Engineering Communism: How Two Americans Spied for Stalin and Founded the Soviet Silicon Valley
by Steven T. Usdin
(Yale University Press, 329 pages, $40)
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.
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:
The men…responsible for deciding how state funds would be invested were selected for their political reliability, not for their technical knowledge. They reported to men who were even less qualified to make technical decisions, who ultimately reported to the Central Committee, which with a few exceptions was composed of poorly educated political operatives. At the same time, failure was harshly punished…In this environment, there was very little incentive to innovate. Managers who weren’t competent to judge between competing proposals adopted a simple stratagem: invest only in technologies that had already been proven in the West, particularly in the United States.
Ultimately, when Khrushchev was purged from power, Berg and Staros lost their patron, their status, budget and position. Staros died in 1979 bitter and defeated, half regretting he had allowed Berg to convince him to become a spy. A proposal to revolutionize the production of semiconductors — Berg called it the “minifab” — was frustrated time and again until glasnost came and Barr was given funding to complete his work and showcase the process for, ironically, American investors.
With glasnost came the opportunity to return to America and, not unpredictably, some fame as a recently discovered espionage agent associated with Rosenberg. Barr was not immune to the celebrity virus and tried to play it for what it was worth, even hoping to use an interview on ABC’s Nightline to market his semiconductor process. How American.
This is Steve Usdin’s first book and he tells this emotionally and historically complex tale well. Usdin writes crisply and engagingly. And it is refreshing to read a historical biography devoid of cattiness and judgment. Rather, he allows Barr’s and Sarant’s actions to speak for them.
In many respects, Barr is the inverse image of Jay Gatsby the man who moved East from Minnesota, reinvented himself and built a dream world to win a girl. Much like Jay Gatsby, Joel Barr “sprang from his Platonic conception of himself.” And as Usdin notes, though Barr had to come to grips with his past actions when he returned to America, “the future had always been more attractive for Berg than the past. ” So too with Gatsby who “believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us.” Barr moved East as well and then home again. He was loyal to communism but ultimately it was his American capacity for invention and reinventing oneself that allowed him to live out his dreams and his desires.