Anyone who not only knows Russian history but has also lived it will agree that many Western commentators know little about this subject and understand even less.
Yet Dominic Sandbrook doesn’t know it at all, if his review of Owen Matthews’s book An Impeccable Spy: Richard Sorge, Stalin’s Master Agent is any indication.
You can judge a book neither by its cover nor by its reviews. However, if Sandbrook’s effort has anything in common with Matthews’s, the book must be irredeemably ignorant.
Unlike most Western writers, Sandbrook isn’t even conscientious enough to do some basic research, which is most unfortunate in a man who calls himself a historian. Hence the review bulges with factual errors bespeaking nothing but an eagerness to collect a few hundred quid for a piece of slipshod hack work.
For example, Sandbrook writes: “In the summer of 1941, [Sorge] had repeatedly warned Moscow that Hitler was planning to invade the Soviet Union, only for disbelieving Stalin to tell his security chief: ‘You can send your ‘source’… to his f****** mother’.”
Sorge did issue several warnings to that effect, and Stalin did write something along those lines. However, Sandbrook could have been saved from an ignorant error had he actually read Stalin’s remark in its entirety.
Allow me to fill in this blank, using the attached autograph that has been reproduced in countless books and articles. “To Com. Merkulov [head of the NKGB, later KGB]: You can tell your ‘source’ at the Ger[man] Air Force General Headquarters to f*** off. He’s not a source but a disinformer.”
Sorge of course never went anywhere near the Luftwaffe General HQ. At that time he operated in Tokyo, where he had unlimited access to the German embassy with all its documents. Also, he spied for military intelligence, not NKGB, and Merkulov wasn’t the one who processed his reports.
Hence Stalin’s obscene comment couldn’t have had anything to do with Sorge, and it didn’t. The source in question was Oberleutnant Schulze-Boysen, a Soviet agent codenamed Starshina (‘Sergeant-Major’), who indeed served in the Luftwaffe.
Stalin was at the time receiving scores of such warnings from all sorts of sources, including those two, the Rote Kapelle spy ring, Winston Churchill and many others. He ignored them all, yet his disdainful treatment of Sorge had a particular explanation.
Stalin was weeding out his officer corps, including military intelligence. Thousands of officers were imprisoned and executed, including two intelligence chiefs, Artuzov and Berzin, who handled Sorge personally, and many other spymasters.
Whole Soviet networks were being recalled to Moscow, where most officers shared the fate of their bosses. Sorge was recalled too, in 1937 (not 1936, as Sandbrook seems to think), but he was smarter than most.
He refused to go back, explaining, not in so many words, that he was too busy to face a firing squad just yet, thank you very much. Hence in Stalin’s eyes he became a defector, what the Soviets called a ‘non-returner’.
All support for his network, including financing, was cut off, and Sorge was left to his own devices. Yet, hoping to return to Stalin’s good graces, he continued to finance his operations out of his own funds.
However, Stalin did believe his information that Japan wasn’t going to attack the Soviet Union. The reason for that sudden outburst of credulity was simple: having broken the Japanese diplomatic codes, Moscow already knew that no Japanese attack was on the cards in 1941.
Sorge therefore provided only a confirmation, but it was doubtless a valuable confirmation. As a result, Stalin no longer needed to keep vast contingents (18 divisions, 1,700 tanks and over 1,500 aircraft) in the Far East, and they could be used elsewhere.
This is how Sandbrook describes this breakthrough: “Stalin promptly transferred thousands of troops from Siberia towards Stalingrad. It is no exaggeration to say that Sorge’s information changed the course of the war.”
Neither is it any exaggeration to say that Sandbrook is most refreshingly ignorant. Dates alone should have tipped him off.
Sorge issued his confirmation of SigInt in mid-September, 1941, after which the Far Eastern troops were immediately transferred. Yet the battle of Stalingrad only began on 23 August, 1942.
In the interim, another event happened that “changed the course of the war”: the battle of Moscow that began on 2 October – and it was this battle that the Soviets won largely thanks to the infusion of the fresh Far Eastern divisions.
In other words, Sandbrook doesn’t know when Sorge issued his warning, when the troops were transferred and – most staggering – when the battles of Moscow and Stalingrad were fought. The chap would have to resit the history exam at any Russian primary school.
Sandbrook doesn’t mention the really interesting facts about Sorge, which probably means that neither does Matthews. That’s a pity, for Sorge was a much more mysterious figure than the review would lead one to believe.
Sandbrook correctly mentions that the Japanese hanged Sorge for espionage after he was eventually busted. But he doesn’t say why they did so, nor, critically, when.
Sorge was arrested in October, 1941, and executed in November, 1944. And there’s the rub: the Soviet Union didn’t declare war on Japan until 8 August, 1945.
This chronology should have saved Sorge, for Japan’s laws were rather lenient on espionage. A spy risked only a couple of years’ imprisonment – unless he spied for a country with which Japan was at war.
Since the USSR wasn’t at war with Japan at the time, Sorge couldn’t have been executed as a Soviet spy. Yet executed he was – but in a different capacity.
It’s common knowledge that Sorge was a double agent from 1929, when, according to Sandbrook, he “was recruited by Red Army Intelligence [because] he had a flair for courting Nazi diplomats.”
That flair was a dubious distinction at the time, what with precious few Nazi diplomats being available for courtship in 1929, but let’s not be too pedantic about this. It is, however, well-known that Sorge was a servant to two masters – at least.
Otherwise it would be hard to explain how he got such easy access to Nazi secrets. Sorge’s great-uncle was a close associate of Marx and Engels, and Sorge himself, born in Baku to a German father and Russian mother, was a well-known communist who kept shuttling between Berlin and Moscow.
Though he eventually joined the Nazi party (as did many other communists), his biography should have made the noses of Nazi counterintelligence twitch. So it did.
At one point the spy was vetted by SD intelligence chief Walter Schellenberg – and yet Sorge was allowed to indulge his “flair for courting Nazi diplomats”. The reason is simple: he passed intelligence not only to the Soviets but also to the Nazis.
Yet Germany wasn’t at war with Japan either. Only one country with which Sorge was associated and where he had lived for a while was fighting Japan at the time: Britain. Hence there’s only one explanation: Sorge was hanged as a British spy.
If he was indeed hanged, that is. All sorts of stories surround this shadowy figure, including one saying that the Soviets exchanged Sorge for some Japanese spies and then summarily executed him in Krasnoyarsk.
Though never verified, this rumour tallies with Sorge’s status as a ‘non-returner’ and also with his rather confused professional allegiances. It also explains why Sorge’s name was never mentioned in the Soviet Union until 1964, when he was suddenly catapulted from oblivion onto postage stamps and into articles, books, films and TV documentaries.
Sandbrook should really learn Russian history, if only its modern period. Coming to the subject afresh, he’ll find it fascinating. At the very least, he might be saved from displaying embarrassing ignorance.