Review of “The Billion Dollar Spy” by David Hoffman

“The Billion Dollar Spy”  by David E. Hoffman, is a 2015 non-fiction account of what is known of Adolph Tolkachev, a highly productive spy for the United States. Tolkachev was an employee in the scientific community of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Until he was caught by the KGB, he delivered what was probably the most valuable information the CIA ever received about aviation and radar research and development activity in Moscow.  I enjoyed this well-written book immensely. It reads like a good thriller, and you cannot help becoming emotionally involved in the lives of the main characters. You are told early on that Tolkachev will not survive, but that knowledge did not spoil the book for me, but made it all the more tragic.

The book is non-fiction, based on archival research as well as interviews with some of the participants. It reads like a good thriller and was very difficult to put down. It captured the atmosphere of the Cold War, and portrayed the complexities and dangers of running a spy in Moscow during that time. It provides good background on what diplomats and CIA employees went through while being stationed in Moscow, and gives the reader a great appreciation of the difficulty and courage involved in this work. There is no glamour here. The stress involved in doing covert work in Moscow while under almost constant surveillance by the KGB is evident, as is the personal toll this work took on all concerned.

The largest personal toll was paid by the spy himself, Adolph Tolkachev, who wanted little more than to provide as much information as possible to the West that would do the maximum damage to the Soviet Union which he had grown to loathe. The bravery and obstinance of this complex man was evident throughout, and his willingness to continue providing the CIA information as the KGB’s net grew tighter around him is admirable, but difficult to comprehend. The life of a spy in Moscow in those times was certainly not a particularly good one. Tolkachev’s tragedy is made even more poignant knowing that he actually got little that was useful to him in return from the United States. He demanded large amounts of money, but was really not able to spend it. It seemed to be a form of scorekeeping to him, a measure of his personal worth. The value of the information he provided was far in excess of any benefits he may have received. The CIA was reluctant to provide him with even very simple rewards, like rock music for his son, since being found with such material not readily available in the Soviet Union would have opened him up to unwelcome scrutiny. The author hints, that many lives were saved in our conflicts in Iraq since the United States had vastly superior air power than Iraq. The Russian-provided technology used by Iraq was able to be defeated easily since the United States had extensive knowledge of weaknesses in Soviet aviation and radar largely due to information provided by Tolkachev.

I read this book to get a handle on realistic information on how the CIA operated in Moscow. Although much of the information is now outdated, the stresses, strains and personal tolls paid in the pursuit of actionable on-the-ground intelligence are well presented in this outstanding work. Real spying work involves long and tedious surveillance detection runs, and reading in closets to avoid the scrutiny of any planted video cameras. The presence of deep personal tragedy runs throughout. The wrenching ethical decisions of balancing the demands for more information against the personal risk taken by the provider of that information are clear here. These are tough decisions.

I purchased this book at the “Mysterious Bookstore” in New York during my visit there to attend Thrillerfest. It was well worth the purchase.

I also posted this in Goodreads.

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