The NYT has a fascinating story today about one George Koval, who was apparently the most significant Soviet spy working on stealing atomic technology secrets during the Manhattan Project back in WW II and for a short time thereafter. Koval died last year at 92-94, and on Nov. 2 Vladimir Putin, old KGB man that he is, posthumously gave him the highest Russian state award, praising him as "the only Soviet intelligence officer" to inflitrate the Manhattan Project's secret plants, saying his work "helped speed up considerably the time it took for the Soviet Union to develop an atomic bomb of its own."
The U.S., you may remember, demonstrated the awesome power of a nuclear bomb over two Japanese cities in August 1945. The Soviets tested its first atomic bomb in 1949, surprising everybody with the speed at which they had made one.
This award tells us a little something about Putin. He may be a post-communist-system leader, but he was a KGB agent back before the Soviet Union collapsed, he has never renounced that past, and he obviously still admires certain aspects of communism, especially its authoritarian approach to society. Russia, whose only experience with a rudimentary brand of democracy (without benefit of an existing civil society and marred by the kleptocratic way certain elites approached what passed for capitalism), seems to respond to an assured leader, and Putin is nothing if not assured.
Anyway, back in the day, having been impressed by "Witness" and being convinced a real struggle for the soul of the world was underway, I used to devour books about communists operating as spies, agents of influence and the like, from Freda Utley's memoirs to Ralph de Toledano's books to Jan Valtin's "Out of the Night, to personal memoirs of spies from all ideological persuasions. I never heard of George Koval. Apparently that was because while the U.S. got onto him after WW II, forcing him to leave for Russia, the gummint swore to secrecy everybody it interviewed about his activities, and never made public what it knew about his role.
He was apparently the perfect spy -- born in Iowa in 1913, he had an impeccable American accent and loved baseball and other sports. But his family moved back to Russia during the Depression, he was a brilliant student of technical sciences and was recruited by the GRU (military intelligence) and carefully trained. He was sent back to the U.S. where he worked at technical jobs under an assumed name. Then the GRU took a chance and let him use his real name. He was drafted, the Army recognized his technical abilities, and he was assigned to the Manhattan Project. Assigned to health safety (checking for radiation leaks) he had access to everything. Since actually making an atomic bomb that works is much harder than understanding the theory (still is) he must have been invaluable to the Soviets, having been around and knowing almost everybody while they were figuring out the manufacturing. difficulties.
Fascinating historical sidelight.