Ben MacIntyre has written several books about World War II and Cold War spies. They are all excellent and Agent Sonya does not disappoint. MacIntyre has a talent for finding intriguing stories about real people in extraordinary situations. Sonya, real name Ursula Kuczynski, worked for the Soviets beginning in the 1920s in China and continuing through three pregnancies, two marriages, and several nations until she was unmasked, not coincidentally by another woman, one of the few in MI-5 at the time. Sonya was able to convince her male interrogator that she had stopped spying when she came to England in 1940, and without evidence, he did not arrest her. However, she knew she was on the MI-5 watchlist and it was only a matter of time. When Klaus Fuchs was arrested, she fled to East Germany to avoid a similar fate.
During her tenure as a Communist agent, Sonya ran multiple operations successfully and obtained reams of intelligence, including cutting edge communications technology and nuclear secrets–she ran Fuchs for a time. Her story is compelling and hair-raising at the same time. James Bond could not have maintained his cover any where near as long and Sonya had a few harrowing escapes no less fantastic than the fictional Mr. Bond. Though Agent Sonya is a narrative history, MacIntyre successfully inserts an argument about Sonya’s success being at least partly due to her gender. Overlooked multiple times, because of the assumptions regarding what men and women did, Sonya used stereotypes to her advantage to hide in plain sight, much like Virginia Hall (A Woman of No Importance). The fact that she carried on spying while giving birth and raising children is nothing short of inspiring, regardless of which side she was on.
There is also a veiled warning here, if one is needed, regarding the Russian talent for human intelligence. While it is true that Communism as an ideology was more widespread and international during the decades leading up to WWII, the fact that Sonya hand selected the entire contingent of agents used by the OSS, America’s WWII spy agency, for Operation Hammer, one of the last Allied insertions before the end of the war in Europe, is stunning. Every agent the Americans sent on that mission was in reality working for the Red Army, with instructions to report back to the Soviets what they learned about American operations. It would be naive to think that Soviet efforts at intelligence gathering have slowed, and recent computer hacks are proof that they are still able to infiltrate and have the will to do so. It would be naive to think they could not use unwitting actors as useful fools. The United States arrived late to the espionage party and has not proved particularly adept.
And what about the feisty female? In a previous post, I discussed the idea that the feisty female is not off limits for historical fiction. Though some writers and critics would have us believe that to be historically accurate, female characters should be shrinking violets–in tune with the expectations of their “times.” I disagree; Agent Sonya is evidence that fictional women do not have to conform any more than real women do.