Ursula Kuczynski: wife, mother and the best spy of all time | Culture

Ursula Kuczynski, aka Ruth Werner, alias Agent Sonya She was a Red Army officer, radio communication expert, saboteur, first-rate spy, and highly successful writer. He did it all while raising his family, a situation that was his perfect alibi and also a fatal trap. If its story is not known, it is because until now it has not been told. “Today there is much talk about how to reconcile work and family, but the case of Ursula Kuczynski occurred on a completely different scale. His job was deadly. If he failed, he would die and so would his family. She had a great capacity to compartmentalize, something good spies do, but she recognized that if it had come to a conflict between her family and the revolution she would have chosen the revolution. In many ways she was a communist fanatic. Being a woman has been her great disguise, but also the reason why we did not know anything about her ”, the historian Ben Macintyre reflects by telephone from somewhere in the United Kingdom, who has just published in Spain Agent Sonya (Review).

The second of six children of a wealthy Jewish family, Kuczynski (Berlin 1907-2000) matured in Germany in which the battle between the extreme right and the left was being fought. At the age of 19, he joined the German Communist Party and made a commitment that he would never abandon. In 1930 she escaped growing pressure from the Nazi militias and settled in troubled Shanghai with her first husband, the architect Rudi Hamburguer. There he met the spy Richard Sorge, with whom he had a brief and intense affair and of whom he would carry a photo forever. He gave her his nom de guerre and hooked her into that existence of secrets and loyalties. When he was imprisoned in Japan after one of the most impressive careers in spy history, he never revealed Ursula’s identity. “All spies are convinced that they are working for the highest ideals, but then it is always much more complicated than that. Spying is complex and addictive. The secret is a very powerful drug. Once you are part of this elite it is very difficult to leave him and she was also very ambitious. Obviously, if you work for the Soviets there is a practical element: if you leave it, they will probably kill you ”, comments the author of Spy and traitor.

Ursula Kuczynski, now retired, with officials from the East German Ministry of State Security.
Ursula Kuczynski, now retired, with officials from the East German Ministry of State Security.BArch, fig

Macintyre (Oxford, 57 years old) is one of the great storytellers in the history of espionage, but he confesses that he has never encountered such a case. “What makes her different from any other spy I have come across is that she is a professional. He chose intelligence work as a career, as a vocation. Most of the female spies worked for men on subsidiary missions or as informants. There are really very few who have become officers and I do not know any who have been a colonel in the Red Army. And nobody has come that far in any intelligence service, “he sums up. Extremely adept at erasing her tracks, Sonya escaped in her long career from the Gestapo, the Chinese nationalist police, the Japanese Kempeitai and, during her stay in England as a refugee in World War II, also from British counterintelligence. “MI5 reports are very funny. The men systematically belittled her and failed time and again to identify this woman who was taking care of their children, wearing an apron and was cooking a birthday cake when they went to question her, with someone who might be the perfect spy. And she exploited that advantage as much as possible, “says Macintyre, amused. In defense of MI5, it must be said that despite the “incompetence and chauvinism” of many of its members, Agent Milicent Bagot insisted over and over again that Ursula and the rest of her family who lived there (especially her father and his brother) were Communist spies. She was right, but she was a woman and nobody paid any attention to her.

(Restricted rights for certain editorial clients in Germany. Limited rights for specific editorial clients in Germany.) Richard Sorge, German communist and a key Soviet spy, journalist, during his stay in Japan, around 1938 (Photo by ullstein bild via Getty Images)

The ignored spy who made Stalin win the war

Kuczynski had, however, a more formidable enemy: his own employers. Agent Sonya survived the Stalinist terror that wiped out much of Soviet espionage – including several of her friends and colleagues – a ghoulish whistle-blower and assassination party that led to the arrest of 1.5 million people. and the execution of more than 680,000 in two years. Macintyre believes that there were two reasons for this: his enormous capacity to generate loyalty –– “is an essential part of the spy’s job, getting others to trust you and convincing them that their future depends on their loyalty to you” –– and the most extraordinary of luck. “He fought where many others perished. For multiple reasons, he had a good chance of ending up with a shot in the neck in the cellars of the Lubyanka.

Ursula Kuczynski, with her husband Rudi Hamburger in Shanghai in 1934, shortly before their separation.
Ursula Kuczynski, with her husband Rudi Hamburger in Shanghai in 1934, shortly before their separation.Hamburger Family Archive

Among Sonya’s countless achievements in Switzerland, China, Japanese-occupied Manchuria, or the United Kingdom, her handling of Klaus’ betrayal stands out. Otto Fuchs, a highly regarded physicist, member of the Manhattan Project, and communist spy. A reflection of the commitment of his double life, Kuczynski had his third child in 1943, a few days after having sent from his home in the English countryside to Moscow the last part of the 570 pages with essential information on the British nuclear program, a espionage success that advanced the Soviet project several years, balanced forces and gave way to the Cold War.

In 1950, MI5 recognized that Kuczynski set up a network of agents on its territory, but they minimize the effects of his infiltration. They still do not admit that “that woman so busy with domestic affairs” and fond of long bike rides (which she used to meet her informants) was the great spy she seemed to be. Kuczynski had already returned to her native Germany, to enjoy what she saw as a communist paradise and to live with her second husband Len and their three children. Outside of espionage, from 1956 on she became a famous writer under the name Ruth Werner. In 1969 he received the second Red Flag of the Soviet Union. He had doubts, fears, he lived a life of pain and loss, dedicated to a cause, but he never regretted what he had done.

“Ursula’s children idolized her, did not trust her at all and wondered to what extent they knew her,” Macintyre summarizes in Agent Sonya. Peter, Michael and Nina were the result of three different relationships, they always felt loved and cared for, but they ignored their mother’s work for part of their lives. Like the rest of the world, who only now knows what is perhaps the best spy in history.

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