Willing to die for the revolution
If Britain's great playboy spy was Dusko Popov, the Soviets' was Richard Sorge. As a bon vivant, Sorge was unparalleled; as a source of intelligence, he was vital. When the German military machine was rolling toward Moscow in 1941, Sorge radioed his handlers with a crucial piece of information. The Japanese, he said, would not invade Russia but would instead aim to seize control of Southeast Asia. Acting on the tip, Joseph Stalin pulled thousands of troops from Siberia and sent them to Moscow to fortify Russia's last stand against the invading Nazis.
With a cover as a German journalist in Tokyo, Sorge landed his coup through his close connections with both the German Embassy and the Japanese cabinet. "Sorge was a spy's spy," says Chalmers Johnson, author of An Instance of Treason: Ozaki Hotsumi and the Sorge Spy Ring. "He got information by being a valuable source of information." Of Russo-German descent, Sorge found his communist beliefs in the trenches of World War I. He later earned a Ph.D. in political science and worked for the Communist Party in Germany. In 1933, the Soviets sent him to Tokyo.
High life. Sorge spent much of his time in Tokyo collecting paramours, including the German ambassador's wife. In 1938 Sorge nearly blew his cover after getting drunk and crashing his motorcycle into a stone wall--while carrying vital intelligence reports in his coat. Woozy in a hospital bed, Sorge did, however, have the presence of mind to call an associate and pass the reports off. Sorge's recklessness was both a liability and a defense. Few believed that a man who would drink all night with Nazis and write all day for a Nazi-affiliated newspaper--an apparent mouthpiece for the regime, says Johnson--would even have time to be a Soviet sympathizer.
Sent via encrypted radio from a roving boat, Sorge's messages to the Soviets warning them of Japanese military intentions were among his last. After torturing a leading member of the Japanese Communist Party, the Japanese government arrested two members of Sorge's spy ring in late 1941. Sorge continued to visit his Japanese mistress and attend dinner parties. Captured in October, he was held for three years before being executed in 1944. He remains one of the 20th century's greatest spies, says Donald Goldstein, a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh. "He was willing to die for the cause," he says, "and could always act naturally and become one of the boys." -Ulrich Boser
This story appears in the January 27, 2003 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.