Summary and book reviews of Agent Sonya by Ben Macintyre

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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About this Book

Book Summary

The "master storyteller" (San Francisco Chronicle) behind the New York Times bestseller The Spy and the Traitor uncovers the true story behind the Cold War's most intrepid female spy.

In 1942, in a quiet village in the leafy English Cotswolds, a thin, elegant woman lived in a small cottage with her three children and her husband, who worked as a machinist nearby. Ursula Burton was friendly but reserved, and spoke English with a slight foreign accent. By all accounts, she seemed to be living a simple, unassuming life. Her neighbors in the village knew little about her.

They didn't know that she was a high-ranking Soviet intelligence officer. They didn't know that her husband was also a spy, or that she was running powerful agents across Europe. Behind the facade of her picturesque life, Burton was a dedicated Communist, a Soviet colonel, and a veteran agent, gathering the scientific secrets that would enable the Soviet Union to build the bomb.

This true-life spy story is a masterpiece about the woman code-named "Sonya." Over the course of her career, she was hunted by the Chinese, the Japanese, the Nazis, MI5, MI6, and the FBI—and she evaded them all. Her story reflects the great ideological clash of the twentieth century—between Communism, Fascism, and Western democracy—and casts new light on the spy battles and shifting allegiances of our own times.

With unparalleled access to Sonya's diaries and correspondence and never-before-seen information on her clandestine activities, Ben Macintyre has conjured a page-turning history of a legendary secret agent, a woman who influenced the course of the Cold War and helped plunge the world into a decades-long standoff between nuclear superpowers.

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 ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Before reading Agent Sonya, how much did you know about Ursula Kuczynski, communism, and the Cold War era? Which historical aspects of the book surprised you the most? Did you learn new details about this period in history?
  2. Why do you think Ursula was drawn to and became a champion of the communist cause?
  3. How does this story reflect the great ideological clash of the twentieth century—between communism, fascism, and Western democracy?
  4. Why do you think Ursula became and stayed a spy for so many years, despite all the risks and challenges? What was she drawn to most? Can you imagine ever doing what she did?
  5. What is Ursula's most commendable quality? Her least? Is she someone you would want to have known?
  6. There were many ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

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. 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...continued

Full Review Members Only (580 words).

(Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

Media Reviews

New York Times
Macintyre, the author of numerous books on spies and espionage, has found a real-life heroine worthy of his gifts as John le Carré’s nonfiction counterpart...an enthralling account.

Publishers Weekly
[F]ascinating... Macintyre's richly detailed account, though a bit ponderous at times, shines a new light on two of WWII's most notorious spy rings. Espionage fans will be thrilled.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Drawing from her diaries, correspondences, and extensive interviews with her two adult sons, the author crafts a narrative that serves as both an engrossing historical tale and a compassionate portrait of Sonya as a complex woman with distinctly modern sensibilities for her time...An absorbing study of a remarkably accomplished 20th-century spy.

Library Journal (starred review)
Macintyre has written an insightful portrait of an amazing life. This fast-paced historical account reads like a novel, with surprising twists and turns, and will thrill readers until the very last page. Readers who enjoy the writings of Neal Bascomb or Candice Millard, and fans of historical fiction will relish this book.

Reader Reviews

Esther

Agent Sonya
With thanks to BookBrowse for giving me the chance to read and preview Agent Sonya. While I found the book beautifully written and researched and an interesting look into the world of espionage, I prefer historical fiction or my husband’s spy ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Microdot Technology

Microdot camera In Agent Sonya, Ben Macintyre's account of real-life spy Ursula Kuczynski, several operatives are said to have used microdots, or tiny pieces of film on which miniaturized text is recorded, to smuggle information to the Soviet Union. Still in use today, these diminutive data caches are produced through a specialized photography process and are so small — about the size of a period or a pinhead — they can be concealed just about anywhere.

The process of shrinking photographs to the point where they can only be viewed via magnification is referred to as microphotography (not to be confused with photomicrography, a technique in which pictures are taken using a microscope). British scientific instrument manufacturer John ...

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