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Agent Sonya: Moscow's Most Daring Wartime Spy

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The true story behind the Cold War’s most intrepid female spy. In 1942, in a quiet village in the leafy English Cotswolds, a thin, elegant woman lived in a small cottage with her three children and her husband, who worked as a machinist nearby. Ursula Burton was friendly but reserved, and spoke English with a slight foreign accent. By all accounts, she seemed to be living a The true story behind the Cold War’s most intrepid female spy. In 1942, in a quiet village in the leafy English Cotswolds, a thin, elegant woman lived in a small cottage with her three children and her husband, who worked as a machinist nearby. Ursula Burton was friendly but reserved, and spoke English with a slight foreign accent. By all accounts, she seemed to be living a simple, unassuming life. Her neighbors in the village knew little about her. They didn’t know that she was a high-ranking Soviet intelligence officer. They didn’t know that her husband was also a spy, or that she was running powerful agents across Europe. Behind the facade of her picturesque life, Burton was a dedicated Communist, a Soviet colonel, and a veteran agent, gathering the scientific secrets that would enable the Soviet Union to build the bomb. This true-life spy story is about the woman code-named “Sonya.” Over the course of her career, she was hunted by the Chinese, the Japanese, the Nazis, MI5, MI6, and the FBI—and she evaded them all. Her story reflects the great ideological clash of the twentieth century—between Communism, Fascism, and Western democracy—and casts new light on the spy battles and shifting allegiances of our own times. With unparalleled access to Sonya’s diaries and correspondence and never-before-seen information on her clandestine activities, Ben Macintyre has written a history of a legendary secret agent, a woman who influenced the course of the Cold War and helped plunge the world into a decades-long standoff between nuclear superpowers.


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The true story behind the Cold War’s most intrepid female spy. In 1942, in a quiet village in the leafy English Cotswolds, a thin, elegant woman lived in a small cottage with her three children and her husband, who worked as a machinist nearby. Ursula Burton was friendly but reserved, and spoke English with a slight foreign accent. By all accounts, she seemed to be living a The true story behind the Cold War’s most intrepid female spy. In 1942, in a quiet village in the leafy English Cotswolds, a thin, elegant woman lived in a small cottage with her three children and her husband, who worked as a machinist nearby. Ursula Burton was friendly but reserved, and spoke English with a slight foreign accent. By all accounts, she seemed to be living a simple, unassuming life. Her neighbors in the village knew little about her. They didn’t know that she was a high-ranking Soviet intelligence officer. They didn’t know that her husband was also a spy, or that she was running powerful agents across Europe. Behind the facade of her picturesque life, Burton was a dedicated Communist, a Soviet colonel, and a veteran agent, gathering the scientific secrets that would enable the Soviet Union to build the bomb. This true-life spy story is about the woman code-named “Sonya.” Over the course of her career, she was hunted by the Chinese, the Japanese, the Nazis, MI5, MI6, and the FBI—and she evaded them all. Her story reflects the great ideological clash of the twentieth century—between Communism, Fascism, and Western democracy—and casts new light on the spy battles and shifting allegiances of our own times. With unparalleled access to Sonya’s diaries and correspondence and never-before-seen information on her clandestine activities, Ben Macintyre has written a history of a legendary secret agent, a woman who influenced the course of the Cold War and helped plunge the world into a decades-long standoff between nuclear superpowers.

30 review for Agent Sonya: Moscow's Most Daring Wartime Spy

  1. 4 out of 5

    Donna Davis

    Ben Macintyre is a badass writer of narrative nonfiction about lesser known historical figures from the World War II era. I read and reviewed his blockbuster, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, which was published in 2014; when I was invited to do the same for Agent Sonya, I didn’t hesitate. My thanks go to Net Galley and Crown Publishing for the review copy. You can buy this book now. Her real name was Ursula Kuczynski, and she was a German Jew. Hitler came to full power wh Ben Macintyre is a badass writer of narrative nonfiction about lesser known historical figures from the World War II era. I read and reviewed his blockbuster, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, which was published in 2014; when I was invited to do the same for Agent Sonya, I didn’t hesitate. My thanks go to Net Galley and Crown Publishing for the review copy. You can buy this book now. Her real name was Ursula Kuczynski, and she was a German Jew. Hitler came to full power when she was visiting China, and her entire family fled. Born before the Russian Revolution, she lived until after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and so her lifespan encompassed the entire duration of the Soviet Union. An unusually intelligent woman, she was drawn to Communism by the horror of Fascism, and by the misery created by disparate wealth that was right in front of her. The Chinese peasantry were so wretchedly poor that she found dead babies in the street; starving mothers sometimes concluded that they might be able to save one child, but they surely couldn’t save more than that, and they were forced to make a tragic choice. This, in spite of the vast and opulent wealth of the most privileged classes; it was obviously wrong, and there appeared to be only one way around it. She signed on to be a spy for Moscow. Kuczynski’s career in espionage spanned twenty years and took place in myriad locations across Europe and Asia. She briefly harbored doubts about her career at the time of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, but shortly after its creation, Hitler broke it by attacking the USSR, and the matter became moot. Others around her were apprehended and either jailed or executed, but Ursula always got away clean. As she advanced in the Red Army, ultimately receiving the rank of Colonel, she was given increasingly important work, and her ultimate achievement was in recruiting a scientist that was placed at a high level within the Manhattan Project. More than 500 pages of important documents made their way to Moscow, and because of his defection and Ursula’s skill, the USSR soon had the atomic bomb also. Though Ursula never considered herself a feminist, she never hesitated when commanding men—a thing few women did at this point in history—and she didn’t let the men in her life shove her around. One of my favorite passages is when she is pregnant at an inconvenient time, and her estranged husband and lover put their heads together to decide what should be done. The two of them agree that Ursula needs an abortion, and Ursula tells them she’s decided to have the baby. Mansplainers never stood a chance with Ursula. There were many instances when motherhood conflicted with her professional duties, and she had to make a lot of hard choices, but being a mother also provided her with an excellent cover. Sexist assumptions on the part of M15, M16, and other spy-catchers were also responsible for part of her success; how could a mother of three children who baked such excellent scones be a foreign agent? Don’t be silly. And consequently, her husband (whichever one) often drew scrutiny, but nobody ever dreamed that Ursula herself was the high level spy they sought. The one thing I would have liked to see added to this excellent work is a photo of this woman; perhaps it is included in the final publication, but my digital review copy showed none.* I found photos of her online and understood right away why she was so effective. That disarming smile; that engaging face. Who could help loving her? She looks like everyone’s best friend. She appears incapable of duplicity. Although the biography itself is serious in nature, there are some hilarious passages involving the nanny, and also an imbecilic British agent that couldn’t find his butt with both hands. Finally, one of the most fortunate aspects of this biography is that although it is absorbing, it isn’t written like a thriller, and so it’s a great book for bedtime. You already know that Ursula isn’t going to be executed, right? Her story is told in linear fashion, so although it’s a literate, intelligently told story, it’s never confusing. With autumn upon us, I cannot think of a more congenial tale to curl up with on a chilly evening. This book is highly recommended. * An alert reader tells me that the final copy of the book shows photographs of all the major players.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Maine Colonial

    I received a free digital advance reviewing copy from the publisher, via Netgalley. Ben Macintyre has done it again; produced a jaw-dropping book about 20th-century espionage. Sonya, born Ursula Kuczynski, lived a long life in service to the causes of anti-fascism and communism, starting 10 years before the Russian Revolution and extending decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. Her travels and accomplishments would be unbelievable as fiction. As I received a free digital advance reviewing copy from the publisher, via Netgalley. Ben Macintyre has done it again; produced a jaw-dropping book about 20th-century espionage. Sonya, born Ursula Kuczynski, lived a long life in service to the causes of anti-fascism and communism, starting 10 years before the Russian Revolution and extending decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. Her travels and accomplishments would be unbelievable as fiction. As history, they are flat-out amazing in themselves and even more so because she did it all while being a loving wife and mother. Born into an intellectual German Jewish family, she was keenly aware of the growing power of the Nazis. Much of it she viewed from afar, though, because she and her architect husband were living in Shanghai, where he was working. Appalled by the state of the Chinese working class and the growth of fascism, Ursula was soon recruited to spy for Soviet military intelligence, working with famed agent Richard Sorge. Always willing to obey the orders of Moscow Centre, Ursula moved from Shanghai to Poland to Switzerland to England, shedding husbands/partners along the way, but accruing children. Her hair-raising escapes from danger are mostly attributable to her wiliness, but as Macintyre makes clear, there’s a little secret sauce in there too. And that’s sexism. Ursula was so outgoing, so charming, so at ease with all kinds of people (even Nazis), and so housewifely, that nobody ever seemed to think she could possibly be a Soviet spy, no matter what the evidence—and it reached the point where there was plenty. Macintyre is particularly scathing about British intelligence’s failure to figure out that Ursula was involved (and how!) in the smuggling of nuclear bomb secrets to the USSR. She was a handler for Klaus Fuchs, the physicist who handed over copies of all the nuclear bomb work he was involved in. Interestingly, it was only their one high-level female employee who was suspicious of Ursula from the moment she arrived in England—and even before. While I was astonished by Ursula’s story, so much of the time I was reading I kept thinking about her three children. Her eldest, Michael, had moved from Shanghai to Manchuria to Poland to Switzerland by the time he was 10 years old, and knew four languages. When she had to flee England after the arrest of Klaus Fuchs, her children were suddenly wrenched from their comfortable English village life to East Berlin. Just imagine that. If you’ve read Ben Macintyre books before, you won’t need any encouragement to read this one. But if you haven’t, this is as good a book as any to start with, especially if you have an interest in reading about women in espionage.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Forthbridge

    Although 'Sonya' is the main subject of the book her two husbands and Richard Sorge are also significant characters and this adds a new dimension to this wonderful account. I have enjoyed all of Macintyre's books and like his journalism but I think this is his finest achievement to date. He has the gift of a conversational style which manages to convey facts easily but without being trite or facile. A great gift. Sonya spied in China and Switzerland but her big hit was when she operated from a Although 'Sonya' is the main subject of the book her two husbands and Richard Sorge are also significant characters and this adds a new dimension to this wonderful account. I have enjoyed all of Macintyre's books and like his journalism but I think this is his finest achievement to date. He has the gift of a conversational style which manages to convey facts easily but without being trite or facile. A great gift. Sonya spied in China and Switzerland but her big hit was when she operated from a sweet English village. Bicycling along country lanes she could have been a vicar's wife out for some innocent brambling rather than checking out a dead drop with instructions from her Soviet handler. The bravery of the men who parachuted into Germany just before the collapse of the Reich to assess bomb damage took my breath away. They used cutting edge technology to communicate with high altitude Allied planes - and Sonya made sure Stalin's subordinates got a peek at the kit. Just one highlight of this excellent book.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Brandon Forsyth

    Ben Macintyre has done it again! I’ll officially follow this author anywhere, this is not just one of my favourite books of the year but potentially one of my favourites of all time. Ursula Kuczynski lived an incredible life, and le Carré’s maxim about spies being the reflection of their country’s soul has never been truer. Highly, highly recommended.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Veeral

    This is the 3rd book by Ben Macintyre that I have read, and I consider all three of those as exceptional works of non-fiction. If you are interested in real-life spies and their spycraft, you can't go wrong with Ben Macintyre.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Mal Warwick

    Ben MacIntyre is one of the most prolific producers of nonfiction books about espionage in the English language. Of the thirteen books he’s written to date, nearly all are about spies, saboteurs, and partisans, and five of those books have been made into documentaries by the BBC. In his latest venture, MacIntyre tells the tale of an extraordinary Soviet spy in World War II, a German-Jewish Communist named Ursula Kuczynski (1907-2000). During her nearly two decades as an officer of Soviet militar Ben MacIntyre is one of the most prolific producers of nonfiction books about espionage in the English language. Of the thirteen books he’s written to date, nearly all are about spies, saboteurs, and partisans, and five of those books have been made into documentaries by the BBC. In his latest venture, MacIntyre tells the tale of an extraordinary Soviet spy in World War II, a German-Jewish Communist named Ursula Kuczynski (1907-2000). During her nearly two decades as an officer of Soviet military intelligence, Kuczynski played a pivotal role in one of the most spectacular intelligence coups of the twentieth century. As a colonel in the Red Army working for what was later called the GRU, she handled the agent who stole Britain’s and America’s most critical atomic bomb secrets for Josef Stalin. Her code name was “Sonya.” MacIntyre’s biography of her is endlessly fascinating. An actor in the history of the twentieth century Ursula Kuczynski’s life spanned the history of the Soviet state. “She was ten years old when the Bolshevik Revolution took place and eighty-two when the Berlin Wall came down.” She was born into a wealthy family of left-wing intellectuals in Berlin—”Albert Einstein was one of [her father’s] closest friends”—but sometimes suffered privation as an adult in war-torn China, Switzerland, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and East Germany. She was married twice and gave birth to a son by a third man, but the love of her life was the superspy Richard Sorge (1895-1944), who seduced and recruited her to the GRU. And, as MacIntyre concludes, she came to view that history like so much of the rest of the world. As a Soviet spy, “She spent her adult life fighting for something she believed to be right, and died knowing that much of it had been wrong.” A life peopled with extraordinary characters Some of the most intriguing individuals in the history of the past century crossed paths with Ursula Kuczynski, and many of them, not just Richard Sorge and Klaus Fuchs, played important roles in her life. ** Robert Kuczynski (1876-1947), her father, and Jürgen Kuczynski (1904-97), her older brother. Both were prominent economists, and her brother, a Communist like herself, also became a Soviet agent in World War II. ** Agnes Smedley (1892-1950), an American journalist who worked as a spy for the Comintern in China and wrote sympathetically about the Chinese Communist Party. Like Ursula Kuczynski, she was one of Richard Sorge’s many lovers. ** Alexander (Sandor) Radó, the Soviet spy rezident in Switzerland who directed the “linchpin” in the Soviet spy ring that Heinrich Himmler called the Rote Kapelle (Red Orchestra) ** Millicent Bagot (1907-2006), the MI5 Communist-hunter who came closest to exposing Agent Sonya. She “would eventually achieve literary immortality as the model for Connie Sachs, the eccentric and obsessive spinster in the novels of John le Carré.” ** Sir Roger Hollis (1905-73), the senior MI5 operative who eventually became the agency’s Director General (1956-65) and who, to this day, remains controversial because so many believe he was a KGB mole (although Ben MacIntyre does not) Sigint, not humint, was preeminent Spies and saboteurs were not a major factor in the Allied victory in World War II. The spies and saboteurs of the many national Resistance and partisan movements and the officers of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) made valuable contributions—but, with the exception of a few extraordinary individuals, achieved little impact on the outcome of the war. What today we understand as intelligence was a significant factor, but it was sigint, not humint—the work of the codebreakers, not spies; the people who broke the German Enigma code and the Japanese naval and diplomatic codes. Their work enabled the Allies to win the Battle of the Atlantic and the Battle of Midway, among many other crucial episodes in the war. But there were exceptions, Ursula Kuczynski among them However, there were exceptional spies who did, in fact, impact the course of history. The most prominent of them were: ** The German Communist working from Japan for the USSR, Richard Sorge, whose intelligence enabled Stalin to move half a million men from the Far East to the defense of Moscow in 1941; ** The motley collection of double agents recruited by MI6 who played critical roles in the D-Day deception that misdirected German forces toward the Pas de Calais instead of Normandy; ** And the young refugee German physicist Klaus Fuchs who passed along the nuclear research secrets of the British Tube Alloys program and American Manhattan Project to the Soviet Union—and directly to Josef Stalin himself—through the hands of Soviet spy Ursula Kuczynski during Fuchs’ years in Great Britain (1941-43).

  7. 5 out of 5

    Stephanie Griffin

    Ben Macintyre writes the best spy biographies! This particular spy, Ursula Burton (alias Sonya) started out in Germany resisting the fascists and ended up being a spy for the Soviet Union in many parts of the world. She was definitely dedicated to her beliefs, sometimes even giving up her children for lengthy periods of time. While I admire her for her dedication, I don’t think she was all that great of a person. Macintyre follows Sonya’s journeys around the world, the comrades she encountered, a Ben Macintyre writes the best spy biographies! This particular spy, Ursula Burton (alias Sonya) started out in Germany resisting the fascists and ended up being a spy for the Soviet Union in many parts of the world. She was definitely dedicated to her beliefs, sometimes even giving up her children for lengthy periods of time. While I admire her for her dedication, I don’t think she was all that great of a person. Macintyre follows Sonya’s journeys around the world, the comrades she encountered, and the work she did. It was fascinating to read that she was trained in bomb making in the Soviet Union! Recommended. Also recommend his book on Kim Philby: A Spy Among Friends. Philby makes an appearance in Agent Sonya, too.

  8. 5 out of 5

    AdiTurbo

    In this age of demagogy and liberal use of truth, it is easy to forget that not very long ago, people actually carried beliefs in various political ideologies, and some politicians made decisions according to ideology rather than according to what's in their best interests. In view of the current political climate, this may seem like a positive thing, but the story of the 20th century proves it wrong. Taken to the extreme, ideologies are no less dangerous than political opportunism. This is the In this age of demagogy and liberal use of truth, it is easy to forget that not very long ago, people actually carried beliefs in various political ideologies, and some politicians made decisions according to ideology rather than according to what's in their best interests. In view of the current political climate, this may seem like a positive thing, but the story of the 20th century proves it wrong. Taken to the extreme, ideologies are no less dangerous than political opportunism. This is the story of a group of people who adopted communism so fanatically, that they agreed to put themselves and their loved ones in great danger, betray the trust of everyone around them and sometimes take actions that would have terrible consequences. Above all, it is the story of Ursula Kuczinsky, who had many other names throughout her life, and who was a major spy and spymaster for over 20 years. As a woman, I was happy to read about a strong woman who lived by her own rules and beliefs, was talented, successful at everything she did, and enjoyed her free love life. However, this story is much more complex and has many dark sides. It is a story of a Jew fighting against Fascism with everything she's got, but also a story of a mother who puts her own children in grave danger. It is the story of great loves based on common ideals, but also of adultery, abandonment and betrayal of lovers and good friends. It is the story of a woman who wanted to help create a much better world and life for many, but who ended up supporting murderous and monstrous regimes. Ben Macintyre, yet again, did amazing research and brings us a comprehensive picture of her life and work, her thoughts and emotions, as much as it is possible to reconstruct them now. The story may not be as thrilling and suspenseful as his last novel, "The Spy and the Traitor," which made my heart race at times, but it is very engaging and brings to life the spirit of the times and significant moments in history, as well as builds a portrait of a highly intelligent and impressive woman who lived in secrets, paradoxes and lies, but also had a great capacity for love and who lived for what she believed in, for good or bad. Ben Macintyre seems to be able to turn any story from the past into a fascinating and compelling read and is definitely my favorite espionage history writer. eARC received from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Emily

    Another corker by Ben Macintyre. I have to wonder if I'm being unfair by giving this only four stars, but I have to maintain rank around the amazingly five-star The Spy and the Traitor. In this book, an ambiguously cosmopolitan woman spies for the Soviets and secretly rises to a high rank in the Red Army, while appearing to be an expat housewife and mother. We have the usual near misses and amazing escapes here, but a big part of the fun is seeing Ursula alias Sonya run circles around clueless of Another corker by Ben Macintyre. I have to wonder if I'm being unfair by giving this only four stars, but I have to maintain rank around the amazingly five-star The Spy and the Traitor. In this book, an ambiguously cosmopolitan woman spies for the Soviets and secretly rises to a high rank in the Red Army, while appearing to be an expat housewife and mother. We have the usual near misses and amazing escapes here, but a big part of the fun is seeing Ursula alias Sonya run circles around clueless officials who can't overlook the fact that she's a woman. At one point, she evades a would-be MI5 interrogator simply by excusing herself to finish baking her son's birthday cake. Her schedule, "swept up in an exhausting whirlwind of espionage, child-rearing, and housework," might feel especially resonant to some people in 2020! I enjoyed the presentation of her life in China and of her peregrinations during the long run-up to WWII. As Macintyre notes at the end, her career spanned the entire 20th century story of communism, and she was a believer until the end.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jason Allison

    MacIntyre’s best work. One woman’s amazing life masterfully told. The greatest World War II story I’d never heard of. Perhaps the best non-fiction book I’ve read this year.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Shirley McAllister

    Mother, Lover, Spy Agent Sonya is the story of Ursula Kuczynski. Sonya grew up in a home of communist sympathizers. She embraced communism at an early age becoming a spy for the Soviet Union. She spied for the Soviet Union in Switzerland, Shanghai China, and the United Kingdom. Married more than once, having lovers and children by 3 men, she often struggled with being a mother and a spy. She used her marriage and her children in her spy work. She often hid items for her spy activities in a baby ca Mother, Lover, Spy Agent Sonya is the story of Ursula Kuczynski. Sonya grew up in a home of communist sympathizers. She embraced communism at an early age becoming a spy for the Soviet Union. She spied for the Soviet Union in Switzerland, Shanghai China, and the United Kingdom. Married more than once, having lovers and children by 3 men, she often struggled with being a mother and a spy. She used her marriage and her children in her spy work. She often hid items for her spy activities in a baby carriage, a grocery basket, and once a teddy bear was used as a hiding place. The book tells Sonya’s story, but it also tells the stories of each person mentioned in the book. It has much historical and technical information as well as the stories of each person mentioned. The book did bog down for me in May places, it was a bit tedious at times. I did enjoy Sonya’s story, not so much all the other stories in between. The technical information was over my head and not interesting to me. I read the book to the end because I wanted to find out what happened to Sonya. I did appreciate the concluding remarks at the end telling how each of the main characters ended up. Thanks to Ben Macintyre, Crown Publishing, and NetGalley for allowing me to read an advanced copy of the book in return for an honest review.

  12. 4 out of 5

    David Lowther

    What can you say about this thrilling book except to say it's the best so far from the pen of Ben Macintyre who has never put a foot wrong. You couldn't make it up as they say, this biography of surely one of the most dedicated and successful spies of all time who it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say changed the course of history. Sonya was a German Jew who plied her trade on behalf of the USSR in China,Switzerland and Great Britain. She was a dedicated Communist, brilliant exponent of the art o What can you say about this thrilling book except to say it's the best so far from the pen of Ben Macintyre who has never put a foot wrong. You couldn't make it up as they say, this biography of surely one of the most dedicated and successful spies of all time who it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say changed the course of history. Sonya was a German Jew who plied her trade on behalf of the USSR in China,Switzerland and Great Britain. She was a dedicated Communist, brilliant exponent of the art of espionage and a loving mother. How her duties as (eventually) a Colonel in the GRU and bringing up three young children frequently clashed and is a recurring theme in the book. What would the world have been had the US been the only country with nuclear weapons. My bowels turn to water at the thought. Amongst Sonya's 'assets' was Melita Norwood, portrayed by Sophie Cookson and Judi Dench in the recent film Red Joan (ridiculously under rated by the critics). The time and energy for research poured into Agent Sonya by the author beggars belief. He writes beautifully, a master of the English language. You can't skim read Agent Sonya but neither can you put it down. A brilliant book. David Lowther. Author of The Blue Pencil, Liberating Belsen, Two Families at War and The Summer of '39, all published by Sacristy Press.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Chris

    I finally after ten years on Goodreads received this as a free giveaway book. Ben MacIntyre never disappoints. Masterful and fascinating account of a woman whom we’ve never heard of but who had a disproportionate effect on the history of the 20th Century. She put into play a serious plot to assassinate Hitler while based in Switzerland. It would have succeeded too if it had not been for the signing of the nonaggression pact and her handlers telling her to stand down. The Soviet’s infiltration of I finally after ten years on Goodreads received this as a free giveaway book. Ben MacIntyre never disappoints. Masterful and fascinating account of a woman whom we’ve never heard of but who had a disproportionate effect on the history of the 20th Century. She put into play a serious plot to assassinate Hitler while based in Switzerland. It would have succeeded too if it had not been for the signing of the nonaggression pact and her handlers telling her to stand down. The Soviet’s infiltration of Western governments during WW II was truly exceptional. Agent Sonya was the mouthpiece for sending all of the nuclear bomb secrets to Stalin from Klaus Fuchs. Agent Sonya even infiltrated agents into the American OSS. You almost begin to wonder how we won the war and the Cold War given their extraordinary penetration of our operations. The West might have cracked the Enigma code to beat Germany but the Soviets pulled an equally adept accomplishment in learning virtually all the details of our atomic weapons program. An interesting woman- Ursula Kuczynski , led an extraordinary life. It wasn’t all accolades either. Lots of heartache, depression, separation. But she prevailed.

  14. 4 out of 5

    AliceC09

    I continue to enjoy Macintyre's books. They are thoroughly researched and engagingly written. I often find them hard to put down. One of the things I enjoyed most in this book was the theme of gender, and how stereotypes and biases often got in the way of those trying to hunt down Ursula/Sonya. Multiple times she was written off by those pursuing Soviet spies because she was "just a housewife" and it was thought that she could not be or do more than that. Similarly, one of the top communist/spy h I continue to enjoy Macintyre's books. They are thoroughly researched and engagingly written. I often find them hard to put down. One of the things I enjoyed most in this book was the theme of gender, and how stereotypes and biases often got in the way of those trying to hunt down Ursula/Sonya. Multiple times she was written off by those pursuing Soviet spies because she was "just a housewife" and it was thought that she could not be or do more than that. Similarly, one of the top communist/spy hunters in MI5, a woman, was repeatedly completely accurate in her assessments about the threat posted by Sonya and yet her bosses, both incompetent men, brushed aside her expert (accurate) assessments. I can't wait for Macintyre's next book!

  15. 5 out of 5

    Gwen

    A fascinating tale of a spy who spies purely out of ideology. This means that she is out of step in German when she's anti-socialism (1920s), out of step in China when she's pure communist, out of step in England when she's, er, pure communist. Over the course of her life, Ursula Kuczynski Hamburger Beurton is consistent only about one thing: she puts the cause before self, and before family. It means that she leaves her son to attend training in Moscow, and puts her children in board school whe A fascinating tale of a spy who spies purely out of ideology. This means that she is out of step in German when she's anti-socialism (1920s), out of step in China when she's pure communist, out of step in England when she's, er, pure communist. Over the course of her life, Ursula Kuczynski Hamburger Beurton is consistent only about one thing: she puts the cause before self, and before family. It means that she leaves her son to attend training in Moscow, and puts her children in board school when they come too inquisitive. Through her time as a spy, Ursula gets lucky time and time again -- not killed in purges that occur while she's in Moscow; not caught or detected; favored by Stalin, and chiefs running her -- and this extends to her decision to leave the spy game; no one does that, especially from GRU or KGB, and yet, she does, and then becomes a novelist. The ingenuity, and daring-do, of spycraft is on full display. So too are the mistakes, errors and misses of people not catching on, or being ignored. It is clear from Macintyre's account that her being a woman offered ample cover. No one could quite conceive of a woman running spies, of a woman being more dangerous than her husband, of a woman doing anything other than domestic duties. And yet ... they were wrong. The only person who really cottoned on was another woman, in MI5, and no one really believed her (to their discredit). This book moves along briskly. The research and interviews make this even a more compelling story than it might be otherwise.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Dennis Hogan

    Finished Agent Sonya: Lover, Mother, Soldier, Spy by Ben Macintyre, the British historian and writer. I’ve been hooked on Macintyre’s books since Operation Mincemeat written in 2010. Agent Sonya is the fascinating account of a master Soviet spy who worked in China, Poland, Switzerland and England on behalf of the Russian spy agency, the GRU. It’s remarkable that she conducted her spy work while raising three children under the guise of housewife. Her ultimate achievement was the case management Finished Agent Sonya: Lover, Mother, Soldier, Spy by Ben Macintyre, the British historian and writer. I’ve been hooked on Macintyre’s books since Operation Mincemeat written in 2010. Agent Sonya is the fascinating account of a master Soviet spy who worked in China, Poland, Switzerland and England on behalf of the Russian spy agency, the GRU. It’s remarkable that she conducted her spy work while raising three children under the guise of housewife. Her ultimate achievement was the case management of the German physicist Klaus Fuchs who betrayed Great Britain by sharing the top secret Manhattan project enabling Russia to produce their atom bomb. I was particularly taken by her choice as a German Jew to view Communism as the answer to German Fascism in the rise of Hitler.

  17. 5 out of 5

    HistoryGeek 42

    A little tedious in the beginning but ultimately very interesting to see how the arms race heated up at the end of WWII.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Bookreporter.com Biography & Memoir

    We love our heroes; we despise our villains. What, then, do we make of Colonel Ursula Kuczynski, aka Ursula Hamburger, aka Ursula Beurton, aka --- Agent Sonya? Author Ben Macintyre’s exhaustively detailed and consistently fascinating account of this amazing woman’s life may force us to realign our predilection for clearly delineated hero-versus-villain judgments. She was inarguably a true hero to her followers and her compatriots --- her comrades. Ursula was devoted to her cause, courageous and b We love our heroes; we despise our villains. What, then, do we make of Colonel Ursula Kuczynski, aka Ursula Hamburger, aka Ursula Beurton, aka --- Agent Sonya? Author Ben Macintyre’s exhaustively detailed and consistently fascinating account of this amazing woman’s life may force us to realign our predilection for clearly delineated hero-versus-villain judgments. She was inarguably a true hero to her followers and her compatriots --- her comrades. Ursula was devoted to her cause, courageous and brilliant; a fighter for the rights of the oppressed; an unassailable foe of all things Nazi and fascist; a spy who escaped overwhelming dangers at every turn and succeeded at every mission of her career. But the same Agent Sonya was instrumental in providing the Soviet Union the information it needed to quickly catch up to America in the race for the development of nuclear power and preeminence. Without her participation, it’s quite likely that Russia would not have been able to pull off the most daring and world-changing spying coup of the 20th century. Ursula Kuczynski was a German Jew who grew up a product of privilege and wealth. Her father was a well-known and highly respected left-leaning scholar. But even as a teenager, Ursula moved far to the left of her father’s rather gentle left-wing positions. She was moved by the works of Marx and Engels, the tenets of communism and the plight of the oppressed, the poor and the underprivileged. At the age of 16, she participated in a demonstration organized by a communist youth group. While she marched, she was pulled out of her place and savagely beaten with a rubber truncheon by a fascist brownshirt policeman. Her destiny was determined; she must work tirelessly for the rest of her life to destroy the German power structure, fascism and capitalism. And that is precisely what she did. By the mid-1930s, being a communist spy was virtually synonymous with being an implacable enemy of Hitler, Nazism and the perceived evils of capitalism. Her first assignment was to move to Shanghai in order to spy on and resist the power and cruelty of the reigning Chinese Nationalist government --- which also meant delivering useful information to the still-small rogue army of one Mao Tse-tung. She performed immaculately in that role despite the immediate threats posed by the Chinese government and anti-communist spies, especially those from Japan. Soviet authorities were impressed by her work and sent her to Japanese-controlled Manchuria, where she continued her work on the Soviet Union’s behalf. Then, prior to and during World War II, she was assigned to Switzerland, a neutral country where spies from around the world congregated. After narrowly escaping with her life from Switzerland, she moved to England with her two young children, where she became one of Russia’s most formidable spies and couriers. As all the Allies put into practice the adage that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, much of the spying she did for Russia was also immensely helpful to Great Britain and America. So while she lived the apparently innocent life of a plain English housewife and mother, a country lady, she provided invaluable contributions to the successes of numerous Allied strategies, plans and actions. But besides being a contributor, she was a conspirator. She made sure that Russia profited as much or more from the secrets she exposed than the Western Allies. What a tangled web... It was England that first used its scientists to explore the possible wartime uses of nuclear weapons, but upon sharing their plans and experiments with America, it soon became clear that the U.S. would assume the leadership role in the actual development of the atomic bomb. Meanwhile, Ursula, now Ursula Beurton because of her second and final marriage, had developed a huge network of brilliant communist spies in England, and she worked day and night to procure for Russia virtually all the plans and documents for the development of the bomb. She had added Klaus Fuchs, a surpassingly brilliant young pro-communist German scientist, into her spy network. England had sent him to America to work on the Manhattan Project. He knew everything. And he transmitted everything to Russia via Agent Sonya, the plain English country housewife and mom, Ursula Beurton. But the British and American spy systems were also hard at work. Despite their uncomfortable wartime alliances, they hated everything about communism --- a stance that was more than understandable given the horrors perpetrated by Stalin on his own people and even many of his close associates; his paranoia knew no bounds. After the war, with the birth of a new and different kind of war, a Cold War, Ursula could feel the web of Western spies closing in on her. Just in time to elude capture, she and her children moved to East German Berlin, where her husband joined them later. She lived in Berlin for the rest of her life. She did not love her life there, but she was, for the most part, beloved by the East German power structure and, of course, their Soviet masters. After all, she had accomplished miracles for them. She was devastated when the communist government collapsed because all she had believed in and cherished had vanished. Yet she knew she had done her job: she had done her part in ensuring that the capitalist imperialist United States would not be able to assume worldwide hegemony --- Russia had the bomb. She also had done all that one human being could do to bring down Hitler and his party of monsters. She had survived. Hitler and his party had not. Incredibly, in 1956, Ursula changed her name one more time and her vocation as well. She became Ruth Werner, bestselling novelist. Many of her books were thinly veiled autobiographical memoirs, and, in 1977, she actually published her autobiography, though it was heavily censored by the autocratic and very stodgy East German authorities. The book, however, probably did offer enough information about her life that it read something like a movie script that had gone to absurd lengths to portray the adventures of “Agent Sonya, Soviet Spy.” Ben Macintyre also generously provides us with a stunning short summary of Ursula’s life and careers in AGENT SONYA: “...mother, housewife, novelist, expert radio technician, spymaster, courier, saboteur, bomb maker, Cold Warrior, and secret agent...” Ursula Kuczynski Beurton’s career quite simply put James Bond and his adventures to shame. But, unlike 007, she was the real thing. Reviewed by Jack Kramer

  19. 5 out of 5

    Emilie Weidl

    They did not know that the woman they called Mrs. Burton was really Colonel Ursula Kuczynski of the Red Army, a decorated Soviety military intelligence officer, and a highly trained spy who had conducted espionage operations in china, Poland, and Switzerland, before coming to Britain on Moscow’s orders. I was so excited when I received the review copy for this book because Ben Macintyre is one of my favourite authors ever, and he did not disappoint. Not only is this yet another incredible espio They did not know that the woman they called Mrs. Burton was really Colonel Ursula Kuczynski of the Red Army, a decorated Soviety military intelligence officer, and a highly trained spy who had conducted espionage operations in china, Poland, and Switzerland, before coming to Britain on Moscow’s orders. I was so excited when I received the review copy for this book because Ben Macintyre is one of my favourite authors ever, and he did not disappoint. Not only is this yet another incredible espionage narrative biography from Macintyre, but it is the first of its kind that focuses on a female spy. I definitely need to own a physical copy of this book as well to add to my collection. Macintyre’s latest work centres around Ursula Kuczynski, known to other Soviet spies as Sonya. As a Jewish child growing up in early twentieth century Germany, Kuczynski became devoted to the Marxist cause very early on in her life, a cause that would be close to heart for the entirety of her long life. An interest that began with street protests and academic study soon morphed into a dangerous career. Like many born to privilege, she wondered if she had the stomach for the grimy, morally contradictory and frequently violent reality of revolution. Could one be a revolutionary and still enjoy good things, like new clothes? Recruited by the Soviets while living in China, Kuczynski ended up spying for the communist cause in multiple countries before ending up in England around the end of the war. Over the course of her decades-long career, she was hunted by multiple countries’ intelligence operations, but was never betrayed by any of her fellow spies. Incredibly brave and skilled at her work, Kuczynski was able to escape to East Germany just as MI in England was about to realize just who they had let slip through their fingers multiple times. While Millicent Bagot at MI was convinced of Kuczynski’s communist spy connections for quite a while, none of her male colleagues would listen to her, as they fell multiple times for Kuczynski’s act as a simple housewife. The sexist dynamics at Military Intelligence (MI) allowed Kuczynski to evade arrest in England. It was only after she had already left England that MI realized just who they had let walk—the woman responsible for gathering scientific secrets about the American nuclear bomb development program that enabled the Soviets to catch up so quickly. Sending in double agents, Agent Sonya was able to make it so that England was less up-to-date about the program than the Soviets were. The at-once tense and harmonious relationship between Kuczynski’s life as a woman and mother and her life as a spy is a strong theme in this book. While she cared deeply about the communist cause, Kuczynski also loved being a mother. Both of these occupations were impossible to abandon, so she made them work in harmony with each other. Deeply respected by the entirety of Soviet intelligence, Kuczynski was able to survive Stalin’s Purge while many of her peers disappeared around her. She was most recently honoured, posthumously, by Vladimir Putin, who declared her a “super-agent of military intelligence.” Every time Macintyre releases a new book, it is better than the last. This one was no exception. It grabs you right from the beginning and is fast-paced all the way through. I loved seeing Kuczynski develop as a spy and as a woman over the course of the book. She was incredibly skilled at her job, such as it was. Macintyre gave her the respect she deserved, and did not treat her as precious or naive due to her sex. He gave her the biography any badass spy would be proud to have. Ursula became a spy for the sake of the proletariat and the revolution; but she also did it for herself, driven by the extraordinary combination of ambition, romance, and adventure that bubbled inside her. Like most books about female spies, I wanted to become friends with her. I wanted to be her. Ursula was touched by a gift that was part love token, part espionage tool. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in trying out espionage nonfiction, or anyone who already loves it as a genre. Thank you so much to Signal and Netgalley for the free copy in exchange for an honest review.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Helga Cohen

    Agent Sonyais a true-life story about a woman code named “Sonya”. For decades, she was in the service of the Soviet regime, an evil regime but a regime the US and its allies needed during World War II to beat the Nazis. We can sympathize with her as an anti-Nazi spy but she was a contributor to espionage provided in support of Stalinism. Sonya, born as Ursula Kuczinsky, a German Jew aligned herself with Russian Communists to fight fascism. Her spying took her to Shanghai, Mukden, Moscow, Switzerl Agent Sonyais a true-life story about a woman code named “Sonya”. For decades, she was in the service of the Soviet regime, an evil regime but a regime the US and its allies needed during World War II to beat the Nazis. We can sympathize with her as an anti-Nazi spy but she was a contributor to espionage provided in support of Stalinism. Sonya, born as Ursula Kuczinsky, a German Jew aligned herself with Russian Communists to fight fascism. Her spying took her to Shanghai, Mukden, Moscow, Switzerland and to England during World War II. She lived in the English Cotswolds in a small cottage with her 3 children and husband, a machinist. She continued to spy for the Soviet Union after the War. As a woman living as she did, as a mother and housewife, she was difficult to catch by the male chauvinistic MI5 when she came under the radar of a MI5 woman. She was not seen as a threat. Her husbands and others were caught. Her second husband was caught using a forged passport. Her first husband was caught and imprisoned in the Gulag for more than 10 years. Some of her spy network were purged during Stalin’s Great Purge. One of “Sonya’s” most important contributions to Soviet espionage was her connection to physicist Klaus Fuchs who passed enormous amounts of information on British and American efforts including from the Manhattan project to build an atomic bomb which went through her to the Kremlin. The Soviets then had the plans and were able to keep pace with the US and build their own bombs. They believed this prevented war between East and West and created the Cold War. She was committed to the cause and risked everything to fight fascism. The book does document the crisis of confidence that occurred in her circle when Communist Russia and Nazi Germany signed a non-aggression pact at the beginning of WWII. Ursula’s story is incredible. It is extensively documented and extremely riveting. It is very readable and reads like a spy thriller which it is. It is highly recommended and is another excellent book by this great author.

  21. 4 out of 5

    J. F.

    4.25 Stars. Alway a delight to read Ben Macintyre, one of my favorite authors, whose encyclopedic knowledge of the world of spies is of such depth that the third person omniscient narration in his novels allows him to insert snippets of first person thoughts, dialogues and soliloquies without losing credibility, and without having his non-fiction manuscripts relegated to historical fiction. "She said..."; "she thought..."; as though Macintyre were there - in China, in Japan, in Berlin, in Moscow 4.25 Stars. Alway a delight to read Ben Macintyre, one of my favorite authors, whose encyclopedic knowledge of the world of spies is of such depth that the third person omniscient narration in his novels allows him to insert snippets of first person thoughts, dialogues and soliloquies without losing credibility, and without having his non-fiction manuscripts relegated to historical fiction. "She said..."; "she thought..."; as though Macintyre were there - in China, in Japan, in Berlin, in Moscow, in London, in another decade and another period of history - without actually being there. The same knowledge also gives him the license to glorify his chosen protagonists and declare superlatives, some would describe as exaggerated and arguable: "... (Alexander Allan) Foote is most enduringly mysterious figure in modern espionage history (sic) ...". And, - "Agent Sonya: Moscow's Most Daring Wartime Spy". --------- Ursula Kuczynski (1927-2000) a/ka/ Ruth Werner, Ursula Beurton and Ursula Hamburger, alias "Agent Sonya", simple housewife of an English expat in China, was recruited in Shanghai by Richard "Ramsay" Sorge, editor of a German news service and for the Frankfurter Zeitung, and by Agnes Smedley, journalist, New York Call, Frankfurter Zeitung and Manchester Guardian. Journalists all. Radical communists all. Alexander Foote, Len Beurton, Klaue Fuchs, and Millicent Bagot of the MI5 also played key roles in the novel. Ian Fleming once described Sorge as “the most formidable spy in history”. Sorge also liaised with Hotsumi Ozaki of the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun to undermine the Japanese empire for Russia, and was eventually executed for it. Many would claim he was Russia's most daring spy - and recruiter. But then, the book claims that "Agent Sonya" was instrumental in giving Russia the A-Bomb, working with Klaus Fuchs, a British scientist who was eventually assigned to the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, NM; although much of the A-Bomb treason notoriety mentioned in other literature would be attributed to the Rosenbergs, - Ethel and Julius, traitors convicted of espionage and executed later in the '50s.. A thrill a minute, in-depth material, compelling reading, a must read for those into this sort of genre!

  22. 4 out of 5

    Karen Rooff

    Macintyre's The Spy and The Traitor is one of the best books I've read in recent years, so I was excited to see a new non-fiction spy thriller released. Agent Sonya is a compelling, fast-paced chase through China, Switzerland, England, and East Germany in the 1930s and 40s as a female German Jew works to stop the rise of fascism and promote communist principles. There is a dizzying cast of characters-- both in number and in personality-- that makes this incredibly well-researched book both fascin Macintyre's The Spy and The Traitor is one of the best books I've read in recent years, so I was excited to see a new non-fiction spy thriller released. Agent Sonya is a compelling, fast-paced chase through China, Switzerland, England, and East Germany in the 1930s and 40s as a female German Jew works to stop the rise of fascism and promote communist principles. There is a dizzying cast of characters-- both in number and in personality-- that makes this incredibly well-researched book both fascinating and a little hard to follow. The strength of Macintyre's writing, however, means that readers can be a little lazy in keeping up with the details and still enjoy a thrillride on the larger narrative arc. This is a 4.5 star book. If you only have it in you to read one deep dive into espionage, go for The Spy and the Traitor. But if you love to escape into secret identities and double lives and a world gone mad (in a different way than our current reality), Agent Sonya is an excellent tour guide.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Amanda

    I adore Ben Macintyre's writing, so this one was always going to engage me. He writes about spies in such a pacy, captivating manner that his books could almost be novels. The fact that his factual material bulges with fabulous stories obviously helps. Agent Sonya is a gripping narrative of an astonishing female spy, who worked for the Russians before, during and after WW 2. While bringing up her family of small children, often on her own, she was also running one of the largest and important spy I adore Ben Macintyre's writing, so this one was always going to engage me. He writes about spies in such a pacy, captivating manner that his books could almost be novels. The fact that his factual material bulges with fabulous stories obviously helps. Agent Sonya is a gripping narrative of an astonishing female spy, who worked for the Russians before, during and after WW 2. While bringing up her family of small children, often on her own, she was also running one of the largest and important spy rings in Europe - it's a fantastic story.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Bridget

    At first I thought maybe Macintyre was spinning a story too grand for its source material - was this only going to be interesting because Sonya was a woman? But my skepticism melted away as soon as the book took me to the absolutely bonkers world of 1920s skeezy expat Shanghai. This is the real deal: spies, hidden radios, real marriages, fake marriages, betrayals, close calls, counterfeit documents, etc. But it is ALSO: broken hearts, dueling careers, pregnancies, childcare, nannies, laundry, sc At first I thought maybe Macintyre was spinning a story too grand for its source material - was this only going to be interesting because Sonya was a woman? But my skepticism melted away as soon as the book took me to the absolutely bonkers world of 1920s skeezy expat Shanghai. This is the real deal: spies, hidden radios, real marriages, fake marriages, betrayals, close calls, counterfeit documents, etc. But it is ALSO: broken hearts, dueling careers, pregnancies, childcare, nannies, laundry, school decisions, "my kid has been up with a cough all night but I reallllly need to send these secret messages," and MORE. So yes, this book would have been interesting even if Sonya was a man, but the fact that she was basically The Spy Who Had It All...it's absolutely delicious reading.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Rob Thompson

    The captivating story of Ursula Kuczynski. The undercover agent who travelled the world with kids in tow, fooled MI5 and conveyed atomic confidential information to the USSR. It’s an appealing story, well suited to Ben Macintyre, the acclaimed author of fast-paced books about mid-century spies. The captivating story of Ursula Kuczynski. The undercover agent who travelled the world with kids in tow, fooled MI5 and conveyed atomic confidential information to the USSR. It’s an appealing story, well suited to Ben Macintyre, the acclaimed author of fast-paced books about mid-century spies.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Barry Smirnoff

    I enjoyed this true spy tale from Ben Macintyre. Agent Sonya is German Jew who becomes a Soviet agent in China, Switzerland, and the UK. Her life leads to China where she is recruited for Red Army intelligence by Master spy Richard Sorge. Her most important agent is Klaus Fuchs, also a German, who works on building the Atom Bomb and who gives hundreds of pages of data on the Americans bomb to the Russians. Sonia moves to the DDR after WWII, and leaves the spy business and writes novels about her I enjoyed this true spy tale from Ben Macintyre. Agent Sonya is German Jew who becomes a Soviet agent in China, Switzerland, and the UK. Her life leads to China where she is recruited for Red Army intelligence by Master spy Richard Sorge. Her most important agent is Klaus Fuchs, also a German, who works on building the Atom Bomb and who gives hundreds of pages of data on the Americans bomb to the Russians. Sonia moves to the DDR after WWII, and leaves the spy business and writes novels about her exploits. She is honored with medals and remains a Communist until the end of her life, passing away after the fall of the Berlin Wall at the age of 93.

  27. 4 out of 5

    North Landesman

    Macintyre might be my favorite active storyteller. He takes non-fiction, weaves incredible, entertaining and gripping stories. I always learn something new and have fun reading his books. Agent Sonya provided the female perspective of the spy world. The story of a woman trying to balance raising three kids, multiple secret lovers, and a full time job as a Soviet spy.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Bill

    I give this 5 stars, perhaps a bit high, but the point I would make is that, if you are interested in books about spies, this is a must-read book. Very well-written, with lots of interesting people floating in and out of the book. And concurrently, a decent review of the rise of fascism in Germany, and the equivalent evil of Stalinism --- with the touching personal narratives of how real people had to make agonizing decisions when faced with these regimes. And a story of self-deception, and....w I give this 5 stars, perhaps a bit high, but the point I would make is that, if you are interested in books about spies, this is a must-read book. Very well-written, with lots of interesting people floating in and out of the book. And concurrently, a decent review of the rise of fascism in Germany, and the equivalent evil of Stalinism --- with the touching personal narratives of how real people had to make agonizing decisions when faced with these regimes. And a story of self-deception, and....well, go ahed and read it!

  29. 5 out of 5

    Cc

    DNF! I really wanted to like this book but there are so many strange names that work for so many different levels of so many different countries that I finally said, enough! I hate when books bog you down with this information and it just goes on and on! Maybe someone else will see it differently, but that was my opinion. Too many other really good books to read!

  30. 5 out of 5

    Barry Hammond

    Another well-researched and written spy book by the dynamic Ben Macintyre who brings to life the story of one of the most successful spies the Soviet Union ever had. His storytelling as usual is so assured that non-fiction reads like a thriller. A great tale. - BH.

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