Ben MacIntyre: Agent Sonya

December 4, 2022

     Most of us of a certain age have a vague picture of the espionage that was an integral part of the Cold War years and much earlier; this is the first time I’ve read a detailed account of any of it, and the stories of some of the people who were involved in it, although quite a few of the names had been familiar to me. It was fascinating to read an in-depth account, and to reflect on the implications of what went on. It’s a workmanlike piece of writing; the facts and the biography are what matters, not the style. There are some minor carelessnesses in historical and geographical detail, but not many.

The innate sexism of MI5/MI6, the idea that a ‘housewife’ could not possibly be up to no good, allowed the heroine to get aways with a lot; there’s a certain amount of almost comic silliness in the behaviour of British intelligence (!) at the time as we read about their investigations and interrogations.

Ursula/Sonya is clearly a character of her times, and looking back from our perspective now, it’s rather hard to see why someone would undergo the great rigours of training in espionage and sabotage and take on board all the risks, dangers and penalties of the role. We are taken through her decision to become involved, her recruitment, her work in China during the Civil War, in Europe in the run-up to the Second World War, in Switzerland during that war, her flight to England and her involvement in the passing of many secrets, including research on the atomic bomb to her paymasters in the USSR.

I found thinking about the issues involved in this espionage history quite interesting. I felt that the author seemed to gloss over Sonya’s naivete, even wilful blindness at various times, for instance her response to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 1939, and also her reaction to the disappearance of so many of her connections during the Stalinist purges. At one level, being so embroiled already, one might argue she didn’t have much option other than to stick with the side that was paying her. Equally, I could understand her decision to move to the DDR in the late forties when she was about to be rumbled. There was clearly a sense of idealism at play: there should be a level playing field, and why were researches and developments not being shared with an all? Idealism too, now vanished, that there was an alternative, however flawed, to capitalism, in construction in a large and important country.

More than this, however, I found myself actually admiring and respecting the efforts, the risks and the decisions taken by those whose actions evened the odds, if you like, during the Second World War and the Cold War; it was clear quite early on that the West was positioning itself for maximum advantage once the ‘Allies’ had defeated the Nazis, and actually, contemplating the outcome of another war when the Soviets did not have the ‘equality’ of nuclear weapons, was pretty horrifying. What sort of a world might we have been living in now? And I’m appalled at myself for almost accepting the balance of terror here. But for many years I realise that I actually did feel ‘safer’ during the Cold War than I have done since…

One Response to “Ben MacIntyre: Agent Sonya”


  1. […] book group discovery: Ben MacIntyre Agent Sonya. I thought, “Do I really want to bother reading this? Why would I read this?” and I did, and it […]

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