How the USSR spies stole Western technology

More than half of the Soviet Union's electronic industrial breakthroughs by the early 1980s were based on stolen Western technology, a result of widespread and organized scientific and technological espionage.

How the USSR spies stole Western technology
Klaus Fuchs is remembered as the most important atomic spy who worked on the Manhattan Project. Credit: Wikipedia

Various archival documents and interviews are used in the research of scientific espionage. Unfortunately, there are not many sources of such information, but it is possible to get an idea of the achievements of the USSR Security Committee in scientific and technological intelligence.

At the level of the whole Soviet Union, there are some minutes of reports of the NSS [State Security Committee], and reports to the Central Committee on the achievements of the previous year. There are figures for the amount of material obtained, the number of samples obtained, and the number of devices stolen. As well as how much was used in the industry

Copying was a common practice in the Soviet Union because scientific and technological development was five to seven years behind and there was a huge gap in some sectors. One report from the late 1970s said that the Soviet Union obtained 30 000 items of modernized hardware from the West by snooping and theft in a year, as well as 400 000 documents.

The French services have estimated that two of the 12 USSR ministries, the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Aviation, gained an economic effect of around 1 billion roubles between 1976 and 1980 at the expense of information obtained in the West. More than 40% of the achievements of the Soviet electronic industry in the early 1980s were based on the use of Western technology.

Moreover, this scientific and technological espionage was carried out in a highly organized way: a huge network was created to obtain and spy on materials, at the center of which was the All-Union Institute for Systematic Research. For example, the agents worked in the academies of sciences and were employees of the academies.

These positions, which were held by active reserve officers, were all coordinated with the leadership and with the head of the institution; he knew. He carried out his duties, but he targeted the work in the direction of the intelligence that was needed. Until the 1970s, there was a system in which the NSS decided, based on preliminary research, that scientists would be promising spies to send abroad because there were few financial resources for going abroad.

Eventually, a system was established whereby foreign institutes invited Soviet scientists at their own expense. Again, the problem was how to handle them so that they did not become double spies. One of the heads of the intelligence department of the KGB has said that it was often the case that one of our scientists would give away three of our secrets, even though he should not have done so, and in return, he would get three more. Both sides won; nobody was naive.

The 1970s can be called the heyday of scientific espionage in the USSR. Scientists were given new responsibilities, such as going on business trips, inviting foreigners, and organizing international symposia. This was massive in physics, microbiology, genetics, and genetic engineering. However, the extent of the spying and stealing became clear to the West over time, and the heyday of Soviet intelligence largely ended in the early 1980s.

French intelligence had recruited a Soviet analyst to work on intelligence analysis. This meant that everything that was intelligence-led ended up on his desk. For two years, he supplied the French with this information. The French were quite bewildered by how "friendly" the USSR was—that they were stealing everything, everything—but they shared this information with the US, which led to a huge scandal and the expulsion of several hundred Russian intelligence officers all over the Western world.

The West believed that in this way they had broken the backbone of the Soviet intelligence network, which in reality was not the case, but after this scandal, the information was obtained on a noticeably smaller scale.