‘An Impeccable Spy’ Review: Stalin’s Man in Tokyo

Richard Sorge drank heavily, bedded his associates’ wives—and provided the Soviets crucial information after Hitler’s invasion.

On May 14, 1938, after finishing a night of drinking by downing a bottle of whiskey, the Tokyo-based Soviet spy Richard Sorge mounted his motorcycle and, as always, roared through the city’s narrow streets on his way home. This time, though, he ran straight into a stone wall, fracturing his skull. Before passing out in the hospital, he managed to tell an accomplice to empty his pockets, which contained several intelligence reports not yet encoded and a stash of American dollars.

That fast thinking saved Sorge from discovery and arrest. It also allowed him to become, as Owen Matthews writes in “An Impeccable Spy: Richard Sorge, Stalin’s Master Agent,” “one of the greatest spies who ever lived.” This is plain fact, not hyperbole, as is the contention that Sorge’s later actions had a critical effect on the course of World War II.

Sorge’s combination of recklessness and coolness under pressure, along with his reputation as an inexhaustible lover with dozens of conquests, has generated numerous volumes about his exploits. By building on those studies (which rely heavily on reporting from Japan) and carefully researching the Russian side of the story, Mr. Matthews, who has worked as a journalist for the Moscow Times and Newsweek, offers a fine addition to the literature of this remarkable man.

Sorge was born in 1895 in Baku—the oil boomtown of the Russian empire—to a Russian mother and German father who worked as a drilling engineer. He was raised in Germany, enlisted in its army and fought in World War I, and later joined the Communist Party. He then worked in Moscow for the Comintern, which maintained contacts with Communist movements around the world. After ostensibly breaking off his party ties, he lived in Shanghai and later in Tokyo as a correspondent for the Frankfurter Zeitung—but his true employer all along was Soviet military intelligence.

Portraying himself as a dedicated Nazi, Sorge ingratiated himself with Eugen Ott, who eventually served as Germany’s ambassador to Japan. He also cultivated ties with Japanese officials and journalists, and quickly built an extensive spy ring. All the while, he drank heavily and carried on affairs with several of his associates’ wives (including Ott’s). Yet no one seemed to hold his philandering against him. As Frieda Weiss, a German diplomat’s wife, recalled, he charmed both women and men: “He was the life and soul of any party.”

At a time when the Japanese authorities were hunting for spies everywhere, Sorge rented a modest house close to a police station. It had no back door, which meant that all his comings and goings could be easily observed. “It was an utterly impractical place for a spy to live,” Mr. Matthews writes. “That was the point. Sorge would remain there, hiding in plain sight, for nearly a decade.”

Sorge developed a reputation for knowing a great deal about his adopted homeland, and it was not all an act. He was genuinely fascinated by Japan and proud of being regarded as a leading expert on the country—which had the added benefit of providing camouflage for his spy work. Mr. Matthews tells us that he passed along secrets that he picked up from Japanese members of his spy ring to Ott, who considered Sorge his right-hand man. In turn, the ambassador told him all about Germany’s efforts to entice Japan into joining the attack on the Soviet Union, which Hitler had invaded in June 1941.

During the Battle of Moscow in late 1941, when it appeared that the city would fall to the invaders, Stalin desperately needed to know whether he could redeploy many of his troops stationed in the Soviet Far East to defend the capital. If he miscalculated, such a redeployment could make Siberia a more exposed—and tempting—target for Japan. But if Japan’s leaders were more intent on a takeover of Southeast Asia and a confrontation with the United States, Stalin could safely shift his forces.

Stalin despised Sorge. The spy’s worst offense: He had repeatedly warned of Hitler’s plans to invade Russia at a time when Stalin was dismissing all such reports as disinformation meant to sabotage the Nazi-Soviet Pact. But when Moscow was in danger, Stalin had to rely on his master spy to provide him with the answers he needed.

By August 1941, the Japanese members of Sorge’s spy ring could confirm that Tokyo was planning to send its forces south rather than to Siberia. Ott conceded to Sorge that he had failed to persuade the Japanese to join in the invasion of Russia. As a result of Sorge’s assurances, Stalin could redeploy about half of his troops from the east—providing a critical component of the successful defense of Moscow.

On occasion, Mr. Matthews overstates his case. He insists, for example, that if Japan had attacked Russia in 1941, it would have “spelt the end of Stalin’s regime.” But after Stalin recovered from the initial shock of Hitler’s invasion, he rallied his countrymen and prepared for a war of attrition that would have continued even if Moscow had fallen. The war almost certainly would have lasted longer in that case, but it’s highly debatable that German and Japanese forces could have prevailed in the end. Still, Mr. Matthews is right that Sorge’s actions had a huge impact.

At the moment of Sorge’s biggest triumph, the Japanese police finally rounded up the members of his spy ring. On Oct. 19, 1941, they arrested Sorge—who soon broke down and confessed, providing riveting details of his double life. Mr. Matthews is wary of reports that Tokyo repeatedly tried to interest Moscow in a prisoner exchange for Sorge, noting the lack of documentation in Japan’s archives. But Stalin certainly had no interest in rescuing the spy who had done so much to help him.

Richard Sorge was hanged in Tokyo on Nov. 7, 1944, which happened to be the 27th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. In 1964, he was posthumously awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union. Since then, his legend has only grown.

Mr. Nagorski is a former Newsweek foreign correspondent and the author, most recently, of “1941: The Year Germany Lost the War.”