There are still those who persist in believing that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were innocent "progressives," and that American communists would never have betrayed their country.
Such true believers need to read Steve Usdin's valuable history of Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant, the forgotten members of the Rosenberg spy ring. Forgotten, because — unlike the Rosenbergs, who paid with their lives — Barr and Sarant miraculously eluded arrest and made their way to the Soviet Union.
There, they performed services for the Communist state far more valuable than stealing American military and technological secrets. Together, they turned Soviet science on its ear, convincing Nikita Khrushchev to build the city of Zelenograd, Moscow's equivalent of Silicon Valley, and founding the Soviet microelectronics industry.
It's a fascinating and engrossing story — all the more so because most of it comes directly from Barr's own lips; he and Usdin, a science writer, met in Mocow in 1990 and became friends.
Make no mistake: Barr and Sarant were no mercenaries for hire. They were zealous champions of Soviet communism — a cause that neither abandoned in their lifetimes, even after the Soviet system collapsed.
In fact, notes Usdin, "unlike most other American and British agents who escaped to the east side of the Iron Curtain, leaving family, friends and a familiar culture behind, [Barr] looked forward with enthusiasm to living the rest of his life under Communism."
And why not? Thanks to his scientific knowledge and background, Barr prospered in Russia: "He earned an enormous salary relative to most workers — 'more than a deputy minister' — had a car and a large, comfortable apartment, and his children had received first-class educations that would have cost a fortune in the United States."
In other words, the workers' state became a material paradise for this unrepentant Stalinist.
But Usdin's book is most valuable in reinforcing just how significant the Rosenberg spy ring was. Indeed, its services for Moscow went far beyond the atomic espionage that ultimately led to its unraveling.
"Rosenberg's band of amateur spies," writes Usdin, "turned over detailed information on a wide range of technologies and weapons systems that hastened the Red Army's march to Berlin" — allowing Moscow to establish a 40-year domination of Eastern Europe — "jump-started its postwar development of nuclear weapons and delivery systems and later helped Communist troops in North Korea fight the American military to a standoff."
Indeed, the volume of significant information that the Rosenberg ring provided the Soviets was so extensive that, at first, the KGB operations in the U.S. simply couldn't handle it.
In 1990, Barr returned to the United States, where he met up with fellow spy Morton Sobell — who urged him to deny having been a spy as the only way to advance "the cause" and honor the martyred Rosenbergs. (Which is what he did.)
Astonishingly, he was given a U.S. passport as well as Medicaid and Social Security benefits (though he was unsuccessful in getting $30,000 in back payments).
Barr continued to hope, until his death six years later, in a restoration of communist power in Russia. And yet, notes Usdin, "four of [Barr's] six children have decided to build their lives in the United States. All of them have rejected his lifelong dedication to Communism."
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