A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Bluegrass & Backroads: Hagedorn’s latest dives deep into a little-known story about a WWII Russian spy

Like a magnificent web – its fibers crossing, circling, connecting – Ann Hagedorn has woven a staggering body of facts into a powerful tale of one man’s life work as a Soviet spy during World War II, infiltrating U.S. atomic research, and aiding the U.S.S.R. in producing their first atomic bomb.

Sleeper Agent, The Atomic Spy in America Who Got Away, published by Simon and Schuster, is the remarkable account of George Koval, whose success as a spy wasn’t acknowledged by the Russian government until 2007, when Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin recognized him posthumously with the Hero of the Russian Federation Medal, the nation’s highest honor. The award cited Koval’s heroism in carrying out special missions and for his contribution to the Soviet Union’s development of the atomic bomb. That’s right, he pulled it off.

Ann Hagedorn (Photo by Pat Williamson, Ohio Media Resources, Savage Peace, Simon & Schuster)

Hagedorn, who grew up in Dayton, Ohio, was visiting the city when someone told her that a Soviet spy once lived no farther than a mile from her childhood home. While the casual listener might have thought that to be an interesting morsel – if true – Hagedorn, a former staff writer for The Wall Street Journal, who taught writing at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, did what she’s wired to do: dig for the details and find the narrative. After doing a bit of research, she’d found a story she couldn’t resist.

The very scope and detail of George Koval’s story would seem daunting – redacted FBI files, hundreds of interviews, and countless hours of fact-checking — but are likely what appealed to a skilled researcher, intrepid reporter, and writer of Hagedorn’s caliber.

Readers of Sleeper Agent are sure to walk away and become the most interesting person in the room as they tell the story of a spy who succeeded in giving secrets of the atomic bomb to Russia, but was never caught, and publicly acknowledged by his homeland only 14 years ago. How did we not know about him? Well, as Hagedorn points out with rich detail, he was good at what he did.

Coming to America

In 1910, at 27 years of age, Abram Koval, George’s father, came to the U.S., leaving Belarus, where Jews could not purchase land, own businesses, or enter professions, and were restricted on education. He entered the U.S. through Galveston, Texas, the Ellis Island of the West, in what was known as the Galveston Movement, an effort that was organized largely by prominent Jews in New York City, such as Jacob Schiff and Cyrus Sulzberger. The effort was an attempt to protect the rights of Jewish immigrants to the U.S by diverting them throughout the West. Galveston was chosen because it had a direct passenger shipping line from Bremen and was a large terminus for railroad lines throughout the West and Midwest. Hagedorn writes that by 1910, Schiff and others had placed nearly ten thousand Russian immigrants in sixty-six U. S. cities, all through Galveston. Abram set up home in Sioux City, Iowa and was later joined by Ethel Shenitsky, who would become his bride. On Christmas Day, 1913, their son George was born. Abram had good work and they had started their family, but the Kovals’ American Dream was short lived. Hagedorn writes:

Against a backdrop of baseball, newsboys, skits, and plays, George’s childhood appeared to be normal. But, as he would later realize, as a Jew of Russian descent coming of age in America during the early decades of the twentieth century, there was a continuous reel of politics and prejudice running in the background of his life…

A festering hate… again

By 1917, Russian revolutions headlined even the local papers in Sioux City. As fear festered, Russians in America, including Russian Jews, were labeled as Bolsheviks.

Hagedorn, as evidenced in her richly detailed book, Savage Peace, seems to always have her thumb on the current pulse of the country, checking it against history and finding similar beats. We retread the same paths of prejudice and fear, restricting who can and cannot enter this country. Fear of the ‘outsider.’ By 1924, rigid immigration restrictions reduced immigrants seeking refuge from Russian eastern European oppression. Around the same time, the Ku Klux Klan was on the rise in America, swelling to more than 40,000 members. The Russian revolution across the ocean fueled fear of communism. Russian Jews in America were labeled Bolsheviks. American industrialist Henry Ford lent his influence to the spread of hate and anti-Semitism, publishing a ninety-one-part series about “the Jewish menace” in his personal weekly newspaper, the Dearborn Independent. Once again, Abram Koval lived among fear and threat and American Jews were denied employment at banks, public utilities, and at large local companies. Newspaper ads boldly stated, “Christians Only Need Apply.”

Still, young George Koval thrived. His keen mind cast him as a top student. In 1929, at the age of 15, he’d earned his high school diploma. Upon graduation, he enrolled in the University of Iowa’s College of Engineering. Two months later, the New York Stock Exchange plummeted, and George took to giving street-corner-lectures about the Soviet Union’s “unstoppable industrial expansion.” The following year, George was elected as Iowa’s delegate to the Young Communist League. By 1932, George, along with his family, left the U.S. for the Soviet’s Jewish Autonomous Region (JAR) in Birobidzhan.

Committed to Communism

George held the revolutionary Vladimir Lenin in high regard, and his praise was effusive for both the man and the movement. George referred to the Bolsheviks as a “great race.” But in Russia, the reality in the JAR was that food was scarce and hardship was pervasive. George found his way out of the despair.

A brilliant mind, George enrolled in Moscow’s esteemed Mendeleev Institute. By 1935, he’d earned his degree, and in 1936 he married Lyudmilla “Mila” Ivanova, whom he met as a classmate at Mendeleev. Hagedorn writes that their union “must have been tantamount to birds taking flight in a storm,” having married soon after the onset of Stalin’s Great Purge, which left millions of Russians dead, though Lenin’s propaganda campaign aimed to block the truth from Russian citizens.

The Kovals were little more than newlyweds when George entered another lifelong relationship: in 1939, he was recruited by the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, or GRU, the U.S.S.R.’s foreign military intelligence agency. It was a task he was made for. Hagedorn, through her tenacious research and skilled storytelling, presents a novel-worthy story of a network of WWII Russian spies on American soil, and George’s place within them. She captures the most salient details. One can’t help but imagine that she lived for the hunt of the next piece of his story because her words read with an energy that comes only from hard won revelations.

Scholar spies

As a spy, George checked many boxes. He had solid academic success, was fluent in English, and deeply familiar with American culture. With those skills, he was the picture of efficiency, having little need for much training. And, by all accounts, U.S. authorities had no record of George having ever left the country as only his father was required to have a passport when the family returned to Russia. His first assignment was a mission described as investigating chemical weapons research in America. His code name would be Delmar.

Back in the U.S., George registered for the military draft and enrolled at Columbia University as a chemistry student. There, he navigated the illustrious academic circles of the university’s physics and chemistry departments – the very scientists who were constructing a cyclotron needed to create a uranium chain reaction.

Hagedorn’s research lays out a vast presence of Russian spies throughout New York City, operating businesses that functioned as covers. It could well be worthwhile to carry a copy of Sleeper Agent along on a visit to the city, noting from the author’s detailed research the array of banks, music rooms, and other venues along its streets that were actually dwellings for espionage. In spite of the many fellow spies in his neighborhood, George didn’t associate with the other agents, staying focused on the task at hand.

George Koval

“For Koval,” Hagedorn writes, “enrollment at Columbia was part of his job as a spy, following the Soviet model for student spies specializing in science which had started at MIT in the 1930s. The science spy model established a logical, effective strategy for acquiring the latest research in America’s most highly regarded laboratories and for recruiting fellow scientists.” Once inside the academic science community, agents easily built a network.

The right signature spurs action

In March of 1939, on the same day that Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, the chair of Columbia’s physics department contacted the Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Navy to arrange for Enrico Fermi and John Dunning, who were at the forefront of atomic physics at Columbia, to meet with him and hand-deliver a letter. The letter informed the U.S. government about Columbia’s pioneering experiments, explaining that the uranium chain reaction would “liberate a million times as much energy per pound as any known explosive.” Washington was not interested.

It wasn’t until Columbia faculty made a visit to Albert Einstein to ask him to sign a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt about research in atomic energy at Columbia, and the fear of such a powerful explosive being developed in Germany, that Washington took action. Einstein signed the letter on August 2, and it reached President Roosevelt by October 11. Within ten days of viewing the letter, a newly formed Advisory Committee on Uranium met for the first time. In 1940, that committee became part of the government’s National Defense Research Committee. The federal government soon offered $6,000 to Columbia University in support of atomic energy research.

“This meant that the unofficial beginning of the project to build an atomic bomb had occurred at Columbia – a project soon to evolve into the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s Manhattan engineering District, first located at 270 Broadway in Manhattan and later known as the Manhattan Project,” Hagedorn writes.

In the hills of Appalachia

In September of 1942, General Leslie Groves of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved a government directive for the acquisition of 56,000 acres of land in eastern Tennessee, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. The site would be called Oak Ridge and it would house 75,000 workers and factories in production of the atomic bomb. The day before the land was acquired, 1,250 tons of uranium ore were moved from storage in Staten Island, New York, to Tennessee. George Koval, then studying electrical engineering at City College of New York, would be inducted into the U.S. Army within five months, and for a Russian spy, given a gem of an assignment: the Special Engineer Detachment sent to assist the scientists at Oak Ridge. Even better for a spy, he received high security clearance, making it easy for him to access and pass along detailed information about the facility and the research conducted there.

“He was a star in a group that was hugely wanted and needed in 1944 wartime American,” Hagedorn writes, and, later in the book, goes on to say, “Not only did he have access to multiple buildings, but he also worked with high-level scientists in the project – and he had top-secret clearance.”

A “secret within the secret,” in Dayton, Ohio

Hagedorn reveals one clandestine chapter after the next in George’s life like a Russian doll; just when you think his story will come to an end, there’s more. In 1945, George was transferred to Dayton, Ohio, where the U.S. produced and purified polonium, one of the most toxic substances known. Hagedorn writes:

“The motives for crafting secrets have never changed – whether to protect, betray, or empower. Nor has the fact that the longer a secret is buried, the greater the chances its role in history may never be recognized. Such was the case with what happened in Dayton, Ohio, in a hidden room in the mansion of the Manhattan Project, a secret within a secret and one that would remain unknown for many decades, much like its on-site Soviet spy.”

When George arrived in June, several buildings in Dayton were dedicated to polonium processing, “all tucked into residential and commercial neighborhoods.” The Dayton labs were critical. Robert Oppenheimer’s requests for shipments of purified polonium from Dayton went from monthly to weekly. Code names for the testing of the uranium bomb were called Trinity. On July 16, 1945, the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range in New Mexico was detonated. On August 6, on an island 1,500 miles from the mainland of Japan, the uranium bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, killing roughly 135,000. On August 9, the plutonium bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, killing 70,000 people. “Six days later, the Japanese surrendered,” Hagedorn writes.

George Koval was discharged from the U.S. Army on February 12, 1946, at Camp Atterbury, Indiana. The Army awarded him three military honors: the Good Conduct Medal, the World War II Victory Medal, and the American Theater Service Ribbon. At his exit interview, as with all personnel who had served on the Manhattan Project, he agreed to the contents of a document entitled, “Safeguarding Information.”

Diving into the deep well of information that Hagedorn researched to flesh out George Koval’s story and emerging with an edge-of-your-seat historical narrative thriller is a monumental task, and it’s what any of Hagedorn’s fans have come to expect. Savage Peacecast Hagedorn as a veritable expert on the year 1919, Invisible Soldiers delved into the outsourcing of American security, and Beyond the River told us the stories of the forgotten heroes of Ripley, Ohio, along the Underground Railroad.

Sleeper Agent will multiply Hagedorn’s audience. In Hagedorn’s deft hands, Koval’s remarkable story – about a spy that we’d never even heard of – is one that we’ll never forget.

Related Posts

Leave a Comment