Special Bulletin: Review of ‘Agent Sonya’

On December 8, the Journal of Intelligence and National Security published on-line my review of Ben Macintyre’s ‘Agent Sonya’, and it may be seen at https://www.tandfonline.com/action/showAxaArticles?journalCode=fint20 . Those readers who have institutional access to the Journal may read the whole article there: for others, since the terms of the Agreement entitle me to re-publish the review on my personal website, I present it here.


Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, General History, Personal, Politics

5 Responses to Special Bulletin: Review of ‘Agent Sonya’

  1. Richard LEARIE

    I studied your review with great pleasure after reading the load of superficial baloney we have been getting from national newspapers whose reviewers were doing the same job as you, but much worse. Of course they were writing to a different readership but I suppose that ignorance is bliss. I think you have clearly busted BM by pointing out his unwillingness to tackle some espionage issues.
    Nevertheless, Agent Sonya is a fabulous read (as are his other books) and I feel lucky that I can enjoy the two genres.
    As usual we do not agree on the Hollis angle, but I was pleased you put forward both views before jumping on the wrong horse! Hope your antipodean correspondent also whips you again for this.

  2. coldspur

    Thanks, Richard. Yes, ‘AS’ is a rattling good read, but perhaps belongs more in the Historical Fiction department than in Biography. . .

    Hollis, eh? Yes, time we got back to him. I shall be exploring a critical segment of his career in January.

  3. First time here, another antipodean I’m afraid. Will certainly be back, a good solid and well thought out page. I have quite a few notes on Hollis and the 1944 to 1950 events in Australia and happy to share what I have with sources.

  4. Nancy Thomas

    Thanks so much, Antony. I am partway through ‘Agent Sonya’ (I enjoyed Macintyre’s story about Gordievsky so I wanted to read it)-I like reading spy stories, but ‘Agent Sonya’ made me uneasy – she seemed too amazing to be true, so I was happy that I dug up your review today. I just retired from a career as a librarian. I did some archival work while I was in grad school so your arguments about the unavailability of E. German and Russian materials rings true (and I would certainly not rely on Ursula’s reminiscences, especially those approved by the GRU). I think the thing that bugs me the most about this book is that fundamentally, I don’t like Ursula. I can understand fighting Hitler’s fascists, and yes, they were our allies in WWII (albeit with gritted teeth re Stalin), but if Ursula was so brilliant in understanding the plight of workers and oppressed peoples (and her own Jewish people), I don’t understand how she could stay so (willfully?) blind to what she’d been fed by the party for the rest of her life. I would expect her to come to some uncomfortable conclusions (especially about Stalin!) with some soul searching. And finally, I am a mother too, and I would never put my child in danger for ANY job, so I suppose I do not have anything in common with Ursula. (Also, what comrade gets a live-in maid/nanny and a fairly generous housing allowance?) I admire courage, but I admire courage while respecting truth (at least the seeking of truth) even more. Maybe that’s why I was fascinated about Macintyre’s story of Gordievsky. At least Gordievsky looked beyond what he’d been told. I struggled with why I should admire Ursula as a brave and clever spy (as Macintyre seems to want me to do) but I feel that she stubbornly backed the wrong bunch. I can’t excuse ignoring Stalin’s purges. I’m going to search around and see if she said anything about Gorbachev or the fall of communism–I’d be curious to find out (I know she died in 2000). I am also aware that my country, the U.S. has made plenty of mistakes. But Moscow never got it right, as we’re seeing on the news every night from Ukraine. So thank you, Antony. I feel better about not being able to understand Ursula’s perspective. I’ll read the rest of it as mostly fiction with the conclusion that there’s just not enough information and therefore, we just can’t be sure of any part of her story.

  5. coldspur

    Thank you so much, Nancy, for taking the time to write this. I am so glad that you found my review and that it in some way helped you handle the conflicts that Macintyre’s book provoked. What you write makes excellent sense to me.

    All the best, Tony.

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