“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
— Mark Twain

Rudolf Hamburger – SMC Architect and Soviet Spy – But What did he Build in Shanghai?

Posted: November 21st, 2015 | 8 Comments »

Here’s a question from some recent reading that I thought someone out there may be able to add some information to….

Rudolf Hamburger (1903-1980) was a German architect who had studied in Berlin. In 1929 he married Ursula Kuczynski, also from Germany. Ursula had joined the German Communist Party (KPD) in 1926 at just 19. She went on to work in a library and then a publishing house in Berlin before losing her job for political activities in 1928. She briefly went to New York t work in a book store and then returned to Berlin in 1929 and married Hamburger.

In 1929 Hamburger heard about a possible vacant post in China from a friend and applied for a job in Shanghai. He got it and was appointed as an architect with the Shanghai Municipal Council. While in Shanghai Ursula (later codenamed “Sonya”) was recruited to Soviet Intelligence – probably by Agnes Smedley (who also probably recruited the former Mi5 boss Roger Hollis around the same time in Shanghai) at the infamously left wing Zeitgeist Bookstore (about which I’ve blogged before). The rest is espionage history and at some point Hamburger was roped in too.


Rudolf Hamburger remained in Shanghai until 1937 – i.e. through one of the city’s most voracious construction booms. His career as a spy is fairly well documented, but what did he build in Shanghai??

The only building I can firmly attribute to Hamburger is the Victoria Nurses Home (below), completed around 1933. It was an excellent Bauhaus-inspired building with some splendid iron work adorning the interior staircases. The building was on Great Western Road (Yanan Road now) adjacent to the Country Hospital (now the Huadong Hospital). The building remains though in a much modified form that, true to modern Shanghai, does little to reveal its original architectural features, many of which I believe (at least in terms of the interior) have long been stripped out.

102I believe Hamburger was also involved in the design of a new Middle School for Chinese girls in 1935 – but I’m not sure which school this was/is I’m afraid. He was also involved in designing an extension to the Ward Road Jail (Tilanqiao prison as was until a few years ago – now slated to be an “arts hub” or some such) – a new juvenile block I believe, but may be wrong about that. Certainly the prison, the world’s largest at the time, did undergo pretty much constant renovations and additions from the late 1920s up till 1937 and the Japanese attack on the city.

If anyone knows any other buildings he was involved in I’d like to hear?

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8 Comments on “Rudolf Hamburger – SMC Architect and Soviet Spy – But What did he Build in Shanghai?”

  1. 1 Thomas Kampen said at 2:01 am on February 8th, 2017:

    He was probably not involved in other big projects.
    I think he already left Sh. in 1936 and went to Poland.
    He returned in 1939, but was arrested in 1940.
    (It is unlikely that Agnes recruited him.)

  2. 2 Paul French said at 5:52 pm on February 8th, 2017:

    once again many thanks

  3. 3 Thomas Kampen said at 5:11 pm on May 8th, 2017:

    Middle School = Huaren nüzi zhongxue = Shanghaishi diyi zhongxue


  4. 4 Susan Mesinai said at 12:15 pm on November 23rd, 2017:

    Rudolph Hamburger is a favorite subject of mine for a multitude of reasons. First that my mother inherited the notes and address book of a noted anthropologist which included Rudi’s name, giving not only his Shanghai address but another one in China where he worked on a dam. Secondly, his story was told by a witness who was his friend in a camp in the Gulag, I think in Kazachastan — including how he was suddenly taken away. Thirdly I have seen his file in the MGB/MVD archives as on more than one occasion he is confused with Raoul Wallenberg — as both were architects and called on occasion “Rudi.” He was released in the 50s and not shot as some feared or claimed.

    And fourthly I was in touch with his wife Ursula (the famous Ruth Werner) before she died who told me of Rudolph’s fate after his release from Russia into East Germany. He was able to do some architecture on the rebuilding of one of the more demolished valued towns. He died just before I reached her.

    He was a Communist agent, perhaps not of the league as his wife, but also involved in radio work. He had contacts with Richard Sorge.

    Before he was in Persia from which he was called to Moscow and arrested, he left Europe with his father and brother under Central American passports. They stayed, he returned it was assumed to do OSS work. All three were on Varian Fry’s list.

  5. 5 Paul French said at 6:51 pm on November 24th, 2017:

    Amazing – in all that information Susan was there anything Shanghai-related by any chance? Paul

  6. 6 germana pareti said at 10:17 pm on December 21st, 2018:

    And about the third brother, Otto, who lived in Shanghai?
    I am conducting a research on Viktor and would need information on Otto too. Thank you.

  7. 7 Franklin Young said at 3:03 am on October 14th, 2020:

    I’ll look for the Victoria Nurses Home the next time I am in Shanghai.
    The new book, “Agent Sonya” by Ben MacIntyre connects some of the dots. It details Rudi & Ursula (Agent Sonya) life in Shanghai.

  8. 8 Eduard Koegel said at 3:56 am on October 24th, 2020:

    I wrote my dissertation on the architect Rudolf Hamburger in Shanghai. (only in German). you can download it from this link: https://e-pub.uni-weimar.de/opus4/frontdoor/index/index/docId/929

    In Shanghai he left 3 big buildings all still there: The Victoria Nurses’ Home (recently badly renovated) A Girls School, and a prison, still in use.

    Few weeks ago I published a book on Rudolf Hamburger and his connection with the British Secret Service, CIA, GRU and the Chinese secret service. under their he following link you will find some images: https://dom-publishers.com/products/architekt-im-widerstand

    Best regards, Eduard

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