The Time the Soviets Gave the U.S. a Hidden Spy Device—And It Took Seven Years to Discover It

A replica of the Great Seal bug at the National Cryptologic Museum
A replica of the Great Seal bug at the National Cryptologic Museum
Daderot, Wikimedia // CC0 1.0

In the summer of 1945, at the tail end of World War II, a group of Russian schoolchildren arrived at the residence of the United States ambassador in Moscow—and they came bearing a gift. The Vladimir Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organization 1, a kind of Soviet version of the Boy Scouts, presented a large carved wooden replica of the Great Seal of the United States to U.S. Ambassador Averell Harriman, calling it a gesture of friendship to their wartime allies, the United States.

Harriman hung the wooden plaque in his study at the Spaso House, which served as his residence. But what he didn't know was that the plaque contained a cutting-edge listening device, used by the Soviets to eavesdrop on his conversations whenever they wanted. The plaque hung undetected in the ambassador’s study until 1952—a staggering seven years. It would come to be known colloquially as "The Thing."

The Walls Have Ears

A black-and-white photo of Leon Theremin demonstrating his theremin in 1927
Leon Theremin demonstrating his theremin in 1927
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

The device was the brainchild of the Russian inventor Léon Theremin. In the U.S., Theremin is best known for his eponymous musical instrument, the theremin, which he invented while working for the Soviet military in 1920. But almost two decades after creating the instrument, Theremin found himself in a Siberian gulag. Once in the prison system, he was conscripted to create high-tech radio listening devices in a secret laboratory.

With his second-greatest creation, The Thing, Theremin nearly upstaged himself. Unbeknownst to casual viewers, the wooden Great Seal of the United States he created was like a sandwich cookie, with a tiny capacitive membrane connected to a small quarter-wavelength antenna—which together acted as a microphone—standing in for the cream filling. Theremin's hidden bug wasn't connected to a battery or power supply; the device only worked when a radio signal of the correct frequency was sent to the device from an external transmitter. This signal came via a van parked nearby that could broadcast a strong radio signal, activating the Thing and allowing the Soviets to eavesdrop, via a radio receiver, on unwittingly broadcasted conversations from within the Spaso House study.

Suspicious Voices

Exterior of Spaso House, residence of U.S. Ambassador in Moscow
Exterior of Spaso House, the residence of U.S. Ambassador in Moscow
U.S. Embassy Moscow, Wikimedia // Public Domain

It was the British who first noticed something was amiss. In 1951, a British radio operator was monitoring Soviet air force radio traffic, in their own bit of espionage, when he recognized the voice of the British Air Attaché. It's not exactly clear what happened next, but the following year, an American listening to military radio traffic picked up a conversation featuring American-accented voices that clearly seemed to come from the Spaso House. A few bug-searching sweeps of the embassy, coordinated with the move-in of incoming U.S. ambassador George F. Kennan in May 1952, turned up nothing. But on September 12, 1952, with suspicions still raised, the State Department's security technicians Joseph "the Rug Merchant" Bezjian and John Ford conducted another search for good measure, knowing that the Soviets sometimes removed bugs and later replanted them.

At Bezjian's directive, Kennan sat at his desk and dictated an important-sounding message to his secretary while Bezjian searched the room with his radio instruments. When he switched on his receiver, he picked up a signal almost immediately. Something was broadcasting Kennan's voice from down in the study, and it was something very close by. Minutes later, the team found just what they were looking for—hanging right on the wall.

That night, Bezjian slept with the device under his pillow so that it couldn't be stolen back by the Soviets. It was shipped to Washington, D.C., the next day to be studied.

Kennan published his memoirs of the period in 1967. In the book, he wrote chillingly about the moment he realized that the Soviets had a microphone in his own private study: "It is difficult to make plausible the weirdness of the atmosphere in that room, while this strange scene was in progress … At this particular moment, one was acutely conscious of the unseen presence in the room of a third person: our attentive monitor. It seemed that one could almost hear his breathing. All were aware that a strange and sinister drama was in progress."

Turnabout Is Fair Play

The U.S. didn't initially confront the Soviets about their discovery, and the device was kept secret from the media for several years. But the word got out in 1960: On May 1 of that year, the Soviets shot down an American U2 spy plane and then called a meeting with the United Nations Security Council, calling the U.S.'s espionage an act of aggression. The Thing was subsequently trotted out to prove that spying went both ways between the countries—and had for years.

By then, however, the device was well-known to British and American espionage agencies. After examining the bug's technology, the Brits were able to improve upon it and develop a listening device codenamed SATYR, which was utilized by the British, American, Canadian, and Australian militaries throughout the '50s.

It's not entirely certain where the Thing is located today. It was handed over to the FBI for analysis soon after its discovery, and at some point its membrane was damaged and had to be replaced. It was then sent to the National Security Agency, but it's not clear what happened after that. (The NSA likes their secrets.) However, there's a very faithful copy on display at the National Cryptologic Museum in Fort Meade, Maryland, along with a detailed exhibit showing exactly how Theremin and his lab built the device.

Unlike the original, handling the replica is encouraged; visitors can open up the wooden cabinet to view the recreated microphone and the resonant cavity inside. It's a way to engage with a particularly bizarre chapter in U.S.-Soviet relations—a time when even though the nations pretended to be friends, it was wise to beware schoolchildren bearing gifts.

10 Questions About Columbus Day

ihsanGercelman/iStock via Getty Images
ihsanGercelman/iStock via Getty Images

Every American student learns that Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and landed in the New World in 1492. Winifred Sackville Stoner, Jr.'s poem "History of the U.S." has made it impossible to forget the date (although the couplet actually predates her birth), and many federal workers get a day off every October to recognize the explorer's arrival in the New World. You know the who and where, but here are 10 more answers to pressing questions about Columbus Day.

1. When did Christopher Columbus become a cultural icon?

By the early 1500s, other navigators like Amerigo Vespucci and Francisco Pizarro had become more popular and successful than Columbus had been with his off-course voyages. According to The New York Times, historians and writers in the latter part of the 16th century restored some of Columbus’s reputation with great words of praise for the explorer and his discoveries, with his fellow Italians proving particularly eager to celebrate his life in plays and poetry.

2. How did Christopher Columbus's popularity reach the United States?

Blame the British. As the American colonies formed an identity separate from their mainly English roots, colonists looked to figures like the "appointed of God" Columbus to symbolize their ideals. "By the time of the Revolution," writes John Noble Wilford, "Columbus had been transmuted into a national icon, a hero second only to Washington." Columbus's American legacy got another shot in the arm in 1828 when a biography (peppered with historical fiction) by Washington Irving transformed Columbus into an even more idealized figure who sought to "colonize and cultivate," not to strip the New World of its resources.

3. When was the first Columbus Day?

The first recorded celebration took place in 1792 in New York City, but the first holiday held in commemoration of the 1492 voyage coincided with its 400th anniversary in 1892. President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation in which he called Columbus a "pioneer of progress and enlightenment" and suggested that Americans "cease from toil and devote themselves to such exercises as may best express honor to the discoverer and their appreciation of the great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life."

If Harrison had had his way, though, the holiday would have been celebrated on October 21. He knew that Columbus landed under the Julian calendar, not the Gregorian calendar we use today—making October 21 the correct date for anniversary celebrations.

4. Did anyone actually celebrate Columbus Day in the 19th century?

Italian Americans embraced Columbus as an important figure in their history and saw celebrating him as a way to "be accepted by the mainstream," the Chicago Tribune notes. The Knights of Columbus, an organization formed by Irish Catholic immigrants in 1882, chose the Catholic explorer as their patron "as a symbol that allegiance to their country did not conflict with allegiance to their faith," according to the group's website. Following President Harrison’s 1892 proclamation, they lobbied for Columbus Day to become an official holiday.

5. When did Columbus Day become an official holiday?

The holiday first found traction at the state level. Colorado began celebrating Columbus Day, by governor's proclamation, in 1905. Angelo Noce, founder of the first Italian newspaper in the state, spearheaded the movement to honor Columbus and Italian American history. In 1907, the Colorado General Assembly finally gave in to him and made it an official state holiday.

6. When did Columbus Day become a federal holiday?

With Franklin D. Roosevelt as president, lobbying from the Knights of Columbus paid off, and the United States as a whole observed Columbus Day in 1934. Thirty-four years later, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Uniform Holiday Bill, which designated Columbus Day as a federal holiday.

7. Why does the date of Columbus Day change every year?

Columbus Day was originally celebrated on October 12, the day Columbus landed in the New World, but the Uniform Holiday Bill took effect in 1971 and changed it to the second Monday in October, as well as moved the dates of Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day to Mondays (Veterans Day would be moved back to November 11 in 1980 after criticism from veterans’ groups). The act of Congress was enacted to "provide for uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Monday, and for other purposes."

8. Does every state observe the Columbus Day holiday on the same weekend?

In Tennessee, Columbus Day comes with an asterisk. The state’s official holiday observance calendar reads that Columbus Day is the second Monday of October, or "at the governor's discretion, Columbus Day may be observed the Friday after Thanksgiving."

9. Which states don't celebrate Columbus Day?

In Hawaii, the second Monday of October is known as Discoverer’s Day, "in recognition of the Polynesian discoverers of the Hawaiian Islands, provided that this day is not and shall not be construed to be a state holiday," KHON2 writes. According to the Pew Research Center, only 21 states treated Columbus Day as a paid state holiday in 2013. South Dakota, New Mexico, Maine, and the District of Columbia celebrate Native Americans Day or Indigenous People's Day as a paid holiday. Several cities, like San Francisco and Cincinnati, celebrate Indigenous People's Day.

10. How do other places around the world celebrate Columbus Day?

In Italy, Columbus Day (or Giornata nazionale di Cristoforo Colombo) is listed as one of the national or international days of celebration and is still on October 12, but it's not a public holiday. Some countries have chosen to observe anti-Columbus holidays like the Day of the Indigenous Resistance in Venezuela and Nicaragua, Pan American Day in Belize, and the Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity in Argentina.

Quid Pro Quo Has a Nefarious Etymology

MangoStar_Studio/iStock via Getty Images
MangoStar_Studio/iStock via Getty Images

While some altruists will happily lend a hand without expecting anything in return, most of the world runs on the idea that you should be compensated in some way for your goods and services.

That’s quid pro quo, a Latin phrase which literally means “something for something.” In many cases, one of those “somethings” refers to money—you pay for concert tickets, your company pays you to teach your boss how to open a PDF, etc. However, quid pro quo also applies to plenty of situations in which no money is involved. Maybe your roommate agreed to lend you her favorite sweater if you promised to wash her dishes for a month. Or perhaps, in return for walking your neighbor’s dog while he was on vacation, he gave you his HBO login credentials.

No matter the circumstances, any deal in which you give something and you get something falls under the category of quid pro quo. According to The Law Dictionary, “it is nothing more than the mutual consideration which passes between the parties to a contract, and which renders it valid and binding.” In other words, if everyone on both sides understands the expectation that something will be given in return for a good or service, your contract is valid.

Based on that definition, quid pro quo hinges on transparency; all parties must understand that there’s an exchange being made. However, this wasn’t always the case. As the Columbia Journalism Review reports, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary entry states that quid pro quo was used in 16th-century apothecaries to denote when one medicine had been substituted for another, “whether intentionally (and sometimes fraudulently) or accidentally.”

So, if you were an unlucky peasant with a sore throat, it’s possible your herbal remedy could’ve been swapped out with something less effective—or even dangerous. Though Merriam-Webster doesn’t offer any specific examples of how or why this happened, it definitely seems like it would have been all too easy to “accidentally” poison your enemies during that time.

Just a few decades later, the term had gained enough popularity that people were using it for less injurious instances, much like we do today.

[h/t Columbia Journalism Review]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER