Caspian Region

Richard Sorge – Azerbaijan’s James Bond

Mark Elliott
Image: Bundesarchiv/Wikimedia Commons

To John Le Carre, he was “the spy to end all spies.” Ian Flemming called him “the most formidable spy in history.” Tom Clancy described him as the “best spy of all time.” Even the prosecutor, whose job was to have him executed, declared that he had “never met anyone as great.” The man in question is Richard Sorge, or Rixard Zorge, as his name is transliterated in Baku, the city of his birth.


Image: Public Domain

His great coup was to assist Moscow by becoming a renowned German orientalist, infiltrating Nazi circles in Japan, then using his position to reveal war plans shared between Berlin and Tokyo. He reputedly warned Stalin of the exact time and date Germany planned to attack the Soviet Union in 1940. Stalin infamously ignored the alert. However, while discouraged, Sorge kept sending reports from Tokyo. Later Sorge discovered that wartime Japan was not planning an imminent foray into the Russian Far East, crucial information that allowed the USSR to reassign troops to the European front, ultimately slowing Hitler’s advance and essentially changing the longer-term outcome of WWII.


Amazingly Sorge worked in plain sight – openly dissolute, living life on a knife edge – charming yet ruthless and a shameless womanizer who seemed to be constantly forgiven by the conquests who fell for him. Much of his information was gleaned over drinking sessions with high officials who trusted him, perhaps because his outrageous behaviour simply seemed too extreme to have been the double bluff it was. Inevitably, in the end, he was caught and executed, but his life story and posthumous rehabilitation are both stranger than fiction.


Sorge’s Formative Years

Sorge was born in 1895 in Sabunchi, then a village on the outskirts of Baku. It’s now a sprawling high-rise suburb, but his childhood home has been preserved on what’s now known as Zorge Street.[1]


Image: Interfase/Wikimedia Commons

His mother, Nina Kobyeleva, was the daughter of a Russian railway worker. His father, Wilhelm Sorge[2], was a German mining engineer. Azerbaijan has had a relatively major ethnic German community since the mid-19th century, and there’s still a German church in the capital, now used mostly for organ recitals. Sources vary as to whether Richard’s direct family had any blood links to that group. Still, Wilhelm had been born in Saxony, studied oil systems in Pennsylvania, and only moved to Azerbaijan in 1882 (or 1877 in some sources). In Baku, An Eventful History[3], JD Henry relates how a man called Sorge proved to be the only person capable of capping an out-of-control oil gusher in the 1880s. Few doubt that this was Wilhelm.


Despite being born in Azerbaijan, Richard grew up speaking German at home, and the family moved back to Germany when he was not quite four years old. In Germany, young Richard became a keen volunteer for the Kaiser’s army of WWI, gaining the Iron Cross for his bravery. However, he was hospitalized three times, shrapnel breaking both his legs and leaving him with a slight limp for the rest of his life. He lost his once passionate sense of German nationalism in the face of the futility of the war with its meaningless waste of lives. Instead, he was drawn inexorably toward the Marxism of his great uncle.


Richard and his father were not the only famous members of the clan. Friedrich Sorge (1828-1906), Richard’s great-uncle, has been hailed as the “Father of American Marxism.” The pamphlets of Karl Marx had swayed Friedrich to join armed revolutionaries in Saxony during the revolutionary period of 1848, an uprising also supported by the composer Richard Wagner. After the revolution’s extinguishing, Friedrich moved to the US where, during the 1860s, he set out to broaden the Communist Club of New York into a major pan-US organization involving English speakers (till then, American communists were mostly Germanophones). Friedrich Sorge’s direct correspondence with Karl Marx remains important in the annals of international communist idealism.


With WWII still unfinished, Richard became a favourite student of a Kiel professor of political science - and even more so the professor’s wife who became Sorge’s lover. Remarkably, Sorge and the professor remained close. As biographer Owen Mathews puts it[4] “people loved him, even his victims, even men he had cuckolded and whose confidence he had betrayed”. Neither his limp nor the three mangled fingers of another war wound, appear to have diminished his physical allure.


This was 1918, a time of peoples’ revolutions in Germany as much as in Russia, but despite ousting the Kaiser, the German revolutions fizzled out, and Sorge (then codenamed Ika), who had joined the wrong socialist gang, briefly ended up under arrest in Berlin. The revolution’s failure made Sorge feel hopeless, leading eventually to his becoming a Soviet agent via an extraordinary series of adventures and a sojourn in the USSR during which he made his one and only recorded return trip to Baku in 1926 finding what had once been the grand family dacha now converted into a convalescence home.


Spying Career

His handlers in Soviet Army intelligence insisted that Sorge return to Germany and join the growing Nazi party – a potentially dangerous move given his background but one which the Gestapo never appeared to have noticed. With his Nazi credentials apparently cleared, Sorge framed himself as an expert on the Far East and went to Shanghai in 1930 as a freelance reporter sending reports to Germany to help German agro-business initiatives, winning himself press credentials from two German media outlets. He used his prodigious ability to drink whiskey and seduce elegant women to loosen tongues, but his surreptitious task of setting up a Communist network was less than successful. The Soviet espionage ring in China proved too chaotic, and Sorge was lucky to escape without being uncovered when it had to be shut down due to indiscretions.


However, this only led to Sorge’s greatest adventure of all – a posting to Japan. Imperial Tokyo was considered a near impossible posting for spies as the system was such that virtually every Japanese citizen was expected to act as an informant. Ironically it appears to be Sorge’s louche lifestyle and loose words – openly critical at times of Hitler, for example – which bluffed everyone into thinking he simply wouldn’t dare be so outspoken without some sort of high-level protection and respect within the system. Though only a freelance journalist, he so gained the trust of the German Embassy staff so completely that he soon had his own key and could read top secret documents at his leisure. At times, from his biography, it appears that Sorge simply saw himself as immortal. Most glaringly in May 1938, for example, having drunk dry a couple of Tokyo bars with a useful German ‘friend’ –Prince Urach – he drove home at insane speed on his powerful Zundapp 498cc motorbike while utterly inebriated, crashing full pelt into a stone wall. He came round in hospital, and through smashed teeth, managed to whisper to his co-conspirator and ‘radio man’ Max Clausen to quickly search his blood-stained jacket. This contained intelligence reports that would have had them both executed had they been found and recognized by police.


Sorge’s Demise

After eight years of surreptitious work, Sorge and his group were discovered. Some say the Japanese were tipped off by Clausen, who had, for years, connected Richard to Moscow by a cleverly constructed secret radio device. Clausen’s alleged treachery remains much disputed, however, and reports that Clausen simply binned many key communiqués out of some sort of jealousy have been largely debunked.


Held under house arrest, Sorge was interrogated in what appears to have been a remarkably gentlemanly fashion, giving him ample chance to give his Japanese captors an astonishingly detailed (if factually questionable) autobiography before being sentenced to death. According to some reports, the Soviet authorities were given an opportunity to do a spy swap for some Japanese who had been captured previously. Stalin refused[5]- not surprisingly perhaps, given that he wasn’t even prepared to do a prisoner swap to save his own son, Yakuv.


Sorge was hanged in Tokyo's Sugamo Prison on November 7th 1944 – symbolic as the date of the ‘October Revolution’. According to his last 1960s Soviet propaganda, his last words were “Long live the Communist Party and the Red Army” but in reality it was something altogether more gracious - an address to his guards saying simply "Thank you for all your kindness" before refusing a blindfold and silently accepting his execution.  


Such was the impression that this gentleman-playboy spy had made on his captors that the postwar Japanese press started publishing tales about his antics from the later 1940s onwards. These spread slowly around the world. However, in the USSR, Sorge was essentially forgotten until the 1960s, probably because the full story cast Stalin in a bad light. Attitudes softened after Stalin’s death. In 1961, French film director Yves Ciampi[6] made a movie, “Qui etes vous Monsieur Sorge?” loosely based on Sorge’s remarkable derring-do and which, while part fiction, shone the spotlight on his remarkable life. When the movie was screened at the Moscow Film Festival, Stalin’s successor, Nikita Krushchev, demanded more research into the truth behind the myth.


The effect was remarkable: very belatedly, in 1964, Sorge was declared a hero of the Soviet Union. This marked an abrupt about turn in official Soviet policy and not only in respect of Sorge, the individual. The USSR’s “giving up the total secrecy in espionage matters which they maintained in the past” was described in 1966 by Deakin and Storry as “surprising and … hardly expected in the West” in The Spy on the Postage Stamp, the first major book in English to retell the Sorge tale.

Image: Bundesarchiv/Wikimedia Commons

A 1969 Sorge memorial in East Berlin was unveiled by none other than Max Clausen, his former radio man.


Behind the Iron Curtain, Sorge was not only recognized as a hero, but stamps were issued, and monuments began to appear to the man. The very profession of espionage was glamorized, perhaps to bolster the image of the gentleman spy amongst Soviet citizens as part of a recruitment drive seeking people to work clandestinely for Moscow. Or, perhaps, to create a real-life communist counterweight to James Bond, whose creator, Ian Fleming, had died in 1964.


Image: Kaliam/Shutterstock

In Baku, Sorge is now commemorated in a very symbolic fashion with a 1982 relief semi-abstract half-face whose eyes watch with a wolf-like gaze. The effect really feels like the eerie gaze of a spy – and that is amplified when lamps within the statue are illuminated – albeit a very rare occurrence these days.


In Tokyo, Sorge’s grave was relocated from the Sugamo Prison yard, where he’d been executed, to the Tama Cemetery by his long-time companion, Hanako Ishii (1911-2000). To this day, the grave site is a place of symbolism, and just last year, the ambassadors of seven ex-Soviet countries brought flowers to the site.


There remain streets named for Zorge not only in Baku but in around 30 cities across several countries of the former USSR. In Moscow, the inner ring metro line has a Zorge station and, perhaps appropriately, 10 Zorge St. Moscow was for many years the editorial home to Defence of Russia, a monthly publication of Russia’s military-industrial commission.


In 2019, Russian TV launched a gripping series Zorge featuring prolific movie star Aleksandr Domogarov as Richard. It’s atmospherically well-made and is available to watch on YouTube with English subtitles as Richard Sorge: Master Spy. In places, it’s only very loosely based on Sorge’s life. But then, even when he was alive, nobody ever really knew the full truth about this extraordinary character – a character that really was in all respects, larger than life.




[1] There’s another, completely different Zorge St in central Baku too, close to the JW Marriott Hotel.

[2] Officially Gustav Wilhelm Richard Sorge, but usually going by the name Wilhelm

[3] page 102

[4] An Impeccable Spy, page 24

[5] at least according to the official story… some conspiracy theorists have suggested that actually Stalin DID organize a swap and that Sorge returned anonymously to Moscow

[6] who was married to a Japanese actress at the time