'An Impeccable Spy' book cover Image Credit: Supplied

Impeccable Spy: Richard Sorge, Stalin’s Master Agent

By Owen Matthews, Bloomsbury, 448 pages, £25

Unlike Kim Philby, whose dramatic life as a Soviet agent seems endlessly fascinating to the British public, Richard Sorge’s story is virtually unknown, at least in the English-speaking world. He had many traits in common with Philby, only to a greater degree. Dashingly handsome, he relieved the tensions of leading a life of deception and betrayal with wild motorbike rides, serial seduction and evenings of paralytic alcoholism. He also outdid Philby in the range of his espionage exploits. Whereas Philby’s most important work for Moscow came during the early years of the Cold War while hiding in plain sight in the easy-going Anglo-American establishment into which he was born, Sorge penetrated two touchy and xenophobic elites, the Nazi party and the Japanese court.

From his vantage point in Tokyo in the most crucial years of the Second World War, he sent Moscow details of Hitler’s preparations for invading the Soviet Union in 1941 as well as a running commentary on the arguments within the Japanese imperial government about whether to attack to the north, in other words Siberia (which Hitler wanted his Japanese allies to do), or to the south (the direction Japan finally chose). The son of a German businessman and a Russian mother, Sorge was radicalised as a student in the revolutionary period in Germany after the country’s defeat in the First World War. He became a communist and volunteered to work first for the Comintern, the Moscow-led alliance of international communist parties, and later for Soviet military intelligence. After a stint in Shanghai, he moved to Tokyo as a journalist for the Frankfurter Zeitung, for whom he wrote brilliant analyses of current affairs.

But his main job was espionage, and for this he recruited agents within the Japanese political machine as well as Max Clausen, a German radio expert, to transmit his coded messages to Moscow. Sorge’s flamboyant conversation and detailed analysis of diplomacy and politics were as perceptive as his published reports and he was hired by Eugen Ott, the German ambassador in Tokyo, as part of his kitchen cabinet. Sorge joined the Nazi party but used his cover to photocopy secret documents in the embassy. One problem was that his reports to Moscow were not always believed. Stalin felt the warning that Sorge (along with other secret Soviet informants) gave of Operation Barbarossa, the impending German attack on the USSR, was based on British disinformation aimed at breaking the Nazi-Soviet alliance. Another problem was that Clausen gradually became disillusioned with communism and started to suppress parts of Sorge’s coded cables that he was supposed to transmit to Moscow.

Sorge recognised that Hitler’s invasion of the USSR was a major blunder for the Nazis, and he came close to revealing his true loyalties by shouting in front of his German colleagues that the idiot had lost the war. He had greater success in signalling the inevitability of war between the US and Japan three months before it happened. He did not predict the assault on Pearl Harbor but his report on Japan’s decisive shift of focus to conquests in the south allowed Stalin not to move troops to Siberia but make them available to block the Germans from moving further east into Russia. Unlike Philby — the last big difference — Sorge did not escape arrest when he was finally unmasked. He was detained by the Japanese and executed in 1944 after a long trial. He confessed to being a Soviet agent (to Ambassador Ott’s horror and disbelief) but based his fruitless defence on the claim that he never intended to undermine Japanese security. He was merely trying to avert war between Japan and the Soviet Union. His willingness to cooperate with the authorities was based in part on his desire to protect his long-term Japanese girlfriend, Hanako Ishii. It was an expression of his loyalty and the prosecution was impressed. Hanako was not put on trial and lived to a ripe old age. Sorge’s is the tale of a deeply flawed chancer who lived his private and public life very close to the edge but who held fast to his ideological convictions, in spite of many moments of depression and loneliness. It deserves a wider audience than it has had so far. There are few books in English on Sorge, the best being Stalin’s Spy by my former Guardian colleague, Robert Whymant (1996). He had the advantage of interviewing people who knew Sorge intimately, including Ishii and one of Sorge’s German girlfriends. Coming later when no witnesses remained alive, Owen Matthews builds on Whymant’s material, as well as on a formidable archive. A Russian-speaker, he also uses several Russians’ memoirs. He tells the dramatic story well, not least the final twist. In the Brezhnev and Andropov eras in the 1970s and 80s, Sorge became a Soviet hero with a flood of books about him, even though he had been totally abandoned in 1944 when he was arrested in Tokyo. He had hoped the Soviet authorities would press the Japanese to let him go back to Moscow, but the Kremlin betrayed the man who had done so much for it. No effort was made to save him.

–Guardian News & Media Ltd