Book Review | The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal

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During The Cold War, Adolf Tolkachev was the most successful and valued agent that the CIA had ever run deep inside the Soviet Union in decades. The photos, documents and drawings that Tolkachev provided to the CIA’s Moscow Station helped to unlock some of the most confidential and protected secrets of Soviet radar systems, military capabilities, weaknesses and planned weapons research for years into the future.

Tolkachev smuggled circuit boards and blueprints out of his military laboratory – in which he’d been granted the highest security clearance – for years. His espionage put the United States in position to dominate the skies in aerial combat for decades, and confirmed the vulnerability of Soviet air defenses — effectively revealing how easily American cruise missiles and strategic bombers could fly in under Soviet radar, undetected.

Tolkachev’s contribution to U.S. intelligence gathering against the U.S.S.R was so significant, immense and valued, that he was dubbed, “The Billion Dollar Spy” because he effectively saved the United States billions of dollars in research and development to counter the Soviet threat during the Cold War.

Adolf Tolkachev (1984), "The Billion Dollar Spy"

Adolf Tolkachev (1984), “The Billion Dollar Spy”

I’ve always been a sucker for stories of Cold War espionage, and have frequented the International Spy Museum on a number of occasions.

Having been born in late-1974, I grew up in the waning and final 17 years of The Cold War. The Berlin Wall still divided much of Eastern Europe from the West, the ‘Iron Curtain’ was still descended, the perceived ‘missile gap’ was a real fear among most Americans, and the events portrayed in movies like WarGames, The Hunt for Red October and FireFox still felt plausible.

In The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal by David E. Hoffman, the author weaves the reader through an intricate, exciting and dangerous world of dead drops, tradecraft, betrayal, deception, surveillance detection runs, double agents, and the early difficulties that the CIA encountered in their attempts to recruit and run spies in Moscow – deep within enemy territory – and directly under the KGB’s nose.

Adolf Tolkachev – an engineer and designer of soviet radar systems – volunteered to provide intelligence to the United States, and actively sought out diplomats from the American Embassy in Moscow to make them aware of his intent and desire to work for, and provide intelligence to, the CIA.

He, like most Russian assets during that time, was motivated by a love for his country, but a deep hatred and antipathy for those who ran it. He considered many Communist Party officials to be “thugs,” and resented their continued bankruptcy of the Soviet economy – while Russian citizens waited in line for hours for the most basic necessities – and the continued atmosphere of fear (and often murder) cultivated and perfected by the KGB during the dark years under Stalin.

Portrait of Tolkachev hung in CIA Headquarters, with his Pentax camera

Portrait of Tolkachev, hung in CIA Headquarters, photographing Top Secret documents

Although Tolkachev was an engineer and designer of Soviet radar systems, his work and research provided him with high-level access to an immense library of Top Secret documents. It was his desire to do, “the maximum amount of damage possible” to the Soviet government, and between the years of 1979 – 1985, Tolkachev provided the CIA with thousands of sensitive documents that were key to U.S. military intelligence, foreign policy, research and planning.

On more than one occasion, the intelligence provided by Tolkachev resulted in the total reversal of certain research programs, and towards the development of new and key U.S. military technology and capabilities to counter the Soviets.

Often, the Navy, Air Force and those within the Intelligence community who had access to Tolkachev’s work, would be astounded by the level of intelligence that Tolkachev – code-named CKSPHERE – was providing, and continually confirmed the billions of dollars worth of research and development that he saved the United States.

So motivated was Tolkachev in his mission to impose irreparable harm to the Soviet regime, that there were repeated concerns expressed by his handlers that he was taking too many risks. The CIA actually had to implore him to slow down his efforts and to consider his safety first. But CKSPHERE was so undeterred in his undertaking, and equally unconcerned for his safety, that he requested a cyanide pill from the CIA so that he could end his own life, should his clandestine activities ever be discovered by the KGB.

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Although he was compensated (handsomely) for his efforts, Tolkachev never seemed particularly concerned with or motivated by money. The amount of money offered seemed to primarily serve simply as confirmation and validation to Tolkachev that his efforts – along with the intelligence that he provided – were valued; that the risk he was undertaking was respected by his CIA handlers and, by extension, the American government.

CKSPHERE was easily the highest paid informant at that time – over $2 million dollars paid to an overseas escrow account – money that Tolkachev never touched.

Over the course of 21 secret meetings with the CIA, Tolkachev mostly requested luxury goods, items that were not easily available in the Soviet Union at that time. This included American rock music for his son, a stereo, Soviet banned books from the West, drawing pencils, news clippings from other countries and items that could only be found on the Black Market in Moscow.

So significant were the contributions of Tolkachev, that there is a portrait of him hanging at CIA Headquarters in Langley, VA…just miles from my home. The portrait depicts Tolkachev in his apartment, taking photographs during his lunch break of documents that he had smuggled out of the Institute that he worked for, with the clamp and Pentax camera provided to him by the CIA.

US and allies in covert meetings to help regime change in Syria

The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal is an exceptionally exhilarating read that will keep you up late into the night, and eagerly turning the pages for hours.

Although the story is completely true, it absolutely reads like a fictional spy novel — similar to something out of the pages of a John le Carré, Robert Ludlum or Ken Follett bestseller, and is ripe for a big screen movie adaptation.

Hoffman deftly places you squarely into the clandestine and dangerous world of Cold War espionage in Russia, and takes you on a tense and exciting journey that leads you into Moscow back alleys, and reveals all of the tradecraft tricks and deception necessary to avoid KGB detection in one of the most dangerous and surveillanced cities in the world at the time.

If you’re familiar with spy history, you’ll also gain some intriguing insight into how the CIA ran other top assets at that time — including CIA failures, missteps and traitors, like Aldrich Ames and Edward Lee Howard.

For an added dose of super spy goodness, I highly recommend watching, “The Assets” on Netflix after you finish reading the book, as the cross-over between the two is exceptional…just don’t reveal who your source was.

But I’ve said too much already. 😉


Bipedal. Podcaster. Blogger. Geek. Browncoat. I Occasionally Pee Sitting Down. Dana is the host and owner of Stimulated Boredom.