Lives To Remember

John I. Guilsher | 1930-2008

From left: John Guilsher, daughter Alexandra, wife Kissa and daughter Anne in front of St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow, circa 1978.
From left: John Guilsher, daughter Alexandra, wife Kissa and daughter Anne in front of St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow, circa 1978. (Courtesy Family)
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By Michael E. Ruane
Friday, January 2, 2009; 11:14 AM

On an evening in March 1978, CIA agent John I. Guilsher and his wife, Catherine, went to Moscow's legendary Bolshoi Theatre with a group of people from the U.S. Embassy. "Kissa" Guilsher loved the ballet. She had trained as a ballerina and had dreamed of dance as a career. This night, however, the couple had a different purpose. Amid the gaiety and bustle of the crowd, John Guilsher planned to place a secret phone call to an informant who might alter the course of the Cold War.

But when they arrived at the 19th-century theater on what was then called Sverdlov Square, they encountered an old nemesis: a Soviet employee of the embassy who they suspected was an officer in the KGB, the Soviet Union's espionage service. Her name was Galina. The Guilshers called her "the colonel."

Guilsher and his wife had been posted to Moscow for only a few months and already were living in the fishbowl that was life for an agent during the Cold War. Their apartment was bugged with microphones and cameras. Their dog, Malysh, had been drugged so KGB agents could search their quarters near the Kremlin. They were under almost constant surveillance.

They countered by building a world of make-believe, where they often spoke coded lines to each other, as if actors on a stage. And they constructed a facade of the mundane -- taking shopping trips, walking the dog -- while behind the set John Guilsher plied his trade as a spy.

This mission was important. For more than a year, a disaffected Soviet aircraft engineer named Adolf G. Tolkachev had been trying to make contact with the CIA, ostensibly to provide information on Soviet weapons systems.

At first, the agency thought Tolkachev might be a "dangle" -- a juicy piece of bait to lure American agents out of the shadows. But after studying the initial data the engineer sent, analysts decided Tolkachev was for real, and the agency sought to begin a relationship. The Moscow station chief, Gardner "Gus" Hathaway, wanted Guilsher to open the dialogue.

A native of New York City, Guilsher was then 47, the son of Russian aristocrats who had fled the Revolution of 1917. His grandmother had corresponded with Tchaikovsky, and his mother had been a brilliant violinist. Guilsher, himself, who died of pancreatic cancer in April, had wanted to go into forestry. But his wife protested, because the job required moving to Alaska. Instead, he went into intelligence.

He was smart, cool, dependable and good on the street. Although he was handsome and graying, and looked like a diplomat, he was adept at dressing down to resemble the average Russian. He once perfumed himself with vodka and garlic to improve the effect. And because his parents had made him do his homework in English and Russian, he spoke the language flawlessly. While he was technically attached to the embassy, he had been in the CIA for 23 years.

Guilsher's task was to make the first telephone contact with Tolkachev. He had tried twice before, but Tolkachev's wife kept answering the phone. The Bolshoi would be cover for the third try. The presence of "the colonel" was a problem, although it was always better to encounter the KGB agent you knew than the one you didn't.

Still, it was critical that no hint of suspicion arise when Guilsher disappeared to make the call.

Beforehand, he told his wife, who was also the child of expatriate Russian nobility, that he had an important task at the theater. Kissa Guilsher was born in Belgrade and had studied ballet before her family emigrated to the United States. She met her husband in Washington when she was studying French literature at George Washington University. They had been married for more than 20 years, and she had been with him on all his overseas postings. In Moscow, where CIA spouses often played crucial, if unpaid, roles, she memorized the license numbers of the KGB's surveillance cars. They had three children, who were attending schools outside of Russia.

Guilsher gave his wife few details, saying only that he would have to vanish for a few moments. He planned to make the call from a public phone in the theater. (As a spy in Moscow, he had to know the whereabouts of all public phones.)

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