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.

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