Sonya’s Red Heart, Part 1: The Fairytale of Ursula Kuczynski

Sonya’s Red Heart, Part 1: The Fairytale of Ursula Kuczynski

Ursula Kuczynski, aka Agent Sonya, is one history's most effective spies. As an intelligence gatherer for the Soviet military, she helped usher in the age of Mutually Assured Destruction during the bloody 1940s. In 2020, a newly declassified document muddied the waters. Who was Sonya really working for? In this two-part True Spies story, a new theory deepens the mystery of her life and work. In Part 1, Sophia Di Martino joins Professor Anthony Glees to follow Sonya's rise to prominence within the Russian GRU.
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NARRATOR: This is True Spies, the podcast that takes you deep inside the greatest secret missions of all time. Week by week, you’ll hear the true stories behind the operations that have shaped the world we live in. You’ll meet the people who live life undercover. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? I’m Sophia Di Martino and this is True Spies, from SPYSCAPE Studios.

ANTHONY GLEES: Sonya had many faces but she only had one heart. It was the cold, steely beating red heart of a Stalinist spy. 

NARRATOR: Sonya’s Red Heart, Part 1: The Fairytale of Ursula Kuczynski. When Ursula Kuczynski was a young teenager in Schoenberg, Germany, she would write stories and poems late into the night - far-fetched adventures of risk and romance. Quite often she was the protagonist. Childhood fantasy or an act of self-realization?

ANTHONY GLEES: And there are a number of questions that were always unanswered about Sonya and questions that should have been asked.

NARRATOR: In the course of writing the story of her life, Ursula Kuczynski would become someone else entirely - a protagonist at the heart of a 20th-century fantasy. Her name would be ‘Sonya’. 

ANTHONY GLEES: This rather small, sprightly woman with sparkling bright eyes was one of the most important intelligence officers that the Soviet Union possessed at the time.

NARRATOR: And quite unlike a storybook adventure, her acts had very real consequences.

ANTHONY GLEES: She saw many of those who thought she was their friend murdered by Stalin's secret police, for whom, of course, she was in a sense, working. And she didn't bat an eyelid about it. There were a small number of totally ruthless, cold-blooded killers. They didn't have blood on their hands, but they were killers who went along with Stalin in all his mad, murderous endeavors and showed him blind loyalty. 

NARRATOR: Meet Professor Anthony Glees, a lifetime professor at the University of Buckingham and former director of two centers for the study of Security and Intelligence Policy. He also happens to live in rural Oxfordshire in the UK, not far from the very spot where the winds of fate deposited Agent Sonya during the Second World War. 

ANTHONY GLEES: Sonya had lived an amazing 20th-century life. Highly dangerous. Very courageous.

NARRATOR: And it was in the leafy villages of Woodstock, Kidlington, Glympton, and Great Rollright, between 1941 and 1950, that ‘Sonya’ carried out her boldest acts of espionage. For nine years, she slipped through the net of the British Intelligence services, posing as a scone-baking mother and home-maker, a pillar of her local communities - all while delivering the closest guarded secrets of the Anglo-American atomic project directly to the Soviet Union. 

ANTHONY GLEES: One of these weapons could change the course of the war and two weapons - as we know in the case of Japan - two weapons would end the war. Simple as that. And I imagine that Stalin wanted to know every detail about it all the time. 

NARRATOR: Stalin would get his wish when Russia successfully detonated its own nuclear bomb in August 1949. That much we know for certain. But as for Agent Sonya, the faithful servant who helped him achieve his aim, well, much appears mysterious. In fact, Anthony believes that even Sonya’s own account of her life’s work was just another in a long line of half-truths and fiction. 

ANTHONY GLEES: All texts written by people involved in the world of secret intelligence should be approached with great caution. None of them should be taken at face value. 

NARRATOR: Writing under the name ‘Ruth Werner’, Sonya published a memoir in 1977. Entitled ‘Sonya’s Report’, it became a bestseller. 

ANTHONY GLEES: In my considered opinion, there's a lot there that is accurate. What is significant, however, are the things that are missing, and the precise description of exactly how she did what she was doing. And that isn't surprising.

NARRATOR: Anthony has been absorbed by Sonya’s story for the past 50 years but there were details, he felt, that never quite added up. 

ANTHONY GLEES: An academic investigation has to bring to her book the question, ‘But what about the things that you would have hoped to have found in there?’ This was a woman who really had no connection. She had been to Britain, I think, once or twice. Yet Sonya was given a British passport, came to Liverpool, and without any let or hindrance passed on her way and moved to 78 Woodstock Road in Oxford, where she set up her stall. 

NARRATOR: And then finally, in 2020 it all started to click into place when Anthony’s rigorous colleague and former Ph.D. student, Professor Tony Percy, alerted him to a certain file he’d come across in the British archives. 

ANTHONY GLEES: The file: KV 6/41 was released into the British National Archive about 20 years ago. That is to say, 30 years after I first began to take an interest in her story. 

NARRATOR: This unassuming-looking file, KV 6/41, no different from any of the other gray folders, is a file about Sonya. ‘KV’ tells scholars that it is a file from the security service, MI5. 6/41 tells you the month and the year that the file was opened. The very fact that MI5 had a file on Sonya dated June 1941 straight away raised important questions for Anthony and Tony.

ANTHONY GLEES: What this file told us, in my opinion, that was both startling and new, was two things. First of all, Sonya was well known both to MI6, Britain's Secret Intelligence Service and to MI5. 

NARRATOR: A direct contradiction of MI5’s official account of Sonya - which claimed intelligence services had known nothing of her history - when she rocked up to the United Kingdom in 1941. If they had, in fact, known of her communist affiliations - well, that begs a question. Why wasn’t she arrested, refused entry, or interned? Which brings us to KV 6/41’s second revelation.

ANTHONY GLEES: It shows that she outsmarted both MI6 and MI5 and, in short, outsmarted the British intelligence establishment. 

NARRATOR: In other words, Dr. Anthony Glees and Dr. Tony Percy believe that the security services knew Sonya to be a potential threat. but allowed her safe passage to the UK all the same. Why? 

ANTHONY GLEES: She was a double agent acting for MI6.

NARRATOR: And to understand why MI6 might have considered an agent like Sonya theirs for taking, let’s go back. Who, exactly, was Agent Sonya?

ANTHONY GLEES: She was born Ursula Kuczynski into a prominent, wealthy academic, non-religious Jewish family. And during the first phase of her life in Germany's Weimar Republic, Sonya was a journalist for the Red Flag and other communist newspapers. 

NARRATOR: Ursula joined the Communist Party of Germany aged 19 and, after a brief period in New York, returned to Berlin where she married another young German leftist and budding architect, Rudolf Hamburger, and set up the Marxist Workers Library. But it was a job opportunity that presented itself to Rudolf at an architectural firm in Shanghai that would trigger the next phase of Sonya’s life. 

ANTHONY GLEES: Then, as today, the Russian interest in China was extremely strong and close, but China was also in decay and was the playground of imperial powers and had been ever since the beginning of the 20th century. 

NARRATOR: By this time, the Nazi Party was rapidly gaining support in Germany. The Weimar Republic appeared critically weakened. After leaving for China in July 1930 via the trans-Siberian railway, the pair boarded the Chinese Eastern Railway before embarking on a 600-mile boat ride across the Yellow Sea. Finally, Ursula and Rudolf Hamburger arrived in Shanghai. The socio-economic disparity under the ruling Nationalist Party of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek was unlike anything the 23-year-old Ursula had seen before. 

ANTHONY GLEES: People knew that China was changing.

NARRATOR: And, as the fledgling Soviet Union saw it, primed for revolution.

ANTHONY GLEES: They share this huge border. So if you are in Russia and you are a communist and a Bolshevik you want to be very careful that your relationship with China is conducive to the further development of communism. 

NARRATOR: As the wife of a talented young German architect, Ursula was welcomed into a Bohemian community of wealthy expats in Shanghai. It was all centered around a sprawling manor house called the Concordia. There, the future of Germany was fiercely debated from afar by both Marxists and those who aligned with the National Socialist Party. But that wasn’t the only company Ursula kept. She also took a job as secretary to the Far East Correspondent of a news agency called the Wolff Telegraphic Bureau. Ursula’s boss introduced her to the influential German Marxist author, Agnes Smedley, whose book, Daughter of Earth she had read eagerly back in Berlin.

NARRATOR: Smedley, in turn, introduced Ursula to a man who will be familiar to regular listeners of True Spies - a man who was about to change Ursula’s life forever.

ANTHONY GLEES: The so-called Soviet master spy who was a German called Richard Sorge.

NARRATOR: Spymaster Richard Sorge - aka Agent Ramsey whose story we told in The Impeccable Spy - was building his network in Shanghai at the very moment of Ursula’s arrival. His mission was to keep track of the fraught situation in China, which bordered the Soviet Union in Mongolia, and to encourage, in any way possible, the momentum of the nation’s budding communist movement. 

ANTHONY GLEES: He worked in the German Embassy and simply passed on secrets to Stalin about German intentions toward the Soviet Union of absolutely vital importance. 

NARRATOR: And when he met Ursula - another German with clear communist allegiances - he instinctively felt she could be of use. Particularly with her access to the influential crowd at the Concordia.

ANTHONY GLEES: It was thought, quite correctly, that by spying on what the Germans were doing in China, the Soviet Union would get a good take on what the West would likely also want to do in the Soviet Union.

NARRATOR: And so, in November 1930, Ursula Kuczynski met her destiny. In his communications to Moscow, Richard Sorge allocated her the code-name Sonya, meaning, in Ancient Greek, ‘Wisdom’. Which is exactly what Sonya traded in. And Sonya wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty to get it. With her standing at the Concordia, Sonya had access to high-rolling politicians, journalists, businessmen, and bankers - a veritable cross-section of German high society in China. Soon she was listening in on their conversations, or soliciting her own intelligence. By 1931 Agent Sonya had established herself as a crucial asset for the GRU - Russian Military Intelligence - convincing those in her orbit that she was a curious yet unremarkable woman.

ANTHONY GLEES: If you are like Sonya, tradecraft says, you should in no way draw attention to yourself. You should do absolutely everything to make yourself seem as ordinary as possible. 

NARRATOR: So when Sonya gave birth to a boy in February 1931 - far from seeing this as an inconvenience, Richard Sorge was pleased. Who would suspect a young, new mother of being involved in an underground communist spy network? The answer was no one. Apparently not even her own husband.

ANTHONY GLEES: Sonya was an entirely ruthless person, entirely cold. Hard as steel. She used her mind and she used her body in the interests of Soviet communism. 

NARRATOR: So much so that she was willing to put the life of her newborn baby, Misha, at risk. The Chinese Public Security Bureau was hunting down communists. And this was not long after the so-called ‘White Terror’, Chiang Kai-Shek’s monumental communist suppression campaign of 1927. At least 300,000 people are thought to have been kidnapped, tortured, and even buried alive. Sonya was careful but others did not cover their tracks sufficiently.

ANTHONY GLEES: The more things you have going on in your activities, the more likely you are to be uncovered by police counterintelligence officers. 

NARRATOR: Which is precisely what happened in June of 1931 when the Shanghai Municipal Council uncovered a cache of documents identifying a huge portion of the urban communist network. Remarkably, neither Sorge nor Sonya were exposed in the breach. Both staggered on in Shanghai, operating in a critically weakened network before Sorge was recalled to Moscow in 1933. Sonya would never see the man who christened her again. With the departure of her handler (who was also her secret lover), her mission seemed to be over. But it appears Sonya’s reports had caught the attention of the right people in the GRU. Soon she was presented with a new opportunity, one which would see her blossom from a grunt-working agent to a fully-fledged officer. 

ANTHONY GLEES: Officers in the Soviet world consisted of two kinds: officers in political intelligence, the NKVD, and officers in military intelligence then, as now, commonly called the GRU. Sonya was an officer in the GRU, she was a military intelligence officer, not a political intelligence officer. 

NARRATOR: With her new promotion came new responsibilities. Until this point, Sonya had been passing on information to Richard Sorge, who would transmit this back to Moscow with the aid of a professional wireless radio operator within the embassy. But now Sonya needed to learn this complex art herself.

ANTHONY GLEES: To communicate by wireless the fruits that her agents and the agents of Soviet intelligence were picking from those on whom they were spying. So she didn't generate the material. She passed the material on. 

NARRATOR: Sonya was eager to learn. She attended an intensive training school in August of 1933 located in the woods on the Moscow river near the village of Vorobyeva. Disguised as a sports base, the Radio Training Laboratory of the People’s Commissariat of Defense - codename: Sparrow - was a temporary home to 80 hand-picked trainees. Over six months, they would study the construction of receivers and wireless equipment and the art of Morse code. Sonya was to leave her baby boy in the care of his grandparents in Czechoslovakia for the duration of her stay. She passed Sparrow with flying colors.

ANTHONY GLEES: She clearly had a genius for radio transmissions, which is how these messages were sent from the field to Moscow Center. She operated wherever she was - whether in the Far East or in the United Kingdom - she operated right under the noses of those on whom her Soviet masters were spying. That's an amazing achievement. 

NARRATOR: Sonya’s next assignment was in Japanese-occupied Manchuria, where, together with fellow Soviet agent Johann Patra she was to aid the Chinese communists in their resistance. When they arrived, in 1934, Manchuria had been under occupation for three years and was in a state of semi-war. Danger lurked everywhere - from both the Japanese occupying forces and nationalist rebels. Sonya and Johann Patra would be tasked with sourcing parts for a transmitter to smuggle into the city of Mukden and establishing an operations base there. From here, they would transmit intelligence back to Moscow. All while doing their best not to be caught by the notorious military police of the Imperial Japanese Army, the Kempeitai.

ANTHONY GLEES: It wasn't just the danger. It was the fact that what she was transmitting was of such great use to the Soviet Union, its knowledge of what was going on in the Far East. 

NARRATOR: Sonya was sending news of the Chinese partisans, reports on sabotage, and Japanese counter-insurgency measures. 

ANTHONY GLEES: It was what Stalin would look at first thing in the morning because the fate of communism, they believed, depended first and foremost on what Germany would do and secondly, what would happen in China. Would there be a communist state, communist revolution, and therefore security? Or would a militaristic, fascistic Japan seek to destroy Soviet communism, possibly with the Third Reich as its ally? 

NARRATOR: The fearlessness Sonya displayed in Manchuria would eventually lead to her being awarded The Order of the Red Banner a few years later in 1937. It was presented to both individuals and military units for acts of extreme military heroism.

ANTHONY GLEES: I think she had great political insight. She was a technician. She was an engineer. She was good at doing the radio stuff, but she also knew [how] to get the most significant things onto Stalin's desk.

NARRATOR: Sonya’s stream of Manchurian intelligence flowed uninterrupted for a year. But just as in Shanghai - where there was a spy ring, there were breaches. Eventually, a Chinese communist ally named Shushin who’d been teaching Sonya Mandarin and assisting her with wireless activities, was arrested by the secret police in April 1935. The trail, inevitably, would lead directly to Sonya. In the second part of Sonya’s Red Heart, the net tightens and Sonya must make her hasty return to Europe. But the situation on the continent has deteriorated.

ANTHONY GLEES: It's important to realize she came from a prominent Jewish communist background. Either of those things, to be Jewish or to be communist, spelled doom for Sonia if the Gestapo were to get their hands on her. 

NARRATOR: And, if she is to survive, Sonya must entertain new alliances. 

ANTHONY GLEES: When Victor Farrell became aware of Sonya's presence in Switzerland. He formed the view (this is my argument) that Sonya could be turned into a double agent working for Britain, using the same logic that turned Nazi spies into double agents for Britain. 

NARRATOR: But could this agent’s communist loyalty truly be corrupted? If there’s one thing we know about Sonya, it’s that her heart beats red.

ANTHONY GLEES: And what Sonya did was manipulate this international situation to her best advantage. 

NARRATOR: I’m Sophia Di Martino. Join us next week for the second part of True Spies: Sonya’s Red Heart.

Guest Bio

Anthony Glees is a lifetime professor at the University of Buckingham and former director of two centers for the study of Security and Intelligence Policy.

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