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Sisters with secrets, told and untold

18 December, 2020 — By John Gulliver

Left: Ursula – codenamed ‘Agent Sonya’. Right: Renate – spent years in Cuba under Castro

I DON’T know who I admire the most of two sisters – the one who kept her secrets to herself or the one whose secrets went on to shock the world!

Of the two, I only got to know Renate, a seemingly austere woman with a kind smile, whose elegant upper floor flat Tavistock Place, Holborn, I used to visit.

I knew Renate Simpson and her husband, Arthur, a leading marine biologist who talked exotically of their years in Cuba under Fidel Castro where they helped the government in what seemed biological research. Though there may have been more going on than they made me aware of.

Occasionally, Renate talked about her privileged family life in Berlin in the 1930s – her father a leading German public intellectual, her brother a mathematician, a sister, another intellectual, all of whom had to flee from the Nazis – and, of course, herself, a little less grand than the others she modestly would lead me to believe. And there was another sister, Ursula – who, as the years went by, revealed more, perhaps because she actually wrote an autobiography. Her life sounded astonishing when Renate told me about it.

Renate had translated it into a book published in Britain in the 1990s. Coldly, Ursula Kuczynski’s life story revealed how in the 1940s she had passed on atomic secrets by the leading physicist Klaus Fuchs to the Russian embassy in London until she was discovered. Fuchs got 14 years in jail, Ursula fled to East Germany.

The book got some publicity and it was clear that Ursula had done some sort of a deal with MI5 intelligence to allow her to visit Britain without being arrested.

Ursula’s past life in China gripped me as she had gone there in the 1930s and accidentally ended up in the hot spy spot of Shanghai where she had met one of the biggest KGB spies, Richard Sorge. He was attached by the Germans to the Tokyo embassy and who warned Russia of Hitler’s impending invasion – a warning that was ignored! Later, Sorge was unmasked – and he was executed.

Meanwhile, Ursula – codenamed “Agent Sonya” – lived in China and worked with the journalist Agnes Smedley, who marched with the Red Army under Mao. She had an amazing life in her own right – a Mid-West farmhand in the US, barely literate, who got mixed up with Indian nationalists in New York, went to China and wrote seminal books, one, in my opinion, a classic called the Great Road. Agnes died in the mid-1940s.
Ursula’s fairly dry book, translated by Renata, didn’t sell all that well but a Hampstead journalist, Ben MacIntye, a columnist for The Times, has just published another gripping version of her life – Agent Sonya: Mother, Lover, Soldier, Spy.

The title tells it all. It portrays the life of one of the world’s leading spies, a life that puts her in the arc of history, of her love affairs, her unconven­tional life. How did she bring up children and still have affairs as well as become a leading espionage agent for the KGB, a colonel in the Red Army? I have no doubt MacIntye ferreted them out and they were part of her life, what else could they have been?

He clearly admired her, for her courage and convictions. When I think of the help she would have given the poor and the starving in China in the 1930s, I can see that side of her.

But in a life that spanned such tumultuous years, a life run through with wild adventures, risks that sometimes ended in death, there would also have been many subterfuges and betrayals.

Both sisters are now dead. Renate will still be remembered in Holborn where she was a frequent visitor to the Marchmont Street Community Centre and organised sales of second-hand books to help fund the Morning Star newspaper – a faithful believer to the end. She rarely talked about herself and certainly didn’t say much about her sister the spy even when she had translated her book in the 1990s.

Who do I admire the most? Perhaps there would have been fewer betrayals, perhaps none at all, in Renate’s life in contrast to Ursula’s, the agent. Perhaps.

Agent Sonya: Lover, Mother, Soldier, Spy by Ben MacIntyre, is published by Viking, £25.

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