Review of the book: Engineering Communism: How Two Americans Spied for Stalin and Founded the Soviet Silicon Valley. By Steven T. Usdin. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. Pp. xiv, 329.) Notes, pictures, index. $40.00 cloth.
The story of how Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant, American engineers who assisted Stalin's Russia as part of the Rosenberg ring in World War II, escaped, and later developed the Soviet computer industry, is one of those Cold War mysteries that have long intrigued scholars and laymen alike. Steven T. Usdin, a journalist and technology expert, met Barr (then using his Soviet name of Joseph Berg) by chance in the early 1990s while working on assignment in Russia. Despite the forty-five year difference in their ages, the two became fast friends, permitting us to discover "whatever happened to Joel Barr," a question that had puzzled the FBI for decades. Their friendship has not compromised Usdin's objectivity, however; while clearly impressed with Barr's virtuosity--the engineer invented a closet refrigerator, developed numerous electronic devices, and turned his cinderblock apartment into a nightclub--the author fully confirms that Barr was also a spy, something which the engineer never acknowledged in his lifetime, even to his young friend.
Usdin sets out to tell not only this intriguing story, but also to speculate on what would make men like Barr and Sarant go out of their way to assist a country which became the foremost enemy of the United States. He succeeds brilliantly with his first goal--this is a page-turning narrative. But Barr's motives and convictions are not always satisfactorily explained. Why would such an intelligent and quirky Jewish bohemian remain a devoted believer in the rigid Soviet system, given his long exposure in Russia to blatant anti-Semitism, to the politicized atmosphere of the Communist party structure and its bureaucratic mindset that hindered technological progress, and not least to the intimidation that he and his close comrade Sarant experienced in their attempts to establish and nurture a microcomputer industry?
But Barr's enigmatic nature would be a challenge for anyone to disentangle. Even his own wife, a Czech woman sympathetic to the revolutionaries of Prague '68, could not convince him of Soviet evil in that crushing moment. Barr was not blind; he recognized that the Brezhnev era, for instance, did not come anywhere close to the glorious garden of consumer abundance that...