The last line of the synopsis printed on the book jacket reads, “The Billion Dollar Spy is a brilliant feat of reporting that unfolds like an espionage thriller.” The irony is the majority of David E. Hoffman’s magnificent book is nothing like an espionage thriller. The history of Cold War espionage as represented is replete with bungles, missteps, hesitations, and long periods of inaction. It may seem anti-climactic to think a Soviet engineer could change the course of world history just by hiding documents under his jacket and sneaking them home on his lunch break. It’s not as dramatic as dodging gunfire—but it’s just as courageous.
It’s unsettling to think that the balance of power in the world could shift by pilfering documents from a laboratory. Perhaps our need then for cheesy action scenes and absurd gadgets in spy thrillers stems from our inability to reconcile the tedium of espionage with its historical significance.
Yet Adolf Gregorivich Tolkachev, codename CKSPHERE, was the spy who photographed thousands of documents during his lunch break. He was the lone spy in the Soviet Union, handled by CIA agents based at the “Moscow Station”, whom he provided with crucial intelligence on the Soviet Union’s avionics and radar systems. He was a leading designer and engineer at the Kharkosvskiy Politechnicheskiy Institute, assigned the task to invent low-altitude radar systems to defend Soviet Union’s borders against U.S. aircraft. According to Hoffman, the U.S.’s air superiority in the 90s was primarily due to the stolen documents Tolkachev provided the CIA, which gave our avionics the advantage against the Soviet’s MiG-28.
You could argue he’s the reason why the movie Top Gun exists—but let’s not hold that against him.
Hoffman recreates the course of Tolkachev’s espionage, drawing from a backlog of declassified cables between Tolkachev and the CIA, starting from his initial attempt at contacting the CIA at a gas station to his last meeting with his handlers. Interwoven through this retelling is the history of the Moscow Station, and portraits of agents: Robert Fulton, Gus Hathaway, David Rolph, and Burton Gerber. Each agent’s tour of duty colors in added dimensions to Tolkachev’s state of mind. Their experience gives a glimpse of an intelligence operation, which included setting up sites for meeting with spies and performing “dead drops”. It’s also during this period that the Moscow Station had developed maneuvers and tactics to evade the near-omnipresence of KGB surveillance, which are still in practice today.
I would suggest that everyone reads The Billion Dollar Spy, not for its engrossing stories, but for its rare perspective. The reward for sifting through the notes and following the trail of research underpinning Hoffman’s reporting is it exposes the machinations of the CIA through an era that still affects today’s foreign policy. It sharpens our view of the past while dissolving any convenient apathy of the present. The human toll in espionage is the cost to maintain the established order and systems of power. The knowledge offered can be applied in current times, and the parallels are far too easy to draw. Though the lives and stories of Tolkachev and the Moscow Station are enthralling, forgive me for feeling guilty that these sordid affairs have to be done in our name.
David E. Hoffman
1st Edition (July 7th, 2015)