Engineering Communism: How Two Americans Spied for Stalin and Founded the Soviet Silicon Valley
by Steven T. Usdin.
Yale University Press, 2007. 344 pages.
George Orwell once wrote of how intellectuals with a strictly scientific background, untinged with any knowledge of literature or history, were more susceptible to totalitarianism than whose reading included the humanaties. Surveying the behavior of Nazi and Soviet scientists who read only tracts and scientific papers, Orwell wrote that “in practice the scientific workers of all countries line up behind their governments with fewer scruples felt by writers or artists.” Such attitudes can stifle or even erase ordinary human emotions: contrast Robert Oppenheimer, a student of literature, and his guilty response to the successful detonation of the bomb (“I have become Death”) with Yuri Gargarin’s refusal to voice his wonderment of space and instead report back a quote easily insertable into Pravda (“I see no God up here) Orwell’s view that true science should promote a rational. Skeptical outlook is further validated.
Joel Barr, an American born scientist who defected to and then spent decades literally arming the Soviet Union, would seem, at first glance, to defy the Orwell generalization. Barr never lined up without scruples behind the American government. Indeed, while a citizen he actively defied it. But if one considers where and how Barr grew up, it becomes apparent that he was always in the world of the Soviet government; his physical move there was a mere formality.
Barr grew up in Depression-era New York, a city and mileu labeled by the Left as “the most exciting place in the Soviet Union.” Barr’s world was the Big Apple; no other world, save that of the Soviet Union, existed in his mental universe, and the two often blurred together. His childhood was one of invading policemen into their living quarters (not for a purge as in his future residency but to repossess furniture), dry Marxist reading and equally dry scientific studies. Like his compatriots in the Soviet Union, he was in a cell of sorts (Alcove 1) by the time he was voicing politically correct insults across the cafeteria table at City University. Meeting Julius Rosenberg in the Alcove prepared Barr for Stalinist rewriting of history; like Stalin, Rosenberg placed himself as leading a charge in a battle (in Rosenberg’s case, against visiting Nazi sailors), when the reality was that he was a side-liner. Summer activity, swimming and reading and watching propaganda, added further to the blurring between New York and the Soviet Union, by recalling that of Dacha-inhabiting Party members in the East (although Stalin’s favorite films featured Tarzan—a character dismissed by Party members in America as literal naked White Imperialism).
It is apparent in Barr’s descriptions of the Soviet Union—“a great experiment,” a “dynamo”—that he was attracted to it scientifically as well as religiously—a dangerous combination that Stalinist Dalton Trumbo used to describe America in the 1950s. Like those writers in America who joined the Party believing it would elevate them above businessmen when the Revolution hit, Barr believed the same process would occur for the lab coats. By the time the FBI was closing in on the Rosenberg spy ring, however, Barr apparently couldn’t wait for the inevitable communist revolution emanating from New York to all of America and fled behind the Iron Curtain. There followed service in missile production for the State, a slight guilty period about the Secret Speech, which was eased considerably by pride in Sputnik a year later, and an attempt to fast-forward the Soviets into computer dominance over America. Sadly, Barr’s belief that capitalism couldn’t promote scientific achievement was like so many of his others, proven false, as his Soviet Sillicon Valley, sputtered, blinked and then went offline.
Usidin has written neither a hagiography or condemnation, but in true scientific fashion, has adopted a skeptical, rational approach to figures who eschewed such approaches.
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