Adolf Tolkachev’s story is one of brilliant courage and heroism. That it ends in tragedy and betrayal only seems to accentuate the stakes that he faced in his struggle to tear down the totalitarian tyranny of the Soviet state. David Hoffman’s telling of Tolkachev’s story in The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal, as well as of the stories of the American spies and diplomats that worked with him, is thoroughly engrossing, describing in detail the meetings, plans, and efforts made to support one of America’s most valuable Cold War agents.
Moscow of the late-1970s was a closed city to the espionage efforts of American intelligence agencies. The embassy was bugged and monitored by the KGB constantly. Staffers could not leave the embassy without trailing KGB agents following at an often less than discrete distances. Failed attempts to co-opt and develop spies left the station officers shaken and demoralized.
Then a break happened: a man approached embassy staff, claiming to have access to Soviet military technology secrets. But was he the real deal, or just a KGB plant to expose CIA officers working in the embassy? After months of delay, the CIA took a chance on Adolf Tolkachev and found one of the most valuable spies to work for the United States. Over the years, he provided thousands of documents worth billions, giving the US a look at Soviet secrets that would tip the edge in military engagements for coming decade and beyond.
David Hoffman’s The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal is a fascinating story, made more so because of how much it contrasts the Hollywood portrayal of espionage and spy craft. Instead of breakneck car chases through Moscow streets, protecting Tolkachev’s identity required hours of patient walks through Russian neighborhoods and parks, involved bus trips with multiple stops, double backs, and frequent disguise changes. Spy craft was a work of patience, painstaking efforts, and nerve-wracking meetings. Slow and steady, clever and crafty were attributes more important than an ability to kill, infiltrate a secret facility, or survive an exploding helicopter. Hoffman tells it with fantastic detail, striking the right balance between the minute and the narrative.
As a piece of Cold War history, Hoffman’s book is an enjoyable description of a chapter in the competition between the Soviet and American superpowers as it unfolded on the streets of Moscow.