In the middle of the Cold War, the German journalist Richard Sorge, who had worked as a deep-cover Russian military intelligence officer (codenamed Ramsay) in Nazi Germany and Japan, was the most celebrated figure in the USSR’s pantheon of dead intelligence heroes. In 1964, twenty years after Sorge had been hanged in Tokyo as a Soviet spy, he was posthumously made a Hero of the Soviet Union and he was further honoured on the first postage stamps issued in the 20th century to commemorate a spy. No Kim Philby postage stamp was issued until 1990, and he was never made a Hero of the Soviet Union.
Sorge, writes Owen Matthews in the first sentence of his introduction, ‘was a bad man who became a great spy – indeed one of the greatest spies who ever lived’. Within a few pages, it is clear that An Impeccable Spy is going to be a very good read. But the claim that Sorge was ‘one of the greatest spies who ever lived’ is already looking dubious.