“An Impeccable Spy: Richard Sorge, Stalin’s Master Agent” by Owen Matthews


All lives ultimately end in failure, but Richard Sorge’s shone brightest at twilight. Sorge simultaneously infiltrated the highest levels of Hitler’s and Tokyo’s wartime establishments penetrating both the Nazi Party and the Japanese Court. He warned Stalin of “Operation Barbarossa”—even its very date, 25 June 1941—when Hitler was to abrogate the Nazi-Soviet Pact and send three million troops sweeping across 2900 km of border.

Few individuals outside of the ranks of international leaders, scientists and religious figure—and precious few of even these—can claim they changed the world in which we live. In retrospect, it is clear that Richard Sorge was one such man. He was hung by the Japanese before this was manifest, but his spectre was already haunting the Third Reich.

Stalin had been deafened by his complacency, dismissing Sorge’s early warnings as “false flags” and, as a result, condemning millions to death on the battlefield, in POW camps and through forced labor. But with hindsight, it made Sorge’s reputation, so when he subsequently signalled that Tokyo had finally chosen the southern strategy over the north—that they would strike toward Southeast Asia rather than into Mongolia and the USSR—Stalin was confident enough to strip Siberia of men and machines and send them west. They arrived in Moscow in September and October as the high tide of battle was joined and were instrumental in exacting a defeat that reversed the course of the war and proved to be the beginning of a long end.

Few individuals can claim they changed the world in which we live. Richard Sorge was one such man.

An Impeccable Spy: Richard Sorge, Stalin’s Master Agent, Owen Matthews (Bloomsbury, March 2018)
An Impeccable Spy: Richard Sorge, Stalin’s Master Agent, Owen Matthews (Bloomsbury, March 2019)

Owen Matthews has rescued Soviet espionage from the prison of the Cambridge Five, and taken it from the tedious and mundane to the intrepid and dauntless with an exhilarating mix of fast women, motorbikes and alcohol.

Sorge was the son of a middle-class Russian mother and German father brought up in Baku. There was a revolutionary peppering in his genes. His great uncle had been Secretary General of the First International and a correspondent of Marx and Engels.

Radicalized by the massacres of innocents on the barbed wire entanglements of the First World War, Sorge spent the early post-war years chasing and failing to find the German revolution. He was lucky enough in 1919 to arrive too late for Berlin’s slaughter of the Spartacists, slipped through the aftermath of the splintered resistance to the Kapp putsch of 1920 and on into the ranks of “M. Apparat”, the armed wing of the German Communist Party.

This led to roles as professional agitator and amateur academic. These, and ancestry, saw him talent-spotted by Comintern and recruited in 1924 to work for the Political Bureau in international communism’s Moscow HQ. He briefly served as Bukharin’s secretary. By 1927 he had switched to Comintern Intelligence covering Western Europe. It was this that may have saved him. When all around were being purged and executed, it looked as if he was about to share their fate. In 1929 he was expelled from Comintern. This was no death sentence, but a diversion to  hide his transfer to military intelligence as part of the Fourth Department of the Red Army.

An Impeccable Spy tells us that Sorge was assigned to Shanghai with the cover of academic and journalist working for Frankfurter Zeitung. Using the sinologist Karl August Wittfogel—future author of Oriental Despotism—he parlayed friendship for “letters of introduction”. Within weeks of his arrival he was a confidante of Shanghai’s expatriate Nazis, and not long after, via a brief love affair with American communist Agnes Smedley, he had access to the thinking and cadres of the Chinese Communist Party.

When he was summoned back to Moscow in 1933, his had been the only one of serial spy missions in China to have been an unqualified success. No good turn goes unpunished. Sorge’s next assignment was to be Tokyo where no Soviet “illegals” had ever successfully been put in place.

Using his cover of Shanghai Nazis as his launchpad, he quickly cast a spell over Tokyo’s German Ambassador Ott and his retinue. He used some of his Japanese contacts from China to weedle his way into imperial court circles. With his intelligence and breadth of contacts he was soon acting as an adviser to the leaderships in Berlin and Tokyo while delivering their secrets to Moscow, providing insightful analyses in his newspaper columns and drinking his “friends” under the table while sequentially seducing their wives.

Sorge was a flawed individual, but an impeccable spy—brave, brilliant and relentless.

The crux of Sorge’s task was to find out whether Japan was going to attack the Soviet Union again. In 1905, they had seized Port Arthur and destroyed the Russian Fleet at the Battle of Tsushima. In 1910 they took Korea from under the noses of Moscow and in 1918 in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution they, as part of the interventionist alliance along the British and Americans, occupied Siberia as far as Lake Baikal. Most of this territory was eventually surrendered, although they had kept South Sakhalin (Karafuto) as a memento. In Tokyo, the Army wanted to go North and the Navy South. Even after the summer of 1939, when Georgy Zhukov gave the Japanese Kwangtung Army a “bloody nose” at the Battle of Nomonhan they persisted. After “Barbarossa” started to bog down, the Army had Hitler’s support as he urged his Japanese Allies—via the September 1940 Tripartite Pact—to open a second front against the Soviets.

It was Washington that applied the brakes, which sealed the fate of Pearl Harbor. After Japan’s virtual bloodless seizure of French Indo-China in late July, the US imposed an oil embargo on Tokyo and froze their banking assets.

Sorge was able to discover Japan was left with only six months fuel. Now Tokyo had to decide and decide quickly. August 1941 was the most dangerous time for Stalin. In the end however much the Japanese Army wanted to invade the USSR, the US had ensured it didn’t have the petrol. Tokyo was instead to strike south seeking Sumatra’s oil! When Sorge informed Moscow Plan North had been abandoned there was a lurch in history as more than half of Siberia’s military entrained for Moscow.

This was Sorge’s final act. The Japanese had been closing in on the clandestine radio Sorge’s group was using to transmit reports to Moscow, and some of the outer ring of his nest of spies. A routine investigation of Japanese ex-communists saw the walls come tumbling down. Sorge was arrested on 19 October, sentenced to death on 29 September 1943 and on the 7 November—the 34th anniversary of the Great October Revolution—he died proclaiming: “The Red Army! The International Communist Party! The Soviet Communist Party!”


An Impeccable Spy is based on sets of Russian archives previously unavailable but which Matthews has mined. It’s difficult to imagine who could have done more to introduce Sorge to the West. He belatedly became a hero in the late Soviet Union when it was facing extinction in the 1970s and ’80s. Matthews concludes, “Sorge was a flawed individual, but an impeccable spy—brave, brilliant and relentless.” It was his tragedy that his masters were venal cowards who abandoned him to his fate.

Glyn Ford is a former Euro-MP and author of North Korea on the Brink. His Talking to North Korea: Ending the Nuclear Standoff was published by Pluto in September.