Excerpt from Agent Sonya by Ben Macintyre, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Agent Sonya

Moscow's Most Daring Wartime Spy

by Ben Macintyre

Agent Sonya by Ben Macintyre X
Agent Sonya by Ben Macintyre
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2020, 400 pages

    Paperback:
    Jul 2021, 416 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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Chapter 1
Whirl

On May 1, 1924, a Berlin policeman smashed his rubber truncheon into the back of a sixteen-­year-­old girl, and helped to forge a revolutionary.

For several hours, thousands of Berliners had been trooping through the city streets in the May Day parade, the annual celebration of the working classes. Their number included many communists, including a large youth delegation. These wore red carnations, carried placards declaring "Hands Off Soviet Russia," and sang communist songs: "We are the Blacksmiths of the Red Future / Our Spirit is Strong / We Hammer out the Keys to Happiness." The government had banned political demonstrations, and police lined the streets, watching sullenly. A handful of fascist brownshirts gathered on a corner to jeer. Scuffles broke out. A bottle sailed through the air. The communists sang louder.

At the head of the communist youth group marched a slim girl wearing a worker's cap, two weeks short of her seventeenth birthday. This was Ursula Kuczynski's first street demonstration, and her eyes shone with excitement as she waved her placard and belted out the anthem: "Auf, auf, zum Kampf," rise up, rise up for the struggle. They called her "Whirl," and, as she strode along and sang, Ursula performed a little dance of pure joy.

The parade was turning onto Mittelstrasse when the police charged. She remembered a "squeal of car brakes that drowned out the singing, screams, police whistles and shouts of protest. Young people were thrown to the ground, and dragged into trucks." In the tumult, Ursula was sent sprawling on the pavement. She looked up to find a burly policeman towering over her. There were sweat patches under the arms of his green uniform. The man grinned, raised his truncheon, and brought it down with all his force into the small of her back.

Her first sensation was one of fury, followed by the most acute pain she had ever experienced. "It hurt so much I couldn't breathe properly." A young communist friend named Gabo Lewin dragged her into a doorway. "It's all right, Whirl," he said, as he rubbed her back where the baton had struck. "You will get through this." Ursula's group had dispersed. Some were under arrest. But several thousand more marchers were approaching up the wide street. Gabo pulled Ursula to her feet and handed her one of the fallen placards. "I continued with the demonstration," she later wrote, "not knowing yet that it was a decision for life."

Ursula's mother was furious when her daughter staggered home that night, her clothes torn, a livid black bruise spreading across her back.

Berta Kuczynski demanded to know what Ursula was doing, "roaming the streets arm in arm with a band of drunken teenagers and yelling at the top of her voice."

"We weren't drunk and we weren't yelling," Ursula retorted.

"Who are these teenagers?" Berta demanded. "What do you mean by hanging around with these kinds of people?"

" 'These kinds of people' are the local branch of the young communists. I'm a member."

Berta sent Ursula straight to her father's study.

"I respect every person's right to his or her opinion," Robert Kuczynski told his daughter. "But a seventeen-­year-­old girl is not mature enough to commit herself politically. I therefore ask you emphatically to return the membership card and delay your decision a few years."

Ursula had her answer ready. "If seventeen-­year-­olds are old enough to work and be exploited, then they are also old enough to fight against exploitation . . . and that's exactly why I have become a communist."

Robert Kuczynski was a communist sympathizer, and he rather admired his daughter's spirit, but Ursula was clearly going to be a handful. The Kuczynskis might support the struggle of the working classes, but that did not mean they wanted their daughter mixing with them.

Excerpted from Agent Sonya by Ben Macintyre. Copyright © 2020 by Ben Macintyre. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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