Originally posted on Goodreads.com.
A biographical history of the USSR’s most successful covert agent, An Impeccable Spy by Owen Matthews follows the life of Richard Sorge, a German by name but a Russian communist by conviction who set up spy rings for the Soviets in China and Japan during the age of Stalin and leading up to World War II. Blessed with a death-defying daring, a seductive savoir-faire, and a perfect cover, Sorge was a formidable asset in the Soviets’ war against fascism – or he would have been, did not the very traits that made him so singular cause the communist regime, and Stalin, himself, to distrust him.
Based on newly-declassified records, Matthews’s history is as meticulously researched as it is readable. The focus is always on Sorge’s character, and the chapters are drawn together through a narrative that, after we have gotten to know Sorge, begins to obscurely hint at the book’s ending. Rather than spoil anything, this foreshadowing maintains a suspense that parallels Sorge’s daring character. And yet, though it can be read as a character study of a Soviet James Bond (alcohol, motorcycle rides, and romantic liaisons punctuate the book’s elaboration on how Sorge established his spy rings), An Impeccable Spy consistently maintains a peripheral view of the main events of the twentieth century of which we have read and/or heard of in school.
Foremost among such events was, perhaps, Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s plan to break the Molotov-Ribbentrop nonaggression pact and invade Russia. While the conventional story is that, despite the similarities between their ideologies (which Sorge discovers, finding as he does how easy it is for a communist to pose as a fascist), Hitler betrayed and took Stalin by surprise, Matthews shows that not only had Sorge sent intelligence of Operation Barbarossa to Moscow, but Stalin had prepared for such a possible attack. However, for reasons established by Matthews, Stalin – who had by that time begun his party purge, from which Sorge was spared by distance – had begun to distrust Sorge. Thus, Matthews draws on a theme common to both his nonfictional and fictional works: the incompetence of the suspicious self-cannibalism of communist bureaucracy.
I read An Impeccable Spy as part of my goal to better understand Matthews’s other work, especially his historical fiction. However, a few hours into the audiobook (excellently narrated by Mike Grady), An Impeccable Spy became one of my favorites of Matthews’s contributions to the scholarship on 20th-century Russia. As with his other works, I plan to recommend friends and students read An Impeccable Spy for an entertaining and well-documented look at the eastern side of the Iron Curtain.