- Engineering Communism: How Two Americans Spied for Stalin and Founded the Soviet Silicon Valley
Steven Usdin's remarkable book sheds light on the story of Soviet espionage in America, the development of the Soviet computer industry, and the structural and cultural factors that contributed to the USSR's inability to match American technological and scientific progress. In addition to being a fascinating account of the stranger-than fiction lives of two American spies, the book is well-documented and well-written, deserving of far more attention than it has yet garnered.
Usdin met a mysterious but charming English-speaking Soviet scientist in 1990 while doing research on technology transfer inMoscow. Not until several months later did Usdin discover that he had become friends with Joel Barr, an American-born engineer who had once been associated with Julius Rosenberg and had vanished around the time that the Rosenberg spy ring was exposed. Until Barr's death in 1998, Usdin met frequently with him, and Barr occasionally stayed with the Usdins in Maryland. Engineering Communism is based on extensive interviews with Barr, on Barr's file at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), on interviews with family and co-workers from Czechoslovakia and Russia, and on important documents that have emerged from both Russian and American archives since the end of the Cold War, including the Venona papers (decrypted Soviet intelligence cables from the late 1930s through the mid-1940s). The result is a historical excavation that no one could have expected.
Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant were on the fringes of the Rosenberg case in the early 1950s. Although their names did not come up prominently or publicly, insiders knew that both men had disappeared, and the FBI suspected that they had fled to the Soviet bloc. Barr had grown up in New York in an impoverished Jewish family and had become [End Page 155] a Communist while still in high school. At City College of New York he formed a tight bond with fellow Communists and engineering students like Julius Rosenberg, Morton Sobell, and William Perl, all of whom became spies for the USSR. In 1939, a year after graduation, Barr began a series of jobs with the U.S. government and defense contractors. At Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, while working for the U.S. Signal Corps, Barr befriended Al Sarant, the son of Greek immigrants and also a Communist. By 1942 the two of them were sources for the ring of spies headed by Julius Rosenberg. Barr was fired the same year when investigators uncovered his Communist past, but he quickly found a position with Western Electric, which hired him to work on classified projects without ever checking with his old employers. Sarant soon joined him.
The two friends made plans to start a business producing military technology after the war but were never able to persuade the government to fund any of their ideas. Barr was also interested in music, took classes in composition, and considered pursuing it as a career. When Sperry Gyroscope fired him in 1947 after he lost his security clearance, Barr obtained a passport and went to France to study music. By the time the Venona messages revealing his espionage were decrypted by U.S. analysts, he was beyond the reach of American law enforcement. Barr had vanished immediately after the arrest in 1950 of David Greenglass, who knew about Barr's espionage work. Soviet foreign intelligence agents whisked him to Czechoslovakia, where he became Joe Berg from Johannesburg, South Africa and worked for an electronics company. In 1951 he was reunited with Sarant, who had fled from the United States after eluding the FBI. Sarant traveled with his lover, a next-door neighbor. Both of them had abandoned their spouses and children.
Barr and Sarant worked for five years in Prague on computer systems for military use. Their lives were privileged but uneasy. The Soviet Union had provided their covers through Rudolf Slánský, the Czechoslovak Communist leader whose removal and execution in the early...