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Making It in the USSR

In response to:

An Exchange on Nuclear War from the November 24, 1983 issue

To the Editors:

In my letter of November 24, 1983 I discussed how I was able to establish that the American electrical engineer Alfred Sarant, who left the US in August of 1950, and Soviet computer designer Filipp Georgievich Staros, who died in Moscow in March of 1979, were in fact the same man. I noted also in passing that Filipp Staros arrived in the USSR from Czechoslovakia in the mid-1950s with his American associate Joseph V. Berg. Some additional materials now allow me to discuss the fate of Joseph Berg in greater detail. Interviews with additional eyewitnesses who met Joseph Berg—Iozef Veniaminovich Berg is his full legal name in the USSR—make it clear that he was formerly the American electrical engineer Joel Barr.

According to information on record at the City College of New York, Joel Barr was born on January 7, 1916 in the United States. His father was a Russian Jew. He received his BS in electrical engineering on June 22, 1938. His subsequent career in the United States attracted considerable attention, since he was a classmate of Julius Rosenberg and Morton Sobell (who was tried together with the Rosenbergs). Until 1944 Joel Barr, Julius Rosenberg, and Alfred Sarant belonged to the same Communist Party cell in New York City.

Joel Barr worked in the US for the Signal Corps Laboratory at Fort Monmouth (New Jersey), and such companies as Western Electric (at the same time as Sarant) and Sperry Rand (Sperry Gyroscope at the time). His colleagues described him as a competent electrical engineer. In 1947 he failed to receive the necessary security clearance because he was a member of the Party, and he had to give up his position with Sperry Gyroscope. Those who knew him in New York describe Joel Barr as a tall, easygoing man, with a passion for music, especially for playing the piano.

After further work for Sperry Gyroscope became impossible for Barr, he applied for a passport in order to go to Europe to study music and engineering. Barr received a passport without any trouble, although his FBI file opens with a memo on his suspected espionage activities beginning as early as 1944. He left the United States legally in January 1948. Shortly before leaving the country he broke up with Vivian Glassman, his “sweetheart,” as Julius Rosenberg characterized her.

For two years Joel Barr lived in different cities in Europe and finally disappeared from his flat in Paris in the summer of 1950, telling a friend that it was better not to discuss his destination. According to an unconfirmed report (relayed to me by Walter Schneir), Barr moved from Paris to Stockholm and sent from there a letter to his relatives in New York, using his new last name—Berg. That was the last piece of news his relatives ever received from him. Five years later an electrical engineer, Iozef Veniaminovich Berg, arrived in the Soviet Union together with A1 Sarant/Filipp Staros from Czechoslovakia.

I showed a photograph of Joel Barr, taken in New York in 1947–1948 (obtained courtesy of Joyce Milton) to three separate eyewitnesses, who knew Iozef Berg in the USSR. They all recognized him. They described Iozef Berg as a tall, awkward, rather eccentric man in his sixties, a kind of wheeler-dealer, with a pronounced New York accent who had a very poor command of the Russian language. In the mid-1970s he lived in Leningrad in a huge, six-room apartment, a most unusual housing arrangement anywhere in the Soviet Union. He owned a black Volga car, which as a rule is not sold in the USSR to private customers. He also claimed to be paid 700 rubles a month—a salary which did not correspond to his rather modest position in the Soviet R&D establishment (the median monthly salary in the USSR is around 130 rubles). He was said to be devoted to classical music, and to have encouraged his children to take up musical careers. His daughter Vivian is a flutist, living in Czechoslovakia.

Berg’s engineering career paralleled until 1973 that of his boss and close friend, Alfred Sarant/Filipp Staros. Berg was chief engineer in the Leningrad design bureau, where Staros was chief designer and director until 1973, when it merged with the research department of the radio plant, “Svetlana.”

Berg was awarded a Ph.D. in technical sciences (kandidat technicheskih nauk) in 1968. In 1969 he received a State prize as a member of Filipp Staros’s team. The computer scientists who were in touch with Berg in the USSR describe him as a fine engineer, though lacking creativity and independent judgment. He followed very closely the development of foreign and especially American computer technology.

During the mid-1970s Berg worked in the research department of the Leningrad radio plant Svetlana, while his erstwhile friend and boss Filipp Staros, in order to retain his independence, moved to Vladivostok, on the far eastern border of the USSR.

Some details in the biographies of Joel Barr and Iozef Berg are at variance. According to the yearbook of the Soviet encyclopedia, Iozef Berg was educated in Johannesburg, South Africa. Officially he was born in 1917, and celebrated his birthday in the USSR on October 7th (he used to joke that he was a real son of the October Revolution). He also claimed to be born in Johannesburg. He explained away his Brooklyn accent by an awkward story about growing up in an “American” section of Johannesburg.

A member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Berg was, when necessary, a loyal follower of the Party line. He privately expressed his unhappiness with Soviet anti-Semitism, but he nevertheless said publicly that the “nationality” entry in all internal Soviet passports was necessary for the preservation of over a hundred different national cultures in the USSR. He spoke positively of Stalin’s policy of reducing the prices of consumer goods and said that the country does not need de-Stalinization. He also stressed the necessity for Soviet communists to be morally pure.

In other words, as Russians say, he mastered the science of vacillating with the twists and turns of the Party line. He also said—and he may well have been sincere in this—that for him the Soviet Union became the country of golden opportunity, where he was able to realize his highest professional and personal ambitions. In contrast to the somewhat gloomy and disheartening story of Alfred Sarant, Berg could be described as an American who “made it” in the Soviet Union.

Mark Kuchment

January 28, 1984

Boston, Massachusetts.

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