It was August 4, 1945. World War II had just been won on the European fronts in what was one of the proudest moments the United States would share with the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union. This friendship between the Kremlin and the United States is one that is rarely seen today, but yes—it did happen once upon a time.

Wanting to celebrate this victory as well as the friendship between the two countries, the Soviet Union had made a wooden, hand-carved, ceremonial seal of the United States of America to present to then US Ambassador to the Soviet Union William Averell Harriman to show a great gesture of camaraderie and friendship between the two world powers, or so we thought at that time.

Later known simply as “The Thing,” it would ultimately be placed in Harriman’s wall in the library of the Spaso House after it had been presented to him by Russian schoolchildren. While originally looking as if it was harmless, this so-called wooden seal would betray Harriman and other US ambassadors for 7 years. It was later discovered to be a Soviet bug that enabled the Kremlin to have covert ears within the US Embassy.

Did Russian Schoolchildren Really Make The Thing?

Peace advocate Samantha Smith with the Vladimir Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organization in 1983 (Wikipedia). Source:
Peace advocate Samantha Smith with the Vladimir Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organization in 1983 (RIA Novosti archive, image #793152 / Yuryi Abramochkin / CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

After the war, the cracks between the United States and the Soviet Union alliance were starting to show. As you may remember, the Soviets would install communist puppet governments after the war in Eastern Europe. Naturally, they would adopt the same ideologies and the same method of governance.

In August 1945, the end of the war was in sight. Of course, the alliance with the Soviet Union was already in the minds of various politicians as tensions had already been rising (as they are right now with the whole Ukraine-Russia conflict). However, nothing widely negative has happened yet that would lead the United States to be stringently suspicious of the Kremlin, so when Harriman was presented with the handmade, wooden US seal by a delegation of young people from the Vladimir Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organization, US authorities didn’t think much of it.

Don’t get us wrong, the US, of course, inspected the wooden plaque, later known as “The Thing,” but with no wires or batteries present, nobody thought it was capable of being a microphone that could betray the former US ambassador. During that time, many people thought that it might have been a genuine gesture from the Soviets to smooth things over.

You might be thinking about how the Vladimir Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organization, a communist organization for 10 to 15-year-old children quite similar to how the Boy Scouts of America functioned, created a highly sophisticated espionage tool. Well, they didn’t make it. The kids were just merely tapped to present the gift as children would be non-threatening and wouldn’t raise alarms that it was actually a bug.

How the Great Seal Bug functioned (Hackaday). Source:
How the Great Seal Bug functioned (Hackaday)

Nope, it wasn’t made by Russian elementary school students for their science class, but by the KGB. Without wires or batteries, the KGB created the espionage tool containing a resonant cavity microphone made with a copper cylinder, a silver interior, and a soft metal membrane that would vibrate and transmit a signal to the Russians, thus giving them access to every conversation within the range of the seal. It did, however, need a high-frequency beam directed towards it for it to work. Whenever they had intelligence that important calls or meetings were going to take place, the Russians would take an unmarked van and park it near the premises and direct a beam toward the seal so it could be powered. It was extremely simple and, to the Russians’ credit, quite a good espionage tool during that era, managing to lay undetected for over 7 years.

Lev Sergeyevich Termen, otherwise known as Leon Theremin, had created this device which would be known as the most successful clandestine listening device ever deployed against the United States. The last name might possibly be familiar to you. If you thought that his last name bears a resemblance to the musical instrument, you wouldn’t be wrong as he made the Theremin, an instrument played through the generation of electronic sounds using one’s hands!

How Did The Soviets Get Caught?

After 7 years of successfully listening in to high-level meetings, the United States started to be suspicious that the Kremlin might have had a bug planted in the United States’ midst during US Ambassador George F. Kennan’s tenure (3 ambassadors later).

According to the Crypto Museum, a British radio operator who was monitoring the Russian air force radio traffic in 1951 suddenly heard the voice of the British Air Attaché. He did not know where this came from. However, it occurred again in 1952 when an American interceptor had heard a conversation coming from the Spaso House, the US ambassador’s residence in the Soviet Union. A search was done by the State Department later and found the Great Seal bug via a crystal-video receiver. What’s worse was it was placed just behind the ambassador’s desk, thus being at an optimal position to listen in to top-secret calls and meetings.

The US revealing the Great Seal Bug to the world during a UNSC meeting regarding the U-2 spy plane that was shot down in Soviet airspace in 1960 (GETTY IMAGES/BBC)

However, the Truman administration’s discovery wouldn’t be made public for strategic intelligence purposes. Still, the US needed to divulge the information that the Kremlin was spying on the ambassador as a US U-2 spy plane had been shot down over the Soviet Union on May 1, 1960. Deflecting the Soviet criticisms by revealing that the Kremlin had been doing the same thing for years, the US had hoped the issue of the U-2 spy plane would soon dissipate. They did try to deny the existence of the U-2. However, the evidence found in the aircraft and the captured pilot Francis Gary Powers were undeniable evidence that the US had been spying on the Soviet Union.

In an attempt to deflect the criticism, US ambassador to the United Nations Henry Cabot Lodge presented “The Thing” to the UNSC where they have been summoned after the U-2 incident, and claimed that the seal was a listening and transmitting device. The Russian delegation would then mock the US presentation of the seal, asking about what play the prop came from.