True Spies Episode 181: The Impeccable Spy
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 Daisy Ridley and this is True Spies, from SPYSCAPE Studios. The Impeccable Spy.
OWEN MATTHEWS: In the bar of the Imperial Hotel, with an audience composed literally of German officers, Nazis, Sorge gets up on a chair completely drunk and says, “This is the end of Hitler. Stalin will bury you.”
NARRATOR: The year is 1941. Hitler has invaded Poland. War is raging in Europe. But the non-aggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union appears to be holding. On the ground in Tokyo, one Soviet spy knows that the tide of the war is about to turn. By some measures, he might just be one of the most powerful men in the world. He has a direct line to Joseph Stalin, a direct line to Japanese Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe and a direct line to Adolf Hitler. But Stalin doesn’t want to hear what his uniquely placed asset has to say. The Japanese are catching wind of some suspicious radio broadcasts - the sort that could only result from illegal espionage activity. And the spy is growing frantic.
OWEN MATTHEWS: His behavior was becoming more erratic. Even before the outbreak of war, partly because of the stress of his job, obviously, but also I think in part it must be because of the stress of knowing that his reports were not being believed in Moscow even before 1941.
NARRATOR: Maybe you’ve heard of Richard Sorge, the man who foretold Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. If you haven't? Perhaps that’s just another legacy of Stalinism and the reign of terror the Soviet leader unleashed on his own people. The brutal repression of anything - or anyone - that challenged Stalin’s authority, of anything that threatened the illusion of his omnipotence. Because Richard Sorge, by all accounts, was very good at his job. Yet his most consequential reports fell on deaf ears.
OWEN MATTHEWS: His messages are getting more and more desperate. He radios in more and more details, more and more sources saying they're going to invade. They're going to invade. They're going to invade.
NARRATOR: Sorge, of course, is long dead. But no one knows his story - with all its unbelievable details - better than this week’s guest.
OWEN MATTHEWS: My name is Owen Matthews. I'm a writer and a historian. A journalist. I was Newsweek magazine's Moscow bureau chief for many years, also Istanbul and Baghdad.
NARRATOR: The son of a native of Kharkiv, in today’s Ukraine, Owen grew up speaking Russian. Like Sorge, he comes from a bicultural family. And he has another stake in this story. His grandfather was killed in Stalin’s great purge of 1937 - an event that, as you’ll soon hear, defined the course of Richard Sorge’s life. But perhaps we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s begin at the beginning. Who was Sorge, exactly?
OWEN MATTHEWS: Richard Sorge was a very bad man who was a very great spy.
NARRATOR: Sorge was born in the Russian empire in 1895, in what is today known as Azerbaijan.
OWEN MATTHEWS: In the city of Baku, where his father was a German banker. His mother was a Russian merchant's daughter. And he went back to Germany as a child and joined - along with many of his generation - the German army, right at the beginning of World War I.
NARRATOR: It was during a camping trip with a youth organization that he learned that Germany had entered the first World War. He enlisted in the German Imperial Army, swept up in the patriotic fervor of the conflict.
OWEN MATTHEWS: Which was very quickly destroyed on the front lines, on the Western front.
NARRATOR: The horror of war came as a shock to the young soldier, who sustained nearly fatal wounds on the battlefield. The trauma of what Sorge experienced would define the rest of his life.
OWEN MATTHEWS: What he realized, just like his nearly exact contemporary Adolf Hitler realized, was that the old world of imperialism was utterly broken and a new world needed to be created by people like him. Sorge and Hitler were in military hospitals in Berlin at the same time. And during their painful convalescence, they were just consumed with fury at the betrayal of their generation. And in both young men, both angry, young, wounded soldiers, that anger led to - or gave birth to, propelled a furious passion for - radical politics. And obviously, in Hitler's case, those radical politics were fascist, national socialist. In Sorge's case, in the case of thousands of his contemporaries, it was about communism. He wanted to see communism win and create a new world where there would be no war.
NARRATOR: Sorge was lit up with an ideological fervor that he would carry with him for the rest of his life. But it wasn’t simply the strength of his convictions that made him a successful spy. By all accounts, he also had an innate personal magnetism.
OWEN MATTHEWS: He was extraordinarily charming and personable. He was a tall, good looking man. His severe wounds in the First World War gave him a pronounced limp. But actually, as it turns out, that turned into a kind of a superpower because that limp and the fact that he was obviously a wounded veteran gave him an immediate sense of bonding with the majority of men of his generation, especially Germans, who had been through the same experience.
NARRATOR: It wasn’t just German men Sorge charmed. He was a profligate ladies’ man, even after he met his first wife - who was, at the time, married to his professor at Frankfurt University. He also put his natural charisma to use as a propagandist.
OWEN MATTHEWS: He was extremely good at agitation, and he began his career as a young socialist, in fact, by trying to motivate young revolutionaries in the aftermath of World War I, including - and he went to great lengths to do that - including getting a job in a mine in order to agitate the miners. So he was, in the most literal sense, an underground agitator.
NARRATOR: Sorge could sway public opinion even within the lowest ranks of society. But he could also hobnob with the intellectual elite. He was a prolific reader and an accomplished writer and held a doctorate in political science. Owen says his ability to code-switch was what truly gave him the chops to be a successful spy.
OWEN MATTHEWS: Like many spies, he was both an insider and an outsider. He was only half German. He literally had both a motherland and a fatherland, through his Russian mother and his German father. And that very interestingly corresponds to something that Kim Philby wrote, arguably the other greatest spy of the 20th century. The British intelligence officer Kim Philby [said ‘to betray, you must first belong. I never belonged’] So in that sense, it's really a common theme, that many of the most famous spies of the century, whichever nationality, felt themselves outsiders in some way.
NARRATOR: For a young man who had been radicalized by the trauma of war - for a young man of great charisma and persuasiveness - and for a young man who could play for any team and align with any group that advanced his position, Richard Sorge was beautifully situated in 1920s Germany.
OWEN MATTHEWS: One of the things that people tend to forget, because it never happened ultimately, was quite how close Germany came to becoming a Bolshevik state in the aftermath of World War I. Russia was the last place that anyone seriously expected Bolshevism to triumph. Everyone thought that Germany, because it had a huge proletariat, because Germany had a long tradition of socialist thought, everyone thought that Germany was the place which would actually explode into revolution.
NARRATOR: Sorge had intended to launch a career in academia. But, caught up in the revolutionary moment, he was inspired to travel to Moscow instead. There, in the new world capital of socialism, he was granted an opportunity that would redirect the course of his entire life.
OWEN MATTHEWS: He's given a job by the Communist International, which was the Moscow based organization that was supposed to unite the communist movements of the world under a Russian or Soviet umbrella. And his first espionage jobs are undertaken on behalf of the Communist International, also known as the Comintern Intelligence Service in Scandinavia and Northern Europe.
NARRATOR: In time, Sorge caught the eye of a man tasked with assembling the Soviet Union’s first overseas intelligence service. Today, that service is known as the GRU. But back when this story took place, it was called the Fourth General Directorate. Which is how Sorge was first dispatched to East Asia.
OWEN MATTHEWS: In 1930, when Japan, the rising power of Asia, conquers a large chunk of Chinese territory called Manchuria. So as soon as the Chinese - as soon as the Japanese - start to make major inroads into northern and eastern China, it's the Japanese that actually start to become a really major potential military threat to the Soviet Union because as they expand, they're expanding all along that very crucial border area between eastern Siberia and Manchuria. So Shanghai is a really good listening post for the Soviet Union for keeping an eye on the Japanese expansion, on the Chinese communists. So it's a spy’s paradise.
NARRATOR: By then, Sorge had left his first wife and married another, a Russian actress named Ekaterina, or Katya, Maximova. When Sorge was dispatched to Shanghai, Katya Maximova followed him. Their new home was a hotbed of nightclubs and crime, secrets, and spies.
OWEN MATTHEWS: It's full of communists. And what interests the Soviet Union at this stage is the fate of the Chinese Communist Party. In other words, will China ever become communist? Because that is an enormously strategic, strategically important thing for the Soviet Union to know at the end of the 1920s.
NARRATOR: For three years, Sorge cut his teeth as an intelligence officer in China. But then his superiors began to shift focus.
OWEN MATTHEWS: Jan Berzin, general head of Soviet military intelligence, realizes that Shanghai is fine, but where they really need an agent of a very high caliber is in Tokyo because if Imperial Japan has already bitten off gigantic chunks of China, there's very little to stop it doing exactly the same to the Soviet Union. So from 1933 onward, that's the whole point of Sorge's career, is to answer just one super strategic important question: is Japan going to attack the USSR or not?
NARRATOR: You might be surprised to learn: much of what Sorge was up to was totally above board. He would use his skills as a researcher and writer - and his training as an academic - to gather information that proved valuable to his Soviet handlers.
OWEN MATTHEWS: He has this sort of pseudo-academic and journalistic plausibility that allows him to work undercover as a journalist. But it's not even really a cover because as well as being a Soviet spy, he is, in fact, also a working journalist.
NARRATOR: In China, Sorge had used a pseudonym. In Japan? He wouldn’t even bother.
OWEN MATTHEWS: He would just be Dr. Richard Sorge, German specialist on Asia as a journalist and an academic. But in order to make his cover even more plausible, Berzin insists that Sorge go to Berlin to gather various accreditations and get himself signed up as official correspondent for lots of German newspapers. What he is able to do in in a really remarkably quick time is to is to read up on the politics - of first China and then Japan - and then go on a tour of German magazines, scholarly magazines, newspapers and so on, and persuades all these editors, distinguished editors, that they should accredit him and send him as a journalist to the Far East because he tells them that he's an expert.
NARRATOR: To seal the deal, Sorge took an extraordinary step. He submitted an application for membership of the National Socialist Party. Dyed-in-the-wool communist Richard Sorge would become a Nazi.
OWEN MATTHEWS: Within an amazingly short amount of time, within roughly three weeks, he's assembled this sheaf of introductions, this sheaf of accreditations, gets on the boat, sails to Japan - and as a fully accredited German journalist - and that’s where he starts to work.
NARRATOR: There’s a crucial difference between working in Shanghai and working in Tokyo. While the former was awash within spies, in Japan, Sorge will be more or less on his own. With only minor support, he’ll need to assemble his network himself.
OWEN MATTHEWS: The only thing that Jan Berzin - his boss in the Soviet military intelligence - is able to do is that he sends three agents to help him. One of them is called Max Clausen. There is a young Japanese guy who the Soviets have recruited from the Japanese community of California called Yotoku Miyagi. And there's a young Yugoslav guy called Branko Vukelić.
NARRATOR: Sorge immediately begins to build upon the foundation formed by this eclectic group of spies going into networking mode.
OWEN MATTHEWS: One of the first things he does on arrival in Japan is he meets up with the major contact that has been set up for him - or who has been identified for him by Soviet military intelligence - as someone that he really could cultivate. And that is a German officer called Eugen Ott. And Ott is destined to become the German ambassador to Japan and a key liaison between Germany and Japan.
NARRATOR: Ott takes a real liking to Sorge. The two become friends and develop a tight bond, which is remarkable - not because Sorge isn’t a charmer, but because the men share an uncommon connection.
OWEN MATTHEWS: He befriends his wife, and Ott's wife falls desperately in love with this handsome young Berliner war hero and so on. And whatever it may say about the relationship between the Otts, the future ambassador, Eugen Ott, seems to actually be okay with the fact that his wife is sleeping with his new best friend. And that actually becomes, in a very strange kind of way, a kind of bonding point between the two men.
NARRATOR: The battle lines for the next world war are being drawn. The Third Reich is gaining momentum, and cementing its alliance with Japan. Eugen Ott has risen quickly through the German military ranks to become the German ambassador in Tokyo - not a bad contact for a Soviet spy to have. Unwittingly, Ott became a key player of Sorge’s spy ring. Another crucial source was a Japanese journalist - and fellow communist - that Sorge met back in Shanghai.
OWEN MATTHEWS: Hotsumi Ozaki. And he has gone from journalist to think tanker to government adviser. So within a couple of years, Hotsumi Ozaki, Richard Sorge's Japanese agent, is a close adviser to the Japanese Prime Minister. So by the end of the 1930s, Sorge himself personally is one degree of separation - through his best friend, Eugen Ott, the German ambassador - he's at one degree of separation to Adolf Hitler. Through his Japanese agent, Hotsumi Ozaki, he is one degree of separation from the Japanese prime minister. And of course, through his boss, Jan [Yan] Berzin, he's one degree of separation from Stalin. It's a pretty remarkable achievement.
NARRATOR: Quite the stacked schedule. Yet somehow, Sorge found the time to maintain more than his share of personal relationships, too.
OWEN MATTHEWS: In his years in Tokyo, he was officially still married to Ekaterina Maximova, who faithfully waited for him back home and with whom he had a long correspondence. He's sleeping with Helma Ott, the ambassador's wife. He's sleeping with the ambassador's house guests, by the way. And at the same time, Sorge has a long-term mistress, this young Japanese woman called Hanako Miyake.
NARRATOR: On the night of his 40th birthday, in the autumn of 1935, Sorge dined at a German-owned restaurant in Tokyo called the Rheingold. The proprietors went heavy on the theme: a swastika flag hung behind the bar, and all the waitresses wore dirndls, or folk dresses. One of the women working at the joint, Hanako Miyake, caught Sorge’s eye.
OWEN MATTHEWS: Eventually, of course, he does have an affair with her. She falls in love with him - loves him till the day she dies.
NARRATOR: Sorge, of course, was never a one-woman man. But he showed uncommon tenderness toward Hanako. She saw a side of him that few others would ever catch a glimpse of.
OWEN MATTHEWS: Sorge was a seducer but he was not entirely a monster because he creates this sort of rather touching domestic life with his mistress. And they lived together, sort of, almost as husband and wife in this little house, little Japanese house that he rents. But at the same time, he's actually also sleeping with other women, writing love letters to his wife saying, ‘I can't wait to see you.’
NARRATOR: But by 1937, Sorge’s return to his wife, and his entire life in Russia, had begun to come into question. Joseph Stalin’s Great Purge - also known as the Great Terror - wiped out anyone who might be seen as a threat to the Soviet leader’s power, to gin up loyalty to the communist regime and ‘cleanse’ the party of anyone who might be considered a detractor.
OWEN MATTHEWS: It began with Stalin asserting his control over potential enemies and opponents inside the Communist Party. And it spread through the method of mass arrests, mostly through trumped-up espionage and sabotage charges. In the end, hundreds of thousands of loyal party members ended up being shot all across the Soviet Union, including, in fact, my grandfather, my mother's father, who was executed in October of 1937.
NARRATOR: The purges achieved their primary goal: to create an atmosphere of paranoia and intimidation that would stamp out opposition to Stalin’s leadership of the Communist Party. Army troops were executed en masse. Intelligence officers were rounded up and arrested. And around the same time Owen’s grandfather was killed, someone in Sorge’s inner circle was wiped off the chess board.
OWEN MATTHEWS: Yan Karlovich Berzin, the general who first recruited Sorge, has been deposed. His successor has been also arrested and shot. His successor's successor. Essentially, between 1935 and 1939, there were seven successive heads of Soviet military intelligence, and every single one of them, including Berzin, were arrested and shot.
NARRATOR: One by one, Joseph Stalin had executed each head of Soviet military intelligence, including the man who recruited Sorge. Sorge knew the walls were closing in on him. Intelligence agents like him were being summoned to Moscow, where they were either imprisoned or shot. Owen believes that by 1938, Sorge was likely to have had two highly important realizations.
OWEN MATTHEWS: One, the people that he is working for don't trust him. And secondly, that the Soviet military intelligence and the Soviet Union itself no longer has those communist ideals that he signed up for.
NARRATOR: By the time the day comes and Sorge is finally summoned to Moscow, his fate seems inevitable. All he can do is delay.
OWEN MATTHEWS: He says, “I want to go. I will go, but I can't go.”
NARRATOR: And yet, his desperate scramble to postpone the inevitable pays off.
OWEN MATTHEWS: By the time he reports that he can go back, which is about four months later, at the beginning of 1938, the guy that has summoned him back has already been shot.
NARRATOR: That decision not to turn up in Moscow spared Sorge his life. You might think Stalin’s men would want their best spy to keep delivering intel. But so deep were the reverberations of the purges that even Sorge’s work was disbelieved.
OWEN MATTHEWS: He has extraordinary access to everything that's going on in Japan, except that the Soviets have done such a thorough job of sowing this paranoia and distrust that all this intelligence gold is basically treated as something close to disinformation by Moscow Center.
NARRATOR: In short order, that would prove deeply unwise.
OWEN MATTHEWS: In the beginning of 1941, in fact, really even at the end of 1940, Richard Sorge is hearing from his mates, from the Ambassador Eugen Ott - from his friends in the German Embassy who are military attachés and so on - he's hearing stronger and stronger and more and more confirmed rumors that Hitler is planning to attack Stalin. And he starts to warn Stalin, and this series of reports just falls on deaf ears.
NARRATOR: He’s not the only one trying to sound the alarm.
OWEN MATTHEWS: There's a network of anti-Hitler German spies who are reporting to Stalin the same thing. They're all reporting that Hitler is preparing to invade the Soviet Union, and these messages get more and more urgent.
NARRATOR: Remember: seven heads of Soviet military intelligence have been installed and shot within just four years. By this point, in 1939, the man in charge is taking whatever precautions he can to keep his job and his life.
OWEN MATTHEWS: If you are the eighth successive head of Soviet military intelligence, it's pretty clear that your very urgent priority is not to get shot. So how do you not get shot? It's basically by telling the boss, Joseph Stalin, in the Kremlin, precisely and exactly what he wants to hear. And Stalin does not want to hear that his then-ally, Adolf Hitler, is going to double cross him and invade.
NARRATOR: So despite Sorge’s increasingly desperate warnings, mum’s the word.
OWEN MATTHEWS: And Stalin and the Soviet Union are completely unprepared for when Hitler does attack on the night of June 22, 1941.
NARRATOR: Sorge, however, was prepared - so prepared, that he started drinking at lunchtime, just around the time word arrived in Tokyo that Hitler’s propaganda minister had launched an invasion. That evening, one unit of the German Army was advancing toward Leningrad. One was advancing towards Kyiv. And one more toward Smolensk and Moscow. Sorge was devastated. And by that point, three sheets to the wind. Sloshed enough to let his guard down and expose himself to serious danger.
OWEN MATTHEWS: In the bar of the Imperial Hotel, with an audience composed literally of German officers, Nazis, Sorge gets up on a chair completely drunk and says, “This is the end of Hitler. Stalin will bury you.”
NARRATOR: Stalin’s master spy had just outed himself as a communist to a room full of Nazis.
OWEN MATTHEWS: And because Sorge has got this reputation for being this sort of larger-than-life character, this sort of wild drunk people, his audience say, like, “Oh, crazy old Richard.” Like, “Ha ha ha, he's just off his trolley again.”
NARRATOR: The attack, known as Operation Barbarossa, would last for six months. Though, just as Sorge drunkenly predicted, it would ultimately be considered a failure, the initial offensive was a devastating wake-up call for the Soviets. And despite the breezy reaction to his drunken outburst, by mid-1941, the Germans in his midst had begun to wonder about Sorge.
OWEN MATTHEWS: The stakes are extremely high for Sorge himself because one thing we haven't really discussed is what the Germans thought of Richard Sorge. We know that the Soviets distrusted him. But the Germans too had their doubts about this guy.
NARRATOR: Sorge has an office at the embassy and has regular breakfast meetings with the ambassador, his friend, Eugen Ott. He trusts Sorge implicitly. Together, they discuss all the confidential cables that have arrived overnight.
OWEN MATTHEWS: But Richard Sorge was, of course, a prominent communist activist in the early 1920s. That leaves a record. And at some point in 1940, the Germans decide to take a closer look at Richard Sorge - and particularly SS Brigadeführer Walter Schellenberg, who actually suspected Sorge of being perhaps a communist. So Schellenberg from Berlin smells a rat. Who is this guy who is entirely in the confidence of our man in Tokyo? So he sends a Gestapo colonel called Josef Meisinger to investigate Sorge.
NARRATOR: You might have heard of Meisinger before - perhaps by his nickname, the Butcher of Warsaw.
OWEN MATTHEWS: Meisinger is sent from Warsaw where he was under investigation for war crimes by the Gestapo. That's obviously quite a high bar.
NARRATOR: You don’t get called “the butcher” for nothing. But as it happened, Sorge discovered that he and Meisinger had fought in the same sector of the Western Front at the same time. So Sorge did what Sorge did best.
OWEN MATTHEWS: Sorge takes his would-be investigator out to his favorite bars and brothels and, within a couple of weeks, Josef Meisinger has become Richard Sorge's best friend. The threat has been neutralized from the Germans.
NARRATOR: A masterclass if you can stomach a bender with a war criminal. Still, it’s not just the Germans who are growing suspicious of Sorge.
OWEN MATTHEWS: There's also a threat, of course, from the Japanese because Sorge is working in an environment, wartime Tokyo, which is intensely paranoid. And one of the things that the Japanese are doing is trying desperately to pinpoint the source of Sorge's radio broadcasts.
NARRATOR: The Japanese were aware of coded radio signals going out - clearly illegal espionage broadcasts. They had dispatched radio locator vans out into the city of Tokyo, and had so far been unable to pinpoint where the communication was coming from. But they were hot on Sorge’s heels. And there was one more thing quickening Richard Sorge’s pulse. He’d already answered the question of whether Germany would invade the Soviet Union. Now he had to wonder: would the Japanese follow suit?
OWEN MATTHEWS: That is a question that can only be answered by getting some very top-level insider information from the highest echelons of the Japanese government who are basically debating it through the late summer.
NARRATOR: The Japanese high command are engaged in a flurry of debate about whether to attack the eastern end of the Soviet Union. They, too, had been caught by surprise by Operation Barbarossa. Now the Germans are going from strength to strength.
OWEN MATTHEWS: They've taken Kyiv. They're approaching Leningrad. They're approaching Moscow. They're approaching Stalingrad. The whole summer of 1941 is just a tale of disaster and defeat. And if the Japanese had chosen to attack the Soviet Union in that fateful summer of 1941, there's not a shadow of a doubt that the Soviet Union would have collapsed. They could not have withstood an onslaught on two fronts. So therefore, the information that Sorge can give them from Tokyo becomes incredibly vital.
NARRATOR: After the catastrophic mishandling of intel that had warned of Operation Barbarossa, the Soviets finally understand the value of the intelligence Sorge is transmitting. But that means, as the summer of 1941 heats up, the pressure is on.
OWEN MATTHEWS: For Richard Sorge, the stakes are higher than they've ever been because the information that he has to get is a matter of life and death for the Soviet Union.
NARRATOR: But because the stakes are so high, Sorge pushes the spies in his network to their limits. In turn, those spies begin to recruit their own agents in order to meet the demands of the moment.
OWEN MATTHEWS: His young associate, Miyagi, who's like been acting as a general dogsbody for the spy ring for eight years at that point, he actually, in fact, develops some excellent sources of his own, including the senior engineer at a military aircraft factory. But fatefully, when you have your agent recruiting other agents - and those agents start to recruit other agents or at least ask questions - soon you have a part of the spy ring which is beyond the control of the spy master, Richard Sorge.
NARRATOR: The first domino to fall isn’t Sorge’s sub-agent Miyagi, but one of Miyagi’s recruits.
OWEN MATTHEWS: A Japanese communist who's recruited by Miyagi in a little provincial town and is arrested for nothing other than actually having been a former communist. [He is] taken in for questioning and - totally to the local police’s surprise - suddenly starts to spill the beans about Miyagi.
NARRATOR: Naturally, Miyagi is the next to be arrested. Desperate to avoid questioning, Sorge’s agent flings himself out the third-floor window of the police station.
OWEN MATTHEWS: At which point his investigator throws himself out after him, which is really taking hot pursuit to an extreme. It turns out that both of them land in a bush and survive with, like, light bruises. But really, that's a very dedicated policeman.
NARRATOR: The bruised Miyagi begins to crack. He reveals his relationship with Max Clausen, Sorge’s radio operator.
OWEN MATTHEWS: Police raid Max Clausen's house. And, crucially, they discover a code book. As it turns out, the Japanese have been intercepting and recording almost all of the coded messages that Clausen has been sending since 1933. They have every message that Clausen has ever sent but it's in code. And the minute they have the code book, they start decoding it. In a moment, the Japanese suddenly have every single message that Sorge sent to the Soviet Union.
NARRATOR: All roads lead back to Sorge. And within days, Stalin’s greatest spymaster is arrested.
OWEN MATTHEWS: In prison, Sorge writes a very long memoir, which is somewhere between a confession and a justification.
NARRATOR: A confession, maybe, but not a mea culpa. Sorge told his captors: “I performed my duties with speed, resolution, courage, and resourcefulness.”
OWEN MATTHEWS: His audience is obviously his Japanese interrogators. He wants to convince them that he is providing full cooperation. But mostly his audience is for his Soviet masters, because he is convinced that the Soviet Union is going to save him and that it is going to somehow do a deal with the Japanese authorities to rescue their best agent, this man who served them loyally for so many years.
NARRATOR: Perhaps I don’t need to tell you: Stalinist Russia didn’t operate by the rules of loyalty or reciprocity. Even Sorge, master double-crosser, abided by a higher order of justice than his Soviet masters.
OWEN MATTHEWS: I think he - heartbreakingly, I suppose - that he expected to be rescued right until the last moment, until he was informed that he was going to be hanged along with Miyagi. And when he was given his last words just before he was hanged, he said, “Long live the Soviet Communist Party. Long live the Red Army. Long live the USSR.” He was a soldier of the revolution. And that's how in his own mind he lived and died, as a soldier.
NARRATOR: Over 20 years would pass before Sorge was formally recognized by the Soviet Union. After the Berlin Wall was erected, he was held up as an anti-Nazi communist hero. In Moscow, and in his hometown of Baku, statues of the executed spy still stand today. One person who fought to preserve his memory right from his death in 1941 was Sorge’s lover Hanako Miyagi.
OWEN MATTHEWS: She arranged to have his body exhumed and reburied in one of Tokyo's most prestigious cemeteries at her own expense. And then, she had a ring made of her dead lover's gold teeth, which she wore to the end of her days.
NARRATOR: Hanako evangelized Sorge’s work until her death in the year 2000. Her words appear on his grave in Tokyo’s Tama Cemetery: “Here lies a hero who sacrificed his life fighting against war and for world peace.” How could the mistress of a married man - a person who seduced dozens of women during his time in Tokyo alone - how could she remain so committed knowing his duplicity? Maybe she saw Sorge like Owen sees him, as a bad man who was a great spy. Or maybe she saw Sorge like he saw himself.
OWEN MATTHEWS: All of these bad things that he does, like betray his friends, betray his lovers, he does it all because he believes that he is the servant of some kind of higher morality. And I think that a really common thing in all espionage stories is very vanishingly rare cases of human beings being evil because they are evil. Much more common, in fact, almost universal, is people doing evil and devious things because they're serving a higher purpose, which in Sorge’s case is the triumph of international communism. All of this, frankly very unsavory behavior is to Sorge's own mind, a species of heroism. He just does what he has to do to serve the great cause.
NARRATOR: You can learn more about Richard Sorge in Owen Matthews’ biography The Impeccable Spy. I’m Daisy Ridley. Join us next week for the story of a CIA officer who stood shoulder to shoulder with the president and made a decision that may have changed the course of the Iraq War.
London-born Owen Matthews studied at Oxford University before becoming a freelance journalist in Bosnia. From 1995 to 1997 he worked at The Moscow Times English-language newspaper. In 1997 Owen became a correspondent for Newsweek. Since 2006 he has combined the jobs of Newsweek's Moscow bureau chief and Istanbul correspondent.