Engineering Communism: How Two Americans Spied for Stalin and Founded the Soviet Silicon Valley

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Engineering Communism is the fascinating story of Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant, dedicated Communists and members of the Rosenberg spy ring, who stole information from the United States during World War II that proved crucial to building the first advanced weapons systems in the USSR. On the brink of arrest, they escaped with KGB’s help and eluded American intelligence for decades.

Drawing on extensive interviews with Barr and new archival evidence, Steve Usdin explains why Barr and Sarant became spies, how they obtained military secrets, and how FBI blunders led to their escape. He chronicles their pioneering role in the Soviet computer industry, including their success in convincing Nikita Khrushchev to build a secret Silicon Valley.

The book is rich with details of Barr’s and Sarant’s intriguing andexciting personal lives, their families, as well as their integration into Russian society. Engineering Communism follows the two spies through Sarant’s death and Barr’s unbelievable return to the United States.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300195521
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 10/28/2012
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 346
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.77 (d)

Meet the Author

STEVE USDIN is senior editor at Biocentury Publications.

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Read an Excerpt

Engineering Communism


Yale University Press

Copyright © 2005 Steven T. Usdin
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10874-3

Chapter One


Nikita Khrushchev, a baggy suit hanging loosely over his pear-shaped body and a neat row of medals pinned over his right breast, hugged Philip Staros and drew Joseph Berg close. The first secretary of the Communist Party took a step back and pointed at the men crowded around him - the commander-in-chief of the Soviet Navy, the top military brass in charge of the defense industry, and the leadership of the Communist Party in Leningrad. "If any of these bureaucrats gets in your way, if you need anything at all, let me know and I'll personally take care of it," Khrushchev growled. It was an extraordinary offer, granting the leaders of an obscure R&D outfit with a few hundred employees direct access to the most powerful man in the nation. But, coming at the end of a day when the two engineers had achieved recognition almost beyond their wildest dreams, it seemed natural.

Khrushchev had just approved Staros and Berg's plan to invest hundreds of millions of rubles to build an entire city on the outskirts of Moscow. The new city would be devoted to researching and producing a new generation ofelectronics technology, from integrated circuits to digital computers - a secret Soviet version of the Silicon Valley that was forming about the same time in California. He'd made it clear that Staros and Berg would be in charge and could rely on the full might of the Soviet state to support the project. They would also have the freedom to recruit the best and the brightest, as well as the authority to cut through the red tape that strangled most Russian efforts to innovate.

It was the afternoon of May 4, 1962, and Khrushchev was wrapping up a visit to Design Bureau-2 (KB-2) in Leningrad. A few hours earlier, Berg and Staros had pressed their noses to the window of the bureau's offices in the Palace of Soviets, looking down on Moscow Square as Khrushchev and his entourage spilled out of black limousines. Bulky military leaders and their thin aides disappeared from view as they entered the massive, neoclassical Stalinist-style edifice. They entered the largest office building in Leningrad under signs proclaiming: "The USSR is a socialist state of workers and peasants" and "Long Live Leninism!"

Khrushchev stepped off the elevator on the third floor and was quickly introduced to the Design Bureau's director, Staros, and its chief engineer, Berg. The officials accompanying Khrushchev - especially Dmitriy Ustinov, head of the Military Industrial Commission (VPK), a powerful body that controlled Soviet defense R&D and production, and Admiral Sergei Gorshkov, the commander-in-chief who was determined to harness technology to achieve Peter the Great's dream of creating a world-class Russian Navy - were already well acquainted with Staros and Berg.

Speaking in a more refined Russian than Khrushchev, with just a trace of an unidentifiable accent, maybe Byelorussian, Staros started the tour, guiding the group into a large hall that looked and even smelled like the future. The men passed by a score of pretty young women wearing white lab coats, hats, and gloves, seated behind gleaming counters, peering into microscopes and expertly manipulating mysterious tiny objects. As they walked, Staros described the physical properties of certain elements that could be coaxed into switching from conductors to nonconductors of electricity, and how an entire industry was being built around these poluprovotniki (semiconductors). He predicted that Soviet power would soon rest on the nation's ability to create diminutive components and microelectronic devices incorporating them, not on the huge dams and steel plants that dominated Five-Year Plans. If resources were shifted to the miniature world in which advances were measured in microns and milliseconds, Russia would transform itself into the dominant world power in the coming decade, he promised.

Next, Staros and Berg flattered and surprised Khrushchev, who was far more comfortable on a collective farm than in a high-tech lab, with a demonstration of a computer database that responded to queries by spitting out basic information about the Soviet leader. The delegation viewed colorful posters, more like an American advertising campaign than a typical Soviet technology briefing, depicting industrial and especially military advances that could be achieved if the USSR pursued a vigorous program to develop microelectronics - a word that Staros had literally introduced into the Russian language. The pictures promised networks of spy satellites beaming detailed pictures of North American military installations to Russia, antiaircraft missiles defending the Soviet Union, and guided rockets capable of reaching targets in North America. All of this would flow from the Center for Microelectronics, Staros and Berg's modest name for the new enterprise they asked Khrushchev to create. Modeled on America's Bell Laboratories, but a hundred times larger, the Center would surpass anything existing or contemplated in the West, enabling the Soviet Union to shoot past the capitalist countries in the race to automate industry, Staros confidently predicted.

The visit to KB-2 was timed perfectly for Berg and Staros, at the apogee of Khrushchev's exuberance over technology: two years after Soviet missiles had shot a U-2 spy plane out of the sky, signaling the USSR's ability to marshal high technology in the defense of its borders; a year after Yuri Gagarin had won the race to be the first man in space, lending credibility to Russia's claims to global scientific and technological preeminence; and a few weeks after Khrushchev had conceived the idea to "throw a hedgehog down Uncle Sam's pants" by placing nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba. Staros and Berg's vision of racing ahead of America, the "main adversary," in Soviet military parlance, was enticing. But the Soviet leader was most enthralled by a tiny radio, no bigger than a hearing aid, which KB-2 had presented to him as a memento of the visit. At the beginning of the visit, Staros placed the radio in Khrushchev's ear while Berg, who had overcome his partner's skepticism to create the "Era" receiver, watched from behind. Their joy over his enthusiasm turned to irritation when the first secretary kept the Era turned on for the entire afternoon. All the sophisticated talk about microns and circuits was impossible for him to evaluate, but the radio was tangible proof that these two young engineers who shared his romantic passion for the Communist cause were the real thing.

Khrushchev loved a good toy, he liked engineers - as a young man he'd dreamed of becoming one - and he trusted Staros and Berg. They had risked their lives to help defend the USSR against Nazi Germany during the Great Patriotic War, had recently made impressive technological breakthroughs, and, perhaps most important, had created an atmosphere of infectious can-do optimism at KB-2 that stood in sharp contrast to the sycophancy and fear that surrounded most Soviet administrators.

KB-2 was named after KB-1, a top-secret design bureau created by Sergo Beria, the son of the feared head of Stalin's intelligence services, Lavrenty Beria, that had developed Moscow's antiaircraft system. By 1962 the Berias were gone, the father shot on Khrushchev's orders in 1953 and the son exiled to a mid-level engineering job in the provinces, but the cult of concealment that permeated Stalinist Russia had not disappeared. Almost everything related to KB-2's activities was a state secret, even its existence, so it was routine to classify as secret the document ordering the transformation of the muddy fields adjacent to Kryukovo, a sleepy village on the outskirts of Moscow, into Zelenograd (Green City), a new metropolis dedicated to realizing Staros and Berg's dreams of a high-tech launchpad for Soviet dominance of the coming computer age.

Nothing about Zelenograd was more secret than the real identities of the two engineers who conceived it, the fathers of the Soviet microelectronics industry. Berg's own wife didn't learn his real name, birth date, or nationality for more than twenty years after their marriage. Khrushchev was among no more than a dozen people outside the KGB who knew that Berg and Staros were Americans who had slipped under the Iron Curtain a few steps ahead of the FBI, that their real names were Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant, and that they were intimately connected to one of the most controversial espionage trials of the twentieth century.

Barr's story began, as it ended, in Russia, in the pursuit of a better life in a more Just society. His father, Benjamin Zbarsky, was born in 1886 in Lubny, Ukraine, a small city on the fringe of the Russian empire. To an extent that is difficult to imagine today, ethnicity shaped an individual's destiny in tsarist Russia, especially for Jews like the Zbarskys. "At no time could the life of the Jews in Russia have been described as comfortable," according to Irving Howe, a sociologist whose background and early years resembled Barr's. "Rarely were the Jews able to ease their guard against blows from above and below, bureaucrats and folk, and never could they see themselves as citizens like all others. Their role as pariahs, the stiff-necked enemies of Christ, was fixed both in official doctrine and popular legend. Repression took the forms of economic harassment and legal humiliation, sometimes pogroms and accusations of ritual blood murder," Howe added. Sholem Aleichem, the chronicler of Yiddish life, served as official rabbi in Lubny shortly before Benjamin was born and witnessed a particularly vicious pogrom there in March 1881.

The Zbarskys were prosperous participants in a vibrant, but intensely introverted, Yiddish culture. Benjamin's father, Isidore, was a rabbi and the owner of a sawmill; Benjamin's two older sisters were physicians. The family was swept up in the tumultuous social and political events of the early twentieth century, first encouraged by Tsar Nicholas II's declaration of religious tolerance in 1903, and then threatened by the widespread pogroms that ravaged the south and southwest of Russia from 1903 to 1905. Hopes rose again in the summer of 1905, when the tsar promised political liberalization in an effort to quell rising anger over the loss of the Russo-Japan War, only to be dashed again in the autumn when Leon Trotsky and the Mensheviks overplayed their hand, launching a feeble, easily crushed attempt to establish a Soviet government. Benjamin's sisters participated in the strikes and demonstrations in Moscow that precipitated the failed Revolution of 1905.

The form of reaction varied throughout the empire, but in most places the tsar's authority was reinforced violently. In Ukraine, the assertion of Romanov rule was accompanied by pogroms. Benjamin Zbarsky probably participated in the defense committee that the Jewish population of Lubny organized in 1905. The committee repelled an attack, but it was obvious that the violence could recur without warning, and the next time it might be devastating. Zbarsky didn't wait to find out. He married Rebecca Dobrowolsky, a fifteen-year-old orphan, and late that year joined a wave of Jewish immigration from Russia to the United States.

Like countless immigrants before and after them, Benjamin and Rebecca Zbarsky were anglicized on Ellis Island: by the time the couple reached Manhattan, they were Mr. and Mrs. Barr. The Barrs settled in Brooklyn, on the bottom rung of the economic ladder, and for decades, every time they climbed a bit higher, they were knocked back down. Living in a series of cramped apartments in densely populated neighborhoods, the Barrs and their neighbors relived the claustrophobic intimacy, and retained many of the traditions and habits, of the East European shtetels.

The Barrs' first child, Bernard, was born in 1912; their second, Joyel, arrived on New Year's Day 1916. The next April, Benjamin, who was working as a builder, was naturalized as a U.S. citizen. When the Barrs' third son, Arthur, was born on October 17, 1917, the tenements of Brooklyn and the Lower East Side of Manhattan were buzzing with news of the fall of the tsar, and two weeks later with news of Ukraine's declaration of independence. Over the next few years, as Russia boiled, there were discussions in nearly every immigrant household about returning from the New World to the new world that was taking shape in their homeland. Although thousands of Jews returned, the majority, like the Barrs, had already grown roots in America and remained there.

A thin, unathletic kid, Joyel was beaten up by street gangs of older, tougher boys on his way to and from Public School 156. He grew up believing in a stern and vengeful God, terrified that he would be struck down for minor transgressions of the strict rules his father and the rabbis taught, or for the gradually accumulating doubts that turned into a lifelong antipathy to religion. Joyel went through the motions of a bar mitzvah in 1929, but by that time he'd already rejected Judaism and begun to absorb the tenets of another all-encompassing belief system: Communism. Embarrassed by the foreign and effeminate sound of his name, he changed Joyel to Joel.

While attending Tilden High School in East Flatbush, Joel developed a fascination with technology, building a telescope and a ham radio from scrounged parts. He read voraciously, absorbing all he could about science, and also studying the pamphlets, newspapers, and tracts distributed by various socialist and Communist factions. The streets, where Barr and other boys spent a great deal of time, provided a panorama of practical politics. Speakers on soapboxes castigated the exploiting class, and as the Depression deepened, banks closed their doors, businesses folded, and the crowds of unemployed men grew larger. There was nothing abstract about the collapse of capitalism; Barr saw the human toll all around him, particularly in his own family.

As Joel was growing more confident and outgoing, putting the terrors of bullies and religion behind him, Benjamin was sliding into despair. During Joel's high school years his father, who had lost his job as a salesman for the New York Life Insurance Company in 1929, suffered a series of increasingly humiliating financial setbacks. First his car was repossessed. Not only wasn't there enough money to make the car payments, but it was getting hard to put food on the table. "If someone were to ask me now what is the main element which formed my character, I would say the poverty that we lived in," Barr said six decades later. He remembered going hungry, that "living on relief was a tremendous blow to our egos. There was a joy in getting a big bag of groceries once a week, but it left scars on our characters."

One day in the early 1930s Joel returned home to see his family's belongings on the sidewalk, guarded by his crying mother. Joel was at home a half-year later when beefy marshals arrived early in the morning to haul the furniture into the streets in front of another Brooklyn apartment building. The evictions made a tremendous impression. Joel spoke of them vividly sixty years later, citing the incidents as turning points that convinced him of the cruelty of capitalism. "It was a tremendously harrowing scene, when the marshal came and put the furniture out on the street," Barr recalled. The family lived in a series of apartments, staying one step ahead of the law. "These places were substandard by any standard, with no toilet in the apartment, no hot water, only a coal stove for heat. The El [elevated train] going right by our windows meant that every few minutes you had to stop talking."


Excerpted from Engineering Communism by STEVEN T. USDIN Copyright © 2005 by Steven T. Usdin. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Initiation 1
2 Washington, spring 1940 26
3 Fort Monmouth, 1940-1942 36
4 Western Electric, 1942-1945 55
5 Sperry Gyroscope, 1946-1948 96
6 Prague, 1950-1955 131
7 Special laboratory 11, 1956-1962 176
8 Zelenograd, the Soviet Silicon Valley, 1962-1965 203
9 Leningrad Design Bureau, 1965-1973 226
10 The minifab, 1975-1990 248
11 The strange case of Iozef (Josef) Berg AKA Joel Barr, 1990-1998 270
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