Sorge was born in the settlement of Sabunchi,suburb of Baku, Azerbaijan, which was part of Imperial Russia at the time. He was the youngest of the nine children of Wilhelm Richard Sorge (d. 1907) a German mining engineer and his Russian wife Nina Semionovna Kobieleva. His father's lucrative contract with the Caucasian Oil Company having expired, Richard Sorge's family moved back to Germany: in Sorge's own words,
"The one thing that made my life a little different from the average was a strong awareness of the fact that I had been born in the southern Caucasus and that we had moved to Berlin when I was very small.
The cosmopolitan Sorge household was "very different from the average bourgeois home in Berlin.
Although Sorge considered Friedrich Adolf Sorge, an associate of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, to be his grandfather, he was in fact his great-uncle.
In October 1914 Sorge volunteered to serve during World War I. He joined a student battalion of the 3rd Guards, Field Artillery. During his service in the Western Front he was severely wounded in March 1916 when shrapnel cut off three of his fingers and broke both his legs, causing a lifelong limp. He was promoted to corporal, received an Iron Cross and later medically discharged.
During his convalescence he read Marx and adopted communist ideology, mainly due to the influence of the father of a nurse with whom he had developed a relationship. He spent the rest of the war studying economics at the universities of Berlin, Kiel and Hamburg. Sorge received a Ph.D. in political science at the University of Hamburg in August 1919. He also joined the KPD, the German Communist Party. His political views, however, got him fired from both a teaching job and coal mining work. He fled to Moscow where he became a junior agent for Comintern.
Red Army Spy
Sorge was recruited as a spy for the Soviet Union and using the cover of being a journalist he was sent to various European countries to assess the possibility of communist uprisings taking place.
From 1920 to 1922, Sorge lived in Solingen, in present-day North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. He was joined there by Christiane Gerlach who had been the wife of Dr Kurt Albert Gerlach, a wealthy Communist who had also been Sorge's professor of political science in Kiel. Sorge and Christiane married in May 1921. In 1922, the Communists relocated him to Frankfurt, where he gathered intelligence about the business community. In the summer of 1923, he took part in the "Erste Marxistische Arbeitswoche" (First Marxist Work Week) in Ilmenau, Thuringia, an event subsidized by Felix Weil. After an attempted communist coup in October 1923, Sorge continued his work as a journalist. At the same time, he helped with organizing the library of the Institute for Social Research, of which Kurt Albert Gerlach was meant to be the first director.
In 1924, he and Christiane moved to Moscow where he officially joined the International Liaison Department of the Comintern, also an OGPU intelligence gathering body. Apparently, his dedication to duty led to his divorce. In 1929, Sorge became part of the Red Army's Fourth Department (the GRU, or military intelligence) He remained with the Department for the rest of his life.
In 1929 Sorge arrived in England in order to study the labour movements then prevalent in the region, the status of the Communist Party in England, and the country's political and economic conditions. He was instructed to remain undercover and not to become involved in politics while living in England.
In November 1929 Sorge returned to Germany where he was instructed to join the Nazi Party and not to associate with left-wing activists. To help develop a cover for his spying activities he obtained a post working for the agricultural newspaper, Deutsche Getreide-Zeitung.
In 1930, Sorge moved to Shanghai, to gather intelligence and foment revolution. Officially, he worked as the editor of a German news service and for the Frankfurter Zeitung. He made contact with another spy, Max Clausen. Sorge also met German Soviet spy Ruth Kuczynski and American journalist Agnes Smedley, both his lovers. Smedley the well-known left-wing journalist worked for the Frankfurter Zeitung. She introduced Sorge to Hotsumi Ozaki, who was employed by the Japanese newspaper, Asahi Shimbun. Later Ozaki agreed to join Sorge's spy network, as well as Hanako Ishii, Sorge's next lover.
As a journalist, Sorge established himself as an expert on Chinese agriculture. This gave him the freedom to travel around the country making contacts with members of the Chinese Communist Party. In January 1932, Sorge reported on fighting between Chinese and Japanese troops in the streets of Shanghai. In December he was recalled to Moscow.
GDR postage stamp commemorating Richard Sorge
In May 1933, the Soviet Union decided to have Sorge organize a spy network in Japan. As a cover, he was sent to Berlin with the code name "Ramsay" ("Рамзай" (Ramzai, Ramzay)), to renew contacts in Germany so he could pass as a German journalist in Japan. In Berlin, he insinuated himself into Nazi ranks, read a great deal of Nazi propaganda, devoted particular attention to Hitler's Mein Kampf and attended so many beer halls with his new acquaintances that he gave up drinking lest his tongue be loosened by alcohol. His total abstinence does not appear to have made his Nazi companions suspicious and was an example of his devotion to and absorption in his mission. He later explained to Hede Massing, "That was the bravest thing I ever did. Never will I be able to drink enough to make up for this time." Sorge was a heavy drinker and, later, his drinking came to undermine his work. While in Germany, he was able to get commissions from two newspapers, the Borsen Zeitung and the Tagliche Rundschau. He also got support from the Nazi theoretical journal, Geopolitik. Later he was to get work from the Frankfurter Zeitung.
Sorge arrived in Yokohama on September 6, 1933. He was warned by his spymaster not to have contact with the underground Japanese Communist Party or with the Soviet Embassy in Tokyo. His spy network in Japan included Red Army officer and radio operator Max Gottfried Friedrich Clausen, Hotsumi Ozaki, and two other Comintern agents, Branko Vukelic, a journalist working for the French magazine, Vu and a Japanese journalist, Miyagi Yotoku, who was employed by the English-language newspaper, the Japan Advertiser. Max Clausen's wife Anna acted as ring courier from time to time. From summer 1937, Clausen the spy operated under cover of his firm set up with Soviet funds but which in time became a commercial success, M Clausen Shokai suppliers of blueprint machinery and reproduction services.
In 1933-1934 Sorge built a network to collect intelligence for the NKVD in Japan. His agents had contacts with senior politicians and through that, to information of Japan's foreign policy. He also recontacted Hotsumi Ozaki who developed a close contact with the prime minister Fumimaro Konoe. Ozaki copied secret documents for Sorge.
At the time, collecting intelligence from inside Germany was more dangerous and difficult. Sorge was sent to Japan to collect information on Germany's plans. This was a similar tactic with the other soviet rings spying on Germany. The evidence of his communist past in German security files was overlooked, or hidden, according to Prange.
Officially, Sorge joined the Nazi party and became a German journalist in Tokyo. In Tokyo, he came to work closely with the German embassy and ambassador Eugen Ott. He used the embassy for double-checking his information, having access to telegrams in Ott's office. He even had an affair with Frau Ott, proof that he was entirely trusted at the embassy, but the stress also increased his drinking.
Sorge supplied the Soviet Red Army with information about the Anti-Comintern Pact, the German-Japanese Pact and warned of the Pearl Harbor attack. In 1941, Sorge is said to have informed them of the exact launch date of Operation Barbarossa. Moscow answered with thanks but Stalin largely ignored it. (This was also the case with information supplied by the other networks, including Leiba Domb's Red Orchestra spy network on the German Borders. Stalin was reportedly so angry with Domb's information that he ordered that Domb be 'punished for spreading such lies'. The order was not followed).
Gordon Prange's analysis (1984) was that the closest Sorge came to predicting the launch date of Operation Barbarossa was 20 June 1941 and Prange comments that Sorge himself never claimed to have discovered the correct date (22 June) in advance. The date of 20 June had been given to Sorge by Lt-Col Friedrich von Schol who was assistant military attache at the German embassy in Tokyo. As Sorge took pride in and sought the credit for the spy ring's work, Professor Prange may have taken Sorge's failure to claim that he had discovered the correct date as conclusive evidence that Sorge in fact did fail to discover it.
In 1964, the Soviet press reported that on 15 June 1941 Sorge had broadcast a dispatch saying that, "The war will begin on June 22." Writing before previously-embargoed material was released by the Russian authorities in the 1990s, Prange and those writing with him appear not to have accepted the veracity of this report. More recently, Stalin was quoted as having ridiculed Sorge and his intelligence prior to the launch of Operation Barbarossa:
"There's this bastard who's set up factories and brothels in Japan and even deigned to report the date of the German attack as 22 June. Are you suggesting I should believe him too?"
On 14 September 1941, Sorge advised the Red Army that the Japanese were not going to attack the Soviet Union until:
1. Moscow was captured
2. the size of the Kwantung Army was three times that of the Soviet Union's Far Eastern forces
3. a civil war had started in Siberia.
Toward the end of September 1941, Sorge transmitted information that Japan was not going to attack the Soviet Union in the East.
"This information made possible the transfer of Soviet divisions from the Far East, although the presence of the Kwantung Army in Manchuria necessitated the Soviet Union's keeping a large number of troops on the eastern borders..."
Various writers have speculated that this information allowed the release of Siberian divisions for the Battle of Moscow, where the German army suffered its first strategic defeat in the war. To this end, Sorge's information might have been the most important spy work in World War Two. At Khimki, a place at the Moscow city border enroute to Sheremetyevo International Airport, there is still a memorial plaque reminding visitors of this defining point of modern history.
The second most important piece of information he allegedly passed along concerned the Battle of Stalingrad - the turning point in the war which is considered one of the bloodiest and largest battles in history. Richard Sorge alerted Moscow that Japan would attack the Soviet Union from the East as soon as the German army captured any city on the Volga, thus effectively disrupting oil supplies from Baku and also ammunition and food supplies sent by the allies from the Persian Gulf through Iran, Soviet Azerbaijan and up the Volga river. However, by mid-1942 the Japanese had made their strategic decision to go south and east, instead of north, so the information (if given) seems to have been speculative at best.
Arrests and trials
As the war progressed, it was becoming increasingly dangerous for Sorge to continue his spying work. Nevertheless, in view of the critical juncture of the war, he continued spying. However, due to the increasing volume of radio traffic from one-time pads (used by the Soviets), the Japanese began to suspect a spy ring operating. The Japanese secret service had already intercepted many of his messages and begun to close in. Ozaki was arrested on October 14, 1941 and interrogated.
Sorge was arrested on October 18, 1941 in Tokyo. German ambassador Eugen Ott heard of Sorge's arrest on 19 October, the next day, a brief memo notifying him that Sorge had been arrested "on suspicion of espionage" together with another German, Max Clausen. Ott was both surprised and outraged, and assumed it was a case of "Japanese espionage hysteria". He thought that Sorge had been discovered passing secret information on the Japan-US negotiations to the German embassy, and also that the arrest could be due to anti-German elements in the Japanese government. It was not until a few months later that Japanese authorities announced that Sorge had in fact been indicted as a Soviet spy.
Initially, the Japanese believed that, due to his Nazi party membership and German ties, Sorge was an Abwehr agent. However, the Abwehr denied that he was one of their agents. Even under torture, he denied all ties with the Soviets. The Japanese made three overtures to the Soviets, offering to trade Sorge for one of their own spies. However, the Soviets declined all the offers, maintaining that Sorge was unknown to them. He was incarcerated in Sugamo Prison.
East German journalists holding a memorial ceremony during the 1964 Summer Olympics
Richard Sorge was hanged on November 7, 1944, 10:20 a.m. Tokyo time in Sugamo Prison; Hotsumi Ozaki was hanged earlier on the same day. The Soviet Union did not officially acknowledge Sorge until 1964. It was argued that Sorge's biggest coup led to his undoing, because Stalin could not afford to let it become known that he had rejected his intelligence data about the German attack in 1941. However, it should also be mentioned that nations seldom officially recognize their own spies.
Sorge was survived by his mother, then living in Germany, and he left his estate to Anna Clausen. He was buried in the Sugamo Prison (Zhogaya) graveyard, but his remains were later relocated to Tama Cemetery in Fuchū, Tokyo. His lover Hanako Ishii continued to visit his grave until her death in 2000.
 Posthumous comment and analyses
Holtzmann as Sorge
Sorge monument in Baku with bullet-like holes.
In 1961 a movie called Qui êtes-vous, Monsieur Sorge? (Who Are You, Mr. Sorge?) was produced in France in collaboration with West Germany, Italy and Japan. This movie was very popular in the Soviet Union as well. In the movie, Sorge was played by Thomas Holtzmann. In 1964 Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev saw the film and asked the KGB whether the story was true. When it was confirmed that it was indeed true, Khrushchev posthumously awarded Sorge with the title of Hero of the Soviet Union on 5 November 1964. In addition his widow Hanako Ishii received a Soviet pension. She eventually died in July 2000 in Tokyo.
In 1965, three East German journalists wrote Dr. Sorge funkt aus Tokyo, glad to celebrate a half-Russian, half-German hero who had acted against fascism, given that the former East Germany and the Soviet Union were then members of the Warsaw Pact. In the lead up to the award, Sorge's claim that Friedrich Adolf Sorge was his grandfather was gladly repeated in the Soviet press. In a strange cold war oddity, these authors stirred up a free speech scandal with patriotic letters to former Nazis in West Germany, causing the Verfassungsschutz to issue a stern warning in early 1967: "If you receive mail from a certain Julius Mader, do not reply to him and pass on the letter to the respective security authorities."
A comic book based on Sorge's life, titled "Wywiadowca XX wieku" ("20th Century Spy"), was published in 1971 in Poland, to familiarize younger readers with Sorge.
Sorge also appears in Osama Tezuka's Adolf manga.
In his 1981 book Their Trade is Treachery, author Chapman Pincher asserted that Sorge, a GRU spy himself, recruited Englishman Roger Hollis in China in the early 1930s to spy for the GRU. Hollis later returned to England, joined MI5 just before World War II began, and eventually became Director-General of MI5 from 1956 to 1965. As detailed by former MI5 staffer Peter Wright in his 1988 book Spycatcher, Hollis was accused of being a Soviet spy, but despite several lengthy and seemingly thorough investigations, no conclusive proof of this was ever obtained.
The 2003 Japanese film Spy Sorge, directed by Masahiro Shinoda, details his exploits in Shanghai and Japan. In the film he is portrayed by Scots actor Iain Glen.
An interesting but rather little-known conspiracy theory of the Cold War held that Richard Sorge had only been "mock-executed" by the Japanese and had actually been returned to the Soviet Union where he continued to work for the KGB. Though many mysteries of the Cold War have been solved since the fall of communism in the USSR, no proof of this theory has emerged. In one of his novels, M.E. Chaber (pen-name of Ken Crossen), an American writer who penned the Milo March detective series, has his hero meet an unnamed Russian master-spy who, the book hints, is none other than Richard Sorge.