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The Billion Dollar Spy, Part II Posted by on Sep 23, 2015 in Culture, History, News, Russian life, Soviet Union

Part II:

Adolf Tolkachev had been the most successful spy the CIA ever had in Moscow during the late 1970’s through the mid 1980’s. Tolkachev was an engineer working on new and next-generation radar systems for the military. He was also a father and a husband that put, not only his life on the line, but the lives of his family members as well.

In return for his invaluable information, the CIA had provided Tolkachev with equipment to carry out his tasks such as cameras, instructions for setting up meetings, fake passes to sneak documents from place to place, huge sums of money, and even a suicide pill. Much of what Adolf was given as payment for his work by the CIA was unusual: Led Zeppelin music, medicine from Europe for gastritis, nice pens, architectural books for his son, news reports from outside of the Soviet Union, books that were hard or impossible to find in the Soviet Union by people like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and more. He even had an escrow account set up that had nearly $2 million dollars in it. It is interesting to note that money was not his prime motivation as was often the case, but rather causing maximum damage to the system that had caused pain to so many.

The complexity of simply meeting a CIA case officer on the streets of Moscow was impressive. The CIA, along with Tolkachev’s assistance, set up signals and meeting points that would allow them to meet for a few minutes about every three months. Leaving a light on during a certain time of day or opening a particular window, would signal the need for a meeting, or passing letters with invisible ink would initiate a meeting. Great care was taken on both ends to ensure that the nearly omniscient KGB could not figure out what was going on.

Tolkachev also exhibited great caution and attention to detail by sneaking documents, in which he had no business even seeing, home or during times of increased security, into a bathroom, to photograph. In the days before smart phones with cameras, taking quality photos actually involved talent. To make sure he took quality photographs, he was taught to tie a string to a certain size length of thread to get proper measurements. Thousands of documents were photographed, pieces of equipment such as circuit boards, were smuggled out, and handwritten notes were passed. Tolkachev circumvented tight security measures and took enormous risks with not just his own life, but those of his wife and son. For much of the time he acted as a spy for the U.S., his wife had no knowledge of his duality. Imagine the stress Adolf felt at work while smuggling out all of the info, then going home and having to make sure a particular light was on at a certain times, or that a particular window was not left open, or that you got the mail and answered the phone at certain times. Try to imagine how difficult it must have been to explain how you procured all the items he possessed on his salary and given the scarcity of such items in Russia. Even if money were no object, much of what the CIA had given him could not at all be found in Moscow – even on the black market.

We may be quick to judge Adolf Tolkachev for his acts of treason, but we might do well to remember that we have never walked a step in his shoes. Most will never know just how much pain Stalin caused his own people or what it felt like to live under such a repressive regime.

Though he was not trained as a spy, Tolkachev acted out his role with an uncanny attention to detail, with a persistence and patience rarely found, and with the kind of bravery few ever find themselves to be in the possession of. He considered himself a dissident with a strong desire to destroy the Soviet system – not its citizens.

The universe is in a constant state of change, so is Moscow. Sometimes the greatest enemy you face can be found within your own organization. Tolkachev eventually was caught, tried, and executed, but it was through no fault of his own: the onus lay at the feet of the CIA. A trainee, Edward Lee Howard, was supposed to go to Moscow to assist in handling Tolkachev and others, but was fired for failing a few polygraph tests and soon wanted for treason. Howard, unfortunately for all stakeholders, was vengeful and immediately began the process of turning over his knowledge to the KGB.

To me, Tolkachev’s story is one of bravery. Being a parent and wife, I cannot imagine what this man must have gone through to keep his secret from his family. By the same token, I cannot imagine putting our safety at risk to inflict damage to a system of government. While I admire the man for his sacrifice, I do not think I would have been able to do the same.

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About the Author: Jenya

Born in Russia, I spent the first twenty years of my life in Orenburg, Russia and Mogilev, Belarus. For the last eleven years, I've lived in New Hampshire and Michigan, US. While I continue to absorb and adapt to American culture, I am always thrilled to share my Russian heritage with those who find it interesting. Travel, photography and art play a special part in my life. Twitter: @iamnx2u


  1. sean rennie:

    This is a great story.
    Yes the tension must have been unbearable most of the times.I think it takes a special person with a single objective to carry out these kind of tasks.