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By John Helmer, Moscow

The British author of a new biography of Richard Sorge (lead image, left), the Soviet spy hanged by the Japanese on November 7, 1944, disqualifies himself from being believed on the very first page of his book, and on the last.  

Sorge, reads the first line, “was a bad man who became a great spy.” On the last  page,  “Sorge was a flawed individual but an impeccable spy – brave,  brilliant, relentless. It was Sorge’s tragedy that his masters were venal cowards who placed their own careers before the vital interests  of the country that he laid down his life to serve.”

Owen Matthews (Russian family name Bibikov) reveals that after studying at Oxford University he worked as a journalist for The Moscow Times, the London Times, and The Economist. They are the well-known covers for US and British secret service employment in information warfare, as well as espionage. They aren’t credentials for understanding the history of Soviet intelligence before, during, or after World War II. Still, when a journalist like this one toes his proprietor’s and his secret service’s line, there is much that is revealing — about Matthews’ toes, and the Achilles Heel he and his masters display in this book.

Matthews is obsessed by Sorge’s sexual attractiveness. On page 1 Sorge is reported to have been “a drunk and a womaniser”; on page 5, “an indefatigable ladies’ man”; on page 6 appear  his “base appetites”. Page after page,  Matthews keeps this up.  Sorge was a cuckolder of his men friends with their wives; a bordello-cruiser; a debauch who married his Russian wife to enlarge his apartment and ration-card;  an “exhibitionist”; the possessor of a “prodigious libido” and “booze-fuelled charm”; the “advocate of free love”; performer of a “louche alcoholic act” and “cavalier bedding”; “never one to take no for an answer”.

The women who had been Sorge’s lovers contradict Matthews. In Japanese  Hanako Miyake, Sorge’s Japanese lover (lead image, right) and the guardian of his memory and grave until her death in 2000, said Sorge made no sexual advance for many months after they got to know each other.  Later, she said: “he was very passionate, but gentle, not like a wild animal bearing its teeth. That wasn’t Sorge’s way.”

Then there is the record of Eta Harich-Schneider, (right), a celebrated German harpsichordist, who had left Germany after rejecting her husband and
the Nazis. She played Beethoven to soothe Sorge’s despair at the wartime news. Years later, she wrote in a memoir, she had been attracted at their first
meeting by his “striking face and deep blue, vigilant eyes.” She also remembered his jokes; his observations about the Japanese character; his fondness for the Chinese. But Matthews puts her down.  She “was the last to fall for the romanticism of the robber-baron persona Sorge had  adopted since his schooldays.”

So obsessed by Sorge’s women is Matthews that he calls them by their first names – Christiane, Katya, Helma, Hanako, Eta — never the  surnames with which every man in the book, including Sorge himself, is named. This is a telling symptom.

There are two reasons for the Matthews case. One is commercial – he is pitching his script for a movie, or at least a Netflic.  Sorge’s sex is presented as if it’s a trailer for a fresh James Bond series; yet none of the memoirs on which Matthews relies substantiates this. What Sorge told Harich-Schneider turns out to have been unusually perspicacious for the time – Japan’s racism towards Asia was worse than Nazism, he said; Stalin would destroy Hitler;  Japan would not invade Siberia. According to Matthews, this monologue by Sorge in front of Miyake was a “drunken rant”. But what Miyake heard him say was: “Sorge is going to die…Japan will be in bad shape. Everyone will die. I know it. The United States is very strong. Japan can’t win. Russia won’t fight the United States.”

The second reason for Matthews’ preoccupation with sex is pathological. The biographer – bald, overweight, flap-eared, goggle-eyed – is jealous of Sorge.

Left:  Owen Matthews in a Russian television interview, April 2019;
Right: Natasha Fairweather, a London literary agent who specializes in Russia-attack  books by British authors. In the acknowledgements of his book, Matthews thanks Fairweather for representing his book negotiations with “enthusiasm and energy”. Russia-hating and the British secret services also run in Fairweather’s family; her husband Richard Beeston was the Murdoch newspaper correspondent in Moscow during the Yeltsin period, 1994-98;  her author list includes Boris Johnson, the former British foreign minister. 

Matthews adds to his meretriciousness by trying to recruit John Le Carré to endorse his book in several of the chapter head quotes, including this line: “In the atheists’ paradise, their souls, like Sorge’s, may survive in peace”.  David Cornwell (Le Carré) fabricated that one for payment by the CIA-financed magazine Encounter in 1966. Le Carré’s plots, which purport to be about British espionage operations against the KGB, and concomitantly KGB operations against its British counterparts, are in point of fact a repeating documentary of the British betraying each other for no discernible value in the outcome of war. For more on the insight Le Carré provides into the British, not the Russians, read this

Matthews tries convincing readers with selfies, placed throughout the book, to make himself appear to be a red-blooded Russian patriot no less than the half-German Sorge.  At the beginning, for example, Matthews shows off that he is married to a Russian;  holidays at her father’s dacha in Nikolina Gora, an upper-class section outside Moscow; and that his father-in-law was an artist (the Bown Dictionary of Russian and Soviet Painters assigns him a paragraph revealing he “produced some painting”; none illustrated). Then there’s Matthews’ disclosure that his city apartment is on Chisty pereulok, in the upper-class quarter of the old city. His reason for this disclosure, claims Matthews, is that the apartment below his had once been lived in by an NKVD veteran who had been a spy in Tokyo in the 1930s, when Sorge started there. By the time Matthews moved in above him, the veteran wasn’t available as a source; he was as dead as Sorge, and his walls didn’t talk.  

The selfies don’t stop – three of Matthews’ Bibikov relatives are reported, though they have nothing whatever to do with Sorge. One of them reveals Matthews’ fondness for the anti-Russian regimes which have rolled through the Ukraine. He was grandfather Boris Lvovich Bibikov, “a party official executed in the Purge of 1937 in Kiev.”

Matthews acknowledges there is an enormous literature, academic and popular, on Sorge. Matthews promises the difference he and his book make is that he’s read the recently opened Russian archives. Maybe. There are snippets from Sorge’s own reports, as well as from assessments and instructions from his superiors at military intelligence (GRU) headquarters in Moscow, including its chief, General Filipp Golikov. But there is no sign  from them that Matthews  has understood what Russian, American and British specialists on intelligence operations already know. 

“Dear Ramsay,” Golikov cabled Sorge in February 1941, “having carefully studied your materials for 1940, I believe they do not answer to the tasks set before you….The majority of your materials are not secret and not timely.” Golikov was reacting to a December 28, 1940, report from Sorge which mentioned a large German force assembling on the Soviet border with Romania to secure German access to the Romanian oilfields. If the Soviet Union, Sorge wrote, “begins to develop activities against German interests, as happened in the Baltic, the Germans could occupy territory on a line from Kharkov through Moscow to Leningrad. The Germans know that the USSR would not risk this, as the Soviet leadership is aware, particularly after the Finnish campaign, that it will take twenty years for the Red Army to become a modern army like that of Germany.”

This is op ed journalism — was Golikov mistaken in his negative assessment?

Sorge responded on May 2, 1941, with a report of what the German Ambassador to Tokyo, Eugen Ott, and his military staff were saying. “Hitler is full of determination to destroy the USSR and seize the European part of the USSR as a grain and raw materials base in order to control all of Europe…A decision about war against the USSR will be taken by Hitler alone, either already in May, or after the war with Britain.”  

On May 21, Sorge cabled: “German officials arriving here from Berlin inform us that war between Germany and the USSR may begin at the end of May.” He added an extra subjunctive.  “They also say that for this year the danger might pass.” From Moscow the reply came back, expressing doubt. This followed a marginal notation by Stalin on the report that it had come from “a shit who has set himself up with some small factories and brothels in Japan.”

Stalin was referring to Max Clausen, Sorge’s code man and radio operator. At the time he was running a lucrative business producing blueprints for Japanese factories. Clausen had stopped sending all of Sorge’s texts without letting Sorge know.  According to Matthews, Clausen didn’t send 90% of Sorge’s May 21 despatch.  He also garbled the remainder of the message. Was Golikov wrong to conclude at GRU that  the cables were “suspicious”?

On May 30 Sorge sent an urgent cable. “Berlin informed Ott that the German attack [on Russia] will commence in the latter part of June. Ott 95% certain that war will commence…In order to eliminate all the dangers from the USSR side, Germany has to drive off the Red Army as soon as possible. This is what Ott said.”

On June 1 Sorge reported the details of a conversation with a German courier just arrived from Berlin. “The beginning of the German-Russian war is expected around June 15th. In my conversation with Scholl I established that the German advance against the Red Army is founded on a major tactical mistake by the USSR. From the German point of view, the Soviet disposition of forces against German positions does not have any significant depth, which is a grave error. It will help them smash the Red Army in the first major battle. Scholl informed me that the strongest strike will be undertaken by the left [north] flank of the German Army.”  This was Sorge’s “most important-ever dispatch”, Matthews judges.


Stalin wrote on his copy of the text: “Suspicious. To be listed with telegrams intended as provocations.” Golikov replied sceptically. Sorge responded on June 13: “I repeat, nine armies with the strength of 150 divisions will most likely begin an offensive  by the end of June.” A week later, on June 20, Sorge cabled: “War between Germany and the USSR is inevitable. German military superiority will allow the destruction of the Soviet Army as effectively as was accomplished at the beginning because the strategic defensive positions of the USSR are still as weak as the Polish ones were.” He also reported his source inside the Japanese prime ministry as having “told me that the Japanese General Staff is already discussing the question of the positions that will be taken in the event of war.”

On June 22 the German attack began. In retrospect, Sorge’s  warnings had proved correct; Stalin and Golikov had misjudged the value of Sorge’s intelligence. But were their mistakes “the fatally self-reinforcing circle of delusion between dictator and intelligence chief” which Matthews tells his readers?  

No – and the evidence for this is at least much American as it is Russian. It’s the classic analysis of mistaken conclusions by political leaders  from apparently obvious intelligence leading to catastrophic outcomes on the battlefield; this is Roberta Wohlstetter’s 1962 book, Pearl Harbor, Warning and Decision. Wohlstetter analyzed the overwhelming advance evidence of the Japanese plan to attack Pearl Harbor in 1941, and then demonstrated why the US military leadership and the Roosevelt Administration were taken by surprise — how the true signals were lost or misinterpreted among what Wohlstetter called the noise. The study is more than fifty years old now, but Matthews hasn’t heard of it.

Roberta Wohlstetter receiving the Medal of Freedom from President Ronald Reagan on November 7, 1985.  According to her employer, the RAND think-tank, her Pearl Harbor analysis “was later used as a lens for analyzing the Cuban Missile Crisis and the 2001 terrorist attacks. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reportedly made it required reading for his staff.” The  Wohlstetter house in California was designed in the Japanese style in 1945 by a friend, the architect Josef van de Kar, who had been a US Communist Party member, and who was targeted by the McCarthy purges. Roberta Wohlstetter’s husband  Albert was the nuclear attack strategist who inspired the character of Dr Strangelove in the film of the same name.

Stalin was convinced that Sorge was relaying what the Germans, Japanese, British and Americans wanted him to believe; the signal  was a disinformation and deception operation, Stalin decided. The rest was noise. Immediately after the German attack was confirmed, however, Stalin needed to know if the Japanese would launch an attack from the east, as the Germans had been lobbying for. Sorge reported on July 12 it was the German Ambassador’s view that the Japanese were biding their time, and would not launch an attack into Siberia and against Vladivostok until and unless the German advance took Sverdlovsk. “If the Red Army suffers defeat,” Sorge wrote, “then there is no doubt that the Japanese will join the war, and if there is no defeat, then they will maintain neutrality.”

Stalin initialled his copy, along with the chiefs of the Army, Foreign Ministry and intelligence services, with the notation from GRU:  “in consideration of the high reliability and accuracy of previous information and the competence of the information sources, this information can be trusted.”

Stalin’s big mistake is well understood in hindsight. Matthews makes the mistake of thinking Stalin’s mistake was a Soviet or Communist pathology.  He fails to understand that all large organizations the world over – governments, intelligence services, newspapers, industrial conglomerates, banks — behave in the same fashion. “Neither Sorge nor Ozaki were modest men,” judges Matthews. “Like many advisers, they both came to believe they knew better than their masters… Both understood that knowledge is power.” Matthews is so impressed with his own line he repeats it. “Every piece of information that passed back and forth served to buoy the reputations of Ott [with the German command in Berlin], Sorge, and Ozaki [with Prime Minister Konoe in Tokyo]  in the eyes of their respective superiors. Information was power, not just to governments, but to all  the principals of the spy ring, both witting and unwitting.”

Can Sorge, the Marxist academic, have been so unlearned? Can Ozaki have not understood Mao Tse-Tung’s adaptation — that power comes, not from information, but out of the barrel of a gun? Frustrated, disappointed, despairing, depressed,  Sorge and Ozaki certainly were as the three countries they cared for most went into a war they knew would be disastrous for each.  

According to Matthews-Bibikov, at GRU headquarters and in Stalin’s office  Sorge was both suspected of duplicity and at the same time his reports believed to be accurate: this was “the crazy illogic of the period”, the Anglo-Russian writer claims. That’s his display of incompetence in the subject of intelligence analysis. He hasn’t even studied the British bible on the subject, John Keegan’s  “Intelligence in War” (2002).   “Intelligence, however good, is not necessarily the means to victory,” Keegan concluded after analyzing cases from the Napoleonic Wars, through the American Civil War, to the German wars in Europe, the war against Japan, and military intelligence since 1945. “Ultimately it is force, not fraud or forethought, that counts.”

Matthews-Bibikov doesn’t know the theory, but where does he stand in his own practice today, with all the intelligence available to a reporter based between  Moscow, London and Washington?  For example, on Crimea’s accession to Russia following the 2014 putsch in Kiev, Matthews has taken the side of NATO, claiming:  “You [Russians] all believe in this, I understand you believe in this, but nobody believes you and the whole world knows the truth.” To which, Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s response is memorable. After reciting the imperial seizures of Scotland, Ireland, India, and Africa in English history, he went on to tell Matthews: “You need to shut up. You need to be taught a good lesson, Anglo Saxons.” 

Matthews returned to form in the London Spectator, a year ago, spelling out his plan of attack against Russia: “if the political will existed, Brussels and Washington could devastate Russia’s economy overnight.”   This is what Matthews stands for. It is his very own “fatally self-reinforcing circle of delusion.”  Sorge, he concluded, “steamrollered people into either loving or hating him.” The record Matthews has compiled counts a great many people who loved Sorge, but none who hated him – except for Matthews himself.

At the very end of the book, Matthews claims  Sorge was turned into a  hero because “the KGB, and its director Yury Andropov, were rising in power and prestige and they needed a hero-spy …to glamorize the image of the KGB.”  Matthews describes the sculpture by Vladimir Tsigal, which was erected on Andropov’s order in 1985, at the head of Sorge Street in northeast Moscow.  “It shows”, Matthews claims,  “a statue of a commanding figure  in a flowing trench coat stepping out of a curtain of bronze shadow.”

I have lived off Sorge Street for thirty years, and I have passed the statue more than a thousand times. Why do I make this selfie? What possible relevance to this story can the geography of my apartment in Moscow be?

In the monument Sorge is shown stepping out of a wall of black granite (lead-image, left); it is a cut-out symbolically releasing Sorge from the secret cover of his lifetime and from the death the Japanese inflicted on him. But there is no curtain, no bronze.  Deafened by his hatred for everything Communist and Soviet in Russian history;   dumbed down by his British agent, publisher and employer; ignorant of intelligence as the professionals on all sides practise it, Matthews, it turns out, is blind to the obvious.

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