At the height of the Cold War, a seemingly unassuming Soviet engineer reached out to several Americans he encountered in Moscow and offered his services. While he was initially ignored, the engineer, Adolf Tolkachev, was eventually accepted by the CIA’s Moscow station as a volunteer spy for the United States.
Over a number of years, and under the nose of the ever-watchful KGB, Tolkachev passed on highly classified information about Soviet military technology to U.S. intelligence operatives. The documents he shared were of immense strategic value at a time of escalating tension between the two superpowers.
David E. Hoffman tells this riveting story — which reads like a spy novel but is in fact nonfiction — in his bestseller, “The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal.” It’s now out in paperback.
“The Billion Dollar Spy” offers a vivid look at espionage in Moscow in the late 1970s and early 1980s, where almost nothing could be taken at face value. A key fob could be a camera, a pen could contain a suicide pill, and everyone on the street was suspect. It was a time when clandestine meetings in parks and on street corners were common.
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Tolkachev, a specialist in airborne radar, proved himself an immensely valuable asset. According to Hoffman, his intelligence served to provide “a road map to the United States for compromising and defeating two critical Soviet weapons systems: the radars on the ground that defended (the Soviet Union) from attack, and the radars on warplanes that gave it capacity to attack others.” The clandestine information was estimated to have saved the U.S. about $2 billion in research and development costs — thus making Tolkachev “the billion dollar spy.”
Hoffman, a contributing editor at The Washington Post and a former Moscow bureau chief, brings a wealth of experience and journalistic skill to his tale of one of America’s most intrepid and successful spies. Those old enough to remember the Cold War and the tensions it wrought, as well as younger readers who have learned about this era from their history books, will find “The Billion Dollar Spy” an insightful page-turner.
Bob Kustra is president of Boise State University and host of Reader’s Corner, a weekly radio show on Boise State Public Radio. Reader’s Corner airs Fridays at 6 p.m. and repeats Sundays at 11 a.m. on KBSX 91.5 FM. Previous shows, including an interview with Hoffman, are online and available for podcast at boisestatepublicradio.org/programs/readers-corner. Download our free player from the iTunes App Store or Google Play to listen to previous interviews anytime. Search for “Reader’s Corner.”