Fascinating profile of the Soviet KGB’s little-known tech wizard

US Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., displays the Soviet KGB's Great Seal bug at the United NationsBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
It is often suggested by intelligence researchers that one major difference between Western and Soviet modes of espionage during the Cold War was their degree of reliance on technology. It is generally accepted that Western espionage was far more dependent on technical innovation than its Soviet equivalent. While this observation may be accurate, it should not be taken to imply that the KGB, GRU, and other Soviet intelligence agencies neglected technical means of intelligence collection. In a recent interview with top-selling Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, Russian intelligence historian Gennady Sokolov discusses the case of Vadim Fedorovich Goncharov. Colonel Goncharov was the KGB’s equivalent of ‘Q’, head of the fictional research and development division of Britain’s MI6 in the James Bond films. A veteran of the Battle of Stalingrad, Goncharov eventually rose to the post of chief scientific and technical consultant of KGB’s 5th Special Department, later renamed Operations and Technology Directorate. According to Sokolov, Goncharov’s numerous areas of expertise included cryptology, communications interception and optics. While working in the KGB’s research laboratories, Goncharov came up with the idea of employing the principles behind the theremin, an early electronic musical instrument invented by Soviet physicist Léon Theremin in 1928, in wireless audio surveillance. According to Sokolov, the appropriation of the theremin by the KGB under Goncharov’s leadership “changed the world of intelligence”.

Renamed “passive bug” by the Soviets, a modified version of Theremin’s invention allowed the KGB to do away with wires and hidden microphones, using instead tiny coils and metal plates surreptitiously hidden in a target room or area. Such contraptions acted as sensors that picked up the vibrations in the air during conversations and transmitted them to a beam (receiver) placed nearby, usually in an adjoined room or vehicle. One such device was planted by the KGB inside the large wooden replica of the Great Seal of the United States given by the Soviets to US Ambassador to the USSR, Averell Harriman, as a present in February 1945. By hanging the decorative artifact in his embassy office in Moscow, the Ambassador enabled the KGB to listen in to his private conversations, as well as those of his successors, including Walter Bedell Smith (later Director of Central Intelligence), Alan G. Kirk, and George F. Kennan, for nearly eight years. The bug was discovered by the US in 1952 and exposed to the world during a conference at the United Nations (see photo).

Sokolov says that Goncharov also used the “passive bug” in several Moscow hotels frequented by Western visiting dignitaries, such as the Hotel National and the Hotel Soviet. Targets of “passive bug” operations included Indonesian President Sukarno, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson and German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, whose conversations Goncharov allegedly managed to bug even though the West German leader chose to spend most of his trip to the USSR inside a luxury train compartment provided by the West German government. The Russian intelligence historian also claims that the theremin-based bug was used to eavesdrop on the conversations of Princess Margaret, sister of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. The KGB allegedly bugged Margaret’s cigarette lighter, cigarette case and ashtrays, and was able to listen in to the Princess’ “drunken sprees” during her trips around Western Europe, collecting “dirt on the British Royal House”.

In the 1970s and 1980s Goncharov traveled frequently around the world as a Soviet diplomatic official, usually carrying with him a suitcase “full of sensitive equipment”, says Sokolov. He trained countless intelligence operatives in the USSR and its allied countries, including East Germany, Vietnam and Cuba. IntelNews hears that Sokolov is writing a book in Russian about some of Goncharov’s surveillance operations, scheduled to be published in 2013 under the title Kremlin Vs. The House of Windsor.

About intelNews
Expert news and commentary on intelligence, espionage, spies and spying, by Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen.

5 Responses to Fascinating profile of the Soviet KGB’s little-known tech wizard

  1. Bruce Conklin says:

    So what does a theremin have to do with the device described above?

  2. Princeton scotch says:

    Theremin designed the passive resinator bug

  3. Bruce Conklin says:

    Right. My confusion arose from the statement,
    “Goncharov came up with the idea of employing the theremin, an early electronic musical instrument invented by Soviet physicist Léon Theremin in 1928, in wireless audio surveillance.”
    After a little digging the similarities in using the heterodyne principle in both devices became clear.

  4. intelNews says:

    @Bruce Conklin: I added a few words to the sentence in question, which hopefully made it a little clearer. Thanks for noticing. [JF]

  5. John Earl Haynes says:

    It is worth noting that the KGB and its predecessors did not just make use of Leon Theremin’s ideas but of Theremin himself. A prolific inventor, he came to the U.S. in 1927 hoping for commercial success, but the Great Depression and his own lack of business skills prevented that. While in the U.S., however, he was recruited by Soviet intelligence as an industrial spy. Fleeing creditors, he returned to the USSR in 1938, only to fall prey to the Terror. Sentenced to the Gulag for eight years in 1939, he was sent to a Gulag prison/laboratory where he worked on high tech projects, including Soviet intelligence and security technological projects. After his release from the Gulag at the end of WWII, he continued to work for Soviet intelligence and security on technical projects and received the Stalin Prize in 1947.

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