[Marxism] An Impeccable Spy: Richard Sorge, Stalin’s Master Agent

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Nov 16 06:58:36 MST 2019

LRB, Vol. 41 No. 22 · 21 November 2019
Tariq Ali

An Impeccable Spy: Richard Sorge, Stalin’s Master Agent by Owen Matthews
Bloomsbury, 448 pp, £25.00, March, ISBN 978 1 4088 5778 6

The skills of the three top Soviet spies of the 20th century – Richard 
Sorge, Leopold Trepper and Ignace Poretsky/Reiss (better known as 
Ludwik) – remain unmatched. Sorge has always attracted particular 
attention. Ian Fleming called him the ‘most formidable spy in history’; 
other admirers included John le Carré, Tom Clancy and General MacArthur. 
Owen Matthews – whose new biography of Sorge is the fifth to appear in 
English – is well qualified to write this book: his Ukrainian maternal 
grandfather was Boris Bibikov, a factory worker in Kharkov who became 
head of the Communist Party’s regional committee and was killed during 
the purges. Bibikov was a supporter of Sergei Kirov, a party boss in 
Leningrad who although a loyal enough Stalinist was alarmed by the 
excesses of collectivisation and keen to allow some of the discarded 
oppositionists to rejoin the party. At the Congress of Victors in 1934, 
when Stalin claimed the success of collectivisation and the triumph of 
his own faction, Kirov obtained the highest number of votes in the 
elections to the Central Committee. Mysteriously, he was assassinated in 
December that year. Bibikov’s turn came in October 1937. He was arrested 
and forced to confess to his sins, which in his case included membership 
of a non-existent clandestine ‘anti-Soviet rightist-Trotskyite’ 
organisation. He was executed three months later.

Matthews wrote about his family in Stalin’s Children: Three Generations 
of Love and War (2009), but despite this background his new book isn’t 
strong on Sorge’s motivation, or on what led him and others to sacrifice 
their lives to the cause. There isn’t much new material in An Impeccable 
Spy, with the exception of Stalin’s crude marginal notes on the Sorge 
file, but it does confirm and expand on information included in earlier 
accounts, some of it from the records of Soviet military intelligence, 
which haven’t been made generally available.

Spying always accompanies war, revolution and counter-revolution. 
Information-gathering networks have always been needed to report on and 
infiltrate enemies within and without. Civil wars, in particular, made 
this an absolute necessity, as Cromwell, Washington, Robespierre, Lenin, 
Mao and Castro quickly understood. For centuries, the methods of 
obtaining and transmitting vital information barely changed. ‘Cromwell,’ 
Pepys wrote in his diary, ‘carried the secrets of all the princes of 
Europe at his girdle.’ The man who got them for him was a civil servant 
called John Thurloe. A rector’s son from Essex, Thurloe became head of 
intelligence in 1653, with access to all state papers and secret 
documents. He pioneered a system of spy networks which long outlasted 
the English Commonwealth. The documents and reports brought back by 
couriers from the Continent (still available in the British Library) 
were analysed in detail by a group that included John Milton and Andrew 
Marvell. Among other things, they helped support the operations of a 
navy engineered to preserve and extend British interests.

Thurloe had a tendency to overreact to any threat of dissent. He dealt 
harshly with Leveller factions and with the apprentices and joiners of 
the Fifth Monarchy Men, proto-anarchists based in Mile End who were 
allegedly preparing to assassinate Cromwell and unleash an insurrection. 
Some of the men didn’t deny the main charge but pointed out that mass 
uprisings can’t be ordered like a jug of water. The House of Commons 
thanked Thurloe for his vigilance. A silk-weaver of Whitechapel had 
revealed the plot. All this and much else was meticulously recorded in 
the seven volumes of Thurloe’s State Papers.

After the Restoration, the Earl of Clarendon was forced to negotiate 
with Thurloe to acquire his spy network for the post-revolutionary 
regime. In return, Thurloe was given the list of the people Clarendon 
planned to arrest (the regicides in particular), which gave him time to 
warn them to flee the country. Most went to Holland, but under heavy 
political pressure (and probably with the help of financial inducements) 
the Dutch betrayed them and handed over as many as they could catch to 
Clarendon, who had them executed, their heads displayed in Whitehall. 
Thurloe’s Europe-wide spy network was preserved more or less intact.

The French Revolution had a Jacobin equivalent of Thurloe: less 
straightforwardly a spymaster, he exercised just as much ideological 
control. Joseph Fouché was born in 1759 in a village near Nantes and 
educated at the city oratory. Unlike Thurloe he was not a civil servant 
but an ambitious revolutionary politician. He had always been an ardent 
Jacobin, particularly interested in the de-Christianisation campaign, 
which began in earnest under his leadership in 1793. He closed down 
churches, installed a bust of Brutus on the altar of the cathedral in 
Nevers and paraded a real dancing woman down the nave of Notre Dame to 
represent the Goddess of Reason. Inscriptions proclaiming that ‘la mort 
est un éternel sommeil’ – rather than something God could rescue you 
from – were displayed at the entrance of cemeteries. Religious burials 
were banned. Sacred objects – ‘ornaments of fanaticism and ignorance’ – 
were removed from churches and a number of Fouché’s supporters urged 
Catholic priests to get married: celibacy was out.

Robespierre, busy creating several Republican armies to combat the 
external military threats to revolutionary France, was unsettled by this 
display of secular fanaticism, both on principle and for reasons of 
Realpolitik. He was worried that it would upset the neutral states in 
Europe and unnecessarily alienate sections of the peasantry. He publicly 
excoriated Fouché’s excesses in Lyon, where he had crushed a Girondin 
revolt with startling ferocity. The subsequent public executions of 
sixty bankers, nobles and hangers-on were preceded by a vicious 
satirical and semi-pornographic tableau mocking the Virgin Birth, the 
Resurrection and the Holy Ghost. ‘The man who is determined to prevent 
religious worship is just as fanatical as the man who says Mass,’ 
Robespierre said. ‘The Convention will not allow persecution of 
peaceable ministers of religion, but it will punish them severely every 
time they dare to take advantage of their position to deceive the 
citizens or to arm bigotry and royalism against the Republic.’

Fouché went on the offensive and helped topple Robespierre, imagining he 
would replace him. But the events of 9 Thermidor (27 July 1794) marked a 
turning point in the revolution. What had initially appeared to be a 
struggle for power within the Jacobin Party sounded the death knell for 
the radicals. Thermidor led to the victory first of the Directory, then 
the Consulate and, finally, the Empire, with the bourgeoisie now firmly 
in command. Fouché served all three as minister for police, falling out 
with Napoleon over the plan to invade Russia, which he regarded as a 
combination of personal vanity and politico-military folly. Enraged, 
Napoleon sacked him. But neither harboured a grudge. After Napoleon 
escaped from Elba, Fouché was made de facto prime minister and attempted 
to stabilise the administration. Waterloo put an end to all that. Fouché 
died peacefully in his bed in 1820. Thurloe had similarly passed away in 
his chambers at Lincoln’s Inn in 1667, a pattern that would, alas, not 
be repeated in the Soviet Union.

Jan Karlovich Berzin (born Pēteris Ķuzis in 1889) recruited the first 
generation of Soviet spies. From a Latvian peasant family, he 
participated in the 1905 Revolution that swept the country soon after 
the crushing defeat inflicted on the tsarist navy by imperial Japan and 
in 1906 he was elected secretary of the St Petersburg branch of the 
RSDLP. He was arrested by the Cossacks and sentenced to death, but 
spared because of his age. He served two spells in Siberia and escaped. 
After the October Revolution he was given the task of organising Red 
Guards to defend the Bolshevik leaders, and following Fanny Kaplan’s 
assassination attempt on Lenin in August 1918 he set up a bodyguard 
composed of Latvians, Finns, Russians and Chinese migrant workers. In 
1920, he became head of the GRU.

The short biographical sketch of Berzin in An Impeccable Spy contains 
some mistakes, but Matthews’s most important error is to seek to 
distinguish Berzin from the people he recruited. They, he claims, were 
idealists, dreamers, intellectuals, well-meaning types. Berzin, in 
contrast, was a ruthless, violent protégé of Dzerzhinsky, head of the 
much feared Cheka. Wrong. All the major achievements of the Fourth 
Department, as Soviet military intelligence came to be known 
(penetration of the British Foreign Office and intelligence in the 
1920s, the creation of the Rote Kapelle, or Red Orchestra, which had 
spies in the highest echelons of the German military both in Germany and 
Nazi-occupied Europe, and Sorge’s astonishing successes in Japan in the 
1930s), were planned in detail by Berzin. In Great Game, his memoir of 
the period, Leopold Trepper, who co-ordinated the Rote Kapelle network 
in Belgium and France, writes that Berzin was ‘universally respected’. 
He ‘never left his men in the lurch, never would he have sacrificed a 
single one’. ‘To him, the agents were human beings and, above all, 
communists.’ He recounts a conversation between Berzin and Sorge, as 
reported to him by Sorge (all of them were taught how to memorise 
messages and conversations). Berzin, Trepper recalled, had summoned 
Sorge from China just after Hitler’s triumph in 1933. Berzin had no 
doubt as to the consequences of that victory. He cut to the chase:

BERZIN: What, in your opinion, is the greatest danger the Soviet Union 
faces at this time?

SORGE: Even if we grant a confrontation with Japan, I think the real 
threat comes from Nazi Germany.

BERZIN: Well that’s why we sent for you. We want you to take up 
residence in Japan.


BERZIN: Rapprochement between Germany and Japan is coming; in Tokyo you 
will learn a great deal about military preparations.

SORGE: What? Go to Japan and become a spy? But I’m a journalist!

BERZIN: You say you don’t want to be a spy, but what’s your idea of a 
spy? What you call a ‘spy’ is a man who tries to get information about 
the weak points of the enemy so that his government can exploit them. We 
aren’t looking for war, but we want to know about the enemy’s 
preparations and detect the chinks in his armour so we won’t be caught 
short if he should attack. Our objective is for you to create a group in 
Japan determined to fight for peace. Your work will be to recruit 
important Japanese, and you will do everything in your power to see that 
their country is not dragged into a war against the Soviet Union.

SORGE: What name will I use?

BERZIN: Your own.

Sorge was stunned. Even Berzin’s assistants were taken aback, reminding 
their chief that Sorge had a police record in Germany. He had been a 
member of the German Communist Party at the end of the First World War 
before moving to the Soviet Union. Berzin knew it was risky to make 
Sorge play a German Nazi, but, as he argued,

a man always walks better in his own shoes. I’m also aware that the 
Nazis have just inherited the police files. But a lot of water will flow 
under the bridges of the Moskva before Sorge’s file comes to light … 
Even if the Nazis find out sooner than we expect, what’s to keep a man 
who was a communist 15 years ago from changing his political opinion?

Then he turned to an assistant: ‘Arrange to have him hired as the Tokyo 
correspondent of the Frankfurter Zeitung.’ ‘You see, this way you’ll 
feel at home and not as if you’re playing spy,’ he told Sorge.

Sorge went to Berlin in May 1933 and spent the next three months 
fulfilling the tasks set for him. He joined the Nazi Party, obtained a 
German passport – his profession declared as ‘journalist’ – and was 
accredited as the Tokyo correspondent of the Frankfurter Zeitung. He 
made a favourable impression on the publisher and editor of Zeitschrift 
für Geopolitik and from them got letters of introduction to key figures 
in the German embassy in Tokyo and to useful Germans living in the city.

Similar instructions were given, possibly by Ludwik, the third of these 
Soviet spies, who probably recruited Kim Philby, to Philby, Anthony 
Blunt, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean. Philby dropped all his communist 
contacts and joined the pro-Nazi Anglo-German Fellowship, which made it 
easier for him to get access to Franco’s forces in Spain as a 
‘journalist’. Berzin and Ludwik were both in Spain in 1936, in the hope 
that a victory for the Spanish Republic would weaken the Axis powers. It 
was not to be. Berzin was recalled to Moscow in June 1937 and resumed 
his post as head of military intelligence. To his enormous credit he 
confronted Stalin with the realities of the Spanish Civil War and 
registered strong complaints against the NKVD’s murders of dissident 
communists such as the POUM leader, Andrés Nin, and others on the left. 
He must have known what lay ahead. Arrested by the NKVD later that year, 
he was shot in the cellars of the Lubyanka in July 1938. He was 
posthumously rehabilitated in 1956. Ludwik wrote to Stalin in July 1937, 
returning his medals, condemning the purges and the NKVD’s killings. He 
then went into hiding in Switzerland, but was tricked into a meeting 
with a fellow agent and murdered a few weeks later. Twenty years ago I 
met his son, who showed me his father’s bullet-pierced wallet.

Sorge avoided returning to Moscow, where he might well have met a 
similar fate, but as a disciplined cadre continued with his mission: 
whatever the cost, the Japanese empire must be prevented from joining 
the coming war against the Soviet Union. Most of his achievements are 
related in An Impeccable Spy. He quickly penetrated the German community 
of journalists and businessmen in Tokyo and became a close friend of 
General Eugen Ott, who was appointed Germany’s ambassador to Japan in 
1938, and his wife, Helma, who had fallen in love with him (Ott knew 
Sorge was sleeping with his wife, but seems to have tolerated it in the 
belief that women found Sorge irresistible). The German embassy in Tokyo 
became a second base of operations for him. It was in the ambassador’s 
safe that he later discovered details of the plans for Operation 
Barbarossa – Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. He sent the 
information to Filipp Golikov in Moscow, where Stalin had wiped out most 
of his opponents in the Bolshevik Party, including almost every member 
of the 1917 Central Committee to which Berzin had belonged. Golikov, a 
timeserver by any standard, was in a state of permanent fright.

As Matthews reveals, Lieutenant Colonel Erwin Scholl of German military 
intelligence, who was stationed at the Tokyo embassy, returned from 
Berlin in May 1941. The news he brought back was sensational and Ott 
wasted no time in sharing it with Sorge. On 31 May, Sorge cabled Golikov:

Berlin informed Ott that the German attack will commence in the latter 
part of June. Ott 95 per cent certain that war will commence … Because 
of the existence of a powerful Red Army, Germany has no possibility to 
widen the sphere of war in Africa and has to maintain a large army in 
Eastern Europe. In order to eliminate all the dangers from the USSR 
side, Germany has to drive off the Red Army as soon as possible.

Ott had provided the barest of outlines, but Scholl provided the 
information in full: 170-180 mechanised divisions were already close to 
the Soviet border, he said, and the assault itself would encompass the 
entire front. The German general staff had few doubts that the Red Army 
would collapse and they would take Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev. Hitler 
would then take over the Trans-Siberian railway and establish direct 
contact with the Japanese forces in Manchuria. Stalin, still basking in 
the so-called triumph of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, refused to believe any of 
it. ‘You can send your “source” … to his fucking mother,’ he told 
Golikov. On the message itself he scribbled: ‘Suspicious. To be listed 
with telegrams intended as provocations.’ (Matthews writes that in 1961 
Golikov and Marshal Zhukov, whose troops had liberated Berlin, went to 
see the Moscow screening of a film called Qui êtes-vous, Monsieur Sorge? 
Afterwards, Zhukov confronted Golikov: ‘Why, Filipp Ivanovich, did you 
hide these reports from me? Why did you not report such information to 
the chief of the general staff?’ Golikov replied: ‘What if this Sorge 
was a double agent, both ours and theirs?)

At around the same time, Sorge found out from his Japanese contacts that 
Japan was not going to invade the Soviet Union and was instead targeting 
the United States. This enabled Moscow to withdraw crucial divisions 
from the Far East, helping to frustrate the German attack on Moscow. 
Sorge had got much of this information from Ozaki Hotsumi, a journalist 
close to the Japanese prime minister. ‘Considered simply as spies,’ 
Chalmers Johnson wrote in An Instance of Treason: Ozaki Hotsumi and the 
Sorge Spy Ring, ‘Ozaki and his partner, Richard Sorge (PhD, Political 
Science, University of Hamburg, 8 August 1920), were possibly the most 
intellectually overqualified spies in modern history. Neither was a spy 
for financial gain; their motivations were political.’ Ozaki’s influence 
was based on his knowledge of Chinese politics and culture: he lived 
there for several years and wrote a number of sympathetic books and 
numerous essays on post-Sun Yat-sen China. For a while he had supported 
the notion of a Japanese-Chinese alliance that would drive the European 
empires out of Asia, but a closer look at the nationalists of the 
Kuomintang and the Japanese military leadership cured his illusions. 
Ozaki saw the KMT as clannish and corrupt, and predicted that the 
Chinese communists would ultimately defeat them. When Sorge suggested to 
Ozaki that he should argue for the entire Japanese army to be sent to 
China, where they would sooner or later be defeated, he presented this 
hallucinatory notion as allowing three victories: Japan’s defeat would 
open up the country to a revolutionary uprising; only the Chinese 
communists were capable of defeating the Japanese empire; the Soviet 
Union’s eastern border would be secured. Ozaki said bluntly that it was 
a bad idea, not worth the risk. Neither was aware that the hardcore 
military faction backed by the emperor was planning an attack on Pearl 
Harbor, a decision that meant restricting the number of armed forces 
they sent to China, ignoring the Soviet Union and concentrating on 
weakening American power in the Pacific.


Even without the Japanese opening a second front on the USSR’s eastern 
border, the Germans almost pulled off a victory. Sorge’s messages had 
been ignored, the best Soviet military leaders, including Mikhail 
Tukhachevsky, had been executed, and despite the military superiority of 
the Soviet Union, the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe almost took Moscow and 
Leningrad in the first wave attack. According to John Erickson, a 
historian of the Red Army, Tukhachevsky had carried out manoeuvres that 
predicted the lines of a German attack as early as 1933. In his last off 
the record question and answer session, restricted to senior Red Army 
officers, he again insisted that the Germans were preparing a military 
assault. They would strike suddenly, he said, and deploy everything 
available on land, sea and air to take the Red Army by surprise. He was 
accused of treason and shot in June 1937.

Contrary to popular legend, at no point did the Wehrmacht possess 
military superiority over the Red Army on the frontier. On the contrary, 
Soviet superiority was staggering: seven to one in tanks, with 24,600 in 
readiness against 3500 Panzers, four to one in planes. ‘As for the 
Blitzkrieg which is so propagandised by the Germans, this is directed 
towards an enemy who doesn’t want to and won’t fight it out,’ 
Tukhachevsky had claimed:

If the Germans meet an opponent who stands up and fights and takes the 
offensive himself, that would give a different aspect to things. The 
struggle would be bitter and protracted; by its very nature it would 
induce great fluctuations in the front on this or that side and in great 
depth. In the final resort, all would depend on who had the greater 
moral fibre and who at the close of the operations disposed of 
operational reserves in depth.

Unlike the Germans, who saw the Nazi-Soviet Pact as necessary but 
temporary, Stalin had illusions that it might be lasting. Matthews 
quotes from a 1966 interview with Zhukov, conducted by Lev Bezymensky, a 
Soviet historian and war veteran. In January 1941, Zhukov and others had 
warned Stalin of ominous German troop movements. Stalin wrote to Hitler, 
asking politely whether these reports were true. Hitler replied that 
they were, but he swore

on my honour as a head of state that my troops are deployed … for other 
purposes. The territories of Western and Central Germany are subject to 
heavy English bombing and are easily observed from the air by the 
English. Therefore I found it necessary to move large contingents of 
troops to the east where they can secretly reorganise and rearm.

Stalin believed him.

Zhukov told Bezymensky that in early June 1941 it was obvious to most of 
the high command that the Germans were preparing to invade. He had 
showed Stalin ‘staff maps with the locations of enemy troops entered on 

A few days passed and Stalin called for me … he opened a case on his 
desk and took out several sheets of paper. ‘Read,’ said Stalin … it was 
a letter from Stalin to Hitler in which he briefly outlined his concern 
over the German deployments … Stalin then said ‘Here is the answer’ … I 
cannot exactly reproduce Hitler’s words. But this I do remember 
precisely: I read the 14 June issue of Pravda and in it, to my 
amazement, I discovered the same words I had read in Hitler’s letter to 

It was Molotov who broke the news of the invasion to Soviet citizens. 
For a fortnight, Stalin made no public appearance. Finally, he addressed 
the nation. His speech was leaden at the start, but improved as he went 
on, even if its ideology and language were reminiscent of 1812 rather 
than 1917. He pledged fierce resistance and a scorched earth policy. As 
the emotional victory parade approached, when the captured flags and 
regimental banners of Nazi Germany were flung on the ground below 
Lenin’s mausoleum, he proposed a toast to the Russian people at the 
Kremlin banquet and made this apology:

Our government made not a few errors, we experienced at moments a 
desperate situation in 1941-42, when our army was retreating, abandoning 
our own villages and towns of the Ukraine, Belorussia, Moldova, the 
Leningrad region, the Baltic area and the Karelo-Finnish Republic, 
abandoning them because there was no other way out. A different people 
could have said to the government: ‘You have failed to justify our 
expectations. Go away. We shall install another government which will 
conclude peace with Germany …’ The Russian people, however, did not take 
this path … Thanks to it, to the Russian people, for this confidence!

In the updated 2001 edition of The Soviet High Command, Erickson makes 
clear that the Red Army’s response wasn’t a foregone conclusion:

The system lived perpetually on a narrow knife-edge. How frighteningly 
narrow was brought home to me in a singular exchange with Chief Marshal 
of Artillery N.N. Voronov … Knowing he was present at the very centre of 
events during the early hours of Sunday, 22 June, I asked him for his 
interpretation. His final remark was quite astonishing. He said that at 
about 7.30 a.m. the high command had received encouraging news: the Red 
Army was fighting back. The worst nightmare had already been overcome. 
Red Army soldiers had gone to war, ‘the system’ had responded and would 

Arming the people in Moscow and Leningrad prevented the fall of the two 
key cities of the revolution, and in Stalingrad and Kursk the Red Army 
broke the backbone of the Third Reich. Despite everything, Soviet 
resistance was decisive in defeating Hitler. The price was 27,000,000 
dead, countless numbers disabled. Many who tried their best to ensure a 
victory at a lesser price had been killed before Barbarossa even began, 
murdered, in the words of Ludwik’s widow, ‘by our own people’.

Sorge had sent Golikov the details of Operation Barbarossa, but he was 
slandered and ignored. In October 1941, after the Japanese had become 
suspicious that a spy ring was in operation and had succeeded in 
intercepting some of Sorge’s messages, he and Ozaki were arrested. He 
spent two years in prison. The Japanese offered to exchange him three 
times but Stalin refused. He was hanged in Sugamo Prison in Tokyo on 7 
November 1943, a few hours after Ozaki. It was the anniversary of the 
Russian Revolution.

Trepper was arrested in Paris in December 1942 and a year later escaped 
from prison. After the liberation of Paris he made his way back to 
Moscow, where he was arrested as a double agent. He was released in May 
1954, less than a year after Stalin’s death. He returned to his native 
Poland, though he had no family left there: the entire Jewish population 
of Nowy Targ had been put on a train to Auschwitz. But antisemitism 
persisted in Poland and he eventually left for Israel – where, unlike 
Berzin, Ludwik, Sorge and many others, he died a natural death. In the 
epilogue to his memoirs he writes: ‘I do not regret the commitment of my 
youth. I do not regret the paths I have taken … I know that youth will 
succeed where we have failed, that socialism will triumph, and that it 
will not have the colour of the Russian tanks that crushed Prague.’

A few months after Chalmers Johnson’s book was published in 1964 Sorge 
was rehabilitated and made a Hero of the Soviet Union. A 
Post-Constructivist statue of him was erected in his native Baku, and a 
postage stamp issued. When Yuri Andropov was head of the KGB and a 
member of the Politburo in the early 1980s, he called in a popular 
thriller writer called Julian Semyonov and gave him access to some of 
the files on Trepper and the Red Orchestra. In the resulting thriller, 
The Red Mole, the hero, Issaev, penetrates the highest levels of the 
Nazi hierarchy.[*] Leonid Brezhnev was so taken by the book that he 
wanted Issaev to be honoured posthumously. Andropov had to explain that 
he was a fictional construct. Ludwik alone was left to bask in obscurity.

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