July 23, 2000

Ruth Werner, 93, Colorful and Daring Soviet Spy


Ruth Werner, a colorful and successful Soviet spy whose exploits included radioing invaluable atomic bomb data to Moscow in the middle of World War II, died on July 7 in Berlin. She was 93.

In her 20 years as an intelligence operative in China, Poland, Switzerland and England, she had a number of close calls. But she always managed to extricate herself from the predicament -- unlike Klaus Fuchs, the agent who fed her the British atomic bomb secrets, who was imprisoned in Britain for nine and a half years, or Richard Sorge, the master spy who recruited her, who was executed in Japan in 1941.

Her espionage work was entwined with her romantic life, which included an affair with one of her spy chiefs; later she married a British Communist to become a British citizen and only later came to love him. She told some but not all of her story in a 1974 autobiography, still observing the iron rules of conspiracy by never mentioning Fuchs, who was still alive.

Werner was known by the code name Sonja, which was given to her by Sorge in 1933. Ruth Werner was her pen name. All of her various identities had their roots in a prosperous Jewish household in Berlin, where she was born Ursula Ruth Kuczynski, one of six children of Robert Rene and Berta Kuczynski. Her father was a distinguished economist.

Werner was drawn early to the communist movement and became a member of the German Communist Party at 19. She was immediately fired by the publishing house where she worked. Soon afterward she met and married Rolf Hamburger, an architect.

She started writing for the party newspaper, Rote Fahne. In 1930, having been told by the party that she would be contacted in Shanghai, she moved with her husband to China.

They began a pleasant bourgeois life, but she was waiting impatiently for the promised contact. It took four months and friendship with Agnes Smedley, an American leftist journalist, who introduced her to Sorge. Sorge, then 35, had been the Shanghai agent of the Soviet army's intelligence service for a year. The service was known by its Russian initials, GRU.

Sorge asked whether she was ready to face danger. She nodded and agreed to make room available for his clandestine meetings with Chinese Communists, the chief interest of Moscow.

Werner joined the ring without her husband's knowledge, stored weapons and hid a Chinese comrade who was on the run. Two years later, when Sorge left Shanghai for Moscow, he recommended her to the GRU.

Though her marriage was deteriorating, she and her husband had had a son, Michael, while in Shanghai. When the GRU asked her to go to Moscow for training, she left the boy with in-laws in Czechoslovakia.

In the GRU school she learned Morse code, Russian and how to build radio transmitters and receivers. In February 1934 she was sent to turbulent Manchuria, which had been seized from China by the Japanese. Her boss was Ernst, a former sailor, with whom she became romantically involved.

"Our transmitter was the link between the partisans and the Soviet Union," she wrote. She sent coded messages twice a week, and bought and transported chemicals for explosives for the Chinese Communist partisans.

In 1935, Moscow, fearing the two spies were about to be exposed, ordered Werner and Ernst to flee China. She accepted an assignment in Poland, this time with her husband, although she was pregnant with Ernst's child. Her daughter, Janina, was born in April 1936.

In late 1938 she was sent to Switzerland to set up a new spy ring, again with her husband, but he soon left for the Far East. In February 1939 she met Len Beurton, an English Communist who had fought in Spain with the international brigades. For him, he once wrote, it was "love at first sight; she had a very good figure."

In 1940, the GRU authorized a marriage of convenience by which Werner became British, but the love came to be mutual -- the marriage lasted until his death three years ago.

Werner had already begun clandestine transmissions from a radio set she had built in her rented house near Oxford when, in 1941, she met Fuchs, who was working at the British atomic research facility nearby.

The two spies would bicycle into the countryside for their meetings, and Fuchs would hand over written materials that, Werner once told an interviewer, were "like hieroglyphics."

Norman Moss, author of "Klaus Fuchs: The Man Who Stole the Atomic Bomb" 1987), said that Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin's chief aide, set up the Soviet atomic bomb project in 1942 as a result of the information transmitted by Fuchs and Werner, and that the information saved the Soviet researchers a great deal of time. The Soviets detonated their first atomic bomb in 1949.

Werner was also running other agents, including a Royal Air Force officer, a specialist in submarine radar and even her brother and father. She was once told that the chief of GRU had said, "If we had five Sonjas in England, the war would end sooner."

In the early 1950s she and her family -- another son, Peter, had been born in 1943 -- left England for East Berlin. Her only connection with the GRU after that was in 1969, when she was invited to a ceremony to receive her second Red Banner, the highest Soviet military decoration.

She turned to writing, producing some short stories; a biography of Olga Benario, a German Communist who was gassed by the Nazis in 1942; and her autobiography.

She is survived by her three children, five grandchildren and three sisters.

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company