Obituary: Joel Barr

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JOEL BARR's life was an ideological and political cameo of the 20th century. It was the strange odyssey of an American boy born of Russian emigre parents in New York, who embraced Communism during the Great Depression and became a minor figure in the annals of Cold War espionage, before defecting to Moscow where he helped build the Soviet electronic and computer industry - only to realise, in the end, that the cause he had so faithfully served was wrong.

The years which shaped Joel Barr began with the stock market crash of 1929. They stretched on into that bleak era when dole queues lined every corner and his father could not even feed the family, but when a new political creed promising equality and justice for all caught the imagination of young idealists around the world. Among them was Barr. He devoured Communist literature and joined the Young Communist League, before enrolling to study engineering at the City College of New York. There he met Julius Rosenberg and Mort Sobell, fellow members of the league with whom he would become close friends.

With the onset of war, Barr enlisted with the US Army Signals Corps, and later landed a well-paid job at the defence contractor Sperry Gyroscope, only to be sacked when it was discovered he was a Communist. Living off savings, he took a masters degree at Colombia before leaving for an extended stay in Paris, where he planned to study music. But, in 1950, the storm broke, with the sensational arrest of Rosenberg and his wife Ethel on charges of spying for the Soviet Union.

Barr happened to hear the news when he was visiting Prague, to sample a little socialism at first hand. Convinced he would share the Rosenbergs' fate if he returned home, he decided to settle in Czechoslovakia. Barr married a Czech girl and started a family. Soon he was joined by Alfred Sarant, a fellow engineer and Communist he had known in his New York student days. The two began working in electronics, and in 1956 the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, only too aware of his country's backwardness in the field, invited them to Russia.

Whether Barr was a spy remains a mystery. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1992, he denied passing information to the NKVD, the predeccessor of the KGB, and maintained that, once he had defected, "nothing I did in America was used in my work in the Soviet Union". Sobell, who spent 18 and a half years in gaol as an accomplice of the Rosenbergs, also insisted Barr was not a member of the ring. But US intelligence documents suggest at the very least that the two handed over 17 drawings relating to advanced radar systems developed by the Bell Laboratories company.

Whatever the truth, Barr's fears were more than justified. A year earlier, the Americans had finally decoded top secret NKVD cable traffic in and out of the Soviet mission in New York in the mid 1940s. The now legendary "Venona" transcripts provided the first pointer that Donald McLean was a Soviet spy, as well as the evidence which would send the Rosenbergs to the electric chair. They also mentioned Barr and Sarant, under the code names of Metr and Kh'YuS. In those early Cold War years, when paranoia reigned and alleged American Communists were hunted down like vermin, that alone would have been ground for instant arrest.

Khrushchev's invitation transformed Barr's circumstances. The American who had become Joseph Berg in Prague became Iosif Veniaminovich Berg, scientist and honoured citizen of Leningrad (now St Petersburg). He and Sarant - by now Filipp Georgievich Staros - were set up in their own laboratory, and given flats, chauffeur-driven cars and salaries beyond an ordinary Soviet's dreams. The investment paid off. Barr admitted he helped construct the first Soviet radar-guided anti- aircraft gun, and specialists credit him and Sarant with a crucial role in the development of Soviet micro-electronics, and the establishment of the Zelenograd technology centre north of Moscow. Arguably, it was thanks to Sarant and Barr that the Soviet Union kept up in the arms race with the US as long as it did.

After Sarant died in 1979, Barr's importance waned. His wife divorced him and returned to Czechoslovakia. His final job was with the giant Svetlana electronic group, near St Petersburg. By the time of his death he was a forlorn and eccentric figure, a wanderer between worlds, one of which no longer existed. Of his six children (four by Bergova, two by a mistress known only as Elvira) two had defected back to America, two lived in the Czech Republic and two in Russia.

Having never lost his own citizenship, and having never been charged with any crime, he trav- elled often to the US on a Russian passport in his later years. In 1991 he regained his American one and claimed residency in San Diego from where, to the fury of many a right-winger in Congress, he received monthly social security benefits.

Barr maintained that at heart he was a "patriotic American" who wanted to see Communism flourish in the Soviet Union so that one day it would take root in the country of his birth. "Nothing I did was against the American people," he would say later. "I was working to create a system that would have more justice and less suffering, and then bring it back to America." But after the collapse of the system, even in its motherland, he reluctantly acknowledged that history would probably show the Russian revolution to have been "a tremendous mistake, a step backward for mankind".

He spent his final years unthanked and unremembered by the new masters of the Kremlin - just a garrulous old man who spoke bad Russian with a Brooklyn accent, another disenchanted Communist who dreamt of making a capitalist fortune by inventing a machine for cut-price micro-chips, or by selling his life story to an American publisher.

Barr died, in the words of his former secretary Svetlana Shmelyova to the Los Angeles Times, "poor and completely forgotten, in the only clinic in Moscow that would take him in".

Rupert Cornwell

Joel Barr, electronics engineer: born New York 1916; married Vera Bergova (two sons, two daughters; marriage dissolved); died Moscow 1 August 1998.