This Week In History: March 5 – March 11

In this week’s edition of This Week in History, Benjamin Lassy looks into Red Scare spooks and soviet spies during the Cold War era. Illustration by Kaitlyn Tran/The Daily Campus

Greetings fellow history enthusiasts! Can you believe that spring is just two weeks away? While warm weather is just around the corner (hopefully), let’s get immersed in one very fitting historical era; the Cold War. This week we’ll look at some Red Scare spooks and soviet spies — let’s begin!  

Despite all the chaos and bloodshed during the fight to defeat Hitler’s Germany, the war brought about something quite positive: the alliance of two opposing ideologies. Stalin’s communist east and the democratic west could not risk bickering or fighting while greater enemies lurked in Berlin. Yet even during this time of understanding, espionage and classic James Bond-like spying was remarkably common. 

Imagine it like this, your friend got a new Lego set for their birthday and it just so happens to be the one that you have been wanting. So, every time you visit that friend you take just one piece of the set home with you — surely they wouldn’t notice. After some time, you would have enough pieces to roughly make the set at home, perfect. Now, imagine that process but with world superpowers and nuclear bombs — yikes. 

Enter Mr. Klaus Fuchs, a fugitive German theoretical physicist who played a close role in the Manhattan Project’s development during WWII. As a German communist, Fuchs fled upon Hitler’s rise to power to continue his advanced studies in Britain. Soon after arriving — and because theoretical physicists were a rare commodity — Fuchs was transferred to New York to begin work on the top-secret Manhattan Project. There he met a fellow German refugee named Ursula Kuczynski. Unassuming and well-mannered, Kuczynski was a leading Soviet spy in the west.  

Perhaps due to his communist sympathies, Fuchs gave her all of the information he could get his hands on, including design documents for nuclear weapons. However, when he was eventually caught in 1950 — nearly 5 years after the conclusion of the Manhattan Project — it was baffling for U.S. officials to discover that he never actually had his hands on the documents at all; rather, an entire spy “courier” network was in place. 

After confessing to his espionage charges, Fuchs implicated fellow scientist Harry Gold, who then implicated a courier named David Greenglass, who finally implicated Julius Rosenberg. 

On March 6, 1951, Rosenberg and his wife Ethel began their trials as suspects of espionage and leaders of a Soviet network of atomic spies. The two were the face of the papers and the talk of the American public; soon charged with stealing thousands of vital documents and blueprints — allegedly including one cross-section of the Fat Man nuclear bomb. Furthermore, fighter jet designs, aeronautics documents, uranium production methods and much more research was secretly sent to the Soviet Union by the pair. 

While the Rosenbergs were taken to a grand jury, it was anti-communist fanatics who were the true deciders of their fate. Twenty elite members of the government met and declared that the pair were “kingpins” of an entire network of criminals; this sentiment, in tandem with a jury verdict of guilty, led to the pair’s execution only two years later. The Rosenbergs never admitted to their guilt, infamously “pleading the fifth.” Moreover, they never implicated anyone else, taking death over compromise with U.S. officials. To some, they are spearheads of a communist uproar; to others, they are near-martyrs

Next, when you think about citizens of the Soviet Union, what sort of people come to mind? Perhaps you imagine images akin to Orwell’s “1984,” or maybe lines of rusty Soviet-era Ladas driving past empty storefronts; both are reasonable, but both are inaccurate. Svetlana Alliluyeva is a perfect example of how ordinary and peace-loving many Soviet citizens were.  

Alliluyeva’s name may not sound familiar to most, but what about the alternative name she was given, Alliluyeva Stalina? Remove the “a” and yes it’s true, Joseph Stalin had a daughter whom he sadly raised as harshly and sternly as he ruled the Soviet Union. 

Despite her domineering and usually absent father, Svetlana grew up in relatively ordinary circumstances. She cared for her father and was well-mannered according to one observation by Winston Churchill. But Svetlana was not isolated from the horrors of her father’s rule, and when her mother brutally committed suicide, Stalin hid the truth from her for over a decade, stating that she died from natural illnesses.  

As she grew and sought freedom from overbearing party officials, Svetlana grew increasingly resentful toward the prison-like life she was confined to. All aspects of her life were monitored, ranging from marriage proposals to the subjects she studied in school. However, with the death of her father in 1953, Svetlana’s distress met opportunities for a new life.  

Falling in love with one ailing but loving Indian communist named Brajesh Singh, Svetlana disobeyed her Communist overlords and unofficially married the man shortly before his death. The loss deeply affected Svetlana who had married twice prior, both relationships ending in divorce. On March 9, 1967 — not long after scattering Singh’s ashes in India — the daring Svetlana was denied the chance to stay in India; with communist officials ordering her return to the Soviet Union, she fled to the U.S. embassy and sought asylum in America.  

As Svetlana landed in the U.S. a month after, she joyously announced, “I am very happy to be here!” While the press buzzed around the significance and perhaps symbolism of Stalin’s own daughter fleeing to the west, Svetlana soon dropped from public view, settling down for a quiet life in Wisconsin before she passed away in 2011. 

Finally, let’s quickly head to Georgia — no not the peach state — but the country in the Caucuses, known for its beautiful mountains and rich history. On March 9, 1956, Soviet forces under Nikita Khruschev suppressed mass protests held by pro-Stalinist sympathizers which had been taking place for months.  

Yes you read that right, even during Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization process which saw a general increase in societal freedoms for Soviet citizens, thousands in Stalin’s home country of Georgia fought against what they perceived to be terrible changes.  

The protests lasted months, but peaked during early March when protests were organized in numerous cities. Hundreds were arrested and over 20 killed. Unfortunately, as shown through this fierce protest, Stalin was perhaps loved more by his oppressed citizenry than by his own daughter.  

And that concludes This Week in History! I hope these events reflect on the ordinary lives lived during the overarching era of the Cold War; sometimes individual experiences are lost due to the clash of entire nations. These topics were certainly interesting to cover, and if you’re looking for more information, I recommend looking at “The Manhattan Project: an interactive history” online for some incredible historical detail, and the interactive article, “The courage to protest: Georgia’s first youth-led movement” which covers the Georgian uprising quite powerfully. See you next week! 

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