Red Spies in Flight
The story of how Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant, American engineers who assisted Stalin’s Russia as part of the Rosenberg ring in World War II, escaped, and later developed the Soviet computer industry, is one of those Cold War mysteries that have long intrigued scholars and laymen alike. Steven T. Usdin, a journalist and technology expert, met Barr (then using his Soviet name of Joseph Berg) by chance in the early 1990s while working on assignment in Russia. Despite the forty-five year difference in their ages, the two became fast friends, permitting us to discover “whatever happened to Joel Barr,” a question that had puzzled the FBI for decades. Their friendship has not compromised Usdin’s objectivity, however; while clearly impressed with Barr’s virtuosity—the engineer invented a closet refrigerator, developed numerous electronic devices, and turned his cinderblock apartment into a nightclub—the author fully confirms that Barr was also a spy, something which the engineer never acknowledged in his lifetime, even to his young friend.
Usdin sets out to tell not only this intriguing story, but also to speculate on what would make men like Barr and Sarant go out of their way to assist a country which became the foremost enemy of the United States. He succeeds brilliantly with his first goal—this is a page-turning narrative. But Barr’s motives and convictions are not always satisfactorily explained. Why would such an intelligent and quirky Jewish bohemian remain a devoted believer in the rigid Soviet system, given his long exposure in Russia to blatant anti-Semitism, to the politicized atmosphere of the Communist party structure and its bureaucratic mindset that hindered technological progress, and not least to the intimidation that he and his close comrade Sarant experienced in their attempts to establish and nurture a microcomputer industry?
But Barr’s enigmatic nature would be a challenge for anyone to disentangle. Even his own wife, a Czech woman sympathetic to the revolutionaries of Prague ’68, could not convince him of Soviet evil in that crushing moment. Barr was not blind; he recognized that the Brezhnev era, for instance, did not come anywhere close to the glorious garden of consumer abundance that Khrushchev had planned for twenty years earlier. He regretted, too, the party’s demoralizing torrent of propaganda, not to mention the claustrophobic communal living quarters endured by so many. And once the Cold War was over and it was relatively safe for him to do so, Barr/Berg did come back to the capitalist United States, encouraging his children to join him. True to his socialist beliefs, he took his monthly Social Security payments-although he later returned to St. Petersburg, dying there in the midst of what he vainly hoped was the dawn of a new progressive era in 1998.
Usdin begins with a thorough survey of the New York City in which Barr grew up, focusing on how his early poverty during the Depression, coupled with the excitement of political debates at CCNY, where he matriculated in electrical engineering, steered him toward Communism. The author well captures the revolutionary mood of New York in the 1930s. Almost a quarter of the students at CCNY supported Earl Browder, the Communist Party candidate, in 1936, and Barr stuck with the party through the Nazi-Soviet pact three years later. Usdin’s theory, that immigrant children like Barr were more susceptible to Communism’s charms because they “hadn’t fully assimilated” (p. 50) begs the question of how it was that so many other immigrants, assimilated or not (including Barr’s brothers), were impervious (or even hostile) to Soviet ideology. More convincing is his assertion that the double life of spy and engineer appealed to someone of Barr’s makeup: that it was “exhilarating” for him to pursue “parallel lives” in the service of his ideals (p. 51). Compelling as well is Usdin’s dismissal of the long-cherished notion that it was Nazi Germany’s threatening presence that was the chief motivator for Soviet spies, Barr included. As the author notes, “[t]hey were eager to do anything they could to help the Soviet cause—before, during, and after the war against Hitler” (p. 42).
That Barr, Sarant, Julius Rosenberg and other agents were easily placed in sensitive posts during the war, despite their political leanings, will be fodder for today’s Homeland Security enthusiasts. Barr was fired from his job at the Signal Corps for political activity in 1942, but had no trouble immediately getting a job at Western Electric, where he joined Sarant in working on defense contracts. Rosenberg, amazingly, lasted at the Signal Corps until 1945. Alexander Feklisov, their Soviet contact, would collect about 500 secret technical documents a month from Sarant and Barr between 1943 and 1945, and lots more from Rosenberg, including one famous delivery of a proximity fuse. Despite such a hemorrhage of material, Usdin is mistaken in asserting that “the U.S. government wasn’t taking the threat of Soviet espionage seriously” in World War II (p. 58). By 1943, in fact, the FBI had identified a number of agents, including atomic spy Steve Nelson, and through its surveillance the Bureau curtailed the espionage activities of several other Soviet spies, including Arthur Adams and Andrei Schevchenko.
While Usdin relies much on the revelations of Soviet agent Feklisov to flesh out the story of Barr’s and Sarant’s espionage in the United States, his study of the men’s postwar years in the East bloc breaks new ground based on U.S., Czech, and Soviet sources as well as interviews with Berg and his colleagues. One of the book’s major strengths lies in Usdin’s close relationship with Barr, which provided revealing stories of the engineer’s life in Russia, including his work, his women, and his many passions, as well as the role of his intimate colleague Sarant (known as Philip Staros in the Soviet Union). First, though, Usdin explores the paths by which these two men eluded the FBI’s clutches and avoided both possible execution and certainly a long jail sentence in the McCarthy era. Sarant and his mistress’s hair-raising escape to Mexico in 1950 is grippingly told, complete with FBI missteps and ineffective inquisitions of the pair’s abandoned spouses and children. The Bureau was more successful in stopping another spy, Morton Sobell, who also attempted to escape south of the border at the same time. Barr himself had wisely departed earlier, going to study music with Olivier Messiaen in France in 1948 before quietly leaving for Prague the day after David Greenglass’s arrest.
Following a dramatic reunion with Sarant/Staros in Prague in 1951, Berg, like his old friend, was eager to contribute to the scientific development of the Soviet Union. And indeed, the team of Staros and Berg made important contributions to the Soviet microelectronics industry with the blessing of Nikita Khrushchev—moving their efforts from a nondescript warren of offices in Leningrad in the 1950s to an impressive compound outside Moscow by 1962. The two men and their growing families led privileged lives in large apartments with access to newspapers and Western hotels. Even as the Party and its entrenched apparatchiks exerted a strong influence over their design decisions, Khrushchev’s good offices contributed for some time to the American engineers’ success, despite their outspokenness and refusal to hew to Party correctness. Readers who do not have extensive technical background may find these chapters on Berg and Staros’s computer work in Russia sometimes slow going, but this material is important if only to show that for a brief period, the centralized Soviet Union was close to catching up with the United States.
Khrushchev’s fall in 1964 slowed Berg and Staros’s ascent, but not before they sent a protest letter outlining their growing difficulties to their former savior, then on involuntary hiatus at the Black Sea. This mistake sent them packing, as they tumbled from their privileged perch at the elite science center back to Leningrad. Staros suffered a breakdown, and blamed Berg for their troubles. A decade later, when the two men were remembered for their contributions to submarine electronics, they made a further gaffe at a reception, drinking tea in a cognac bottle to keep from getting sloshed with the admirals. After this fatal error was discovered, they were forever sunk with the influential Navy. Staros, still searching for glory, went to work at an institute in the Soviet Far East, and Berg somehow managed to hang on at Svetlana, a huge Soviet combine, from which he tirelessly pursued new projects. Staros died just as a new Cold War was brewing with the United States, in 1979, but Berg lived until 1998, outlasting even his socialist paradise. By then he had made several visits to his homeland, along with his children. Four young Bergs, along with Staros’s widow and her children, eventually moved permanently to America. Indeed, Mrs. Staros reconnected with her former husband, Bruce Dayton, whom she had left over forty years before, and bonded with her once-abandoned offspring.
This fascinating saga uncovers one of the last mysteries of the Cold War and the Rosenberg era. It is stunning that the American intelligence community—despite maintaining a watch for Barr into the Carter administration—completely missed these two men and their role in developing the Soviet electronic industry. Despite hints from defectors and clues in such publications as the Western-oriented Soviet Union magazine, Barr and Sarant had simply “disappeared.” Usdin’s well-written book fills an important gap in the growing literature on Soviet espionage in the United States, and serves as well as a useful guide to those interested in Soviet technological development.
Katherine A. S. Sibley is professor and chair of the History Department at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. She is currently working on a biography of Florence Kling Harding, entitled America’s First Feminist First Lady, which will revise the prevailing portrait of Mrs. Harding as a manipulative, unhappy wife. Her work has appeared in journals including American Communist History, Peace and Change, andDiplomatic History. Her books include the prize-winning Loans and Legitimacy: The Evolution of Soviet-American Relations, 1919-1933 (1996); The Cold War (1998); and Red Spies in America: Stolen Secrets and the Dawn of the Cold War (2004).