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.

14 Revolutionary Facts About Bastille Day

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On July 14, 1789, Parisian revolutionaries stormed the Bastille fortress, where Louis XVI had imprisoned many of his enemies—or those whom he perceived to be enemies of the state. For many, the place had come to represent nothing short of royal tyranny. Its sudden fall foretold the French revolution—along with a holiday that’s now celebrated throughout France and the world at large with cries of “Vive le 14 Juillet!

1. In France, nobody calls it "Bastille Day."

The day is referred to as la Fête Nationale, or “the National Holiday.” In more informal settings, French people also call it le Quatorze Juillet (“14 July”). "Bastille Day" is an English term that’s seldom used within French borders—at least by non-tourists.

2. Originally, the Bastille wasn't designed to be a prison.

The name “Bastille” comes from the word bastide, which means “fortification,” a generic term for a certain type of tower in southern France until it was eventually restricted to one particular Bastille. When construction began on the building in 1357, its main purpose was not to keep prisoners in, but to keep invading armies out: At the time, France and England were engaged in the Hundred Years’ War. The Bastille, known formally as the Bastille Saint-Antoinewas conceived as a fortress whose strategic location could help stall an attack on Paris from the east.

Over the course of the Hundred Years' War, the structure of the building changed quite a bit. The Bastille started out as a massive gate consisting of a thick wall and two 75-foot towers. By the end of 1383, it had evolved into a rectangular fortress complete with eight towers and a moat.

Such attributes would later turn the Bastille into an effective state prison—but it wasn’t actually used as one until the 17th century. Under King Louis XIII, the powerful Cardinal de Richelieu began the practice of jailing his monarch’s enemies (without a trial) inside; at any given time, the cardinal would hold up to 55 captives there.

3. The Bastille was loaded with gunpowder. 

In July 1789, France was primed for a revolt. Bad weather had driven food prices through the roof, and the public resented King Louis XVI’s extravagant lifestyle. To implement financial reforms and quell rebellion, Louis was forced to call a meeting of the Estates-General, a national assembly representing the three estates of France. The First Estate was the clergy, the Second Estate held the nobility, and all other royal subjects comprised the Third Estate. Each estate had a single vote, meaning two estates could defeat the other estate every time.

The Estates-General met in Versailles on May 5, 1789. Arguments between the Third Estate and the other two boiled over on June 20. King Louis responded by physically locking the common people’s representatives out of the room. The third estate, now calling themselves the National Assembly, reconvened on an indoor tennis court and pledged to remain active until a French constitution was established.

The King sanctioned the National Assembly on June 27, but then sent troops into Paris to deal with growing unrest. He made his problems worse by dismissing finance official Jacques Necker, who supported the Third Estate. The National Assembly and everyday citizens began to take up arms. On July 14, 1789, revolutionaries burst into a soldiers’ hospital in Paris and seized 3000 guns and five cannons. Then, they broke into the Bastille where a stockpile of gunpowder lay. 

4. The July 14 "storming" freed only a handful of prisoners ...

The French revolutionaries who broke into the Bastille expected to find numerous inmates. In reality, the prison was almost empty except for seven captives who seemed to be in relatively good health. We may never be certain of their identities. Some accounts claim that four of the prisoners had committed forgery, two were regarded as lunatics, and one was a disgraced nobleman. Other sources are less specific. A report penned on July 24 agrees that four were forgers and another came from an aristocratic family—but that the other two vanished before anyone could definitively identify them.

5. ... and the Marquis de Sade was almost among them.

You probably know him as the man whose conduct and erotic writings gave rise to the word sadism. In 1784, the aristocrat was transferred from another prison to the Bastille, where he languished for the next five years. Within those walls, de Sade penned several books—including his notorious novel One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom.

He surely would have been freed when the Bastille was stormed. But on June 2, de Sade started yelling at the passersby beneath his window, claiming that people were being maimed and killed inside and begging the people to save him. The episode got de Sade transferred once again—this time to an insane asylum outside Paris. His removal from the Bastille took place on July 4, 1789. Ten days later, rebels stormed inside.

6. Thomas Jefferson donated money to the families of the revolutionaries.

As America’s minister to France (and a big fan of revolution), Jefferson took a lively interest in the Bastille incident—which broke out while he was living abroad in Paris. Although Long Tom didn’t witness the event firsthand, he eloquently summarized everything he’d learned about the siege in a detailed letter to John Jay. On August 1, 1789, Jefferson wrote in his diary, “Gave for widows of those killed in taking Bastille, 60 francs.”

7. A huge festival was held exactly one year after the Bastille was stormed. 

By July 14, 1790, the Bastille had been destroyed, its pieces scattered across the globe by souvenir collectors. France now operated under a constitutional monarchy, an arrangement that divided power between King Louis XVI and the National Assembly. Meanwhile, hereditary nobility was outlawed.

To honor these advances, the government organized a huge event called the “Festival of the Federation,” which was to take place on the first anniversary of the Bastille showdown. As July 14 approached, French citizens from all walks of life came together and set up some 40,000 seats in preparation. When the big day finally arrived, King Louis arrived with 200 priests and swore to maintain the constitution. The Marquis de Lafayette—who’d famously helped orchestrate America’s revolution—stood by the monarch’s side. Later on, Queen Marie Antoinette got a huge cheer when she proudly showed off the heir apparent. Among the spectators was dramatist Louis-Sébastien Mercier, who later said, “I saw 50,000 citizens of all classes, of all ages, of all sexes, forming the most superb portrait of unity." 

8. Several different dates were considered for the French national holiday.

Here’s a trick question: What historical event does Bastille Day commemorate? If you answered “the storming of the Bastille prison,” you’re both right and wrong. In 1880, France’s senate decided that their homeland needed a national holiday. What the French statesmen had in mind was an annual, patriotic celebration dedicated to the country and her citizens. But the matter of choosing a date turned into an extremely partisan ordeal: Every available option irked somebody in the senate on ideological grounds. For instance, conservatives were dead-set against July 14 (at least at first) because they felt that the 1789 Bastille incident was too bloody to merit celebration.

Alternatives were numerous. To some, September 21 looked attractive, since the original French Republic was created on that day in 1792. Others favored February 24, which marked the birth of France’s second republic. Another option was August 4, the anniversary of the feudal system’s abolishment.

Ultimately, though, July 14 managed to win out. After all, the date marks not one but two very important anniversaries: 1789’s attack on the Bastille and 1790’s peaceful, unifying Festival of the Federation. So by choosing July 14, the senate invited all citizens to decide for themselves which of these events they’d rather celebrate. As Senator Henri Martell argued, anyone who had reservations about the first July 14 could still embrace the second. Personally, he revered the latter. In his own words, July 14, 1790 was “the most beautiful day in the history of France, possibly in the history of mankind. It was on that day that national unity was finally accomplished.”

9. Bastille Day features the oldest and largest regular military parade in Western Europe.

This beloved Paris tradition dates all the way back to 1880. In its first 38 years, the parade’s route varied wildly, but since 1918, the procession has more or less consistently marched down the Champs-Elysées, the most famous avenue in Paris. Those who watch the event in person are always in for a real spectacle—2015’s parade boasted some 31 helicopters, 55 planes, 208 military vehicles, and 3501 soldiers. It’s also fairly common to see troops from other nations marching alongside their French counterparts. Two years ago, for example, 150 Mexican soldiers came to Paris and participated.

10. In France, firemen throw public dances.

On the night of July 13 or 14, people throughout France live it up at their local fire departments. Most stations will throw large dance parties that are open to the entire neighborhood (kids are sometimes welcome). Please note, however, that some fire departments charge an admission fee. Should you find one that doesn’t, be sure to leave a donation behind instead. It’s just common courtesy.

11. The Louvre celebrates by offering free admission.

If you’re in Paris on Bastille Day and don’t mind large crowds, go say bonjour to the Mona Lisa. Her measurements might surprise you: The world’s most famous painting is only 30 inches tall by 21 inches wide.

12. Bastille Day has become a truly international holiday.

Can’t get to France on Bastille Day? Not a problem. People all over the world honor and embrace the holiday. In eastern India, the scenic Puducherry district was under French rule as recently as 1954. Every July 14, fireworks go off in celebration and a local band usually plays both the French and Indian national anthems. Thousands of miles away, Franschhoek, South Africa, throws an annual, two-day Bastille celebration—complete with a parade and all the gourmet French cuisine you could ask for.

Then there’s the United States, where dozens of cities organize huge festivals on this most French of holidays. New Orleans hosts a doggie costume contest in which pet owners are encouraged to dress up their pooches in handsome French garb. Or maybe you’d like to visit Philadelphia, where, at the Eastern State Penitentiary museum and historic site, Philly citizens re-enact the storming of the Bastille while guards keep the rebels at bay by hurling Tastykakes at them.

13. A huge solar flare once took place on Bastille Day.

NASA won’t be forgetting July 14, 2000 anytime soon. On that particular day, one of the largest solar storms in recent memory caught scientists off guard. An explosion caused by twisted magnetic fields sent a flurry of particles racing toward Earth. These created some gorgeous aurora light shows that were visible as far south as El Paso, Texas. Unfortunately, the particles also caused a few radio blackouts and short-circuited some satellites. Astronomers now refer to this incident as “The Bastille Day Event.”

14. You can find a key to the Bastille at Mount Vernon.

The Marquis de Lafayette, 19, arrived in the new world to join America’s revolutionary cause in 1777. Right off the bat, he made a powerful friend: George Washington instantly took a liking to the Frenchman and within a month, Lafayette had effectively become the general’s adopted son. Their affection was mutual; when the younger man had a son of his own in 1779, he named him Georges Washington de Lafayette.

The day after the storming of the Bastille, the Marquis de Lafayette became the commander of the Paris National Guard. In the aftermath of the Bastille siege, he was given the key to the building. As a thank-you—and to symbolize the new revolution—Lafayette sent it to Washington’s Mount Vernon home, where the relic still resides today

This story originally ran in 2016.

The Washington Monument Is Transforming Into a Full-Scale Saturn V Rocket for the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing

The Saturn V rocket takes off on July 16, 1969.
The Saturn V rocket takes off on July 16, 1969.

Where better to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing than in front of a revered national monument that also happens to resemble a giant rocket?

Next week, DCist reports, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum will project an image of the 363-foot-tall Saturn V rocket that launched Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins into space on July 16, 1969, onto the 555-foot-tall Washington Monument. Underneath the monument, flanked by screens playing a 17-minute program about the Moon landing, will be a 40-foot-wide replica of the iconic Kennedy Space Center countdown clock that NASA has called “one of the most-watched timepieces in the world.”

Illustration of the Saturn V rocket projected onto the Washington Monument
An illustration of what the Saturn V projection will look like on the Washington Monument.
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Projecting an image onto an irregular object is a little more complicated than doing so on a run-of-the-mill, rectangular movie screen. The process is called projection mapping, which uses augmented reality to conform the projection to the object, making it seem like the projection is actually just part of the object. 59 Productions, the company behind this program, also created the video design for London’s 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony and won a 2015 Tony Award for the video design of Christopher Wheeldon’s stage revival of An American in Paris.

So who exactly has to approve transforming one of our nation’s most famous monuments into a really tall, skinny optical illusion? In this case, the House of Representatives, the Senate, the secretary of the interior, and the president himself. Both houses of Congress unanimously passed the bipartisan resolution, H.J. Res. 60 [PDF], in mid-June, and the president signed it on July 5.

According to Ellen Stofan, director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, the larger-than-life nature of the setting befits the occasion. “The Washington Monument is a symbol of our collective national achievements and what we can and will achieve in the future,” she told DCist. “It took 400,000 people from across the 50 states to make Apollo a reality. This program celebrates them, and we hope it inspires generations too young to have experienced Apollo firsthand to define their own moonshot.”

You can see the Saturn V projection from 9:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. on July 16, 17, and 18. The best view is on the National Mall in front of the Smithsonian Institution Building (also known as the “Castle”) between 9th and 12th streets. The entire program, titled “Apollo 50: Go for the Moon,” will run at 9:30 p.m., 10:30 p.m., and 11:30 p.m. on Friday, July 19, and Saturday, July 20.

[h/t DCist]

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