OWEN MATTHEWS’ AN IMPECCABLE SPY is a competent but less than definitive re-telling of the story of Richard Sorge, the Tokyo-based, WWII-era Russian spy, whose mission was to keep the USSR informed of Japanese intentions in East Asia. Many people consider Sorge the greatest spy in history, and that he and his Japanese partner, Hotsumi Ozaki, saved the USSR by confirming that Japan would not open a second front against Russia in 1941.

Matthews, who reads Russian, has provided a detailed account of Sorge’s colorful career by delving into the declassified Soviet archives.

Sorge was born in Baku in 1895 to a German father and a Russian mother and grew up in Germany. He joined the German Army in October, 1914. In March, 1916, Sorge was heavily wounded in fighting near Minsk. While convalescing, he read Marx and other socialist writers, and became convinced that communism was the only way to end the cycle of imperialist war.

Sorge joined the German Communist Party and later went to Moscow to work for the Comintern, the international organization that advocated world communism. In 1929, Sorge began working for the Red Army’s Fourth Department military-intelligence agency, which sent him to Shanghai in 1930 and Tokyo in 1933. Sorge established his bona fides as a journalist for the Frankfurter Zeitung, and was a member of the Nazi Party, making him one of the few people— perhaps the only one—ever to be a member of the Soviet Communist Party and the Nazi Party at the same time.

ONCE IN JAPAN, SORGE assembled one of history’s most accomplished spy rings. His star recruit was Asahi Shimbun journalist Ozaki, who had access to the highest levels of the Japanese government. He also ingratiated himself at the German Embassy in Tokyo through his knowledge of East Asia and by providing inside information supplied by Ozaki.

By Owen Matthews Bloomsbury Publishing London 2019

Reviewed by Steve McClure

The Sorge ring provided crucial information to Soviet military intelligence on four occasions. In 1938, Soviet and Japanese forces clashed at Changkufeng, near the intersection of the borders of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo (Manchuria), Korea, and the USSR. Ozaki’s sources told him the Japanese did not want the conflict to escalate.

In the Nomonhan Incident of spring 1939, Soviet and Japanese forces fought a localized war on the border between Manchukuo and Mongolia. Ozaki told Sorge that Japan was intent on “solving the problem locally.”

The Sorge ring’s attempts to warn of the German plan to invade the USSR were less successful. Stalin ignored the solid intelligence that Sorge sourced from his high-level German Embassy contacts.

The biggest question surrounding Sorge and his network is to what extent Stalin acted on the information that Sorge supplied confirming that the Japanese would not invade Siberia. Matthews quotes a message Sorge sent to Moscow on July 12, 1941: “If the Red Army suffers defeat then there is no doubt that the Japanese will join the war, and if there is no defeat, then they will maintain neutrality.”

“The version of this telegram in the military archives bears Stalin’s initials alongside those of Molotov, Beria and army chief Marshal Voroshilov,” Matthews writes. “A handwritten note on the bottom written by a Fourth Department official says: ‘In consideration of the high reliability and accuracy of previous information and the competence of the information sources, this information can be trusted.’”

AN ATTACK BY JAPAN on the USSR in the summer of 1941 would have doomed the Soviet regime—and changed the outcome of the war.

“Exactly what role Sorge’s information played in Stalin’s decision making has been hotly debated by Russian historians,” Matthews writes. “But it is clear from the wide circulation that Sorge’s reports received that the Fourth Department, the top members of the Politburo and Soviet Army, had finally begin to trust Sorge’s information. Towards the end of September, troops began moving from the Far Eastern Military District in large numbers to fight the Germans on the plains of European Russia. . . . In all, Stalin would shift over half the available troops in Siberia to the defense of Moscow.” This appears to be the first confirmation in English of Sorge’s pivotal role in the Soviet leader’s decision.

Sorge’s luck finally ran out. The Japanese police had been trying to find the source of coded radio messages that were being sent from somewhere in Tokyo. In October 1941, they finally got a break that led them to the source. Sorge and his confederates were arrested. Sorge and Ozaki were hanged on Nov. 7, 1944.

Writing a full, well-rounded description of Sorge’s career requires a thorough grounding in the political and diplomatic machinations of Japan, the USSR and Germany, not to mention the necessary linguistic skills. An Impeccable Spy does not come up to this mark, unfortunately. It is, however, full of interesting historical footnotes, such as a Japanese plot to assassinate Stalin, and the Lyushkov affair, which saw a high-ranking NKVD officer defect to Japan in June 1938. It also contains some unfortunate errors concerning Japanese names and places.

Matthews paints a well-rounded picture of Sorge as a player in the broad context of the years leading up to the Second World War. But what’s missing is the nuance and detail provided by Chalmers Johnson’s An Instance of Treason: Ozaki Hotsumi and the Sorge Spy Ring, which is still the best book on the Sorge case in English.

Steve McClure is a writer, editor and narrator
who has lived in Tokyo since 1985.