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A Chemistry Spy Story

Cold War espionage mission and imprisonment put a chemist on the trail of a missing Holocaust hero

by Stu Borman
February 18, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 7


Painful events often have unpredictable consequences. Each of us reacts in a unique way to traumatic life experiences. So it was that a U.S. chemist who was thrown in prison in Russia for spying came to play a key role in trying to solve a mystery about one of the most notorious disappearances of the 20th century.

Makinen in October 1963 (left), shortly after his return to the U.S., and today.
Credit: Courtesy of Marvin Makinen (left) and David Christopher, U Chicago Audio-Visual Dept (right)

It all started with a phone call. In 1961, when Marvin W. Makinen was a chemistry student in Berlin, he got a call asking him to meet with U.S. intelligence officials. At the meeting, Makinen was asked to engage in espionage. He accepted the assignment, was caught spying in the Soviet Union, and spent years in a Soviet prison before returning to the U.S. and resuming his scientific career.

Today, Makinen is professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Chicago, where his research focuses on developing a method to enhance breast cancer detection by positron emission tomography. But he has not left his prison experience behind by any means. “I still find it very difficult to talk about my prison time,” Makinen says. The experience led him to a decades-long effort to discover the fate of Sweden’s Raoul Wallenberg, a missing World War II hero who may have been in the same prison.

Credit: Courtesy of Marvin Makinen
The wing (center) of Vladimir Prison where Makinen was imprisoned, shown in 1990.
Wing (center) of Vladimir Prison where Makinen was imprisoned, shown in 1990.
Credit: Courtesy of Marvin Makinen
The wing (center) of Vladimir Prison where Makinen was imprisoned, shown in 1990.

In 1961, Makinen was a fourth-year undergraduate exchange student at the Free University of Berlin. He had recently traveled as a tourist from Helsinki, Finland, to the Soviet Union, and he believes this trip brought him to the attention of U.S. intelligence authorities in Berlin. In the spring of 1961, Makinen was asked to meet with two men from U.S. Army Intelligence at a Berlin restaurant.

At the time, the Berlin Wall had not yet been constructed, but the Cold War between Western democracies and Eastern bloc nations was causing tension worldwide. Both sides had nuclear arms and were often trying to spy on one another to obtain intelligence information.

The men asked Makinen whether he would be willing to take photos of military convoys and facilities in Hungary and the Soviet Union to help U.S. officials assess those countries’ military assets. The Soviet Union had recently granted permission for tourists to enter the country by automobile, as long as they drove only along designated highways.

He accepted the assignment because he was patriotic and disagreed with the way communist nations oppressed their own citizens. “I had no hesitation,” Makinen says.

However, “I did not have a realistic image of what this trip would entail,” Makinen says. “I was overly enthusiastic and insufficiently trained. I asked one of my contacts what to do if I was detained. ‘You will have to wiggle out as best as you can’ was the answer.”

The officers gave Makinen a camera and funds for travel expenses, and he set off in a rented Volkswagen Beetle that summer, after the semester had ended. He got as far as Kiev, where he was arrested on July 27, 1961.

“I was photographing barracks from a distance on the outskirts of Kiev,” he says. “I totally underestimated how wary and suspicious Soviet citizens were of foreigners. A man who was walking in the area came up and stopped me. He took me to the entrance of the barracks and asked people there to call the guards. I didn’t resist. It wasn’t a situation I could run away from without causing even more problems.”

Makinen was moved to a hotel room for a few days and then to an interrogation prison of the KGB, the Soviet security service. He spent three months in solitary confinement in the prison and was charged with espionage. “There was no way I was going to get out of the charges,” Makinen says. “The KGB had the photographic films I had taken. Also, I had collected a considerable amount of information, and it was not typical tourist observations and ­photographs.”

The KGB did not abuse Makinen physically, but “the psychological stress was enormous,” he says. He was asked to name his Berlin contacts, but “fortunately, I did not know their real names,” Makinen says. “When the interrogators insisted that I describe their physical appearance and personal habits, I claimed that I could not remember one well because I had met him only once, and for the other I described a brother-in-law” instead, in an effort to conceal the intelligence officer’s identity.

After several weeks’ interrogation, Makinen was tried by a closed military tribunal. He was convicted and sentenced to eight years’ loss of freedom—two years of prison and six years of labor camp. The U.S. Embassy in the Soviet Union was informed that a U.S. citizen had been arrested and convicted of espionage. On Sept. 6, 1961, an article headlined “American in Russia Gets 8 Years as Spy” appeared in the New York Times.

Makinen served his two-year term in Vladimir Prison, about 120 miles east of Moscow. The cells each had four solid walls and a solid door, so it was not possible to see other prisoners. Here he spent nearly three months in solitary confinement. “Prisoners did a lot of knocking on walls to communicate,” he says. “The only bars were on a single window, and a light was on 24 hours a day.”

It was a long way from the academic environment he had known. But Makinen was allowed to borrow books from the prison library and used them to learn Russian, an achievement he calls “an enormous psychological boost.” He occasionally corrected grammatical mistakes when guards and administration officials spoke to him. The activity “diminished their sense of authority and annoyed them,” he says. “After all, what could they do? Send me to punishment cell for correcting their grammatical errors?”

From his first cellmate, Russian prisoner Mikhail A. Mukha, he learned that a Swedish prisoner had been held in Vladimir and that Francis Gary Powers—a U.S. pilot whose U-2 spy plane had been shot down over Soviet airspace in 1960—was being held two cells away.

When Powers was released in a prisoner exchange, Makinen was moved to Powers’ former cell, which he had to share with Powers’ former cellmate, a Latvian prisoner named Zigurds Kruminsh. When Makinen asked Kruminsh about the Swedish prisoner Mukha had mentioned, Kruminsh said that he had also met a Swedish prisoner in Vladimir. Kruminsh claimed that he didn’t know the Swedish prisoner’s name but that the prisoner had told him that he (the Swede) would be well recognized and rewarded for his work when he got home.

When Makinen’s two-year term at Vladimir Prison was up, he was transferred to a labor camp in Mordovia. There, another former Vladimir inmate told Makinen that Kruminsh had for a time shared a prison cell with “the Swedish prisoner van den Berg.”

In October 1963, a Soviet couple caught spying while working at the United Nations were exchanged for Makinen and another U.S. citizen imprisoned in the Soviet Union, the Jesuit priest Walter J. Ciszek. Back in the U.S., Makinen told what he knew about the Swedish prisoner in debriefings with U.S. and Swedish officials.

Credit: Public domain
Wallenberg’s passport photo.
Wallenberg’s passport photo
Credit: Public domain
Wallenberg’s passport photo.

Makinen soon resumed his scientific career. He earned an M.D. degree at the University of Pennsylvania, interned at a medical center, served in the Public Health Service, and was awarded a fellowship to study molecular biophysics at Oxford University. In 1974, he joined the faculty at the University of Chicago, where he remains to this day.

But his prison experience has continued to have a major impact on his life. After returning home from the lab one Sunday evening in 1980, he sat down to read the Sunday New York Times Magazine and found an article on “The Lost Hero of the Holocaust.” The article was about the Swedish diplomat and humanitarian Raoul Wallenberg, whose name Makinen had never heard before.

Wallenberg, at great personal risk, had saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from being transported to concentration camps during World War II by granting them diplomatic protection. He was arrested by the Soviets in Budapest on Jan. 17, 1945, and was brought to Moscow, but his subsequent fate remains unknown.

The Soviet government has long claimed that Wallenberg died of a heart attack in 1947. But some Russian government officials have hinted that he was executed instead, and eyewitnesses have testified that Wallenberg was alive long after 1947.

Upon reading the Wallenberg article, “I began to realize for the first time that ‘van den Berg’ was likely Wallenberg,” Makinen says. He notes that both were Swedish, that “Wallenberg” is pronounced with an initial “v” sound in Russian and therefore sounds similar to “van den Berg,” and that names can be communicated imprecisely among prisoners. The next day, Makinen contacted Wallenberg’s half-brother, high-energy physicist Guy von Dardel, now deceased. Since that time, Makinen has worked tirelessly with von Dardel and others to search for evidence of Wallenberg’s fate because he feels his prison experience makes him an eyewitness in the case.

In August 1990, Makinen returned with von Dardel and other members of an international committee to Vladimir Prison. The team examined documents and prisoner registration cards to see whether Wallenberg had been imprisoned there. Makinen notes that this was the first time anyone outside the Soviet government was given access to such documentation.

In addition, for over a decade beginning in 1991, Makinen traveled to Moscow several times a year with a joint committee appointed by the Swedish and Russian governments to investigate Wallenberg’s fate. On one of these trips, Makinen found a retired Vladimir Prison employee who identified an unpublished photograph of Wallenberg as that of a prisoner who had been in a solitary confinement cell in the prison around 1960. Makinen and a coworker later scanned into computer format more than 11,000 prisoner registration cards but found that cards for that cell at that time were missing, likely removed by authorities when the prisoner had been transferred to another location.

Makinen and two associates recently established an organization dedicated to uncovering the truth about Wallenberg—the Independent Investigation into Raoul Wallenberg’s Fate Inc. Through this organization, they have applied for access to additional documentation in Russian archives, so far unsuccessfully.

Makinen’s Russian adventure continues. His work on the Wallenberg case “is not just a hobby,” Makinen says. “I feel obligated to search for the truth. There are few people who can use their prison experience to help determine what happened to Wallenberg.” Makinen is one of those people—because of a phone call he received more than a half-century ago.


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