Transcript: Ben Macintyre on Moscow's Agent Sonya | Oct 29, 2020

Nam sits in the studio. She's in her early forties, with shoulder length curly brown hair. She's wearing glasses, a purple blazer and a matching shirt.

A caption on screen reads "History's most successful female spy? Nam Kiwanuka, @namshine, @theagenda."

Nam says A GREAT SPY, OF COURSE, IS ONE THAT DOESN'T GET SPOTTED. BRITISH HISTORIAN BEN MACINTYRE'S NEW BOOK CAPTURES THE UNTOLD STORY OF ONE OF THE SOVIET UNION'S MOST SUCCESSFUL SECRET AGENTS. SHE WAS, YES SHE - ONE OF HISTORY'S MOST EFFECTIVE SPIES - HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT AS A HOUSEWIFE IN THE ENGLISH COUNTRYSIDE DURING WWII. THE BOOK IS CALLED, "AGENT SONYA: MOSCOW'S MOST DARING WARTIME SPY," AND IT BRINGS BEN MACINTYRE BACK TO OUR SHOW FROM LONDON, UK.

Ben is in his sixties, clean-shaven, with short, receding gray hair. He's wearing a white shirt.
A picture of his book appears briefly on screen. The cover features a picture of a person riding a bicycle in the countryside as a hammer and sickle appear in the clouds.

Nam continues HI, BEN.

Ben says HELLO. NICE TO SEE YOU AGAIN.

Nam says I LOVED THIS BOOK. IT'S ONE OF THOSE BOOKS THAT YOU JUST DON'T WANT TO PUT DOWN BECAUSE YOU WANT TO KNOW WHAT'S COMING NEXT. SO TELL US: WHO WAS URSULA NEE KUCZYNSKI.

A black and white picture shows a young woman with short dark hair and a big smile.

The caption changes to "Ben MacIntyre. Author, 'Agent Sonya.'"
Then, it changes again to "Who was Ursula Burton?"

Ben says SHE WAS BORN JUST BEFORE THE WORLD WAR I AND BROUGHT UP IN THAT CHAOTIC PERIOD IN GERMANY BETWEEN THE WARS WHEN THE FASCISTS ARE ON THE MARCH AND SHE BECAME A DEDICATED COMMUNIST, WHICH SHE REMAINED REALLY FOR THE REST OF HER LIFE.

Nam says WHY COMMUNISM?

Ben says WHY COMMUNISM?

Nam says MM-HMM.

Ben says WELL, BECAUSE FROM HER PERSPECTIVE, THE ONLY PEOPLE STANDING UP TO THE NAZIS WERE THE COMMUNISTS AND THAT WAS A VERY RESPECTABLE INTELLECTUAL POSITION TO TAKE. SHE BECAME A REVOLUTIONARY COMMUNIST. SO SHE WAS VERY YOUNG WHEN THE BOLL BOLSHEVIK REVOLUTION. HER STORY COVERS THE CLEAR BEGINNINGS TO THE CHAOTIC ENDING. IN A WAY HER STORY IS A WAY OF LOOKING AT COMMUNISM ITSELF. SHE KIND OF FELL INTO SPYING REALLY BY ACCIDENT.

Nam says HOW?

Ben says WELL, SHE WAS RECRUITED BY AN EXTRAORDINARY WOMAN IN SHANGHAI IN 1929 CALLED AGNES SMEDLEY WHO WAS A VERY SUCCESSFUL LEFT-WING RADICAL NOVELIST. BUT HERSELF A SOVIET AGENT. SHE HAD BEEN RECRUITED BY SOVIET MILITARY INTELLIGENCE, AGNES. AND THEY BECAME FRIENDS AND URSULA TOLD HER OF HER POLITICAL OPINIONS, AND AGNES THEN PASSED HER ON TO A CRITICAL FIGURE CALLED RICHARD SORGE. THE SOVIETS WERE BANK ROLLING THE CHINESE COMMUNIST UNDERGROUND. AND HE RECRUITED URSULA AS HIS INFORMANT. HE THEN HAD A PASSIONATE LOVE AFFAIR WITH HER. AND IN FACT SHE WAS ALREADY MARRIED AT THIS POINT AND IN FACT SHE HAD ALREADY HAD ONE CHILD BUT THE MARRIAGE WAS NOT REALLY GOING VERY WELL. AND REALLY THE TWINING OF HER ROMANTIC LIFE WITH THIS EXTRAORDINARY SPY WHO WAS DESCRIBED AS IAN FLEMING, NO LESS, AS BEING THE MOST FORMIDABLE SPY IN HISTORY, THAT'S WHAT SET HER OFF ON THE ESPIONAGE PATH.

Nam says SHE CAME FROM A PROMINENT FAMILY. COULD YOU TELL US ABOUT THE KUCZYNSKI FAMILY?

A black and white picture shows a large, three-story house.
Another black and white picture shows Ursula reading as she leans against a tree.

Ben says THE KUCZYNSKIS WERE PART OF THE KIND OF INTELLECTUAL ACADEMIC BOURGEOIS. THEY WERE WELL-TO-DO. IN FACT HER FATHER OWNED THE LARGEST PRIVATE LIBRARY IN GERMANY. SHE WAS BROUGHT UP SURROUNDED BY BOOKS IN VERY COMFORTABLE CIRCUMSTANCES AS YOU CAN SEE FROM THIS HOUSE WHERE THEY LIVED, BUT THEY WERE LEFT-LEANING. THE FATHER WASN'T COMMUNIST BUT HE WAS CERTAINLY ON THE LEFT. AND THE COMBINATION OF THAT AND THE KIND OF GROWING UP IN A WORLD WHERE THE FASCISTS WERE ON THE MARCH, AS I SAID, THERE WAS MASSIVE ECONOMIC DISLOCATION. URSULA WAS SEEING THE ENORMOUS GAP BETWEEN THE RICH AND THE POOR, AND IN SOME WAYS HER DECISION TO BECOME A COMMUNIST, A LIFE-LONG DECISION, WAS A REBELLION AGAINST HER UPBRINGING.

Nam says IN WHAT WAYS WAS IT A REBELLION?

The caption changes to "Ben MacIntyre, @BenMacintyre1."

Ben says I THINK, YOU KNOW, SHE DID IN PART REBEL AGAINST THE BOURGEOIS CIRCUMSTANCES IN WHICH SHE HAD BEEN BROUGHT UP. THAT SAID, YOU KNOW, SHE WASN'T FROM THE PROLETARIAT. THE COMMUNISM CHANGED THROUGHOUT HER LIFE. IT BEGAN IN A PURE WAY. IT WASN'T JUST IDEOLOGY THAT DROVE HER. SHE WAS ALSO A RISK TAKER. SHE LOVED ADVENTURE. SHE BECAME I THINK RATHER ADDICTED TO THE THRILL OF SECRECY. SPYING CAN BE VERY, VERY ADDICTIVE, AND SHE GOT IT IN SPADES.

Nam says IT CAN BE A DRUG, SORT OF; RIGHT?

The caption changes to "Watch us anytime: tvo.org, Twitter: @theagenda, Facebook Live, YouTube."

Ben says YEAH. I MEAN, AND IT'S VERY HARD TO RENOUNCE ONCE YOU START. AND SHE HAD GREAT, GRAVE DOUBTS ABOUT COMMUNISM. SHE WASN'T SORT OF A SIMPLE IDEOLOGUE. DURING THE STALINIST PURGES, WHEN IT WASN'T WORKING OUT THE WAY SHE IMAGINED IT WOULD, SHE HAD GRAVE DOUBTS BUT SHE DID STICK TO IT RIGHT TO THE END OF HER LIFE.

Nam says SINCE WE'RE TALKING ABOUT THE PURGES, THERE ARE LINGERING QUESTIONS ABOUT URSULA. THE MOST PROFOUND IS HOW SHE WAS SO DEVOTED TO THE SOVIET UNION IN THE TIMES OF STALIN'S GREAT PURGES, AND YOU WRITE IN THE BOOK...

A quote appears on screen, under the title "Stalin's purges." The quote reads "Ursula later claimed to have been ignorant of the purges, the scale of the bloodletting, the flimsiness of the trumped-up charges, and Stalin's personal agency in the criminal slaughter. She accepted the myth that capitalist spies were sowing an atmosphere of distrust inside the Soviet Union, making it 'no easy matter for those responsible to distinguish between the mistakes of honest comrades and enemy actions.' In the jargon of mass slaughter, 'mistakes' was a weasel word used to justify executions based on no real evidence.
But Ursula knew her friends and colleagues were being annihilated, and that they were innocent."
Quoted from Ben MacIntyre, "Agent Sonya." 2020.

Nam says HOW COULD SHE CLAIM TO BE IGNORANT WHEN ALL OF HER FRIENDS AND COLLEAGUES WERE DISAPPEARING?

The caption changes to "Hiding in plain sight."

Ben says THE TRUTH IS SHE WASN'T IN THE SOVIET UNION FOR VERY LONG. THAT IS ONE ANSWER. SHE WAS TAKEN THERE FOR TRAINING. SHE WAS INSULATED FROM THE REST OF SOVIET SOCIETY. IT WASN'T THAT SHE WAS LIVING THIS EVERY DAY. SHE WAS ABLE TO SAY, AND THERE IS A TRUTH IN THIS, THAT SHE WAS NOT AWARE OF THE SCALE OF IT. PEOPLE BEGAN TO DISAPPEAR AND THE WHISPERINGS WERE OUT THERE, BUT SHE NEVER BETRAYED ANYONE AND SHE WAS HERSELF NEVER BETRAYED WHICH IS REMARKABLE ACTUALLY WHEN YOU THINK THE CURRENCY AT THAT TIME, THE WAY TO SURVIVE IN STALINIST RUSSIA, WAS TO BETRAY YOUR COLLEAGUES AND FRIENDS AND SHE NEVER DID THAT. I DON'T WANT TO DEFEND HER TOO MUCH BECAUSE I THINK SHE DID WHAT MANY PEOPLE DO AND IT'S A NATURAL THING TO DO, SHE MADE HER PEACE WITH HORROR. AND IT WASN'T UNTIL MUCH LATER IN HER LIFE IN THE 1950S WHEN THE TRUTH ABOUT STALINISM BEGAN TO EMERGE THAT SHE REALIZED WHAT HAD REALLY HAPPENED AND THAT WAS A HUGE CRISIS FOR HER. AT THE TIME I THINK, LIKE MANY, MANY PEOPLE INVOLVED IN SOVIET RUSSIA AT THAT TIME, SHE CHOSE TO LOOK AWAY. AND IT'S ONE OF THE QUEASIER ASPECTS OF HER LIFE. WHAT YOU HAVE TO REMEMBER ABOUT URSULA IS THAT FOR THE FIRST HALF OF HER ESPIONAGE CAREER, SHE WAS SPYING AGAINST FASCISM. THAT WAS HER TARGET. SHE WAS TRYING TO DESTROY HITLER AND HIS BROWN SHIRTS. IT WAS ONLY WHEN SHE COMES TO THE COLD WAR AND HISTORY PIVOTS AROUND HER THAT SHE IS THEN SPYING AGAINST THE WEST. DURING THE WAR, WHEN THE SOVIET UNION WAS ALLIED WITH BRITAIN AND AMERICA AND CANADA, SHE WAS, IF YOU LIKE, ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF HISTORY. SHE ENDS UP ON THE WRONG SIDE OF HISTORY, IN MY VIEW, DURING THE COLD WAR WHEN SHE IS SUDDENLY SPYING AGAINST THE WEST.

Nam says YOU MENTION THAT SHE IS A PERSON WHO WAS SPYING AND SHE WASN'T BETRAYED. SOMEONE IN HER INNER CIRCLE ALMOST GOT HER, OLO, AND THERE'S THIS GREAT LINE IN THE BOOK THAT YOU HAVE, THE SPY WAS BEING SPIED ON. YOU KNOW, WHEN WE THINK OF SPICE, WE THINK IT'S A THANKLESS JOB BECAUSE PEOPLE DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU ARE DOING. BURSULA PLAYED A HUGE ROLE IN HISTORY. WHAT WERE SOME OF HER ACCOMPLISHMENTS?

Ben says DURING THE FIRST PART OF THE WAR... SHE WAS BASED IN SWITZERLAND. THERE SHE WAS ALONE WITH HER TWO CHILDREN AND THIS NURSE, THIS NANNY, OLO, WHO WAS HER OWN CHILDHOOD NURSE. AND AT THAT POINT SHE WAS RUNNING REALLY THE BIGGEST ANTI-NAZI NETWORK INSIDE NAZI GERMANY. SHE WAS RUNNING AGENTS ACROSS THE BORDER FROM SWITZERLAND AND SHE WAS RUNNING HER OWN RADIO TRANSMITTER. SO SHE WAS FERRYING ALL THE SECRETS BACK TO MOSCOW AND PLAYED A PIVOTAL ROLE IN THAT. SHE ONCE PLOTTED THE ASSASSINATION OF ADOLF HITLER. ONE OF HER AGENTS HAD SPIED THAT HITLER DINED EVERY DAY AT A CERTAIN RESTAURANT. IF THEY TARGETED A BOMB NEXT TO THE PARTITION DIVIDING HIS SEMI PRIVATE DINING ROOM FROM THE REST OF THE RESTAURANT, THEY COULD KILL HIM. THEY WERE ABOUT TO DO THIS. THEY WERE WEEKS AWAY FROM PUTTING THIS PLAN INTO OPERATION WHERE THE MOLOTOV PACT TOOK PLACE, IT WAS THE NON-AGGRESSION PACT BETWEEN NAZI GERMANY AND THE SOVIET UNION, AND THAT DAY SHE GOT A MESSAGE FROM MOSCOW SAYING CEASE ALL OFFENSIVE OPERATIONS AGAINST GERMANY. AND THAT WAS BEGIN A SHATTERING MOMENT FOR HER BECAUSE SHE BATTLED AGAINST NAZI GERMANY ALL HER LIFE, THE CALL SHE WAS SUPPORTING WAS IN BED WITH THE NAZIS. THAT WAS ANOTHER CRISIS POINT FOR HER. SHE CAME CLOSE TO THE ASSASSINATION OF HITLER. THAT WAS PROBABLY THE ONE MOST LIKELY TO SUCCEED. SO THAT WAS THE FIRST TIME OF HER WARTIME LIFE. SHE THEN ENDS UP IN BRITAIN WHERE SHE IS AGAIN ON A MISSION FOR MOSCOW, LIVING IN THE OXFORDSHIRE COUNTRYSIDE WITH HER THREE CHILDREN AND HUSBAND LEN AND CYCLING IN THE COUNTRYSIDE. IN FACT IN THE BACK GARDEN, IN THE PRIVY, THE OUTSIDE LOO, SHE WAS BUILT A POWERFUL RADIO TRANSMITTER WITH WHICH SHE WAS FERRYING THE ATOMIC SECRETS TO MOSCOW. URSULA HAD AGENTS INSIDE THE TOP SECRET BRITISH ATOMIC WEAPONS PROGRAM. NOTABLY A MAN CALLED CLAUS FUCHS, WHO WAS A GERMAN, A FELLOW COMMUNIST, WHO WAS ESSENTIALLY HANDING OVER TO URSULA THE BLUEPRINT OF THE ATOMIC WEAPON. SO WHEN THE SOVIETS DETONATED THEIR BOMB IN 1949, THAT WAS LARGELY THANKS TO MRS. BURTON, ALSO KNOWN AS COLONEL URSULA KUCZYNSKI OF THE RED ARMY.

Nam says IT'S AN INCREDIBLE STORY. WHEN YOU WERE TALKING, I READ THE BOOK, BUT I HAD, LIKE, SHIVERS ON MY SKIN BECAUSE HAD SHE NOT BEEN WHERE SHE HAD BEEN, HISTORY MIGHT HAVE BEEN... HISTORY MIGHT HAVE LOOKED VERY DIFFERENT.

A black and white picture shows Ursula in a long skirt, matching blazer, hat and gloves, standing outside a house.

Ben says ABSOLUTELY. I MEAN, YOU KNOW, WOULD THE SOVIETS HAVE... WOULD THEY HAVE DONE IT KNOWING IT WORKED WITHOUT THE HELP OF URSULA AND HER AGENTS, REALLY PROBABLY NOT. SHE WAS ONE OF VERY FEW SPIES IN HISTORY WHO ACTUALLY MAKES A SIGNIFICANT DIFFERENCE. SHE ALWAYS ARGUED THAT SHE HAD MADE THE WORLD A SAFER PLACE. THIS IS AN ARGUABLE POINT AND IT'S LONG BEEN DEBATED BY HISTORIANS. BUT THAT VERY BALANCE OF POWER BETWEEN EAST AND WEST WITH THE ATOMIC BOMB, SHE WAS PARTLY RESPONSIBLE FOR THAT. IT DID MAKE THE WORLD A SAFER PLACE. WOULD ONE HAVE WANTED TO LIVE IN A WORLD WHERE ONLY ONE SIDE, THE AMERICANS, HAD THE NUCLEAR BOMB? I'M NOT SURE WE WOULD.

Nam says SHE FINALLY CAUGHT THE ATTENTION OF THE BRITISH SECRET SERVICE. WHAT HAPPENED?

The caption changes to "Evading capture."

Ben says WELL, THEY CAME HUNTING FOR HER. IT WAS A WOMAN INSIDE THE SERVICE THAT SPOTTED URSULA. THE INTELLIGENCE FILES OF CHILLINGLY FUNNY ON THIS SUBJECT. WHEN THEY TURNED UP SHE WOULD ENSURE SHE WAS WEARING AN APRON AND COOKING A CAKE. THEY WOULD TURN AWAY SAYING IT CAN'T POSSIBLY BE MRS. BURTON BECAUSE SHE HAS THREE CHILDREN AND A HUSBAND. SHE IS VERY BUSY WITH HER DOMESTIC DUTIES. ONCE AGAIN, SHE USED HER DISGUISE AS A WOMAN VERY EFFECTIVELY. BUT IN THE END, THEY DID REALIZE IT WAS HER, AND THE WAY THAT HAPPENED WAS THAT CLAUS FUCHS WAS ARRESTED AND SHE REALIZED THAT THEY WERE GOING TO COME HUNTING FOR HER AND SHE VANISHED. SHE MANAGED TO ESCAPE FROM BRITAIN REALLY BY THE SKIN OF HER TEETH, AND ENDED UP IN EAST GERMANY WHERE SHE SPENT THE REST OF HER LIFE. AND SHE REINVENTED HERSELF IN EAST GERMANY. SHE BECAME SOMEBODY COMPLETELY DIFFERENT. SHE TOOK THE NAME RUTH AND SHE BECAME A HIGHLY SUCCESSFUL CHILDREN'S NOVELIST. SHE WAS EVEN KNOWN AS THE ENID BRIGHTON OF EAST GERMANY AND SHE WAS FAR MORE FAMOUS AS A WRITER THAN A SPY. AS SHE HAD DONE THROUGHOUT HER LIFE, SHE INVENTED AND THEN REINVENTED HERSELF.

Nam says DO YOU THINK THAT SHE WAS AWARE OR, YOU KNOW, BECAUSE PEOPLE KEPT UNDERESTIMATING HER. YOU HAVE THIS GREAT SCENE IN THE BOOK WHEN MI 5 COMES TO HER PLACE AND BECAUSE SHE HAS AN APRON, I THINK SHE IS BAKING A CAKE FOR HER CHILD, THEY DISMISS HER, SHE IS JUST A HOUSEWIFE MAKING SCONES. DO YOU THINK SHE WAS AWARE OF THAT AND SHE USED THAT TO HER ADVANTAGE?

Ben says I THINK SHE WAS FULLY AWARE RIGHT FROM THE BEGINNING OF HER INTELLIGENCE CAREER THAT HER GREATEST DEFENCE, HER BEST DISGUISE, WAS TO POSE AS A PERFECTLY ORDINARY WIFE AND MOTHER. I MEAN, THE DOWNSIDE OF THAT WAS THAT HER FAMILY BELIEVED THAT'S EXACTLY WHAT SHE WAS, AND FOR HER CHILDREN, THE DISCOVERY QUITE LATE IN THEIR LIVES, THEY WERE ALREADY IN THEIR 30S AND 40S, THE DISCOVERY THAT THEIR MOTHER HAD ACTUALLY BEEN SOMEONE COMPLETELY DIFFERENT FROM THE PERSON THAT THEY KNEW, THAT WAS PRETTY SHATTERING, AND I THINK IT REALLY AFFECTED THEM FOR THE REST OF THEIR LIVES. YOU SEE IT'S A DANGEROUS THING. THEY CAN BE TOXIC. THERE'S A PRICE TO PAY FOR THESE STORIES. URSULA STRUGGLED THROUGHOUT HER LIFE, REALLY, TRYING TO BALANCE WHAT SHE SAW AS THE DEMANDS OF HER IDEOLOGY AS A SPY, AND THE RESPONSIBILITIES SHE HAD AS A WIFE AND A MOTHER. AND SHE NEVER REALLY RECONCILED THE TWO. EVEN LATE IN LIFE, SHE SAID: I DON'T KNOW IF I'VE BEEN A GOOD SPY BUT A BAD MOTHER. AND IT TROUBLED HER GREATLY.

Nam says HOW DID YOU WRITE ABOUT HER WITHOUT THE URGE TO PASS JUDGMENT?

Ben says BECAUSE I THINK WE TEND TO LOOK AT HISTORY IN A RATHER BLACK AND WHITE WAY, AS IF IT WAS A SORT OF MORAL ACCOUNTANCY, THAT SOMEHOW, YOU KNOW, THERE WILL BE GOODIES AND BADIES AND THE GOODIES WILL WIN AND THE BADIES WILL LOSE AND YOU'LL END UP WITH A MORAL ANSWER TO HISTORY. I DON'T THINK HISTORY REALLY DOES THAT. WHAT I TRIED TO DO WITH THIS BOOK WAS TO FIND SOMEONE I FOUND UTTERLY FASCINATING AND VERY COMPLEX AND TRY TO EXPLAIN THEM WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF THEIR TIMES, TRYING TO GET UNDER THE SKIN, IF YOU LIKE, OF COMMUNISM ITSELF, BY LOOKING AT IT THROUGH URSULA'S EYES. AND YOU HAVE TO SUSPEND JUDGMENT... NOT COMPLETELY... BUT IN ORDER TO DO THAT, YOU HAVE TO TRY TO INHABIT THE WORLD THAT SHE WAS IN, AND IF IT SUCCEEDED, THAT'S WHAT I HOPE THIS BOOK WILL DO, AND I'M NOT MAKING AN EXCUSE FOR HER, I'M NOT DEFENDING HER, I'M CERTAINLY NOT DEFENDING STALINISM, BUT WHAT I'M TRYING TO DO REALLY IS TO LOOK AT THE ROAD FROM A DIFFERENT END OF THE TELESCOPE, IN A WAY, FROM THE OTHER END OF THE TELESCOPE.

Nam says WE MENTIONED HOW SHE KEPT GETTING DISMISSED BECAUSE SHE WAS A WOMAN. BUT IN THE BOOK YOU SAY THAT SHE WASN'T A FEMINIST. WHY WAS THAT IMPORTANT TO POINT OUT?

The caption changes to "A spy's life."

Ben says WELL, FEMINISM, MODERN FEMINISM, IS A VERY SPECIFIC THING. URSULA WAS OBVIOUSLY INTERESTED IN ADVANCING THE RIGHTS OF WOMEN IN THE SOCIAL CONTEXT IN WHICH SHE LIVED. SHE WAS A WOMAN WITH EXTRAORDINARY TALENTS WHO BELIEVED HERSELF TO BE THE EQUAL OF ANY MAN AND ABLE TO DO ANYTHING THAT THE MEN COULD DO. AND THAT MAKES HER UNIQUE IN THE INTELLIGENCE WORLD. I MEAN, THERE ARE LOTS OF WOMEN SPIES IN HISTORY FROM MATA HARI ONWARDS. BUT SHE WAS DIFFERENT IN THE SENSE THAT SHE WAS A TRAINED INTELLIGENCE OFFICER. SHE WAS A PRO. THIS WAS FOR HER A CAREER DECISION, TO GO INTO ESPIONAGE. AND SHE ROSE UP THROUGH THE RANKS OF THE RED ARMY TO THE RANK OF COLONEL. I KNOW OF NOBODY WITHIN ANY INTELLIGENCE SERVICE THAT DID THE SAME THING. IT DOESN'T QUITE MAKE HER A FEMINIST. SHE WAS NOT CAMPAIGNING FOR HER WOMEN. SHE WAS JUST DOING WHAT SHE KNEW SHE COULD DO EXTREMELY WELL.

Nam says YOU'VE WRITTEN SO MUCH ABOUT spies. DID YOU EVER CONSIDER BECOMING A SPY YOURSELF, OR IS THAT SOMETHING YOU DON'T TALK ABOUT?

Ben says WELL, BRIEFLY, I DID. I WAS VERY, VERY BRIEFLY APPROACHED BY THE BRITISH INTELLIGENCE SERVICE, A LONG TIME AGO, JUST AFTER I LEFT UNIVERSITY, AND THERE WAS WHAT I CALL A BRIEF DALLIANCE WHERE I WENT AND HAD A COUPLE OF INTERVIEWS. BUT IT WAS PRETTY CLEAR THAT I... ONE THING DISQUALIFIES ME FROM BEING A SPY IS I CAN'T, AS I JUST DEMONSTRATED, FIND IT VERY HARD TO KEEP A SECRET.

Nam says SO THAT KIND OF CROSSED YOU OFF THE LIST.

Ben says I THINK THEY REALIZED THEY WERE DEALING WITH THE WRONG SORT OF PERSON. AS A WRITER AND A JOURNALIST, YOUR JOB IS TO EXPOSE SECRETS, REALLY, NOT TO KEEP THEM.

Nam says WITH THE WAY THE WORLD IS TODAY AND SO MUCH OF ESPIONAGE HAPPENING ONLINE, HOW IMPORTANT ARE FOOT SOLDIERS LIKE URSULA NOW?

Ben says THEY'RE STILL ABSOLUTELY VITAL NOW. HUMAN INTELLIGENCE, AS DISTINCT FROM SIGNALS INTELLIGENCE WHICH IS THE ONLINE ELEMENT OF THE MODERN DAY, HUMAN INTELLIGENCE IS AS IMPORTANT AS IT EVER WAS. YOU NEED ONE WITH THE OTHER. YOU CAN'T REALLY DO ONE WITHOUT THE OTHER. AND THE TWO COMPLEMENT EACH OTHER. SO HUMAN SPYING OF THE SORT THAT URSULA DID, GATHERING INFORMATION FROM PEOPLE, IS STILL AS VITAL AS IT EVER WAS. AND THE ESSENCE OF SPYING IS WHAT SHE DID ALL HER LIFE, IS TO LOOK AT OTHER PEOPLE IN THE EYE AND TRY TO WORK OUT WHETHER SHE COULD TRUST THEM. THAT'S REALLY WHAT SPYING DEPENDS ON.

Nam says THROUGHOUT THE BOOK, READING ABOUT URSULA'S LIFE, THERE WERE SO MANY POINTS IN HER LIFE WHERE SHE WAS ALMOST CAUGHT. IT'S STRESSFUL TO READ THE BOOK TO THINK OF ALL THE THINGS THAT COULD HAPPEN TO HER AND HER CHILDREN. DO YOU THINK SHE WAS... IT WAS MORE ABOUT THE CAUSE, OR DO YOU THINK THAT MAYBE FOR HER... AND I KNOW WE DON'T ASK THESE QUESTIONS ABOUT MEN... BUT DO YOU THINK THE MOTHERHOOD PART OF HER WASN'T AS IMPORTANT?

Ben says NO, I THINK THEY WERE EQUALLY IMPORTANT TO HER. BUT HAD THEY COME TO A CONFLICT, I THINK... AND SHE WAS VERY HONEST ABOUT THIS. I MEAN, SHE SAYS, I WILL STAND BY MY CHILDREN THROUGH EVERYTHING UNLESS THE CAUSE REQUIRES ME TO TAKE UP ARMS. SO I THINK IF IT HAD COME TO A CHOICE, AND THANK GOODNESS IT NEVER REALLY DID, SHE WOULD HAVE STUCK BY HER DUTY, AS SHE SAW IT, AS A SOLDIER FOR COMMUNISM. NOW, TODAY WE FIND THAT EXTRAORDINARY, THE IDEA THAT ANYBODY WOULD PUT AN IDEA, AN IDEOLOGY, AHEAD OF THEIR FAMILY. BUT ACTUALLY IT'S WHAT HAPPENS IN TERRIBLE HISTORICAL CIRCUMSTANCES. AND IF WE LOOK BACK AT SOME OF THE HEROES THAT WE CELEBRATE FROM THE WAR, FOR EXAMPLE, THE FRENCH RESISTANCE HEROES WHO WERE PREPARED TO PUT THEIR FAMILIES IN LETHAL RISK IN ORDER TO FIGHT NAZI OCCUPATION, THERE IS A SORT OF BALANCE HERE. THE TRUTH IS THAT FROM OUR PERSPECTIVE, URSULA WAS BACKING THE WRONG HORSE. SHE WAS SUPPORTING A REPRESSIVE AND APPALLING COMMUNIST REGIME. BUT NONETHELESS, IT IS ONE OF THE TRICKY ELEMENTS OF URSULA, IS THAT THROUGHOUT HER LIFE, AS I SAY, SHE STRUGGLED TO RECONCILE WHAT SHE SAW AS HER FAMILY DUTY WITH WHAT SHE SAW AS HER POLITICAL DUTY.

Nam says SHE DOES END UP IN EAST GERMANY AND YOU MENTIONED THAT SHE BECAME DISILLUSIONED LATER IN LIFE. WAS SHE EVER SPIED UPON BY THE SECRET POLICE THERE?

Ben says SHE WAS. SHE BECAME A TARGET OF THE STASI. IT'S AN EXTRAORDINARY THING. BUT WHEN SHE TURNED UP IN EAST GERMANY, SHE ANNOUNCED OR SHE TOLD HER SOVIET SPY HANDLER, THAT SHE DIDN'T WANT TO DO IT ANYMORE. SHE WANTED TO LEAVE THE CLUB. IT'S A VERY DIFFICULT CLUB TO LEAVE, SOVIET MILITARY INTELLIGENCE.

Nam says LEAVE ALIVE, RIGHT?

Ben says RIGHT. IT'S DIFFICULT TO GET INTO. IT'S EVEN HARDER TO GET OUT OF IT. BUT SHE DID. SHE WALKED AWAY FROM IT. THAT MADE HER SUSPECT IN THE EYES OF THE STASI AND THEY KEPT ON HER AND THEY DIDN'T ENTIRELY TRUST HER, TO THE POINT WHERE IN FACT MI6, BRITISH'S FOREIGN INTELLIGENCE SERVICE, LAUNCHED A PLAN TO SEE IF THEY COULD RECRUIT HER BACK AGAIN. THEY NEVER DID. IT NEVER WENT ANYWHERE. THERE'S SOME IRONY IN THE FACT THAT A WOMAN WHO HAD SPENT SO LONG SPYING FOR THE COMMUNIST CAUSE ENDED UP BEING A TARGET OF COMMUNIST SPIES HERSELF.

Nam says IT READS LIKE A HOLLYWOOD SCRIPT. HAS HOLLYWOOD COME KNOCKING YET?

Ben says IT'S FUNNY YOU SHOULD MENTION THAT. I HAVE IN FACT JUST DONE A DEAL TO TURN SONYA INTO AN 8-PART TELEVISION SERIES. I CAN'T TELL YOU WHO IS DOING IT YET. THAT'S THE PLAN, TO DO IT AS A LONG-RUNNING SLOW BURN TELEVISION SERIES, WHICH I'M REALLY PLEASED ABOUT, ACTUALLY. I THINK IF WE TRIED TO DO IT AS A FILM, IT WOULD BE AN ADVENTURE STORY AND YOU ONLY HAVE 90 MINUTES TO MAKE IT WORK. WITH A SLOW BURN LONG-RUNNING TV SERIES, WE CAN GET DEEP INTO THE SPY CRAFT AND THE COMPLEXITY OF HER LIFE THAT TOOK HER ALL OVER THE WORLD, FROM SHANGHAI, TO CHINA, TO POLAND, TO ENGLAND, BACK TO EAST GERMANY. I'M REALLY EXCITED ABOUT THAT. IT WILL BE A TRICKY PART. WHOEVER IS GOING TO DO IT, SHE WILL HAVE TO DO EVERY URSULA FROM THE AGE OF 20 TO THE AGE OF 90, WHICH IS GOING TO BE A CHALLENGE, I SUSPECT.

The caption changes to "Producer: Sandra Gionas, @sandragionas."

Nam says SANDRA, THE PRODUCER OF THIS, AND I HAVE BEEN TALKING ABOUT WHO WE THINK SHOULD PLAY, AND IT'S CATE BLANCHETT. CONGRATULATIONS. WHAT A TERRIFIC BOOK. I URGE PEOPLE TO READ IT TO LEARN ABOUT HISTORY AND THIS INCREDIBLE WOMAN AND ALL HER MOXIE AND THE MARK SHE LEFT ON HISTORY. BEN, THANKS VERY MUCH AND CONGRATULATIONS.

Ben says IT'S BEEN A GREAT PLEASURE. THANK YOU.

Watch: Ben Macintyre on Moscow's Agent Sonya