Richard Sorge – The Spy Betrayed By Stalin

The Soviet intelligence officer Richard Sorge was worth an entire army. His reports not only saved Moscow during WWII, but also significantly contributed to the victory over Nazism. However, Stalin had a peculiar way of “thanking” him, allowing him to be hanged by the Japanese.

In autumn 1941 the outcome of the whole Soviet-German war was at stake: Hitler’s troops were at the gates of the Soviet capital. However, after some brutal, exhausting clashes, the Soviet army went on the counteroffensive and drove the enemy back.

Victory became possible due to the arrival of fresh Soviet divisions, redeployed to Moscow from Siberia, where they had been awaiting a Japanese attack.

Stalin would never have allowed a weakening of the Soviet forces in the Far East if Soviet reconnaissance officer Richard Sorge had not reported that Japan was not preparing to attack the Soviet Union in 1941. Thus, one man saved the capital of the Soviet Union when all seemed lost.

Richard Sorge was born to become an intelligence officer. Smart, attractive and elegant, he was good at making useful acquaintances, which he exploited perfectly in getting vital information.

At the age of 29, young German communist Richard Sorge moved to the Soviet Union, where he soon was recruited by the Soviet intelligence service.

In 1933, Sorge was sent to Japan, where he successfully impersonated a German journalist. His whole future life was tied to this country thereafter, and it was there that he met his end.

His intelligent and amicable manner allowed Richard Sorge to easily befriend people. One of the most important among them was the German ambassador to Japan, Major General Eugen Ott, who had access to all the secrets of Nazi Germany.

Ott completely trusted Sorge, and in fact was the main source of all important information for the Soviet intelligence officer. Ott often shared info and asked Sorge’s advice, since he thought Richard Sorge worked for the German intelligence service, having no idea who Sorge’s real paymasters were…

Richard Sorge’s other major source was Japanese journalist Hotsumi Ozaki. An advisor to Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe, he was a devoted communist and Sorge’s agent, who had access to the highest ranks of Imperial Japan.

Despite the important and useful information Sorge sent to Moscow, the Soviet leadership was very suspicious of their intelligence officer in Japan. A German, with a passion for women and alcohol, with such friends as Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, Sorge was viewed by the Soviets as a double agent.

Still, to gain a spy net in such a closed country as Japan was no easy task, and the Soviet leaders had no choice but to keep Richard Sorge as their main source in the Land of the Rising Sun.

During the series of repressions in the USSR in the late 1930s, known as the Great Purge, Soviet intelligence was literally decapitated, with all its leaders executed, including close colleagues and friends of Sorge. He himself was summoned to Moscow for “talks.”

Afraid for his life, Richard Sorge refused to go, saying he had too much work to do in Japan. This enraged Stalin, who became even more suspicious of “that German.”

These suspicions remained despite the fact that Sorge’s reports significantly helped the Soviet troops to prepare and defeat the Japanese at the Battles of Lake Khasan (1938) and Khalkhin Gol (1939).

Despite being thousands kilometers away from Europe, Richard Sorge had perfect ties with German and Japanese high officials and was sometimes better informed about what was happening there than other Soviet intelligence officers in Europe.

Numerous times Richard Sorge warned his chiefs about German plans to attack the Soviet Union in late June 1941. Yet such reports were ignored.

When Sorge was arrested by the Japanese, he said during the interrogation: “There were days when I sent 3-4 encryptions to Moscow, but, it seems, nobody believed me.”

The attitude towards Sorge completely changed after the launch of Operation Barbarossa confirmed his words. Richard Sorge finally won Stalin’s trust.

On 14 September 1941, Sorge sent perhaps the most important message in his life. “According to my source, the Japanese leadership decided not to begin hostilities against the Soviet Union this year.”

This time Richard Sorge’s words were taken seriously. It is believed that this message finally convinced Stalin to order the redeployment of over a dozen fresh, well-trained divisions from the Far East in defense of Moscow, where they became game-changers.

On December 5, the strengthened Soviet troops went on the counteroffensive and threw the Germans back from the Soviet capital. The Wehrmacht suffered its first serious defeat in the war.

In October 1941, Richard Sorge and his entire group were arrested by the Japanese. At first, the Germans didn’t believe that Richard Sorge, who was proclaimed the best German journalist that year, was a Soviet spy. All their requests to free him were denied.

After Sorge’s work for Soviet intelligence was confirmed, the Japanese twice contacted the Soviets regarding his future fate. Both times the Soviet side answered the same: “We in the Soviet Union know nothing about any such person as Richard Sorge.”

Although it remains unknown as to the precise reason why the Soviets declined to exchange Sorge, it is believed that Stalin could not forgive him for acknowledging his work for the USSR under interrogation, something a Soviet intelligence officer should never do.

When Stalin abandoned his best intelligent officer, Sorge was doomed. As a taunt over the Russians, the Japanese hanged him on November 7, 1944, the 27th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

For 20 years the name of Richard Sorge was forgotten in the Soviet Union. But in the U.S. and Europe, quite the opposite, his activity was well studied. In 1964, Nikita Khrushchev saw the French movie Who Are You, Mr. Sorge? and was shocked by what he saw.

When Khrushchev found out that Richard Sorge was a real person, he ordered the name and fame of the Soviet intelligence officer to be restored. Sorge was posthumously awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union.


Boris Egorov is a journalist writing for Russia Beyond.
The photo shows an East German first issue to honor Richard Sorge, from 1976.

Peter Kropotkin – A Curious Life

Peter Kropotkin was the father of Russian anarchism. He dreamed of a world without violence or government power. Today his ideas are just as relevant as they were in the 19th century.

As the father of Russian anarchism, Prince Peter Kropotkin (1842–1921) understood society as a voluntary cooperation of free people.

The word “anarchy” immediately calls to mind a black flag, skull and crossbones, drunk sailors and general lawlessness. Kropotkin preached nothing of the sort. He was a serious, learned man. He also hated violence with all his heart.

Like many other 19th-century Russian revolutionaries, he was born into a wealthy noble family and belonged to the elite. His father had more than a 1,000 serfs and three estates.

Kropotkin graduated from the Page Corps, the most privileged military institution in Russia. He was a personal chamber page to Tsar Alexander II. Brilliant professional possibilities lay before him — he could have become a general or minister.

Yet he disregarded all of this and joined the revolution. Having read illegal literature, he put an end to his career. He refused a prestigious post in the guards and set out for Siberia.

During his foray among the people, Kropotkin became convinced that all evil came from the government. In places where the government’s hand did not reach, people lived in poverty, but happily.

They organized themselves into communes and successfully existed without taxes and bureaucrats.

While he was in Switzerland, Kropotkin took note of how the watchmakers’ cooperative was set up. There was no boss above the workers, yet the workers’ cooperative functioned smoothly.

This was a true anarchic commune as Kropotkin understood it, a community of free people who work not by necessity but by their own will. In Switzerland he joined the First International, the same organization that Karl Marx joined.

Kropotkin returned from abroad as a confirmed revolutionary and started to disseminate revolutionary propaganda. He was a skilled conspirator, and for a long time the police could not capture him even though they knew about his activities.

He constantly disguised himself — for example, as a student or a peasant. He also frequently changed clandestine apartments. An elegant young man in glasses would enter a building, and a peasant in a print shirt and dirty boots would exit.

The transfiguration was absolute. But in the end he was, of course, arrested. He was imprisoned in the Peter and Paul (Petropavlovskaya) Fortress, one of Russia’s most dismal jails. He served out two years and escaped.

This is the only instance of evasion — only a reckless person dared to flee from the Peter and Paul (Petropavlovskaya) Fortress.

Kropotkin went abroad and continued his antigovernment activities. Indeed, anarchy is a rejection of government and the government machine.

He gathered many supporters; they distributed a newspaper with a defiant name, “Rebel,” spread propaganda and even carried out terrorist acts.

Kropotkin had no connection to the terrorist acts, but he was in the limelight and was too offensive a figure. Hence he was expelled from all the European countries.

In France he was even sentenced to five years in jail. However, Victor Hugo and other well-known figures came to his defense and Kropotkin’s sentence was shortened to three years. He served it in full.

No government — neither capitalist nor socialist — likes anarchists. When Kropotkin returned to Russia during the revolution, conflicts arose between him and the Bolsheviks.

The Bolsheviks’ brutality horrified the old anarchist. By nature he was softhearted and kind, and he could in no way recognize the red terror. He understood anarchism first and foremost as cooperation and solidarity. Yet a war of everyone against everyone was raging.

“And I have spent my whole life working on a theory of anarchy for this!” he lamented to Plekhanov, one of the oldest Marxists. Plekhanov said to Kropotkin, “Peter Alexeyevich, I too am in the same situation. Could I have thought that my advocacy for a scientific socialism would lead to such a nightmare?”

Kropotkin met with Lenin and tried to reason with him, asking him to stop the executions. Lenin laughed at him. At the time, no one took Kropotkin seriously.

Even the celebrated anarchist Nestor Makhno worshipped Kropotkin yet considered his ideas out of touch with reality and outmoded.

When Kropotkin died, the Soviet powers honored him as a fighter against the cursed Tsarist regime. They named streets and towns after him.

In central Moscow there is a subway station named Kropotkinskaya. For a while, there was also a Kropotkin museum. However, in the late 1930s it was closed. Kropotkin’s books also stopped being published.

The Soviet government was finding its footing and getting more and more powerful. Ideas of anarchy were entirely foreign.

Yet anarchism has turned out to be a surprisingly hardy trend. As long as a government exists, there will always be people fighting against its oppression.

The famous saying “Anarchy is the mother of order” is less absurd if anarchy is understood as Kropotkin meant it: a splendid utopia, an ideal arrangement of society, where thinking citizens work in one another’s interest and where authority, overseers and supervisors do not exist.

It is a marvelous picture, albeit a completely improbable one. But the great dreamer Kropotkin believed that one day, everything would be that way.

Yan Shenkman is a Russian journalist.
The photo shows a frontispiece portrait of Peter Kropotkin, ca. 1885.