The Russian Trojan Horse: Tech, Spies, And The Beach Boys

ErikBrown Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy — Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo 1760 [Public Domain]

“Trust me, either the Greeks are hiding, shut inside those beams, or the horse is a battle-engine geared to breach our walls, spy on our homes, come down on our city, overwhelm us — or some other deception’s lurking deep inside it. Trojans, never trust that horse. Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks, specially bearing gifts.”
Laocoon’s warning about the Trojan Horse, The Odyssey

While times are said to change, the iconic warning above from the Trojan priest Laocoon has never been truer in the modern age. However, the horse that leads to our downfall in the present is often hiding technology, not Greek soldiers, although some might argue the soldiers are far less dangerous.

The ancient story we pass on as a fable also strangely mirrors an event in the Cold War. But this time it was the Russians bearing a gift — made of wood no less — which created the chaos. If this story doesn’t sound weird enough, the technology used was created by a man who also invented a musical device that produced a pop hit in the late 1960s.

History is often said to repeat itself. At least in this instance, it may have been beneficial to have a copy of The Odyssey available at an American embassy in Russia, or at least a warning from a certain Trojan priest about accepting gifts from an enemy.

Russian Spies In Embassies

“Every room is monitored by the KGB and all of the staff are employees of the KGB. We believe the garden also may be monitored. Your luggage may be searched two or three times a day. Nothing is ever stolen and they hardly disturb things.”
— message on cards given to guests at Spaso House, the U.S. ambassador’s residence, “Introduction to Embassy Moscow: Attitudes and Errors” by U.S. Rep Henry Hyde 1990

According to Matt Soniak’s article in Atlas Obscura, the Russians have always had a deep spy apparatus built within their embassies. Diplomat James Buchanan in the 1830s reported he was continually surrounded by spies working for the secret police of the Czar while in St. Petersburg. This continued into the transition to the Soviet Union.

Calder Walton’s article in Politico points out that “at the end of World War II, an electronic sweep of the embassy revealed a staggering 120 hidden microphones.” Every new piece of furniture delivered to the embassy had a bug hidden in it, not to mention within walls, and just about every object imaginable. Needless to say, a diplomat might be on a higher form of alert at an embassy within Russia’s borders.

However, despite the tense atmosphere, the Russians managed to plant a hidden device on the wall of the American ambassador’s personal residence for seven years. It can only be imagined how much information fell into the KGB’s hands. Moreover, the Americans accepted the device as a gift and welcomed it into the embassy — cue a frowning Laocoon.

The Thing

Replica Of Bugged US Great Seal At National Cryptologic Museum — By Austin Mills Wikimedia Commons

According to Soniak, the American ambassador to the Soviet Union received a beautiful hand-carved wooden replica United States Seal as a gift in 1946. The innocent token of friendship was given to him by the Vladimir Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organization. As bizarre as this sounds, this was a communist children’s scouting organization that pitched pro-Soviet propaganda.

However, ambassador Averell Harriman was won over by the children’s gift and hung it within his residence at the Spaso House. After all, you’ve read so far, you might rightly assume this to be a bad idea. But to the ambassador’s defense, it appears the seal was checked and it cleared an inspection. There was nothing in the wooden replica giving off any kind of power signature.

And it was true the seal gave off no power signal. Although, there was a bug hidden in the gift — a new kind of bug which needed no power to operate According to the Crypto Museum Website.

“..the carving contained an HF radio bug of a novel design, in that it didn’t have its own power source and was not connected via wires. Instead, the device was illuminated by a strong radio signal from the outside, which powered and activated it. It gave the bug a virtually unlimited life and provided the Soviets with the best possible intelligence.”
Break Down Of “The Thing” — Murray Associates Counter Espionage Website

Eventually, the State Department snuck tech agents into the Spaso House while the new ambassador George Kennan dictated a fake confidential correspondence. Soniak says the agents soon zeroed into a radio signal coming from Kennan’s office — discovering the source in the seal. One of the agents removed the device, the size of a pencil, and hid it under his pillow before getting it to Washington.

The FBI nicknamed the device “The Thing” because they had no idea how it worked upon initial inspection.

He Created The Thing And A Musical Instrument
Lev Termen Playing The Theremin (1927) — [Public Domain]

Murray Associates explains a Soviet scientist named Lev Termen created this device at the secret research centers called “mailboxes”. In addition to his work for the USSR, Terman also spent some time in the United States. While there, he was known as Leon Theremin and created a musical device he named after himself.

The Theremin generated sound by waving your hand over the antenna, thereby creating the world’s first electronic-generated music device. So in a way, ravers all over the world owe him a debt of gratitude. A version of the device was also used in the Beach Boys’ hit “Good Vibrations” and songs by Rush and The Rolling Stones.

Terman’s device also had a connection with U-2 — well, not the band — but the actual U-2 spy plane. When the USSR presented evidence the U.S. was flying over their territory with the spy planes to the U.N., America countered by showing off “The Thing”. In the end, the organization called it a wash, not voting to condemn the United States for its surveillance activities.

Laocoon’s Warning In A Modern Age

Time may change, but an ancient priest’s warning still appears worth heeding. Moreover, the horses we should worry about today aren’t made out of wood and are considerably smaller. In our modern era, “soldiers” can hide in devices as small as a thumb drive or even in lines of code.

Our Greeks bearing gifts can take the form of an email or hyperlink — no wooden seals are necessary. One can only imagine what the future holds for us. Whatever it may be, it’d pay for us to remember that even the most innocent looking device can “breach our walls, spy on our homes, come down on our city, (and) overwhelm us.

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Work out fanatic, martial artist, student, MBA, and connoisseur of useless information. I try and work a combination of history and philosophy into modern day life. I can be interesting and awful at the same, but you'll generally learn something worthwhile when you donate some of your time to read my work.

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