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Spied in the American Embassy as a pioneer gift from the USSR for 7 years
Spied in the American Embassy as a pioneer gift from the USSR for 7 years

A year after the end of World War II, several Soviet schoolchildren from the pioneer organization presented the US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, William Harriman, with an unusual gift. It was a carved wooden copy of the Great Seal of the United States. This was done as a sign of friendship, solidarity and gratitude for the allied assistance in the war. A completely harmless, at first glance, gift, they hoisted on the wall of the office of the ambassador's residence in Moscow. There he hung for seven whole years, until it was accidentally revealed that the seemingly innocent souvenir was more than a simple decoration.

Trojan horse

It was a real Trojan horse. Thus, Soviet intelligence installed one of the most mysterious and unusual "bugs" in the history of interstate espionage in the ambassador's office.

The inner contents of that very large seal on display at the National Cryptological Museum

Since ancient times, espionage and eavesdropping have played an extremely important role in both war and peacetime. Even Ancient Egypt had its own secret espionage organization. In ancient books such as the Old Testament Bible and the Iliad, espionage is mentioned. Also Sun Tzu wrote about him in the treatise "The Art of War" and Chanakya in "Arthashastra".

Russia has always been adept at espionage. The art of eavesdropping, spying and collecting classified information dates back to tsarist times. When James Buchanan, the US Secretary of State and the American President visited St. Petersburg in 1832-1833, they said: “We are surrounded by spies everywhere. There are so many of them and their level is varied. From the highest to the lowest. It is simply impossible to hire a servant without being recruited by the secret police."

Neil S. Brown, the United States' envoy to Russia from 1850 to 1853, also noted the constant surveillance. Otto von Bismarck, argued that it was especially difficult in St. Petersburg to keep the ransomware safe. After all, all the embassies had to hire Russian servants. It was not difficult for the Russian police to recruit them.

Espionage as an art

By the 1930s, espionage was undergoing an improvement thanks to technical innovations. All important telephone conversations were tapped, microphones were installed wherever possible. Guests who arrived at the residence of the US Ambassador in Moscow were immediately handed cards. There, in addition to polite greetings, there was a warning text that every room is controlled by the KGB, and all the attendants are members of the special services. It also indicated that the garden was also being monitored. Luggage will be searched two to three times a day. This will be done as carefully as possible and no one will steal anything.

In the post-war period, hidden microphones in the embassy were regularly discovered. The most unusual of such devices, which managed to go unnoticed for seven long years, was a very sophisticated eavesdropping device called the Thing. This device was hidden away as a gift from a pioneer organization - the US wooden seal.

The "Thing" did not have its own power source, nor any wires. It was turned on and off using a strong radio signal from the outside. Once turned on, the device could pick up sound waves and modulate radio waves, transmitting them back.The "thing" was almost impossible to detect. She did not have any active electronic components. When the device was not active, it did not require power, which gave it the ability to function almost forever.

Where did the tricky toy come from?

The cunning "Thing" was the development of the genius Soviet inventor Lev Sergeevich Termen. Previously, he became famous for the invention of the musical instrument of the same name - the theremin. Twenty years after that, a talented scientist, by the will of fate, found himself a prisoner of the GULAG. There, his scientific genius was actively used in a secret laboratory. During his work there, Theremin created the Buran eavesdropping system, the forerunner of the modern laser microphone. She worked with a low-power infrared beam. He detected sound vibrations in glass windows from a distance.

Lev Sergeevich Termen

The principle of operation of "Things" was somewhat similar to this system. A microphone was hidden inside the wooden plug. He was sensitive to the sound vibrations that occurred during conversation. There was an extremely thin metal membrane inside the device that did not react to them. Its thickness was only 75 micrometers. When the "Thing" was irradiated with a radio signal of the required frequency, the membrane began to vibrate, and the capacity of the device changed. It began modulating radio waves, and they were relayed by its antenna. It worked in the same way as in a conventional radio.

The principle of operation of the device

Spy secret detection

The simple device was passive, and it was so well camouflaged that it went unnoticed for more than seven years. Discovered it completely by accident. In 1951, when "Thing" was irradiated with a radio signal, it was accidentally received by an operator at the British Embassy. The British military, who was monitoring the movement of Soviet military aircraft, suddenly heard the voice of the British military attaché on the radio. Experts from the relevant service were immediately dispatched to Moscow to investigate the case. They found nothing.

Strong signals continued to be received. At some point, the British came to the conclusion that, apparently, the Soviets were conducting some kind of experiments with some kind of resonant transmitter. Some time later, an American military man picked up a signal and heard a conversation from the ambassador's office. After that, a search was carried out in the residence and again no one found anything.

Ambassador's residence

A year later, a new US ambassador was appointed. Before his arrival, the Soviet government began renovating the building. Since the workers were local, the ambassador, George Kennan, feared that they might install bugs while renovating the house. He ordered a thorough examination of the premises using standard equipment designed to detect "bugs". And this time nothing was found.

Later, in his memoirs, the former ambassador wrote: “The walls of this old building created such an atmosphere of innocence. Our Soviet masters did not display anything suspicious. We had no proof. Besides, how could we have guessed that our detection methods are so outdated?"

George Kennan

In the fall of the same year, State Department security specialists John Ford and Joseph Bezdzhian arrived in Moscow. They pretended to be ordinary guests and settled in the ambassador's residence. The experts spent several nights in a row in search of "bugs". It was all in vain. Experts decided that it was necessary to plant some kind of misinformation for wiretapping.

Kennan called his secretary that evening. He dictated to her a previously declassified diplomatic dispatch. Bezdzhian and Ford were scouring the house at this time in search of a radio signal. And they finally got lucky! The experts caught the signal. The only thing left to do is to find where it comes from. Ford methodically searched for the source. Suddenly, he stopped right in front of the US wooden seal hanging on the wall in the corner. The specialist tore it off and began to smash the wall underneath with a hammer. There was nothing there.Then, right before the eyes of the frightened ambassador, Ford cut the seal itself. His hands trembled with excitement and impatience as he removed the small listening device.

The experts were impressed by the device

Bezdzhian was so impressed with what was discovered and so feared that he would not be stolen, that at night he put the "bug" under his pillow. In the morning, the device was sent to Washington. There it was studied and given the name "Thing", because this mysterious device made an indelible impression on the experts. The specialists were simply confused, they could not understand in any way how this thing works. For that time, this system was simply fantastically advanced electronics. With the discovery of this eavesdropping device, the art of intergovernmental espionage has taken to an entirely new technological level.

Henry Cabot Lodge demonstrates The Thing at the United Nations on May 26, 1960

The situation was certainly very serious. Regardless, Ambassador Kennan found a funny side to her. He recalled how he had just arrived at the residence and began to learn Russian. Kennan lived alone then, the family had not yet moved in with him. At night, he liked to read aloud scripts from Voice of America programs in Russian. In his memoirs, he wrote: “Later I often asked myself what those who overheard me in those moments thought of me. It is interesting to imagine their reaction to all these anti-Soviet speeches that I broadcast alone in the middle of the night. Did they think that someone was with me or I went crazy?"

If you are interested in the history of the USSR, read our article about why former seminarian Joseph Stalin tried to eradicate religion in the Soviet Union.

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