Books

An impeccable new biography of Richard Sorge, one of Russia's master spies

by Kris Kosaka

Contributing Writer

A flawed man but a flawless spy, Richard Sorge’s undercover efforts in Tokyo for the Soviet Union during World War II changed history. Despite supplying definitive intelligence that stopped the Nazi advance toward Moscow, he was abandoned in 1941 by his masters in Sugamo Prison and denounced by Soviet officials until the 1960s.

An impeccable Spy: Richard Sorge, Stalin’s Master Agent, by Owen Matthews.
448 pages
BLOOMSBURY PUBLISHING, Nonfiction.

Sorge’s story remains largely unknown to the Western world, but that’s likely to change with a remarkable new biography, “An Impeccable Spy: Richard Sorge, Stalin’s Master Agent,” by Owen Matthews, published March 21 by Bloomsbury Publishing.

Matthews, a half-Russian, half-British journalist and historian, researched Sorge for five years while working as Newsweek’s bureau chief in Moscow and Istanbul, and draws extensively on Soviet military archives and modern Russian scholarship in addition to existing English, Japanese and German sources. It’s the first comprehensive English biography on the spy in 20 years, and the first to include Russian sources.

“It’s the mad tragedy of Sorge I reveal in this book,” Matthews tells The Japan Times in a recent interview. “He was among the greatest spies of the century, and yet his masters didn’t use or believe his extraordinary material because they were too busy in the chaos of Stalinist paranoia staying alive or denouncing each other.”

The narrative delivers on several fronts. It enthralls as a comprehensive study of Sorge, a Soviet operative active in China, and then Japan, until his execution in 1944 Tokyo. Born into a bourgeoisie family with a Russian mother and German father, Sorge changed toward socialism after the “slaughterhouse” of World War I. His progression from decorated veteran to resourceful spy, an accomplished journalist and drunk womanizer, ruthlessly manipulative yet undeniably dedicated to his communist beliefs, captivates with its Shakespearean highs and lows of humanity.

Piecing together Sorge’s prison journals with various primary source observations of the man one contemporary called “a strange combination of charm and brutality,” Matthews sketches a detailed portrait of this compelling enigma. As he describes in the introduction, “Sorge often spoke of himself as a romantic hero, a robber-knight from German romantic poetry. In truth, he was one of those lonely deciders who haunt the fringes of the political desert, a man always destined to carry the burden of superior knowledge and higher motives than the lesser humans who surround him.”

Matthews admits, “I had always been fascinated by Sorge because he’s so atypical in the world of Soviet heroes. He’s a foreigner who became a Russian-approved legend with a personality cult created around him by the authorities when they needed a ‘good’ German because the Berlin Wall was being built.” Today, only two countries remember Sorge. Russia, where streets, a park and a ship are named after him, and Japan — the Russian Embassy School in Tokyo bears his name and hundreds of scholarly books bear witness to his story.

More than just the study of one man, however, Matthews’ work resonates due to his meticulous recreation of the people and contexts that colored Sorge’s wild orbit, including his key Japanese agent, Hotsumi Ozaki, who died immediately before him on the hangman’s rope. Other crucial actors, like ring members Branko Vukelic, Max Clausen or Yotoku Miyagi; the German Ambassador, Eugen Ott, Sorge’s close friend and unwitting partner in espionage and Hanako Ishii, his Japanese mistress, all come alive, surrounded by intriguing players that span the globe.

A thorough historian, Matthews shades in the 1919 Germany in which Sorge inspired sailors to rise up in socialist brotherhood, their communist hearts breaking when the working class embraced extreme nationalism instead.

Matthews also depicts the coffee spoons and opium fumes in the alleyways of 1930s Shanghai, the skulking side streets of spy-wary, impetuously unstable military Japan, and goes behind-the-scenes in Moscow as its authoritarian leader, paranoid and power-mad, gradually ascends to absolute dominion through show trials and manipulation. It’s an absorptive read into the political past with uncomfortable parallels to our present.

Crediting the work of historians before him, including “extensively researched Japanese scholarship,” Matthews definitively delivers the Soviet perspective. He modestly admits, “a large amount of the material is lying in plain sight in Russia, quite accessible. There are certain things that you would think would be incredibly sensitive or impossible to access, for instance the correspondence between the Soviet military intelligence and its agents in the field. In fact, if you just ask for it, it’s there in the Russian military archives.”

Peppered with coincidental asides — how, unknown to Matthews, his father contributed to an early Sorge biography or that the author lived above one of Sorge’s superiors in modern Moscow — the book also entertains. Add Matthews’ journalistic eye for detail, historian’s emphasis on context and creative turn of phrase (his first fictional thriller will be released this summer) and it’s no wonder it was named one of The Times’ of London’s most anticipated nonfiction books of 2019.

As Matthews points out, Sorge “became a victim of his own extraordinary success.” Above the seismic undertows of shifting global powers, Sorge and his spy ring not only gathered information, they also influenced the highest levels of government. Long heralded in the espionage world, Sorge may finally gain recognition with a wider audience. It’s about time, thanks to this impeccable new biography.

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