The Secret Life of Communist Richard Sorge, Hitler’s Nemesis and the World’s Greatest Spy

One man put a stop to Hitler’s march across Europe: not Stalin, Churchill, or Roosevelt, but a German Communist called Richard Sorge. Sorge was a real-life spy whose exploits surpassed any fictional creation, and one of the twentieth century’s great heroes.

German Communist Richard Sorge, who spent nearly a decade in Tokyo posing as a Nazi to infiltrate Japan’s ruling circles, in Japan around 1938. (Photo by ullstein bild via Getty Images)

For two years between 1939 and 1941, the Wehrmacht swept triumphantly across the capitals of Europe, from Warsaw to Brussels, Copenhagen to Belgrade. The English Channel and the fighters of the Royal Air Force kept German soldiers out of London, but Hitler could pose triumphantly for a photo in front of the Eiffel Tower and ponder razing Paris to the ground. Soon afterward, his troops hoisted the swastika over the Acropolis.

The Nazi conquest of the Balkans cleared the way for Operation Barbarossa in June 1941. In its early stages, the campaign was devastatingly successful, engulfing the western districts of the Soviet Union and reducing the people who lived there to slavery. German armies marched through Kiev and Minsk and placed Leningrad under siege. In the autumn, their commanders launched an offensive that was supposed to capture Moscow, the greatest prize of all.

For Hitler, Moscow was the world capital of his “Judeo-Bolshevik” enemy. The idea of a victory parade through Red Square was intoxicating for the Nazi leadership. With German troops now within striking distance, there was a panicky mood in the Soviet government. Stalin seriously considered evacuating the city, before deciding to hold the line. He appointed a new commander, Georgi Zhukov, to coordinate Moscow’s defense.

Zhukov had a plan for the counteroffensive, but he was desperately short of experienced soldiers. The Red Army’s strongest units not already committed to the struggle were based in the Russian Far East, where they were supposed to guard the frontier against a possible attack by Hitler’s ally Japan. Committing them to the battle for Moscow risked leaving the Soviet Union defenseless on its eastern flank.

Then word came from a German Communist called Richard Sorge who had spent nearly a decade in Tokyo posing as a Nazi so he could infiltrate Japan’s ruling circles. Sorge supplied definitive proof that the Japanese leaders were not planning an attack on the USSR. Fortified by this information, Stalin and Zhukov transferred four hundred thousand crack troops, a thousand tanks, and a thousand planes to the western front. The reinforcements, trained for winter combat, stunned the Wehrmacht and pushed its soldiers back from the outskirts of Moscow.

Although it would be another year before the German defeat at Stalingrad decisively turned the tide, Hitler’s failure to take Moscow was the first major setback for his armies on the battlefield — the point at which their remorseless drive across Europe sputtered to a halt. By the time it happened, the Japanese secret police had finally caught up with Richard Sorge and taken him into custody. They put Sorge on trial for espionage and executed him in November 1944.

According to Sorge’s executioners, he conducted himself with great dignity and went to the gallows calling out three defiant slogans:

Sakigun! Kokusai Kyosanto! Soviet Kyosanto!

Long live the Red Army! Long live the Communist International! Long live the Soviet Communist Party!

Back in the USSR, the NKVD secret police rewarded Sorge for his loyal service in their own inimitable fashion, by arresting his wife.

Master Agent

Unknown at the time of his death, Richard Sorge has now been the subject of books, movies, and other treatments for half a century. British journalist Owen Matthews is the latest author to tackle Sorge’s astonishing career. His publisher has clearly aimed An Impeccable Spy at the seemingly inexhaustible market for works about war and espionage in the twentieth century. It’s a very readable account based on archival research that spans several continents. The book has certain flaws, but a lack of due diligence is not one of them.

The biography’s subtitle describes its subject as “Stalin’s master agent,” a rather misleading label that has been hanging round Sorge’s neck for a long time. The 1973 British documentary series The World at War refers to one individual spy in the course of its twenty-six-hour duration: the narrator doesn’t mention Sorge by name, simply describing him as “Stalin’s master spy.” In his book The Third Reich at War, historian Richard Evans notes the crucial role of “Richard Sorge, Stalin’s spy in Tokyo” in facilitating the defense of Moscow.

It is true, of course, that Sorge ended his life working for a state and movement that had Stalin as its unquestioned leader. But his fundamental loyalty was to communism and world revolution rather than Stalin himself. He joined the Communist movement in his native Germany when the Soviet Union had a collective leadership in which Vladimir Lenin was first among equals. As Matthews goes on to show, there is some reason to think he remained loyal to that movement in spite of Stalin’s rise to power rather than because of it.

The opening chapters of An Impeccable Spy give a vivid account of Sorge’s path toward communism. He was born in Azerbaijan in 1895, the son of a German drilling engineer who had gone to work in the nascent oil industry. Baku was a hotbed of working-class militancy at the time, but Sorge would not have been exposed to such influences: his family lived in a prosperous suburb, spoke German, not Russian, and moved back to Berlin when he was four. The only hint in Sorge’s background of his future trajectory was a great-uncle who had taken part in the failed 1848 revolution and later worked with Karl Marx in the International Working Men’s Association.

However, the real source of Sorge’s political outlook was his experience as a soldier during the First World War. He signed up as a naive German patriot in search of adventure and came out as a hardened left-wing radical. The army gave him the Iron Cross and a medical discharge after his third, near-fatal injury on the eastern front. His fellow soldiers supplied him with a crash course in socialist ideas, which he supplemented by reading the work of Marx, Engels, and Rudolf Hilferding while recovering in the hospital. As Sorge later recalled while awaiting execution: “I decided not only to support the movement theoretically but to become an actual part of it.”

The Making of a Revolutionary

Over the next few years, Sorge lived through the kinds of events that would leave an indelible mark on most people, let alone a man who was still in his twenties. First, he went to Kiel in the dying days of the war, where he witnessed a sailors’ mutiny and joined the left-wing Independent Social Democrats. Then Sorge and his comrades travelled to Berlin but arrived too late to participate in the doomed Spartacist uprising. Soon afterward, he enlisted in the newly formed Communist Party of Germany (KPD) and became an agitator for the party in Hamburg and Aachen.

While he was in Aachen, the workers’ movement had to mobilize against the right-wing Kapp Putsch, and the KPD helped bring out the miners of the Ruhr as part of a nationwide general strike. The Ruhr movement soon developed into something more than a purely defensive operation, with left-wing militias disarming government troops. The Social Democrats who held power in Berlin sent in the army and the right-wing Freikorps to crush the insurrection, having already deployed the same forces against the Spartacists the previous year. Once again, there was a grisly bloodbath, with countless summary executions.

Sorge continued his work for the KPD over the following years, which required him to learn the techniques of clandestine work. He may have belonged to the party’s underground military wing at some point, although Matthews was unable to find definitive proof. He lived the eclectic life of a revolutionary cadre, working in the mines and writing a pamphlet about Rosa Luxemburg’s The Accumulation of Capital.

In 1924, Sorge had to take charge of security for a group of Soviet delegates attending the KPD congress in Frankfurt. This proved to be a turning point in his life as a communist. One of the delegates, Osip Piatnitsky, a senior official of the Communist International, found Sorge impressive and recruited him to work in Moscow. If Sorge had remained in Germany, he would surely have been co-opted at some point to join the KPD’s leading bodies, ruling out a future career in espionage. His passage to Moscow meant that his public record was comparatively bare.

After several years of diligent work for the Comintern’s International Communications Section, Sorge found himself on the wrong side of a factional power struggle, accused with three German comrades of backing Stalin’s last major rival, Nikolai Bukharin. However, the Soviet intelligence chief Jan Berzin soon gave him an opportunity to work for the cause in a different way. Berzin asked Sorge to sign up as an agent for the Red Army’s Fourth Department, which was responsible for foreign intelligence. Twelve years later, the citizens of Moscow would have reason to feel grateful that he accepted the offer.

Fish in the Water

When he asks what Berzin saw in his new recruit, Matthews strikes something of a false note: “Sorge was no pigeon-chested, bespectacled Comintern bookworm. He was a former soldier, a strong, tough man who had shovelled coal and brawled with reactionary thugs in Aachen.” Elsewhere, he contrasts Sorge with the “self-selected champions of the proletariat” who can be seen in Comintern group photos of the 1920s: “Soberly dressed, peering through angry little glasses, they resemble indignant librarians more than tough street fighters.”

The contrast Matthews wants to draw here, between men of letters and men of action, doesn’t really fit the period about which he’s writing. In an age of war and revolution, direct experience of combat was far more common than would be the case in Europe today, and radical intellectuals had few opportunities to retreat into an academic cloister. When Jan Berzin began his stint in the Red Army, its commander was Leon Trotsky, a man of great intellectual distinction who was also a capable military strategist. The “indignant librarians” of the early Comintern spent much of their lives in prison or in exile, and many of them would not live to retirement age.

When it came to Sorge in particular, it was his brains rather than his brawn that proved vital to his success as a spy. The main physical attributes he brought to the task were his good looks and his war injury, which helped forge a sense of camaraderie with fellow German veterans. He created a persona that was really an alternate version of Sorge himself — the man he might have become had he not embraced Marxism in his early twenties. Throughout his time as a Fourth Department spy, he posed as a respectable journalist, with bylines in the Frankfurter Zeitung and other influential publications. Over time, he established himself as one of the leading German authorities on the politics of East Asia.

Soviet intelligence would later acquire a somewhat mystical reputation, personified by John le Carré’s fictional spymaster Karla: a cunning, ruthless, implacable figure, weaving webs over the course of decades while his opponents could only think in weeks and months. But the real secret of its success lay elsewhere. In its early years, the Soviet intelligence network received an extraordinary windfall because of the association between its state and the cause of world revolution. Most spy agencies have to rely on their own nationals to act out of personal conviction, only acquiring the service of foreigners through bribery or blackmail. The Soviet Union had the rare privilege of enlisting men like Sorge, who carried the passport of its enemies while flying the red flag in their hearts.

Just consider the main Soviet intelligence assets at the time of Operation Barbarossa. Sorge was keeping tabs on Germany’s most important ally in Tokyo. From Switzerland, the Hungarian Alexander Radó coordinated one spy network that reached into German territory; from France and the Low Countries, the Pole Leopold Trepper took charge of another. Radó and Trepper were both Jewish, amplifying their motivation for engaging in this perilous work. Meanwhile, in the heart of the British Empire, five young Cambridge graduates had penetrated every corner of the secret state, from MI5 to the codebreaking center at Bletchley Park.

One thing united Sorge, Radó, and Trepper with scions of the British establishment like Kim Philby and Donald Maclean: a passionate belief in communism. It was their ideological commitment that motivated them to spend years or even decades putting on a mask to everyone they encountered, apart from the occasional Soviet handler. Those who were previously active in the Communist movement had also gained invaluable experience in the art of conspiracy, as Trepper noted in his book The Great Game: “As communist militants, we had learned to be like fish in the water everywhere; intelligence work requires the same ease, the same imagination.”

Eastern Approaches

Sorge had the first opportunity to try out his journalistic cover story in Shanghai as part of a clandestine spy cell. He brought with him a batch of commissions to produce material on China for German trade papers and research institutes. Compared with Sorge’s later mission in Tokyo, Shanghai was a much softer nut for an agent to crack. The International Settlement under Euro-American control ruled over much of the city, and there were several competing police forces. In any case, so many foreigners had taken up residence that it was impossible for the authorities to keep track of them all.

Richard Sorge in Japan, year unknown. (ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Within a few weeks of his arrival, Sorge was already sending back valuable information to Jan Berzin about the plans of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist government for an offensive against the Chinese Communist Party. His main sources were German military officials advising the Nationalist army. For his new acquaintances, Sorge wasn’t just a reporter whose pronounced limp bore reassuring witness to his military background. He was also an attractive social companion with a taste for the high life. Throughout his years in China and Japan, Sorge would show people a good time: in return, they would show him what was happening behind the scenes, often without realizing they were doing so.

After spending almost three years in Shanghai, Sorge returned to Moscow for debriefing. Jan Berzin was very pleased with his track record, as Matthews observes:

He had managed not to blow his cover; none of his Chinese comrades had been arrested and shot. Sorge had left the Shanghai rezidentura with more agents, more radios and better informers than he had found when he arrived. Best of all, from [Moscow] Centre’s point of view, Sorge’s alias as a respected German journalist had emerged untainted by any hint of communist sympathy.

Now Berzin directed him to use that alias for a more challenging mission. Soviet intelligence had virtually no foothold in Japan. The Japanese authorities kept all foreigners under tight surveillance and encouraged ordinary citizens to do the same. Sorge would have to create a Soviet spy ring from scratch. Extraordinarily, he managed to do so while remaining undetected for the best part of a decade.

Behaving Impeccably

Matthews draws the title of his book from a comment made by Kim Philby about Sorge’s mission to Japan: “In this whole unbelievably complex situation he behaved impeccably.” Speaking to his Soviet biographer Genrikh Borovik in the 1980s, Philby was clearly in awe of Sorge’s craftmanship:

It’s one thing when an agent works in his own country, in a familiar environment, and quite another when he has to operate in an unfamiliar country, and besides in a country like Japan, where a European doesn’t have a chance to get lost in a crowd; he can’t conceal himself, can’t even get a check-up inconspicuously as I did in London. His actions — walking into a cinema, leaving before the film ends, getting in the Underground and dashing out of the door before the train leaves, transferring from one taxi to another and other such customary techniques — would have attracted the attention of dozens or hundreds of people.

Sorge made things a little easier for himself by returning to Germany first so he could obtain some letters of introduction for German and Japanese diplomats. The Nazis had just taken power, and witnessing the unbridled terror directed against the German workers’ movement, including Sorge’s KPD comrades, must have served as a booster shot for his sense of political purpose. His own presence in Berlin was a calculated risk. Sorge applied to join the Nazi Party, realizing it would open doors for his intelligence work, but knew this would require a background check. Fortunately, the Gestapo found no evidence of his communist associations in the police files.

At the heart of Sorge’s network was a triangular relationship between three men: Sorge himself, Eugen Ott, and Hotsumi Ozaki. Ott was a military attaché serving in Japan who eventually became the German ambassador in 1938. He established a close friendship with Sorge and had no idea of his true allegiance until he was already in police custody. Ozaki, on the other hand, was fully aware of Sorge’s communist sympathies, which he shared.

They had first become acquainted in Shanghai, where Ozaki was working as a correspondent for the prestigious Asahi Shimbun newspaper. He did some intelligence work for Sorge before his employer recalled him to Japan. Ozaki’s journalistic credentials would prove invaluable: soon after Sorge made contact again, the Asahi Shimbun’s editor-in-chief asked Ozaki to join a think tank called the East Asia Problems Investigation Association, where he mixed with senior government officials and was privy to high-level discussions.

Sorge became a middleman, feeding information back and forth between Ott and Ozaki, helping both to rise up the professional ladder. He made himself so useful to Germany’s diplomatic staff that he eventually acquired a desk at the embassy. His well-informed articles, drawing on information he had received from Ott, Ozaki, and other sources, earned him a solid reputation in the German press. All the while, his bosses in Moscow had a regular flow of invaluable, top-secret material.

A Failure of Comprehension

This brief summary can’t do justice to the drama and complexity of Sorge’s Japanese mission. Matthews has done a fine job with the raw material: while it seems trite to say that his book reads like a first-rate spy thriller, the comparison is unavoidable, and the author has a real talent for evoking the worlds in which Sorge was operating. The main weakness of the book is its flawed reconstruction of the ideological universe that Sorge and other Communist spies inhabited.

It is the account of the Seventh Congress of the Comintern in 1935 that really stands out for a baffling failure of comprehension on the author’s part. Sorge was in Moscow at the time of the gathering, having travelled with fake identity papers via the United States and Europe, although his bosses sensibly denied him permission to meet up with old comrades for fear of exposure. Matthews claims that the Seventh Congress spawned a rebellion against Stalin’s leadership:

Bulgarian party leader Georgy Dimitrov and his Italian counterpart Palmiro Togliatti insisted on a new policy of forming “popular fronts” with fellow leftists — as opposed to only “united fronts” with Soviet-approved workers’ parties. They were backed in this act of political suicide by [Dmitry] Manuilsky. The scheme, heretical to Stalinists, was overwhelmingly approved by the delegates . . . to Stalin, any movement not under his direct control was an anathema. By backing popular fronts, the Comintern had, in effect, signed its own death warrant. Stalin was already plotting the destruction of its leadership. The Seventh Congress was to be the Comintern’s last.

Matthews doesn’t offer a source for this interpretation, and it is difficult to know where he might have picked it up. Although Dimitrov and Togliatti were indeed responsible for theorizing the Popular Front strategy, they did so with the explicit sanction of Stalin, who retained the power of veto over every comma. The French and Spanish Communists went on to apply the Popular Front line with the Soviet leader’s blessing, without which there could have been no such alliances.

The nature of the Comintern by that stage of its history made any public defiance of Stalin inconceivable, however short-lived it might have been. If Dimitrov and Togliatti had not recognized the hard limits in which they had to function, they would certainly not have remained the leaders of their respective parties until after the Second World War. The countless executions of foreign communists in the USSR during the late 1930s were an offshoot of the wider purge that Stalin orchestrated. They had nothing to do with the outcome of the Seventh Congress.

This touches directly on a central issue about Richard Sorge: did he become disillusioned not with the ideals that inspired him to become a spy but with the Soviet Union as the embodiment of those ideals? We can’t blame Matthews for not supplying a definitive answer to this question, since the evidence is incomplete. However, he could have shed more light upon it by taking a wider look at the dilemmas that Sorge’s generation of communists had to face.

Doubts and Disillusionment

There are two nuggets of information about Sorge himself. The first is an account of his meeting with an old friend, the Finnish communist Niilo Virtanen, in August 1935. It comes second hand from another Finnish communist, Aino Kuusinen, who spent many years in a Soviet prison on trumped-up charges. As Matthews summarizes the encounter:

The two men met at the Bolshaya Moskovskaya Hotel and drank heavily. Virtanen confided his anguish at the destruction of the Comintern and his disillusionment with Stalin. Sorge, in turn, admitted that he was tired of working as a spy. Virtanen later told Aino that Sorge had complained of wanting to leave the Soviet secret service but was unable to do so.

The Soviet secret police executed Virtanen in 1938; he was officially exonerated half a century later.

It’s hard to be sure what this story tells us about Sorge. What did Virtanen mean when he spoke about “the destruction of the Comintern”? Although the storm clouds were already gathering in Moscow at the time, the Great Purge did not begin in earnest until the following year. If he was referring to the organizational destruction of the Comintern as an independent force, that process had been completed by the end of the 1920s. For his part, Sorge might very well have been “tired of working as a spy” in an operational sense without necessarily harboring political doubts about what he was doing.

The second piece of evidence is Sorge’s refusal to return when the Fourth Department summoned him back to Moscow toward the end of 1936. This act of disobedience saved him from almost certain death. Soviet spies and their handlers were especially vulnerable to the paranoid frenzy of the Stalinist purges, because anything they did could be made to appear suspicious: the nature of their work obliged them to engage in double-dealing and contact with the enemy. The victims included the driving force behind Soviet foreign intelligence, Jan Berzin.

Matthews wonders if Sorge had a premonition of the fate that awaited him, before suggesting a rather different explanation for his behavior:

In a sense, Sorge was protected by his ignorance and isolation. Other agents in Europe who had a closer understanding of the death trap into which they were heading ran for their lives . . . almost all the defectors were hunted down and killed by NKVD assassination squads, some of them after years on the run. . . . Sorge’s own survival came down to the fact that he had neither returned to Moscow nor run.

How much did Sorge know about what was happening in the Soviet Union at the time? Stalin did his best to conceal some aspects of the system from the outside world, such as the ghastly human toll of collectivization, or the death rate in Siberian labor camps. But he proudly advertised the Moscow show trials on the international stage.

It’s hard to imagine that Sorge found the trials convincing. He had met some of the principal defendants such as Karl Radek and Nikolai Bukharin when they were still eminent figures. On close inspection, the prosecution case was riddled with holes. Quite apart from the details, there was one glaring contradiction at the heart of the proceedings. If Trotsky and the other Old Bolsheviks, acting in league with the Soviet Union’s enemies, had successfully honeycombed the entire system with their spies, then how on Earth could Stalin have remained in power?

We know that Sorge had at least one prolonged glimpse at conditions in the USSR under Stalin. In June 1938, a senior NKVD commander, Samuilovich Lyushkov, defected to Japan from the Soviet Far East. Lyushkov had been very active during the purges and knew perfectly well what was likely to happen when his bosses recalled him to Moscow, so he crossed the frontier to save his own skin. A German military official debriefed Lyushkov and wrote a lengthy report, to which Sorge obtained access through his contacts at the embassy. While Lyushkov was hardly a trustworthy figure, Sorge must have realized there was some truth in what he had to say about the dynamic of mass terror.

Nevertheless, Sorge carried on working for the Soviet Union for as long as he could. We can suggest two plausible motivations. On one side of the equation, his close contact with officials of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan would have served as a constant reminder of what those powers were going to unleash upon the world. On the other, Sorge may have told himself that the abuses of the Soviet system did not mean it had degenerated beyond hope of reform. Many other communists of his generation made a similar wager, including fellow spies such as Leopold Trepper and Kim Philby, who have left us with accounts of their thinking at the time.

“Telegrams Intended as Provocations”

One thing is beyond dispute: the Stalinist purges had a devastating impact on the Soviet intelligence machine. The executions of men like Berzin had two equally harmful consequences. First of all, it deprived the service of important knowledge about its agents in the field. Newly promoted officials had only the sketchiest idea of who Sorge was, and barely had time to master the case file before they joined their predecessors in the NKVD’s interrogation cells.

Second, the association of the most effective Soviet spies with alleged traitors cast a shadow of suspicion over all the information they supplied. Matthews shows that Sorge spent his last couple of years in Japan teetering on the brink of mental disintegration, self-medicating with prodigious quantities of alcohol. The strain of his double life would have been enough to explain this: as Sorge himself wrote in a message to his controllers in October 1940, “the conditions here would undermine the strongest constitution.” But the evident disbelief with which Moscow greeted many of his reports must surely have been an additional factor.

The purges also decimated the officer corps of the Red Army, gravely weakening Soviet defenses at a crucial time. That was one reason why Stalin signed his non-aggression pact with Hitler in August 1939. Even after the rapid German triumph on the western front in the summer of 1940, the Soviet leader continued to believe that he could delay the onset of war.

The latest head of the Fourth Department, Filip Golikov, was anxious to tell his boss what he wanted to hear in the interests of self-preservation. Golikov did pass on one detailed warning from Sorge about an impending German attack at the beginning of June 1941, but Stalin scrawled a contemptuous note on the report: “Suspicious. To be listed with telegrams intended as provocations.” Many of Sorge’s fellow agents were sending in identical reports about the preparations for Operation Barbarossa. Stalin dismissed them as provocations, too.

The attack launched on June 22 turned Richard Sorge into the most important spy of his, or perhaps any, age. If Japan decided to attack the USSR on its eastern border, the German advance in the west would surely be irresistible. Depressed, alcoholic, and largely friendless, with the Japanese police just a few steps behind him, Sorge still rose to the occasion.

By now, Hotsumi Ozaki was working as an advisor for the Japanese Prime Minister, Fumimaro Konoe. Not only could he feed information back about the government’s intentions — he could also counsel Konoe against invading the Soviet Union, posing as a neutral figure who was anxious to uphold the national interest. Meanwhile, Sorge’s friend, the German ambassador Eugen Ott, was lobbying Japanese officials to join the war on Hitler’s side.

With its back to the wall, the Soviet government was now prepared to listen to its most valuable agent. By the end of August, Sorge could supply hard evidence from multiple sources that Japan wasn’t going to attack the Soviet Union until 1942 at the earliest. Japanese war plans were directed instead toward the Pacific and a showdown with Britain and the United States.

As the Red Army’s Siberian units began moving west, Sorge’s luck finally ran out. By the end of October, the Japanese police had rolled up his entire network. Weeks later, Zhukov launched his counterattack.

Sorge’s Dolchstoß

As a keen reader of Marxist literature, Sorge may well have been familiar with George Plekhanov’s celebrated essay, The Role of the Individual in History. According to Plekhanov, the great man theory of history relied on an optical illusion. For example, Napoleon’s outsized role in events as they actually unfolded prevented us from seeing the other French army officers who might have stepped into his shoes and fulfilled the social need for a military strongman.

Plekhanov’s argument has always been controversial and is clearly impossible to prove one way or the other. In any case, we can’t apply it to a figure like Richard Sorge, who spent years operating in the shadows before intervening at a crucial moment. There might have been another officer who could have played the role of Napoleon, but there were no other spies who could have played the role of Sorge.

If Sorge’s Toyko mission had run its course by 1939 or 1940, perhaps Stalin would have taken the risk of shifting his soldiers from east to west anyway. Perhaps the Soviet Union would have continued to resist even after the fall of Moscow and gotten the better of its opponent in the end. However, in the only historical timeline that we know or can know about, it was Sorge who made the difference.

There’s a nice irony behind this. Adolf Hitler had built his political career on a nauseating “stab-in-the-back myth” that held Jews and socialists responsible for the German defeat in 1918. Two decades later, Hitler’s march across Europe fell victim to a real stab in the back, expertly administered by a fellow veteran of impeccably Aryan lineage. Sorge lived long enough to hear about the Nazi humiliation at Stalingrad a year later: as Matthews reports, one of his fellow spies “caught a glimpse of Sorge dancing with joy and banging a guard jovially on the back when word went around the prison.”

If the Soviet leadership appreciated how much they owed to Sorge, they certainly made no attempt to repay him. Matthews could find no trace of any offer to exchange Sorge for Japanese prisoners. The official treatment of his Soviet wife, Katya, who Sorge had barely seen since he began working as a spy, was even worse. The authorities arrested her in November 1942 and sentenced her to five years of internal exile in a Siberian village, where she died for want of medical attention.

Who Are You, Mr Sorge?

The Japanese authorities executed Sorge and Hotsumi Ozaki in November 1944. After the war, Ozaki became a hero of the Japanese left, but it took much longer for Sorge to achieve similar recognition in the USSR. In 1961, a French director produced a movie called Who Are You, Mr. Sorge? that later screened at the Moscow Film Festival. Although the film was highly unreliable as an account of Sorge’s life, it prompted Nikita Khrushchev to order an investigation of his career as a Fourth Department agent.

Before long, there were streets and even ships named after Sorge, and a Soviet stamp that bore his image. The Sorge cult has outlived the Soviet Union itself: a Russian TV channel produced a miniseries about his life as recently as 2019. Yet as Matthews justly points out, “all the statues and the books could never quite efface the USSR’s actual suspicion, indifference and ultimate betrayal of its greatest spy.”

The opening sentence of this biography describes Sorge as “a bad man who became a great spy.” That judgement seems more literary than historical. It’s hard to see what was bad about Sorge: after all, most of the people he deceived were loyal servants of the Third Reich. He certainly made huge demands of his subordinates in the Tokyo spy ring, but he worked himself even harder. He was deeply concerned about the safety of his Japanese mistress, Hanako Miyake, and extracted a pledge from the prosecutor at his trial that she would come to no harm.

Judging by the evidence that Matthews presents, Sorge appears to have been as ethical a figure as you could reasonably expect from someone in his profession. The true contradiction of his life was an external one. In order to serve a good cause, Sorge had to continue working for some bad people, who only made proper use of his intelligence when circumstances gave them little choice.

His career symbolized both sides of the Soviet experiment: the idealism and self-sacrifice that it inspired, and the bureaucratic cynicism that eventually dragged down those hopes. As far as Sorge himself was concerned, there’s no need to overcomplicate things. Sometimes a hero is just a hero.