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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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Ben Macintyre's latest work highlights the exploits of a female spymaster for the USSR.

Over the decades, author Ben Macintyre has developed a niche for himself, relating little-known yet intriguing stories of individuals who devoted their lives to espionage. His latest work, Agent Sonya, is squarely in his wheelhouse, following the life and adventures of Ursula Kuczynski, aka "Sonya," in her evolution from a 16-year-old German communist sympathizer to the spy responsible for providing the Soviets with the technology to develop a nuclear bomb.

Kuczynski was an extraordinary, multi-faceted woman who chose to dedicate herself to the Soviet communist cause. As the author states, she was "a mother, housewife, novelist, expert radio technician, spymaster, courier, saboteur, bomb maker, Cold Warrior, and secret agent, all at the same time." She had three children by three different men, traveled the world at the orders of Soviet intelligence, and was awarded an honorary rank of Colonel in the Red Army.

Beginning her espionage career in Shanghai in 1930, Kuczynski took on increasingly complex (not to mention dangerous) assignments in China, Switzerland and Great Britain. She ultimately became the USSR's station chief in England. She recruited a number of spies and provided important material to her Soviet handlers; her most impactful role was in obtaining and transmitting technical information from German refugee Klaus Fuchs (a nuclear scientist) during and after World War II.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Kuczynski's story is that while MI5 (the domestic section of the British military intelligence service) long suspected her of espionage, they never did much to curtail her activities. Both her father Richard and her brother Jürgen, who had also immigrated to England, were much higher on the government's radar. They were indeed communist sympathizers, had deep connections within the British intellectual and expat communities, and were, in fact, funneling information into the USSR's British spy network; MI5 simply didn't seem to understand that the person managing the spy ring was an attractive young mother of three. She succeeded in running the operation until Fuchs confessed to his covert activities and was arrested in 1950, at which time she fled to East Germany out of concern that she would be exposed.

Obscure aspects of WWII have always held a lot of appeal for me, and as a result I've long been a fan of Macintyre's books. They're invariably well-researched and entertaining, and Agent Sonya is no exception. The author's descriptions of Kuczynski's work and motivations are straightforward yet detailed, providing a vivid picture of this woman who played a pivotal role in world history.

While this book is an excellent addition to Macintyre's catalog, at times I felt it wasn't quite up to the level of some of his other works. Most notably, the narrative pace seems uneven; there are large sections where it bogs down, especially when the author highlights Kuczynski's "co-workers," detailing each person's past and their own motives for pursuing spycraft. These paragraphs are interesting and necessary for a full understanding of Kuczynski's situation and the dangers she faced, but they slow the movement of events. I still enjoyed the book, but the author has set a high bar for himself with his other work and it falls just a hair short of his best.

Agent Sonya will probably appeal most to readers with a penchant for WWII and Cold War history as well as those who appreciate a traditional non-fiction approach to books in this genre. Macintyre's fans will want to add this one to their libraries, and those new to his writing likely won't be disappointed.

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in November 2020, and has been updated for the August 2021 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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