George Koval: Atomic Spy Unmasked- page 5 | History | Smithsonian
Koval in an undated photograph from his FBI file. (FBI)

George Koval: Atomic Spy Unmasked

Iowa-born and army-trained, how did George Koval manage to steal a critical U.S. atom bomb secret for the Soviets?

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It is unclear what prompted the FBI to open its mid-1950s investigation into Koval. The resultant raw files, contained in six volumes, include typically exhaustive FBI interviews with Koval's friends, relatives and colleagues, most of whose names are redacted. While the transcripts provide a few hints to Koval's whereabouts after he left the United States—a postcard from Argentina, a reported sighting in Paris—they offer no conclusions about his activities or motivations.

In the following decades, Kramish tried to find his old Army friend, even after he deduced from his FBI interview that Koval had been a spy. Around 2000, Kramish says, he was at the National Archives and by "serendipity" came across some references to Koval and the Mendeleev Chemical Institute. Kramish contacted the institute and secured a telephone number for him. Kramish called, and Koval answered. "It was an emotional moment for both of us," Kramish says. They began corresponding by letter, he says, and then Koval's grandniece persuaded him to use e-mail.

Koval's postwar life in Russia was apparently uneventful. "I'm afraid that you will be disappointed to learn that I did not receive any high awards upon my return," he wrote to Kramish in May 2003. "Life in the Soviet Union was such that my activities instead of bringing me awards, had an opposite, very strong negative effect on my life." When he left the Soviet military in 1949, he wrote, "I received discharge papers as an untrained rifleman in the rank of private—with 9 years of service in the armed forces!" This lackluster record, coupled with his academic and foreign background, "made me a very suspicious character," he wrote, especially amid "the terrible government-instigated-and-carried-out anti-Semitic campaign, which was at its peak in the early fifties." He sought work as a researcher or teacher, but "no one wanted to risk hiring me"—partly, he believed, because someone with his record might be an American spy.

He asked his contact at the GRU for help finding a job—"the only time I ever did." The contact delivered—but, Koval wrote, "even the orders of the Minister of Education brought me nothing better than a job as a laboratory assistant." That was at the Mendeleev Institute. Eventually, he worked his way into a teaching job there. According to a longtime Mendeleev colleague, Yury Lebedev, Koval's students would sometimes giggle when he pronounced the Russian words for "thermocouple" and other technical terms in an American accent. Lebedev says Koval made frequent trips to Khabarovsk to see relatives and, in 1966, brought his nephew Gennady to Moscow to live with him and study at Mendeleev.

Grandniece Maya, a marketing communications manager, came to live with Koval in his Moscow apartment four years before his death. "George was the head of our family—clever, wise and very, very kind," she said in an e-mail interview. "We admired his intellect, his knowledge and his sense of tact. We knew about his work for the GRU. No details—we just suspected that it was somehow related to the nuclear bomb, that's it. George never told us about his work. That was a forbidden topic."

During Koval's decades as an academic in Moscow, the fact that his service to his adopted homeland went unacknowledged rankled him. In 2003 he wrote to Kramish that he had received a minor medal after he returned to Russia, but bigger rewards "went to the career men." Fuchs "got his award, not a very high-ranking one (and was disgruntled about that) only when he was already released and was working as a physicist" in East Germany. And "only quite recently, when Lota began digging in the archives and brought my story to light, was I presented with a rarely awarded medal" for service in foreign intelligence, at a closed ceremony.

Still, despite the perceived slights and his uneasy return to Soviet life, George Koval ended his e-mail on a stoic note: "Maybe I should not complain (and I am not complaining—just describing how things were in the Soviet Union at that time), but be thankful that I did not find myself in a Gulag, as might well have happened."

To the end, he remained unapologetic about betraying the country of his birth. His ASTP colleague Duane Weise, looking back on Koval's turns of luck, offers the theory that he was actually a double agent. "It's just a hypothesis, but there are too many coincidences," Weise says. Kramish, however, sees the matter more directly: "Koval never had any regrets," he says. "He believed in the system."

Michael Walsh covered the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe for Time magazine and other publications from 1985 to 1991.

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