The 2015 Tom Hanks film Bridge of Spies tells the dramatic story of Bill Donovan, an insurance lawyer called on to defend a suspected Russian spy named Rudy Abel. Donovan built on his connections with Abel, indeed a Russian KGB colonel, to negotiate a swap that brought home American spy pilot Francis Gary Powers. But another American named Marvin Makinen slipped through his fingers.
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. They had misinterpreted his economics dissertation as a spy report.
But while Donovan helped secure the release of two men in 1963, he also wanted to free a third. He failed, though, to free 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 belonged to a large group of students and tourists recruited by the CIA to spy on the Soviet Union. Sometimes the program had troubling outcomes.
In one famous case from 1960, Mark Kaminsky of Michigan and Harvey Bennett of Bath, Maine, were arrested while traveling in Russia. The two men had photographs of Russian military sites and notes about them in their possession. They explained Kaminsky was writing a book about the buildup of the Russian military. It didn’t satisfy the Soviets and they went to jail.
Back home in the United States, their stories seemed equally shaky. The two men had served in the Air Force together. Something called the Northcraft Educational Fund had paid for their travels to the Soviet Union with $2,000 grants. But the foundation had no record. A lawyer who represented Northcraft would not explain why it paid for the research or who backed it.
Though both Bennett and Kaminsky eventually returned to the United States, skeptics believed the Educational Fund was simply a front for the CIA. They thought the agency used it as part of its covert program to infiltrate the Soviet Union with spies traveling under the guise of tourists. Or, as in Makinen’s case, as students.
Failing at Spycraft
Makinen has explained that he did undertake the mission to spy on the Soviets. He took photographs of military installations while traveling in Russia as a student, but he was a poorly prepared spy. If caught, the CIA had told him, he should simply do his best to try to slip out of trouble.
The Soviets caught Makinen in 1961. He was still in prison in 1963, during the events depicted in the film Bridge of Spies. According to the movie version, Donovan tried to free Gary Francis Powers — and got the student, Frederick Pryor, freed as well. But Makinen was actually the one that got away.
Over a 10-day stretch of negotiations, Donovan pushed to get all three men released in exchange for Rudy Abel. Abel, the Russian colonel, 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 recalled.
In the end, Pryor and Powers got exchanged for Abel. Makinen had to wait until later in 1963 for his release in a separate swap.
Makinen and Pryor both went on to have a successful career as college professors and researchers.
This story last updated in 2022.