of the Hamburg branch of the German Communist Party (KPD) and, despite his war disability, took a job as a coal miner to organise clandestine Communist cells. In 1924, a delegate to a secret KPD Congress in Frankfurt, he was befriended by representatives of the Soviet Union, who invited him to Moscow. The following year he joined the intelligence section of the Comintern. His work took him to Norway and Denmark, and in 1929, to the Midlands and Scotland, where his knowledge of coal-mining helped him gather economic and political information for the Comintern. His work, he found, was a lot more productive if he developed his own contacts and avoided local Communist Parties, who were inclined to revere him as the Man from Moscow and expected him to adjudicate in obscure doctrinal disputes. For his next trip, to China, Sorge agreed with his superiors on a new procedure. He transferred from the Comintern to Department Four of Red Army intelligence, and was instructed that henceforth he would have nothing to do with quarrelsome local leftists and was to transmit his information to Moscow by radio. From international Communist agent, Sorge, in short, had turned Soviet spy. He saw little difference: the ultimate aim of both the Comintern and the Red Army was to defend the Soviet Union, revolutionary socialism’s last, best and only hope.

Women have played key roles in the careers of male spies and vice versa. Whymant has uncovered much new material on the loves, or lusts, of Richard Sorge, thus establishing further parallels with his British colleague. Tall, with piercing blue eyes, Sorge seemed cut out to be a lady-killer, his part-Russian looks making him a kind of Yul Brynner with dark wavy hair (Brynner was born in Vladivostok). Philby, more the tweedy Trevor Howard type, was also reckoned a handsome man. Their appeal to women, however, depended on more than looks. Their disabilities (Sorge’s limp and Philby’s pronounced stammer) made them vulnerable, which no doubt helped; above all, vitality, cheerfulness and unfeigned interest in the people they met, plus a total lack of Marxist dogmatism, made them magnets for both men and women, remembered with affection even by those whom, politically or personally, they were to betray.

Sorge opened (and closed) his marital innings in 1922, when he married Christiane Gerlach, a former librarian at the University of Frankfurt. This was not exactly love’s young dream: Christiane, the wife of Sorge’s economics professor, left her husband to set up house with Sorge in Solingen, where he was working on a miners’ newspaper. In the straitlaced Germany of 1921, living in sin was still considered a public scandal, which gave the local police the excuse to run the troublesome radical out of town. ‘It annoys both of us, but we will have to bite the sour apple,’ Sorge wrote to a friend – the sour apple being bourgeois marriage, which Marx and Engels had denounced as one of the more galling shackles of class oppression, for men. The ladylike Christiane accompanied Sorge to Moscow, where she found the table manners of the proletarian vanguard appalling, and eventually emigrated to America when, inevitably, the marriage foundered. Years later, she was perceptive about her misadventure, in an analysis equally applicable to Philby: ‘Ika’ – her pet name for Sorge – never ‘pushed. He did not need to court people, they rushed to him, men and women. Did he perhaps have more subtle means for bending them to his will?’ Before he left for China in 1930, Sorge moved into the poky Moscow flat of Yekaterina Maximova, a pretty drama student who had been assigned to teach him Russian. She was, Whymant believes, the love of the footloose spy’s life – possibly because, given the demands of his work, he saw very little of her. Like many of Sorge’s Russian friends, she was arrested as a German spy – a ridiculous charge – during the next war, and died in a Siberian labour camp, aged 38.

For his new assignment in Shanghai, Sorge needed a plausible cover. After experimenting with the identity of ‘Mr Johnson’, an American newspaperman, he settled on that of Dr Richard Sorge, China correspondent of the blamelessly boring German Grain News, published in Berlin. I fervently wish that spies like Sorge, Philby and their successors would refrain from assuming the identity of journalists, which raises endless complications for the rest of us, but I suppose it is inevitable. Sorge’s boss in Moscow, General Jan Karlovich Berzin, actually did want to know how the grain was growing in various parts of China, including Manchuria, as well as what the aggressive Japanese military were up to there. Sorge had no background in agronomy, but few journalists have a deep knowledge of anything much, and no one in the Chinese, the Japanese or the German colony in Shanghai thought it odd that the erudite Dr Sorge should be out tramping the grainfields. Among the Germans were military officers advising Chiang Kai-shek. With one of them, Colonel Hermann von Kriebel, Sorge struck up a boozy friendship, the first of many with well-placed German army officers – no great feat, given his status as a disabled ex-serviceman, decorated for bravery.

Sorge was equally well qualified to find first-class sources of reliable political intelligence, and did so within weeks. In a left-wing Shanghai bookshop, Die Zeitgeist, he met Agnes Smedley, an American working-class writer posted in Shanghai as correspondent of the Frankfurter Zeitung. Soon they were lovers: ‘Never have I known such good days, never have I known such a healthy life, mentally, physically,’ she wrote to a friend. Smedley introduced him to Hotsumi Ozaki, a Japanese journalist who was translating her gritty autobiography, Daughter of Earth. Ozaki had become a Communist for much the same reasons Sorge had: he saw Japan’s aggression against China as dooming his own vision of Asia liberated from empire-builders of all stripes, everyone co-operating peaceably under the red flag. The correspondent of the Asahi newspaper, Ozaki was Japan’s best-informed China-watcher. He was to become Sorge’s window onto the Japanese cabinet, which had co-opted him as an adviser on Japan’s hopeless China war. Fourteen years after they began their collaboration, Sorge and Ozaki were to hang within half an hour of each other in the same prison, for the same cause.

Had Sorge stayed in Shanghai, he might well have survived the war and the Stalinisation and de-Stalinisation of the Soviet Union, and died in bed like Philby. But General Berzin had other plans for him. Recalled in 1933, Sorge moved back in with his Yekatecrina – for the last time – and spent a few months writing a soporific book on Chinese agriculture. Then Berzin informed him of his new assignment – Tokyo – and the question that the Red Army wanted answered above all: had the Japanese, already occupying much of North China, any designs on the far eastern provinces of the Soviet Union? The job of a part-time correspondent, or stringer, for a grain newspaper would open few Japanese doors, so Sorge gamely returned to Germany to pick up more accreditations. He waded through Mein Kampf and called on Professor Karl Haushofer, the inventor of geopolitics and a friend of Rudolf Hess, in Munich. Haushofer was dazzled; he gave him letters of introduction to the German Embassy in Tokyo and, through a newspaper friend, like Sorge an alt front-kämpfer, to another of Germany’s enormous network of First World War veterans, Lt Col Eugen Ott, then serving with a Japanese artillery regiment in Nagoya. ‘You can rely on Sorge in every respect, politically and personally,’ Haushofer wrote to Ott. In September 1933, the already seasoned spy arrived in Yokohama aboard the Canadian Pacific liner Empress of Russia, to be greeted by the stench of sewage mixed with rotting fish which still perfumes Japanese ports. He had reached journey’s end.

Alas for the symmetry of history, Sorge never met Philby – his research into British radical trends in 1929 bypassed the dormitories of Westminster School – but ideologically their paths were about to cross. Always left-leaning (so he told me in Moscow), Philby lost all faith in reform through parliamentary methods when Ramsay MacDonald betrayed the working class by forming the National Government of 1931. His interest in the possibilities of revolution took him two years later, on vacation from Cambridge, to Vienna. The suppression of the Social Democratic Party’s uprising against the newly established clerical-Fascist regime of Dr Engelbert Dollfuss was one of the pivotal events of the century, a setting-up of sides for the Second World War. Philby, along with Stephen Spender, Hugh Gaitskell, Naomi Mitch-ison, the American journalist John Gunther and many others, was horrified to see the Austrian regular army shelling the workers’ flats in Karl-Marx-Stadt, and readily agreed with his new Communist girlfriend, Litzi Friedman, that the Communists were offering the only effective resistance to Fascism, and should be supported. Back in Cambridge, Philby was recruited – by whom he would not tell me – for a lifetime career, as it turned out, with the KGB.

In retrospect Kim’s conversion was more premature than treasonable. Fascism and Communism were indeed headed for a show-down; little was reliably known in the West about the Soviet regime; the purges and the camps still lay in the future. Seven years later, Philby’s choice was repeated – with less enthusiasm – by the democratic world when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. Even so, a life of endless deceit, poorly paid, with no possibility of second thoughts, and a high probability of prison, a bullet or the gallows at the end is an unusual career choice for a man of 22. It meant that he had to find a suitable cover job, and, while not a natural newsperson, he selected journalism, or had it selected for him (he many times told me he had the impression that ‘someone higher up’ was guiding his career. By 1937 he was covering the Spanish Civil War from the insurgent side (Franco gave him a medal); he became prominent in the Anglo-German Friendship Society and kept his Moscow bosses supplied with intelligence. When I asked him whether he really needed to pose as a Nazi sympathiser to fulfil his many duties, he chuckled and replied: ‘Y-y-yes, I may have over-c-c-c-orrected a bit th-th-there. What’s y-y-yours?’

On his return from France in 1940, where he covered the retreat to Dunkirk for the Times and the KGB, Philby – according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which seems to have its own intelligence assets – was recruited to MI6 by Guy Burgess without of course giving up his Moscow connection (neither did Burgess, which lends some support to the theory of a senior puppet-master pulling the strings). After doubly distinguished wartime careers, Philby was, by 1945, head of MI6 counter-intelligence, responsible for combating the activities of Soviet agents in Europe, while spying on MI6 for the KGB. His final step to the spooks’ Valhalla was his assignment to Washington in 1949 to help set up the CIA. In the engine-room of one spy outfit, he was privy to the secrets of two others. Meanwhile he was drawing two, or possibly three, salaries and, respectably married to a nice girl from Marks and Spencer’s, was bringing up a family. From a craftsman’s viewpoints, spying just doesn’t get any better than this, which I assume is what Philby meant by referring on one occasion, with mock humility, to ‘my modest place in history’. I refrained from pointing out that he might have a rival in fame, partly because we were in a noisy restaurant the size of an aeroplane hangar with a busty, over-amplified soprano bellowing ‘Moscow Nights’, and Soviet officers in uniform vomiting under the tables, but also because I had not then read Robert Whymant’s account of Richard Sorge’s equally dazzling career.

By the time Kim Philby was executing his first two-step as a double agent, Sorge was already in a situation in Tokyo that any spy would have killed for. Soon after he arrived he found a flat and a live-in Japanese girl-friend, Hanako Miyake, a dirndl-clad waitress from his preferred haunt, Das Rheingold, where Germanophile Japanese in leather shorts gathered with German businessmen to drink beer from jackboot-shaped glasses and perform Hitler’s favourite dance, the Schuhplattler, slapping each other’s backsides to the braying of a brass band. He joined the Nazi Party, and thereafter wore its crooked-cross lapel badge. Under this deep cover he looked up Colonel Ott in Nagoya, and was full of sincere congratulations when Ott was promoted to the post of military attaché in Tokyo. Soon he was helping Ott code and decode secret telegrams to Berlin on the possibility of luring Japan into the Axis. He also began an affair with Ott’s bored wife, Helma, which the hen-pecked colonel seems to have welcomed. Before long, Ott, by now a general, was appointed ambassador, and Sorge helped him polish his official despatches to Berlin. He had the run of the Embassy, including the office of the local Gestapo chief, where he was able to keep an eye out for any hint that the Germans had rumbled him. They never did.

By now, he had already far outclassed Nazi Germany’s own top spy, code-named Cicero (actually an Albanian named Bazna), who wangled a job as valet to Sir Hughe Montgomery Knatchbull-Hugessen, Britain’s Ambassador to Turkey from 1939. Cicero managed to filch a key to the safe from the Ambassador’s trousers and photograph the secret documents it contained. But Turkey was neutral, while Japan was wavering, a matter of great interest to Berlin, and even more to Moscow. Furnished with a radio-operator, a German named Clausen who built his own transmitter from parts he bought in Tokyo shops, Sorge was able to relay reports through ‘Wiesbaden’ (actually Vladivostok), alerting his controllers in Moscow to developments in the delicate international situation. But tins was only the beginning. His contact from Shanghai, the left-wing journalist Ozaki, had meanwhile returned to Tokyo to run a think-tank on China for the South Manchurian Railway Company, which eventually gave him access to the Japanese cabinet. Believing, like so many fellow-travellers of the Thirties, that he was working for peace, Ozaki kept Sorge, and thus Moscow, posted as the debate between the Japanese Army’s ‘Strike North’ and ‘Strike South’ factions in Tokyo swayed back and forth, while another informant, a corporal in an infantry division, was able to supply Sorge and Moscow with such nuts-and-bolts intelligence as the news that army units supposedly training for the capture of Vladivostok were being kitted out in green shorts, split-toed sandals and tropical pith helmets. Moscow was understandably effusive in its radioed praise.

It is not, therefore, immediately clear why Sorge put this once-in-a-millennium set-up at risk with bouts of industrial-scale drinking, on top of what was already a daunting daily intake. Early in the morning of 13 May 1938, after a long evening at the Rheingold, Sorge rode his heavy motorbike into a stone wall outside the American Embassy and woke up in St Luke’s Hospital with his face bloodied and his front teeth missing. Barely able to speak, he managed to summon his radio-man, Clausen, itself a high-risk manoeuvre, and slip him his latest reports for ‘Wiesbaden’ (Sorge filed in English, apparently the lingua franca of espionage) and an incriminating roll of dollar bills, before lapsing back into unconsciousness. He was fitted with dentures and had soon recovered enough to start yet another affair, this time with a visiting German concert pianist, Eta Harich-Schneider, who was staying at the German Embassy, much to the discomfort of the Ambassador’s doubly-discarded wife. His drinking became even more strenuous, and riskier still. Why did he keep it up?

Whymant, I believe, has the answer, or at least part of it. In Moscow Sorge’s tolerant boss, General Berzin, had been replaced by his Stalinist deputy, and tens of thousands of foreign and Russian Communists just as devoted as Sorge had perished in Stalin’s great purge. Anyone who had ever been outside the Soviet Union, or, unlike the semi-literate Stalin, spoke foreign languages, seemed to be specially targeted. The signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in August 1939, at which Stalin drank to Hitler’s health, must have further shaken Sorge’s faith, closing off, as it seemed, his last line of retreat (how freely, he must have wondered, were the new partners exchanging lists of each other’s moles?). Nevertheless he soldiered on at his posts, the bar of the Tokyo Imperial Hotel in the afternoons, the Rheingold at night, both prime pick-up points for gossip from visiting German military men, and his conduct in public became, if anything, more outrageous, even for someone posing as an exuberant Nazi, yet one with some intriguing inner tension.

On top of his dutiful drinking, Sorge was turning out sound articles on Japan, still worth reading, for the Frankfurter Zeitung, whose Tokyo correspondent he had finally become – better stuff, it must be admitted, than Philby was writing a decade later for the Observer, his alibi during his own darkest days in Beirut, where he had taken refuge after being denounced in the House of Commons as the Third Man in the Burgess-Maclean affair. In Beirut Philby had, to put it bluntly, stolen a journalist colleague’s wife; he was the owner of a fierce pet fox; and frequently passed out after being mewling, stuttering drunk at riotous parties. Like Sorge’s, his attempts to convince the world that he was what he was not came close to self-parody; years later Fortune’s man in Beirut, John Fistere, recalled that the Philbys never failed to share their Thanksgiving turkey and to join in when they sang ‘God Bless America’. ‘It’s utterly impossible that Kim could have been a Commie,’ a still shaken Fistere told me. ‘There’s been some terrible mistake.’ Betrayed both as a husband and as a diplomat, General Ott, to his dying day, stoutly maintained the same about Sorge. The mechanism at work seems to have been much the same for both: beginning by finding that alcohol is instant friendship, and a bar the ideal place to elicit information – and discovering, as many a drunkard has, that booze offers a respite from nagging fear – the two spies went on to court attention by their conduct, thinking no one would guess that ostentation is a kind of camouflage.

On 30 May 1941, after a convivial evening with the German Ambassador, Sorge radioed Moscow: ‘Berlin informed Ott that German attack will commence in latter part of June. Ott 95 per cent certain war will commence.’ Whymant has confirmed with the KGB archives in Moscow, now partly opened, that this message, containing the most startling secret of the Second World War, did actually arrive in Moscow. Stalin, of course, refused to believe that Hitler could break the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Sorge, he snarled in his coarsest manner, ‘is a shit who has set himself up with some small factories and brothels in Japan’ – he was clearly confusing Sorge with his radio-operator, Clausen, who was indeed prospering in his cover businesses. Stalin’s discomfiture is easy to understand. The Pact, which he considered a master-stroke of opportunism, was rapidly turning into a nightmare. A dozen sources had warned Stalin that his Nazi partner would double-cross him, although without Sorge’s precise timetable, which he was able to improve on 1 June with another message beginning: ‘Expected start of German-Soviet war around 15 June.’The forecast was only a week out (the Wehrmacht invaded on 22 June) but at that late stage there was nothing Stalin could do about it, beyond hoping against hope that it wasn’t true. ‘We doubt the veracity of your information,’ Sorge’s bosses in Moscow radioed back. Frustrated at having the scoop of his career disbelieved, Sorge slipped his story to a drinking acquaintance at the bar of the Imperial – Joseph Needham of the New York Herald Tribune. Needham’s pusillanimous editors covered their rears by running it, but buried deep among the baseball scores.

Sorge, however, had earned credibility with his Moscow controllers, who were soon desperate to have his opinion: was Japan about to strike at the far eastern provinces of the Soviet Union? Sorge could not be certain, as the Japanese had still not made up their own minds, but the sequence of messages that Whymant has unearthed from the Moscow archives are textbook examples of the spy’s craft at its finest – a blend of deep understanding of Japanese ways of thinking, timely tip-offs and plain common sense. The Japanese, Sorge advised, would certainly help themselves to those parts of Siberia temptingly near Manchuria, but only if they were convinced beyond peradventure that Hitler was achieving the quick victory he had counted on. They had not long before suffered a nasty surprise at Nomonhan in Mongolia, when a Soviet tank army under the future Marshal Zhukov had routed encroaching Japanese units reputed to be the élite of the Emperor’s army – one of the less well-known but critical engagements in the runup to the Second World War. Besides, Sorge reasoned with his distant bosses, the Japanese were only fair-weather friends of the Führer: their real interest was in concluding their entanglement in China, for which they needed to cut off American and British aid to Chiang Kai-shek and seize oil and raw materials, which were to be had not in Siberia, but in South-East Asia. For these reasons, plus the issuing of shorts and pith helmets to their troops, he was persuaded that they would strike south, against British and American possessions in the Philippines, not north against the Soviets.

Sorge saw no harm in sharing all this with his friend Ambassad or Ott, who passed it on to Berlin, where it was read by the German spy service, the Abwehr, with deep interest, the more so because it came from Dr Richard Sorge of the Frankfurter Zeitung. Walter Schellenberg, director of Foreign Intelligence, recalled: ‘Sorge’s intelligence material grew more and more important to us … Already Sorge had predicted that the Three Powers Pact’ – the Axis – ‘would prove of little real – meaning military – value to Germany. And after the beginning of our campaign in Russia he warned us that in no circumstances would Japan renounce her non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union.’ In early September, Sorge and his unwitting sources in the German Embassy and the Japanese cabinet were confident enough for him to radio Moscow that ‘in the opinion of Ambassador Ott, Japanese attack against USSR is now out of the question … the USSR will be absolutely freed [word illegible] after 15 September.’ Stalin began withdrawing his Siberian divisions, hardened by years on the Manchurian frontier, to re-deploy them for the successful defence of Moscow. Early in October, Sorge confirmed the way the Japanese cat would pounce: ‘war with the United States will begin in the near-future, this month or next.’ Stalin failed to share this interesting item, Sorge’s last important despatch, with his British ally.

At daybreak on 18 October 1941, police agents burst into his apartment and hustled Sorge, badly hungover, to prison. The story, later put about by spiteful members of the American Occupation, that Sorge had been betrayed by one of his many girlfriends was untrue: the police had stumbled on his trail after arresting a visiting Japanese member of the American Communist Party who had distant connections with the Sorge ring. Sorge spent the next three years writing, editing and rewriting a four-volume confession for his Japanese interrogators, later published by the Americans and quarried by Whymant. He seems to have reasoned that by disclosing how important he had been to the Soviets he was raising his own value for a possible exchange with the Japanese spies they held. Tentatively approached with this very proposal, the Soviet Embassy in Tokyo said they had never heard of any Dr Richard Sorge. As Germany and Japan tottered towards defeat, a new suit and a set of false teeth were delivered to the Sugamo prison. In them Sorge went bravely to his death on 11 November 1944.

What did Sorge and Philby, spying in near-tandem, actually achieve? And what are we to make of their double act? As a technician, Philby was more of a spy’s spy, moling away in the cellars of two spook organisations on behalf of a third, and thus is admired mainly by people in the business. He was lucky to retreat to Moscow in 1963 at the tail end of the relatively liberal Khrushchev regime, rather than a decade earlier, during Stalin’s lifetime, and to have died in 1988, still firm, as he put it, in the ‘confident faith that the principles of the revolution would out-live the aberrations of individuals, however enormous’, even though it was clear in the Brezhnev era that they would not. Sorge’s spying probably helped Stalin sleep more soundly in the desperate autumn of 1941, but, as the Panzers approached Moscow, he really had no choice but to throw the Siberians into the defence of his capital, and at the crunch, the Russian winter was worth a thousand spies. Still, the Soviets were not ungrateful, once it no longer mattered: in 1964 Sorge was made a posthumous Hero of the Soviet Union, a stamp was issued bearing his rugged likeness and a Moscow street was – perhaps still is – named after him.

Of more lasting interest is the moral ambiguity of spying, which Whymant’s account helps us unravel. Talented agents cannot be improvised when war breaks out; they have to be in place long before. It follows that unfingered Philbys and unsuspected Sorges should be out there right now, spying away for us. But what do we think of them? If Sorge really did help save Moscow in 1941, then he was on the right side, ours, and deserves a statue in Whitehall, or perhaps a Sorge Wing at Westminster School. But he was on exactly the same side as the treasonous Philby, who spoke highly of him. There is, in the end, something repugnant about the idea of our man, on our behalf, cosying up to our potential enemies in bars and bedrooms. By the nature of his calling, the spy exposes the gap between the warm tribal solidarity that makes wars possible, even at times enjoyable, and the flinty principles they are supposed to be about. One liquid Moscow evening near the KGB headquarters, I asked Philby how he managed to separate his career and his personal life. ‘I often feel that I am two people,’ he replied, ‘a political person and a private person.’ And if they conflict? ‘The political comes first, of course.’ We need spies, the more deceitful the better, but we’d also like them to be straight shooters, loyal colleagues, good husbands and fathers as well. What hypocrites we are.