Engineering Communism is an engrossing and quintessential tale of two American immigrants — Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant — using their entrepreneurial skill and inventiveness to create a high tech empire. Except that in this case the arrivistes took their can-do spirit to the Soviet Union after spying against the United States in hopes of creating the worker’s paradise.
In writing what amounts to a dual biography, Steve Usdin — who met Barr in Moscow while writing an article on Soviet-American technology transfer — lets the personality of the two spies shape both the direction and structure of the book. Barr was part of the circle of communists whose outlook and commitment to communism was shaped by conversations, a daily stream of lectures, books and classes held at City College of New York. It was there that Barr would meet the more infamous Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Sarant’s and Barr’s paths would cross while working, at all places, for the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps.
Risk-taking was clearly part of Barr’s character, as it was with Sarant. It was that trait that probably allowed them to avoid arrest by what appears to be a fumbling FBI. (The agency knew that Barr, Sarant, and Rosenberg were spying but never seemed to connect the dots or acted on the information it had on all three. Sound familiar?) Both Barr and Sarant were more than willing to make a clean break with life in America to build up the Soviet Union’s defense and high-tech industry. Rosenberg was more cautious and less inclined to leave home, and that more than anything else led to his capture.
Incredibly, Barr and Sarant’s story is that of boy makes good. Their Soviet spy handlers give them new identities and new names, Philip Staros and Joseph Berg (a not-so-veiled reference to Barr’s Jewish heritage). The two buck the rigid Soviet bureaucracy and anti-Semitism to create the Soviet equivalent of a skunk works. They were less than interested in holding party meetings at their facility. “Seeking to attract top-level talent, they ignored the unspoken but universally understood rules regarding the employment of Jews, ” Usdin writes. They had their own budget, access to anything they wanted in terms of parts and equipment. The result was the components essential to tracking radar needed to launch the Sputnik.
It also launched the creation of Zelenograd, the Silicon Valley, Soviet-style. The goal was to create, design and produce computers that could operate the military might of the socialist paradise. Then-premier Khrushchev was their patron — he built them the city they dreamt of and gave them control over one of the largest budgets of any bureau in the Soviet Union, clearly the largest awarded to anyone who was not a minister or party powerbroker. They lived a bourgeois existence, complete with maids, mistresses, and huge apartments, shopping at stores reserved for party members. And it seemed that their vision of centrally planned computer industry crushing the capitalist competition was to be realized.p>But it was not to be. Their dream would drown in what Usdin calls “the swamp that doomed Soviet industry to mediocrity.” Ironically what doomed Berg and Staros was the harsh political edge that centralized planning always possess and what Berg clearly saw: br> /p>
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