We love our heroes; we despise our villains. What, then, do we make of Colonel Ursula Kuczynski, AKA Ursula Hamburger, AKA Ursula Burton, AKA — Agent Sonya? “Agent Sonya,” author Ben Macintyre’s exhaustively detailed and consistently fascinating account of that amazing woman’s life, may force us to realign our predilection for clearly delineated hero-versus-villain judgments.
She was inarguably a true hero to her followers and her compatriots — her comrades. Ursula was devoted to her cause, courageous, brilliant; a fighter for the rights of the oppressed; an unassailable foe of all things Nazi and fascist; a spy who escaped overwhelming dangers at every turn and succeeded at every mission of her career. But the same Agent Sonya was instrumental in providing the Soviet Union the information it needed to quickly catch up to America in the race for the development of nuclear power and preeminence. Without her participation, it’s quite likely that Russia would not have been able to pull off the most daring and world-changing spying coup of the twentieth century.
Ursula Kuczynski was a German Jew who grew up a product of privilege and wealth. Her father was a well-known and highly respected left-leaning scholar. But even as a teenager, Ursula moved far to the left of her father’s rather gentle left wing positions. She was moved by the works of Marx and Engels, the tenets of communism, and the plight of the oppressed, the poor, and the underprivileged. At the age of sixteen, she participated in a demonstration organized by a communist youth group. While she marched, she was pulled out of her place and savagely beaten with a rubber truncheon by a fascist brownshirt policeman. Her destiny was determined; she must work tirelessly for the rest of her life to destroy the German power structure, fascism, and capitalism. And that is precisely what she did.
By the mid-1930s, being a communist spy was virtually synonymous with being an implacable enemy of Hitler, Naziism, and the perceived evils of capitalism. Her first assignment was to move to Shanghai in order to spy on and resist the power and cruelty of the reigning Chinese Nationalist government — which also meant delivering useful information to the still-small rogue army of one Mao Tse-tung. She performed immaculately in that role despite the immediate threats posed by the Chinese government and anti-communist spies, especially those from Japan.
Soviet authorities were impressed by her work and sent her to Japanese-controlled Manchuria, where she continued her work on the Soviet Union’s behalf. Then, prior to and during World War II, she was assigned to Switzerland, a neutral country where spies from around the world congregated. After narrowly escaping with her life from Switzerland, she moved to England with her two young children, where she became one of Russia’s most formidable spies and couriers.
As all the Allies put into practice the old adage that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, much of the spying she did for Russia was also immensely helpful to Great Britain and America. So while she lived the apparently innocent life of a plain English housewife and mother, a country lady, she provided invaluable contributions to the successes of numerous Allied strategies, plans, and actions. But besides being a contributor, she was a conspirator. She made sure that Russia profited as much or more from the secrets she exposed than the Western Allies. What a tangled web….
It was England that first used its scientists to explore the possible wartime uses of nuclear weapons, but upon sharing their plans and experiments with America, it soon became clear that the U.S. would assume the leadership role in the actual development of the atomic bomb. Meanwhile, Ursula, now Ursula Burton because of her second and final marriage, had developed a huge network of brilliant communist spies in England, and she worked day and night to procure for Russia virtually all the plans and documents for the development of the bomb. She had added Klaus Fuchs, a surpassingly brilliant young pro-communist German scientist, into her spy network. England had sent him to America to work on the Manhattan Project. He knew everything. And he transmitted everything to Russia via Agent Sonya, the plain English country housewife and mom, Ursula Burton.
But the British and American spy systems were also hard at work, and despite their uncomfortable wartime alliances, they hated everything about communism — a stance that was more than understandable given the horrors perpetrated by Stalin on his own people and even many of his close associates; his paranoia knew no bounds. So after the war, with the birth of a new and different kind of war, a Cold War, Ursula could feel the web of Western spies closing in on her. Just in time to elude capture, she and her children moved to East German Berlin, where her husband joined them later. She lived in Berlin for the rest of her life. She did not love her life there, but she was, for the most part, beloved by the East German power structure and, of course, their Soviet masters.
She had, after all, accomplished miracles for them. She was devastated when the communist government collapsed because all she had believed in and cherished had vanished. Yet she knew she had done her job: she had done her part in insuring that the capitalist imperialist United States would not be able to assume worldwide hegemony — Russia had the bomb. She had also done all that one human being could do to bring down Hitler and his party of monsters. She had survived. Hitler and his party had not.
Incredibly, in 1956, Ursula changed her name one more time and changed her vocation as well. She became Ruth Werner, best-selling novelist. Many of her books were thinly veiled autobiographical memoirs, and in 1977, she actually published her autobiography, though it was heavily censored by the autocratic and very stodgy East German authorities. The book, however, probably did offer enough information about her life that it read something like a movie script that had gone to absurd lengths to portray the adventures of “Agent Sonya, Soviet Spy.”
Macintyre also generously provides us with a stunning short summary of Ursula’s life and careers: “….mother, housewife, novelist, expert radio technician, spymaster, courier, saboteur, bomb maker, Cold Warrior, and secret agent…”
Ursula Kuczynski Burton’s career quite simply put James Bond and his adventures to shame. But unlike 007, she was the real thing.
Review by Jack Kramer.
Please note: This review was first published on Bookreporter.com.