Kuczinski, Ruth (1907–2000)

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Kuczinski, Ruth (1907–2000)

Captain in the Soviet army and spy known as Red Sonya, one of the most successful in the history of espionage, who transmitted the secret of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. Name variations: Ruth Kuczinsky; Ruth Beurton; Ruth Werner; (code name) Sonja or Red Sonia, Red Sonja, or Red Sonya. Born Ursula Ruth Kuczinski in Berlin, Germany, on May 15, 1907; died in Berlin on July 7, 2000; daughter of Dr. Robert René Kuczinski (a well-known economist) and a mother who was an idealist and a Jew of Polish extraction like her father; sister of Juergen Kuczinski, also a spy; married Rudolf Hamburger, in 1930 (divorced); married Leon (Len) Beurton (a British Communist), in 1938; children: two.

Joined the Communist Party (1924); married Rudolf Hamburger and went with him to China (1930); recruited by Richard Sorge and sent to Moscow for training; worked in Peking and Poland; awarded the Order of the Red Banner for meritorious service to the Soviet Union (1937); became a captain in the Red Army; sent to Switzerland (1938) where she married Leon Beurton, a British Communist, after an earlier divorce from Hamburger; went to England with her children as a German refugee and begantransmitting information to Moscow (spring 1941); sent large amounts of information including vital facts from Dr. Klaus Fuchs which allowed the Soviet Union to construct an atomic bomb after World War II; left Great Britain (1950) after serving as a spy for 20 years; retired in East Germany where she was joined by her husband; wrote a book about her life, Sonja's Rapport, which sold over half a million copies.

When World War II convulsed Europe, many were forced to flee to safety. In the spring of 1941, one refugee arrived in the Summertown district of Oxford where she moved into a cottage with her two small children. The woman's husband, Len Beurton, served in Britain's Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Coldstream Guards. He had been stranded in Switzerland, however, when war broke out, forcing her to flee to Britain alone with the children. The refugees were welcomed to the cottage at 50 George Street, just as thousands of others like them had been received with open arms by the British. Life soon became quite settled for the small family, though Mrs. Beurton did make one unusual request. She asked her neighbor, Judge Neville Laski, if she might place an aerial on his roof, to improve the radio reception in her cottage. He gladly complied with her request. The new resident was often seen shopping or chatting with a neighbor. No one suspected that this innocuous housewife was, in fact, a spy as well as a captain in the Soviet army. In fact, her cover was so good she would retire after serving 20 years with no one the wiser. Few spies have been more efficient than Ruth Kuczinski. (Kuczinski, however, never worked for the KGB and took umbrage when newspapers listed her as a KGB agent. "I was a member of the Red Army," she said, "in the reconnaissance service.")

She is probably the bravest and most successful female spy in the history of the second oldest profession.

—Anne McElvoy

Ursula Ruth Kuczinski was born in Berlin on May 15, 1907. Her parents were German Jews of Polish origin. Her father, Dr. Robert René Kuczinski, was a well-known economist of some distinction. Her mother was a typical housewife of the period except that she, like her husband, had strong political beliefs. Ruth, as her parents called her, grew up believing that communism would be the world's salvation. The effects of inflation in Germany after World War I only reinforced her beliefs. Overnight, the capitalist system destroyed millions of lives due to horrific inflation. Savings of a lifetime were wiped out when a single loaf of bread cost millions of marks. People used wheelbarrows to carry the huge sums required to purchase life's bare necessities. Ruth was only 17 when she joined the Communist Youth Organization.

The roots of Ruth Kuczinski's ideological fervor grew deep in the soil of European history. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the old Europe began to crumble. Three multi-national empires collapsed in a few short years. The Ottoman Empire, which had dominated part of Europe and the Middle East for over 1,000 years, was no more. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, ruled by the Habsburgs since the Middle Ages, became a group of new states—Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. The Russian Empire also collapsed and was replaced by the Soviet Union. Enormous economic change accompanied the disappearance of familiar empires as the industrial revolution swept across Europe. Family farms were replaced by agricultural complexes, forcing rural populations to urbanize. Small, traditionally home-centered industries were replaced by vast factories capable of manufacturing enormous quantities of goods. Working conditions in the new factories were frightful. Men, women, and young children were devoured by a system which often demanded 12-to-18 hours of work per day under appalling conditions.

Many rebelled against this new world. They felt international brotherhood should replace rampant nationalism. They believed that millions should not be forced to work as wage slaves in order for a few to enjoy enormous wealth. For them, capitalism was a system gone mad which would soon destroy the human race. One such individual was Karl Marx, the German idealist. His blueprint of "scientific socialism" provided an alternative to capitalism's ugly exploitation. According to Marx, the wealth generated by the industrial revolution should be used for the general good, providing ample food, shelter, medical care, and education for all. Under his scheme, moneys would be given "to each according to his need." The state, not individual capitalists, would own modes of production. As the old Europe crumbled, communist ideas engulfed the Continent. Communists were often highly idealistic people whose fervor could best be described as religious. They believed that in their lifetime a new world order would prevail. In the meantime, they must do battle with the evil forces of capitalism, fighting with every weapon at their disposal. A Communist government was established in the old Russian empire after World War I and more would be founded in Eastern Europe after World War II. The war between communism and capitalism would dominate the 20th century until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. It was on this battlefield that Ruth Kuczinski fought, a warrior against what she deemed the evils of capitalism.

After joining the German Communist Party (KPD) in Berlin, Ruth Kuczinski worked at Ull-stein Brothers, the well-known publishing house. Her job was of short duration, because her over-enthusiastic Communist activities caused her employers to dismiss her. Her father and brother were doing research in the United States so she joined them there, leaving her boyfriend, Rudolf Hamburger, behind. She obtained a job in a New York bookstore where she worked until 1929, when she returned to Germany to marry Rudolf. In the meantime, her father had visited Moscow thus cementing his relationship with Soviet Communists. In 1930, Rudolf applied for an architect's post with the Shanghai Municipal Council. Ruth was only 23 when the couple traveled to China via Moscow on the Trans-Siberian Express. At this point, the German Communist Party had become virtually a section of Soviet Intelligence. Moscow was enthusiastic about the prospect of converting millions of Chinese to communism.

Once in Shanghai, Ruth became friends with Agnes Smedley , an American who was a veteran in the service of the Comintern, the Soviet agency for promoting worldwide revolution. Smedley served as a Far Eastern correspondent for the Frankfurter Zeitung, but her real objective was to assist the Chinese Communist Party. She soon introduced Kuczinski to Richard Sorge, a highly effective operative in China who arranged for the young woman to go to Moscow for training. There, Ruth took the code name Sonya. Returning to China, she organized Chinese partisan troops fighting the occupying Japanese army along the Manchurian border. While in Manchuria, she radioed reports back to Moscow about the Japanese invasion. She then served in Peking and Poland. In 1937, she was awarded the Order of the Red Banner for meritorious service to the Soviet Union.

In 1938, Ruth Kuczinski was promoted from lieutenant to major in the Red Army and sent to Switzerland. She was ordered to set up an espionage network there capable of providing extensive radio reports on Nazi Germany. She recruited Allan Alexander Foote to assist her in this task. By this time, her marriage to Hamburger had ended, and she was living alone with her two children, the first fathered by her husband and the second fathered by an individual she refused to name. In Switzerland, instructed to recruit and wed a British veteran, she chose to marry a young English Communist, Leon Charles Beurton, known as Len, and left for London on December 18, 1940.

The Soviet Union was extremely interested in gathering all the information it could from the British and the Americans. Although Adolf Hitler, Germany's Nazi leader, and Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union's Communist dictator, had signed a non-aggression pact in 1939, the Soviets expected the Germans to attack them at any time. Western Europe and the United States had no love for Nazi Germany, but their dread of the Communist menace was even greater. The Soviets feared, quite rightly, that the West would allow Hitler to devour their country in the hopes that they themselves would remain free from attack. The safest course was to monitor the British and Americans as closely as possible.

Ruth Kuczinski first arrived in Glympton, a tiny Oxfordshire village three miles from the Palace of Blenheim, seat of the dukes of Marlborough.

She told the vicar, the Reverend Charles Henry Cox, that she was a German refugee married to an Englishman called Len Beurton who was still in Switzerland. Having made a hazardous escape from the Continent with her two children, she sought temporary refuge. Her journey had been much more exciting than she described. She had stuffed some radio parts into her children's teddy bears in order to smuggle a transmitter into the country. When one customs officer inquired about a piece of electronic equipment in her luggage, she told him it was a toy. As soon as she settled in a bedroom at the rectory, she began to construct a radio transmitter. She then moved into that cottage in the Summertown district of Oxford.

As the war progressed, the Soviet Union and the Allies joined forces. Hitler's brutal attack on the Soviet Union almost brought the vast country to its knees, but millions fought bravely against the German invaders. The heroism of Soviet women and men impressed the Allies who had watched one country after another fall to Hitler's armies. In the meantime, Ruth transmitted a great deal of data to Moscow. Her husband Len provided information about British military forces, while her father René had important contacts inside the government. The Soviets were especially anxious to know if the Allies really intended to open a Second Front, and it was no doubt Ruth who told them this would happen. Her brother, Juergen, wrote reports on economic planning for the British which Moscow also found useful. Ruth's extensive network was augmented by many contacts in Britain who sympathized with the Soviet struggle and gave her information in order to aid an ally. Two or three times a month, Kuczinski sent her reports to Moscow using a Morse code transmitter and the aerial on Judge Laski's adjacent house to enhance the transmission signals. Never once were her activities suspected.

During the war against Germany, the Soviets were allies, and the British intelligence network shared information with the Soviet Union. In fact, most Allies realized that the war could never have been won had it not been for the valiant effort on the Eastern front. Yet even as the war on the Continent wound down, another conflict was beginning. Before the outbreak of World War II, nuclear fission had almost been discovered. Frèdèric and Irène Joliot-Curie came so near to demonstrating fission in France that they stopped publishing papers on the subject in 1939 for fear Hitler might make use of this awesome power. Throughout the war, scientists in America worked frantically on the Manhattan Project to develop a nuclear bomb. Despite strict secrecy, rumors of the project were rampant. It was generally recognized that nuclear weapons would change the balance of power in the postwar world. In the meantime, Soviet and American troops rapidly occupied territory which had been held by the Nazis. Already arguments had broken out over whether the postwar world would be communist or capitalist. The United States struck quickly. On August 6, 1945, it exploded the first atomic bomb over Hiroshima. Three days later, on August 9, a second bomb devastated Nagasaki. No clearer signal of American intentions could have been sent as far as Moscow was concerned.

The Soviet Union was determined to acquire atomic technology, and Ruth Kuczinski would play a critical role in gathering this information. Although Soviet scientists had already made great strides toward creating a bomb, Stalin was determined to obtain information about atomic technology at all costs. Ruth Kuczinski had kept a low profile when Alexander Foote, a contact from China, re-defected to the West and revealed the names of many Soviet spies. When Moscow was certain her name was not on the list of suspects, she was reactivated and given the important assignment of transmitting information about building an atomic bomb. Kuczinski was instructed to obtain this information from Klaus Fuchs, a German physicist who had spent the war in Britain. Ruth would be Fuchs' control in espionage terms.

Klaus Fuchs, also known as the man who stole the atomic bomb, was a physicist who began reporting to Kuczinski in 1942. A German refugee like Ruth, Fuchs had also joined the Communist Party as a teenager. He fled to Britain in 1933 where he became a research assistant to Professor Neville Mott at Bristol University and received a Ph.D. in physics four years later. Mott then wrote Professor Max Born, a famous German physicist teaching at Edinburgh University, and asked him to take Fuchs on. This arrangement was quite happy for both Fuchs and Born until Fuchs was interned briefly as an enemy alien. Fuchs then went to Canada for a short period until another physicist, Rudolf Peierls, asked him to work on another project. So it was that Klaus Fuchs found himself at the heart of the British effort to build an atomic bomb.

In the summer of 1942, he began meeting Kuczinski, passing over his papers and other information about the bomb which she then transmitted to Moscow. Since Fuchs worked in Birmingham, the two often met in the English village of Banbury. This relationship would continue until 1948, when Kuczinski was questioned by MI5, the British intelligence agency. It is not known how much information Fuchs passed on to the Soviet Union through Ruth Kuczinski and others, but it did not take long after the war until the Soviets also had nuclear weapons.

Accurate historical accounts of a spy's life are all but impossible. Successful spies divulge little about themselves, and their own accounts are almost never to be trusted. This leaves others to piece together the true story as best they can. Since Ruth Kuczinski was extraordinarily successful, her story is especially difficult. Considerable evidence indicates that she had a powerful protector at MI5, the British intelligence agency, and that it may have been Roger Hollis, the head of the agency. She had met Hollis in China, so theirs was a longstanding relationship. Hollis lived near Oxford during the war, not far from her cottage. His department was responsible for listing dangerous Communists, a list Ruth Kuczinski's name never appeared on. It is established that Kuczinski transmitted thousands of messages to Moscow, and yet her powerful transmitter was never reported. Finally, when Kuczinski's activities did come to light in 1948, her interrogation by MI5 agents was a farce. She was allowed to stay in Britain and then to escape quietly to East Germany in 1950 completely unhindered. When Kim Philby's identity as a major spy was revealed, rumor persisted that an important "mole" remained at MI5. Whether or not this person was Hollis, many believe that individual was also Kuczinski's protector.

After Fuchs had confessed to his role in disseminating information about the atomic bomb in October 1949, Kuczinski had applied for permission to visit East Germany. As soon as her visa arrived, she left for the East. (Fuchs would serve nine and a half years in prison in Britain before also returning to East Germany.) The following summer, Len, her husband, cleared out the house, burned all incriminating papers, and followed his wife to where a new job awaited him with the East German News service. Although Moscow did not want Ruth to retire, she realized her espionage career had run its course. Rewarded for her many years of service, Kuczinski lived well in East Germany. In 1977, she published her autobiography, Sonja's Rapport (Sonya's Report) under the name Ruth Werner; it sold over half a million copies.

In 1993, London-based writer Norman Moss interviewed Kuczinski in her home in East Germany. He found a small, 85-year-old woman with "fluffy white hair and a prominent nose," and a way of "peering through her spectacles" as she talked. She entertained Moss with tea and cakes in her book-lined living room; her conversation centered on the "great lost cause": socialism. "Yes, we fought for communism," she told him. "We didn't know—I didn't know—about Stalin's crimes. I remember how shocked I was when we were told about them. Friends of mine were sent to prison, but I still didn't realize." She was also unhappy with the repressive policies in East Germany and welcomed Gorbachev's Glasnost. But Kuczinski maintained that distortions of socialism were what brought the system down. "For me, this is not a good time to be old," she said.


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——. "'Sonya' Explains," in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. July–August 1993.

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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia