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Engineering Communism: How Two Americans Spied for Stalin and Founded the Soviet Silicon Valley

2016/09/12

I do  not remember how I happened upon the book, but it is one of those books that you need to read if you are interested in the technology competition during the Cold War. It is also a far more interesting book than that because by following the lives of Joel Barr (and his alter ego Al Sarant) you learn a lot of stuff about OPSEC failures, how naive and ill equipped  was the FBI during WWII in its counterintelligence efforts,  the Communist Party USA at its prime, the Rosenberg Spy Ring and the technology transfer that resulted because of its operations.

You do learn of the life that two foreigners led during the Cold War “on the other side” and the passion for recognition of one of them “who was not Caltech material” according to R. Feynman which resulted in singlehandedly him kickstarting Soviet electronics. Sarant was definitely driven to prove him wrong, and when placed in an environment where he could operate, in a way he did: The UM-1, the Uzel and Zelenograd are his and created within an environment that did not favor his modus operandi.

You also learn a lot about management, how risk aversive management ultimately leads to failure and how choosing to copy instead of competing (and embracing failure) widens the gap and leaves you behind:

And then one of them, the highest one, a department head at the ministry, asked me, “Do the Americans do that?” When I said I didn’t know, he said, “Son, remember, if they don’t do something, it isn’t worth doing.”

There are also patterns of behaviour that we still find peculiar and contradicting today, but are explainable by those who commit them really easy:

the prospect of committing a crime to further a cause in which you deeply believe is a very exciting one. Here is a test not only of what you believe, but also of what you are.

Think about that the next time a suicide bomber explodes.  This is what rationalises everything in their head. And while you are at it, here is how contradictions between actions and ideology get rationalised too:

These little people in the party accept the discipline of the party, do what they are told, think what they are told; and if these things seem contrary to reason, patriotic duty or common sense, they do them because the party says that is the correct thing to do “at the time”.

There you have it. That explains the party herd. And the following explains the rest:

He was particularly impressed by their ability to tune out the intellectual garbage that was thrown at them from every form of communications media, even in the ubiquitous slogans that adorned rooftops and bulletin boards.

Orwell was a genius! As a rule I try not to buy books that cost more than $20 (thanks to tsundoku) but I am really glad that I broke the rule this time. I find the stories of Berg (Barr) and Staros (Sarant) valuable, both in their political mistakes and in their engineering perseverance.

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