Marvin Makinen – The Spy Who Got Left on the Cutting Room Floor

The 2015 Tom Hanks film Bridge of Spies tells the dramatic story of Bill Donovan, a lawyer specializing in insurance who was called on to defend Russian Rudy Abel against charges that he spied on America. Donovan built on his connections with Abel,who was convicted and was indeed a Russian KGB colonel, to negotiate a swap that brought home American spy pilot Francis Gary Powers.

The story focuses on how Donovan bartered for the release of both Powers and an economics student studying in Germany, Frederic Pryor. The East German police arrested Pryor in 1961 because they misinterpreted his economics dissertation for a spy report.

Powers, meanwhile, had been famously shot down flying an American CIA U-2 spy plane over Russia in May of 1960.

marvin makinen

Bridge of Spies movie poster.

But while it is true Donovan helped secure the release of two men in 1963, by swapping Russian spy Abel, there was a third man that Donovan was after, as well: Marvin Makinen, an Ashburnham, Mass. college student who actually was a real spy arrested and jailed in the Soviet Union.

Makinen, a chemistry student in Berlin, might seem an unlikely spy. But he was part of a large group of students and tourists recruited by the CIA to spy on the Soviet Union – sometimes with troubling outcomes.

In one famous case from 1960, Mark Kaminsky of Michigan and Harvey Bennett of Bath, Me. were arrested while traveling in Russia. The two men had photographs of Russian military sites and notes about them in their possession. Their explanation, that Kaminsky was writing a book about the buildup of the Russian military, didn’t satisfy the Soviets and they were jailed.

Back home in the United States, their stories seemed equally shaky. The two men had served in the Air Force together. Their travels to the Soviet Union were paid for by grants of $2,000 from the Northcraft Educational Fund. But there was no record of the fund as an actual foundation, and a lawyer who represented it would not explain who was behind it or why it paid for the research.

Though both Bennett and Kaminsky were eventually returned to the United States, skeptics believed the Educational Fund was simply a front for the CIA, used as part of its covert program of infiltrating the Soviet Union with spies traveling under the guise of tourists. Or, as in Makinen’s case, students.

Makinen has explained that he did undertake the mission to spy on the Soviets by taking photographs of military installations while traveling in Russia as a student, but he was a poorly prepared spy. If he was caught, the CIA had told him, he should simply do his best to try to slip out of trouble.

Arrested as a spy inn 1961, Makinen was in prison at the time Donovan was attempting to free Powers in 1963, depicted in the film Bridge of Spies. But while the movie talks about Pryor being the unlikely prisoner freed along with Powers, Makinen was actually the one that got away.

Over a ten day stretch of negotiations, Donovan pushed to get all three men released in exchange for Abel, the Russian colonel who had siphoned military secrets out of the United States for nine years. One day Makinen was in the mix, the next Pryor and the next Powers, Donovan would recall of the negotiations.

In the end, it was Pryor and Powers who were exchanged for Abel. Makinen would have to wait until later in 1963 for his release in a separate swap.

Makinen and Pryor have both gone on to have a successful career as a college professors and researchers.

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