Both Great Reads Despite Despicable Subjects – But One Is Deep, the Other Hollow
I had not intended to read “Agent Sonya: Lover, Mother, Soldier, Spy” (2020), by Ben Macintyre, and “American Kompromat: How the KGB Cultivated Donald Trump, and Related Tales of Sex, Greed, Power, and Treachery,” by Craig Unger, back-to-back, but doing so turned out to be fortuitous, as it threw the themes of the books into stark relief.
On a whim last year, I purchased a signed copy of “Agent Sonya” in an “exclusive edition” from the British bookseller Waterstones, which Macintyre advertised on the “Spybrary” Facebook Discussion Group. I like to read espionage stories about women, by women (fictional or non) and this book did not fit the bill. Nevertheless, Macintyre reeled me in with his description of the complicated woman—Ursula Kuczynski, code named “Agent Sonya” by the KGB—who fought to bring down Hitler, but then went on to support another ruthless dictator, Stalin. He tells her story from her childhood as a wealthy Jewish girl in Berlin before World War II, through her astonishing career as a spy for the Soviet Union in various locations including Switzerland and the U.K., and ultimately her death back in Berlin in 2000 at the age of 93. “Her life spanned the whole of communism, from its tumultuous beginnings to its cataclysmic downfall,” Macintyre notes. I was fascinated by her difficult and eventful life story, which also happens to be told very well here—Macintyre expertly weaves in the historical context as well as details of scenery, her relationships and prevailing ideas.
Macintyre adeptly depicted the aspects of Kuczynski’s life that related to her being a woman, a mother and a wife. Perhaps I should not have been surprised, but I was. Kuczynski, who on top of being a spy had three children by three different men, was not an easy subject. “The demands on Ursula required both a genius for compartmentalizing the different areas of her life and intense psychological stamina, as she juggled her rival commitments to husband and lover, bourgeois social engagements and communist subversion, her baby and her ideology,” he wrote. Macintyre maintained this respectful take on Kuczynski’s role as a mother, even when she herself failed to prioritize the needs of her children, and I as a reader found her choices troubling. Having conducted extensive interviews and digested her letters and papers, Macintyre also offered insights on her mindset, as she undertook risky missions—oftentimes with her children—and figured her complicated mental calculus, including working for Stalin after his wanton killing rampages became well-known. “Spies like Ursula…claimed to be safe-guarding military equilibrium by stealing nuclear secrets from one side to give to the other. They believed they were making the world safer….”
Craig Unger’s “American Kompromat” (2021) I found at the suggestion of a fellow indie author, with whom I share an interest in Russian foreign policy. It is a detailed catalog of the corruption of former President Donald Trump and his associates dating back to the 1970s. It is also an argument about how that corruption—in combination with Trump’s narcissistic personality—made him vulnerable to Russian influence, and how he ultimately became a Russian asset. “So, is Donald Trump a Russian asset? Yes,” Unger writes. “But what happened with Trump can best be seen as a series of sequential and sometimes unrelated operations that played into one another over more than four decades.”
Unger exposes significant connections among Trump, his family members, figures in the construction scene, government officials (e.g., former US Attorney General William Barr, former NY Mayor Rudy Guiliani, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh), Russian oligarchs and emigres, and other power players (including publishing magnate and suspected spy Robert Maxwell, his daughter Ghislaine Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein, the infamous money man and sex offender), showing how their lives and livelihoods have been intertwined for decades. It may not be shocking to hear that much of the luxury real estate market in NYC or Moscow boils down to a series of money laundering schemes, or that “it’s a small world” when it comes to the rich and powerful, but it is disturbing to see the evidence. The portion of the book covering how Epstein made his fortune hiding the ill-gotten gains of the world’s elite, while building an elaborate library of incriminating sex tapes—including working with his friend Ghislaine Maxwell to lure countless girls into sex slavery—is, honestly, hard to stomach. But Unger shows how everything ties together. And as the decades went by, the “kompromat” (compromising material that can be used to destroy someone) just kept piling up.
Unlike “Agent Sonya,” Unger’s tale of “American Kompromat” is not history, because it is ongoing. As such, the ending is open, and the author offers no roadmap. The only conclusion the reader may draw is that to get past these horrible developments, we must shine a floodlight on them, prosecute as many criminals as possible, and root out any people in the government and intelligence services who would prevent the truth from coming out.
While both books raised questions about patriotism, treachery and power, I was bowled over by one enormous difference: the motivations of the main subjects. Despite the fact that I could not forgive Sonya, a risk-addicted thrill-seeker, for turning a blind eye to Stalin’s atrocities and then gifting American nuclear secrets to him, I could see that her desire for a better world was at the core of her actions. She grappled with the big questions of how she could benefit her fellow humans, of what kind of a society we want to live in, and how to do the right thing. For Trump, however, there seem to be no such questions. What it boiled down to was that Kuczynski was motivated by a quest for fairness and a better world, while Trump was driven by a desire for personal gain.