On November 2, 2007, after George W. Bush peered into his eyes and saw his soul but before the rest of the world had gotten a good look, Vladimir Putin posthumously bestowed Russia’s highest award to an American-born scientist and World War II vet named George Koval, who had died the previous year.
The Kremlin’s announcement made public what the F.B.I. had sought for more than half a century to keep quiet: that Koval was in fact a Soviet spy who had successfully infiltrated the Manhattan Project. The intelligence he gathered was said to have sped the U.S.S.R.’s development of its own atomic bomb.
Perhaps even more impressive, Koval managed to sneak back to Moscow just before the anti-Communist hysteria of the McCarthy years would have made such a smooth escape impossible. Putin’s decision to honor him was a poke in America’s eye, and an early indication of his lingering fondness for Cold War spycraft.
Zhorzh Abramovich Koval’s remarkable life story, such as it can be retraced, is the subject of Ann Hagedorn’s new book, Sleeper Agent: The Atomic Spy in America Who Got Away.
From East to West and Back Again
Born in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1913, to Jewish refugees who fled the pogroms of czarist Russia, young George became a baseball fanatic, a skilled player whose childhood dreams were realized the day Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig passed through town and shagged flies with local schoolkids.
But after the Russian Revolution, in 1917, the allegiances of the Koval family shifted. More interested in class struggle than in ethnic division, Lenin’s government vowed to criminalize anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, the warm welcome the Kovals received in Iowa had given way to nativist menace and an ascendant Ku Klux Klan.
As a teenager, George Koval was active in youth politics, making no secret of his Communist sympathies. He lectured on street corners about how the Soviet model would inoculate the U.S.S.R. against the ravages of the Great Depression and the decadence of capitalism.
In 1932, Koval returned to Russia with his family. As brilliant a student in the U.S.S.R. as he had been in the U.S., he graduated from Moscow’s prestigious Mendeleev Institute with a degree in engineering.
At the start of World War II, Koval was recruited by the G.R.U., Russia’s military-intelligence agency, who saw in his biography the makings of the perfect spy. Since Koval had traveled to Russia on his father’s passport, there was no record of his departure from the United States—he was able return under a false identity and slip back into American society as if he’d never left.
Koval would become a spook out of J. Edgar Hoover’s most paranoid delusions, so deeply embedded he could pass any test of Americanness. He spoke idiomatic English with a heartland accent and could drown any suspicion in a rain of memorized baseball stats.
Upon his return to the U.S., he moved to the Bronx and studied chemistry at Columbia University, where he joined an academic circle that would form a central part of the project to build an atomic bomb. Koval was drafted into the army in 1943 and, thanks to an unusually high score on an aptitude test and some possible cloak-and-dagger shenanigans Hagedorn implies but can’t quite prove, Koval would end up being assigned to a team synthesizing polonium for use in the A-bomb’s initiators.
Koval would become a spook out of J. Edgar Hoover’s most paranoid delusions, so deeply embedded he could pass any test of Americanness.
Hagedorn draws from decades of scholarship, thorough archival research, and deftly FOIA’d F.B.I. reports to reconstruct the intricate network of Russian cells in midcentury America, a world of handlers and honey traps and tradecraft worthy of a prequel to The Americans.
A veteran of The Wall Street Journal, Hagedorn is an impressive reporter, sparing no detail from the elements of the story to which she has access. And it’s without question a great story. The problem is that some of the juiciest bits—notably any real sense of Koval’s interiority, or the specific way he communicated intelligence to his handler—didn’t make the historical record.
This is the fundamental challenge of writing about espionage: spies work hard not to leave a trace. And Koval was by all accounts an exceptional spook. Hagedorn is often left to speculate, relying on qualifiers such as “must have” or “surely.” Such sleights of hand are inevitable in narrative nonfiction—Ben Mcintyre’s Cold War histories are full of them—but in this case one can’t help wondering whether Koval successfully foiled not only the American authorities but also any attempt by posterity to satisfactorily account for his role in history.
If Koval expected a hero’s welcome when he abruptly returned to Russia in 1948—leaving a string of ex-girlfriends, fraternity brothers, and bowling chums with no forwarding address—he had not been aware of how much his homeland had changed under Stalin. “He found only a twisted, fearful culture steeped in propaganda and prejudice, mainly against Jews and Americans,” Hagedorn writes. “To be sure, his work during the war would become an enduring secret.”
It was only through the intervention of Lavrentiy Beria, the notoriously cruel head of the secret police and orchestrator of Russia’s own bomb project, that Koval was granted a modest sinecure at the Mendeleev Institute. The importance of Koval’s contribution to the Russian nuclear program remains up for debate, but Hagedorn argues that he was (likely) successful in his mission, since Beria would otherwise (likely) have sent him to the gulag.
Koval lived out the next six decades in obscurity, the Tom Clancy excitement of his wartime years having ceded to a John le Carré world-weariness. The demise of the Soviet Union left him so adrift that he applied for assistance from the American Social Security office. The terse response the 87-year-old allegedly received from the country of his birth—which had long known about his betrayal—is among the most poignant details in the book: “We are writing to tell you that you do not qualify for retirement benefits.”
Julian Sancton is the author of Madhouse at the End of the Earth: The Belgica’s Journey into the Dark Atlantic Night