During the glasnost period when many forgotten biographies were rediscovered and rewritten, one of the most bizarre finds was the Soviet-American inventor and pioneer of electr(on)ic music, Lev Sergeevich Termen (aka Léon Theremin, 1896-1993). Termen, “the secret link between sci-fi films, the Beach Boys, and Carnegie Hall,” whose “electronic musical instrument took the world by storm in the 1920s and '30s”(1) — several decades before the rise of electronic popular music — had been forgotten for 50 years in the East and West.
Only in the perestroyka period has Termen been credited with even more fantastic inventions, which seem to be right out of a spy novel. Back in Russia he invented two types of bugs–both based on his innovative principle of contactlessness and both aiming at abolishing the usual interfaces needed for eavesdropping.(49)
The first bug “Golden Mouth”/“Zlatoust“)(50) ……was placed in this seal, a present to the Americans(51) in 1945 by children from “Artek,” a Crimean pioneer camp.”(52) The wooden seal in the form of an eagle (codename “Zlatoust” which in Russian means “Golden Mouth”) contained Termen’s device and was hung up by the Americans in their embassy, in Harriman’s office. The usual bug hunting routine obviously failed to detect it since it was not a usual microphone but a “passive bug:”
Quivering with excitement, the technician extracted from the shattered depths of the seal a small device, not much larger than a pencil . . . capable of being activated by some sort of electronic ray from outside the building. When not activated, it was almost impossible to detect. . . . It represented, for that day, a fantastically advanced bit of applied electronics. (…) A radio beam was aimed at the antenna from a source outside the building. A sound that struck the diaphragm caused variations in the amount of space (and the capacitance) between it and the tuning post plate. These variations altered the charge on the antenna, creating modulations in the reflected radio beam. These were picked up and interpreted by the receiver.(53)
Not only its small size but also its simplicity made the device smart, considering spy technology in the 40s–by using a diaphragm with only an antenna for the bug itself and gaging it, if needed, with an electromagnetic wave:
The triumph of the Great Seal bug, which was hung over the desk of our Ambassador to Moscow, was its simplicity. It was simply a resonate chamber, with a flexible front wall that acted as a diaphragm, changing the dimensions of the chamber when sound waves struck it. It had no power pack of its own, no wires that could be discovered, no batteries to wear out. An ultra-high frequency signal beamed to it from a van parked near the building was reflected from the bug, after being modulated by sound waves from conversations striking the bug's diaphragm. (…) The Great Seal features a bald eagle, beneath whose beak the Soviets had drilled holes to allow sound to reach the device. At first, Western experts were baffled as to how the device, which became known as the Thing, worked, because it had no batteries or electrical circuits.(54)
“Golden Mouth” for many years seemed undetectable, and even after its discovery in 1952 it continued to be an enigmatic “Thing from Another World.”(55) It took 6 months for the British MI5 (USA experts had asked them for help) to figure out how Termen’s bug worked. Then they copied this elegant and minimalist eavesdropping system for their own use.(56)
Termen’s inventorial genius in the NKVD sharashka developed considerably: “the Thing” in hindsight seems far less sophisticated than Termen’s next invention–it was still an undetectable entity to be hunted down and removed.(57) If “the Thing” was marked by a typical Termenesque style of understatement, displaying an engineering elegancy, only Termen’s second bug was a strike of pure genius.
His second bug was a bug that did not exist–it was only the idea of a bug. It made use of all the membranes in the building to be controlled, including window panes and even screens in the walls meant to block bugging. This somewhat ironic meta-bug, called the “Buran” (“Blizzard”), was based on the fact that human voices produce sound waves which cause movement in certain surfaces. The Buran enabled one to listen to conversations at a distance up to 500 meters via an interferometer using infrared light to pick up and transmit information from vibrating surfaces onto a photocell (e.g. in the opposite house).(59) The Buran seems to have been the predecessor of laser microphones, still a novelty today and therefore mostly a prop of spy movies:
A laser microphone is an exotic application of laser technology. It consists of a laser beam that must be reflected off a glass window or another rigid surface that vibrates in sympathy with nearby sounds. This device essentially turns any vibrating surface near the source of sound into a microphone. It does this by measuring the distance between itself and the surface extremely accurately; the tiny fluctuations in this distance become the electrical signal of the sounds picked up. Laser microphones are new, very rare and expensive, and are most commonly portrayed in the movies as spying devices.(60)
However, laser did not exist yet in 1945. Although Einstein laid the foundation for the invention of the laser in 1916, his theory was not materialized until the fifties (independently in the USA and the USSR).