When Richard Sorge – reputedly the greatest spy who ever lived – was executed by the Japanese on 7 November 1944 his last words were: “The Red Army!”, “The International Communist Party!” and “The Soviet Communist Party!”, all delivered in fluent Japanese to his captors. Sorge was bound hand and foot, the noose already set around his neck. Tall, blue-eyed, ruggedly good looking and apparently unperturbed by his imminent demise, Sorge was contributing the perfect denoument to what he might well have assumed was an enduring myth in the making.

So much for the myth but, as ever, the truth – or as close as we can get to the truth – is infinitely more compelling, as this fascinating biography makes clear. Sorge, suave, calm, facing his death with enviable sangfroid was a far more complex, troubled and rackety figure than the one he cut at his execution, and is all the more interesting for it. Born in 1895 to a German father and a Russian mother in Baku, an oil town on the Caspian Sea, Sorge had a comparatively settled bourgeois upbringing, particularly after the family moved back to Berlin when he was five years old.

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