Michael Batson

Travel Writer





The Spy in Shanghai - 18 November 2020

This piece follows on from Richard Sorge, Part One, ‘The Spy from Baku’.


Richard Sorge was arguably the greatest spy of the 20th century. Ian Fleming, a spy who become a writer, called him the “most formidable spy in history”. John le Carré, a spy who wrote books and later a bestselling author of espionage once called Fleming’s chief creation James Bond, a “gangster” rather than a spy, said Sorge was “the spy to end spies”. Sorge was a bad man who became a great spy. He was a heavy drinking womaniser (possibly also a bigamist) with a thrill-seeking bent who frequented bars, casinos and brothels where he gleaned much of the best information and cultivated networks. He carried out espionage while hiding in plain sight using his own name. Someone said of him if there was no wind, he’d want to create a hurricane. Sorge was never a sailor, rather a pirate who always thought of himself as a soldier, but who had yearned to be an academic.


Back in Frankfurt in 1924, Sorge was chosen to provide security (logistical support) for a visiting Russian delegation of the Comintern headed by Osip Pyantinisky (or Pianitsky from Piatnitsa or “Friday”, a pseudonym for Osif Aronovich Tarshis; a man who later called Stalin a tyrant and a fraudster, for which he was executed). Founded by Lenin, the Comintern was the ‘General Staff of the World Revolution’ and considered Germany the key revolutionary prize in Europe. Pyantinisky was head of the Comintern’s International Department during the 1920s and early 1930s, and the delegation was looking for bright young German communists supportive of the Soviet Union. Sorge impressed in his support role and later that year was invited to Moscow where he stayed at the Hotel Lux (or de Luxe) where other guests at times included Zhou Enlai and Josip Broz Tito.


In Moscow Sorge worked for the Comintern’s Department of Information compiling political and economic reports, and writing books and articles about Germany, sometimes using a pseudonym. They must have liked what they saw for he charged up the Comintern career ladder being promoted to the secretariat of the Comintern Executive committee, presided over by Grigory Zinoviev, and old associate of Lenin, and later killed by Stalin after the first of the Moscow Show Trials. Sorge attended three presidium meetings where Stalin was present, but his superiors apparently had doubts as to his suitability for secret work. By 1927 he was working for the innocuously named International Communications Section headed by Pyantinisky making trips to Scandinavia and back to Frankfurt.  Later that year he became an organisational instructor at the heart of the Comintern intelligence apparatus. He supported Nicolai Bukharin, the Comintern’s general secretary and former editor of Pravda, at the summer congress in 1928, a connection that was to later prove disadvantageous even dangerous.


He met and later married Ekaterina ‘Katya’ Maximova, who taught him Russian and cultivated a sense of himself as a hero poet, though it’s unclear he ever divorced his German wife, Christiane. By 1929 foreign communists were being squeezed out of the Comintern central apparatus and Stalin was preparing to turn on its head, Nikolai Bukharin, once his chief ally in another show trial. Stalin eventually had Bukharin executed at the infamous Kommunarka shooting ground near Moscow. Pyantinisky and countless others met their fate there too. Being seen as a Bukharinite Sorge fell from favour, came under suspicion, and bounced from one job to another.


On the eve of the Tenth Plenum of the Comintern Executive Committee in July 1929, Sorge travelled to England, then hostile territory for Soviet agents due to the first Labour government’s recognition of the Soviet Union and among other things, publication of the so-called Zinoviev letter, purporting a connection between the Comintern and revolutionary movements in Britain putting Britain’s establishment and security services on alert. Britain’s security service (MI5), was then focused on communism as a national threat, but later shifted their attention to the Nazis (though their interest in British communists continued until the end of the Cold War). He also went to Ireland, though how he overcame his superior’s reservations about him being abroad at a time when he was under suspicion, is unclear. His mission was reputedly to meet an agent, possibly of MI5, though this is considered unlikely. He wound up being arrested by the British police, not for espionage which carried a 12-year sentence, but likely for being drunk and disorderly, his fondness for heavy drinking already well established.

General Yan Berzin - first head of the Fourth Directorate - GRU


Shortly afterwards he and other German communists were transferred from Moscow to Berlin to be put “on ice”. In Berlin he met Konstantin Basov, a Latvian, once of the Cheka, the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission, created by the Bolsheviks to hunt down counter revolutionaries and saboteurs, the revolution’s “avenging angels”. Its first head, Count Felix “Iron” Dzerhinsky a Polish noble, claimed the Cheka stood for “organised terror” and said that only saints or scoundrels were attracted to its ranks. Basov was then the chief Soviet spy in Berlin and one of the most experienced trainers of agents of his generation. Moscow wanted to fire Sorge, but Basov became his savior. Timing they say, is everything. Sorge found himself recruited to the secretive Fourth Directorate of the General Staff of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army, known later as the Main Intelligence Directorate (or sometimes Administration) and more widely by its Soviet abbreviation, the GRU. The Fourth Directorate was more familiarly known as the Fourth Department (foreign military intelligence), and led by General Yan Karbuch (Karlovich) Berzin, another Latvian. The GRU and was said to be just as mean as the NKVD, but twice as smart. Few nations developed a healthier respect for the relationship between intelligence and warfare than the Soviet Union. Present day, high-tech operatives of the GRU have been accused by the FBI of interfering with elections in the US. Some of its more forensically 1minded employees were said to be responsible for the so-called Salisbury poisonings in Britain in 2018 of Sergei Skripal, once a GRU employee.


Berzin was chief architect of all the Soviet Union foreign intelligence operations. Born Peteris Kuzis, he earned a reputation for ruthlessness while commanding a Latvian rifle regiment for the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War, shooting hostages was a favoured tactic. He established fully fledged ‘rezidenturas’ across the globe from New York to Shanghai and 16 commercial companies to give cover and provide funding to the network. His intelligence gathering outclassed rival Soviet agencies in both professionalism and ruthlessness. Berzin sent Sorge to Shanghai in 1930 as part of a new team to provide detailed political information on China, then somewhat of a black hole for Soviet intelligence. The team was to replace the incumbent GRU rezidentzia and was to create a new network of agents. They were to provide the Red Army with detailed political information on China especially as the prospect of revolution faded in Europe and Asia was becoming more of a priority for the Kremlin, both as an opportunity and a danger.


Sorge by accounts was mesmorised by the secret world’s mixture of bloody ruthlessness and high ideals – he became one of the ‘trusted soldiers of the revolution’. Contemporaries described a sense of elation, self-denial and often the self-abasement involved in secret work living at what seemed to be an elevated world where anything and any acts were justified. Sorge saw himself as a frontline soldier in a secret army. Not being Russian, he was also free of the most obvious taint of association with Soviet espionage. His watertight cover was as a foreign correspondent with the codename Ramsay, which he kept for later missions. He stayed three years hiding, as he also did for later missions, in plain sight under his real name.


Shanghai, when Sorge and the team arrived in January 1930, was a freewheeling city controlled by colonial powers following the 1842 Opium War and was known as the “Whore of the Orient”. It had about 3,000 bordellos mostly open round-the-clock, 200 dance halls and thousands of casinos both legal and illegal. There were nightclubs that never closed and hotels where heroin could be ordered with room service. Warlords and gangsters mixed openly with bankers and journalists; never a dull moment. It was also China’s most industrialised city, the headquarters of Chinese communism (of particular interest to Moscow) and as Asia’s espionage capital, offered unique opportunities for spies. The telephone system was advanced, and the city sat near the mouth of the Yangtse River which offered transport links 2,700kms up country.


Shanghai between the wars became home to those with nowhere else to go: White Russians fleeing Soviet control, Jews escaping persecution, criminals on the run from justice, or just those with few prospects elsewhere. The Shanghai International Settlement, nine square miles with 1.2 million inhabitants came complete with its own governing council and 50,000 strong police force commanded by British officers. Just south was the French Concession which had a separate police force, was under the authority of a French consul general, and had many of the brothels and most of the best restaurants. Shanghai’s police forces rarely shared information with each other making it easier for spies to remain uncovered. The British however proved especially good at counter-espionage effective in Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai. Much of their intelligence was gathered from the city’s prostitutes who were also briefed on what to ask their customers - the technique not being unique, the French did the same thing in Indochina. The city itself was a melting pot and admitted, according to one author; “the paperless, the refugee, the fleeing; those who sought adventure far from the Great Depression and poverty; the desperate who sought sanctuary from fascism and communism; those who sought to build criminal empires; and those who wished to forget.”

Shanghai in the 1920s


Paul French captured the atmosphere of Shanghai in his book ‘City of Devils’, set later than Sorge’s time, in the 1930s and early 1940s with Japanese forces getting ever closer and the future of the foreign enclave and its inhabitants in doubt. It was a crazy time for the city and its residents, “like living on the rim of a volcano” wrote one journalist with a great deal of money to be made in drink, drugs, gambling and other vices. By the 1930s, Shanghai had grown from a walled fishing village into an international treaty port and the world’s fifth largest city. French described it as; “a deafening babel of tongues, a hodgepodge of administrations, home to hopeful souls from several dozen nations joined together by one simple guiding ethos: money and the getting of it”. The city was also host to a bewildering collection of Soviet organisations, all partly or wholly, engaged in espionage, and training and supporting cadres across Asia.


Sorge got on with what he did best-befriending men and charming women. At the Rotary Club, German Club, and the International House he befriended German military advisers sent to train the Kuomintang Army of Chiang Kai-shek and to supply them advanced weaponry. A natural dissimulator of rare talent, Sorge was in his element and developed in Shanghai a taste for the high life. From beer halls and boozing with sailors in Germany he was now drinking cocktails in elegant clubs with glamourous women in evening wear. Chinese community contacts proved a harder nut to crack but Sorge had more luck with Shanghai’s legion of foreign communists including an American, Agnes Smedley.


Smedley was correspondent for Frankfurter Zeitung, Germany’s most prestigious daily newspaper, and likely the ‘world’s most prolific female spy’. She also worked for the Manchester Guardian and was famous for her autobiography ‘Daughter of the Earth’. She ahad numerous important contacts within the Chinese Communist Party, which Sorge quickly exploited. They also had an affair. One of the network’s first tasks was to establish radio links between Canton, which Moscow believed ripe for revolution, and Vladivostok. This he did with his trusted radio operator extraordinaire Max Clausen, a Frisian and dedicated communist with a flair for business, who Sorge also later worked with in Tokyo and the only member of his spy ring in Japan to survive. Clausen’s radio had to be carried around in a leather suitcase, antiquated technology by today’s standards making it harder to conceal and easier to be caught. The Canton ring reported on Kuomintang troop movements, military manoeuvres, command structures, the whereabouts of German military instructors and progress of the communist-led insurgency.


In September 1930, Sorge’s spy boss Alexander Ulanovsky had his cover blown and he was sent fleeing for his life. In tragicomic circumstances he had run into a former acquaintance in Shanghai who had known him under his real name, one he had shared an apartment with for a week on the Trans-Siberian railway, and then yet another old acquaintance who tried to blackmail him. Before heading off on a boat to Hong Kong, Ulanovsky recommended Sorge takeover running the Shanghai network.


Through Smedley, Sorge met well-to-do Ursula Hamburger, who he recruited and with whom he also had an affair (at the same time he was also seeing Smedley). Hamburger quickly became fascinated with a world of jeopardy, high ideals and for who Sorge personified both the danger and romance. He seduced her after taking her on high-speed motorbike rides through Shanghai as fast as they could go (about a year later Sorge broke his leg in a motorbike accident while riding down North Nanking Road in Shanghai). Hamburger and her husband, a successful architect with a big house in the French concession, cultivated some of the most influential expatriates in Shanghai including the German consul general and the head of the chamber of commerce. Their table talk was reported regularly to Sorge. Women in Shanghai and later in Tokyo would play a central role in Sorge’s intelligence work. Hamburger later moved to Britain to become Klaus Fuchs GRU handler. Also in Shanghai at that time was Roger Hollis who, after attempting freelance writing, was working for British American Tobacco. Later he became director-general of MI5 and was widely rumoured to have been a Soviet spy. But no one was sure if he and Sorge ever met.


Through Smedley, Sorge met Japanese journalist Hotsumi Ozaki, special correspondent for the Osaka Asahi Shimburi, Japan’s most respected newspaper. Ozaki saw through Sorge’s cover but apparently always believed he worked for the Comintern’s intelligence, the OMS, rather than the GRU. He and Sorge were both ladies’ men and drinkers. Aside from a deep and genuine ideological commitment to communism, Ozaki had also married his brother’s ex-wife, an anathema in traditional Japan, and not that usual anywhere else. Ozaki had good contacts with the Japanese consul general in Shanghai, Japanese businessmen in the city, officials in the Chinese Nationalist government and the ruling Kuomintang Party. He also recruited other Japanese to Sorge’s network. Ozaki was a figure to prove vital for Sorge’s next posting in Tokyo.

Zhang the Younger and Chiang Kai-shek


Manchuria was coveted geo-strategically by Japan and for its natural resources, something Japan lacked. It had been controlled by an anti-Japanese warlord, Zhang Zuolin, who the Japanese assassinated in 1928, in the hope his opium-addicted some Zhang Xueling nicknamed the ‘Young Marshal’ would prove more compliant, they were wrong. In September 1931, Japan contrived the Mukden Incident as an excuse to remove Zhang the younger. Within six weeks the Kwantung Army, the largest and most prestigious command in the Imperial Japanese Army and responsible for securing Japan's interests in Manchuria, had defeated Zhang’s 250,000-strong Northeastern Army, a defeat that earned Zhang another nickname, ‘General Non-Resistance’ (he later fought with Chiang Kai-shek, and immigrated to Hawaii where he died in 2001, aged 100). The defeat prompted Moscow to ponder the question to dominant Sorge’s espionage activities for the next decade, would Japan turn south to China and Southeast Asia or north to the Soviet Union?


At the beginning of 1932 Japan attacked Chinese forces outside the city in the so-called Shanghai Incident. The battle raged for 34 days, and everyday Sorge journeyed to the front lines learning Japan’s fighting techniques and trying to discover their true purpose. He and Clausen and others in the spy network worked out of the back of a photographer’s shop on the North Szechuan Road. Many of the other Soviet espionage organisations in Shanghai had been compromised, so Sorge had become the Soviet Union’s only source of information on the ground, but time however was running out.


Sorge had promised Berzin two years in China, he had stayed for nearly three. Chief Detective Inspector Thomas “Pat” Givens of the Shanghai Municipal Police Special Branch, an Ulsterman, was compiling a list of suspected Soviet agents, partly in the hope that the Nationalist government could stop agitating any anti-British activities in China and protect British economic interests in Shanghai. One of the names on the list was Sorge. In December 1932, Sorge handed over his rezidentzia and headed to Vladivostok.

To be continued …

Add comment

Security code