John I. Guilsher | 1930-2008
A Cold War-era spy befriended his Soviet informant, but couldn't save him

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.)

Both knew the potential hazard of "the colonel." A slip-up could endanger them and Tolkachev. Nothing was said. But Kissa Guilsher realized her job would be to keep Galina occupied. The moment came at 10 p.m. There was an intermission in the program. John Guilsher rose from his seat. Kissa began chatting with the colonel: "I just wanted to make sure she was in my hands." John located a phone, reached Tolkachev and identified himself with the predetermined code name, Nikolay. Within minutes, John was back in his seat, and the CIA had established a link with one of its most important Soviet informants of the Cold War. The KGB was none the wiser.

For the next seven years, Tolkachev would provide reams of data, notes and photographs about Soviet aviation weapons technology, often while it was still in development. It was a critical period in the Cold War. South Vietnam had fallen to the communists three years earlier, and the Soviet Union was poised to invade Afghanistan the next year. The tension between the two superpowers was great. Intelligence historian Barry G. Roydon has suggested that, had there been war between the United States and the Soviet Union, the information Tolkachev provided might have been decisive.

But Tolkachev was reckless and delicate to deal with. He preferred dangerous face-to-face meetings over the safer "dead drop" exchanges, where information is dropped off and picked up without a personal encounter.

For the next two years, in numerous clandestine meetings, Guilsher nurtured Tolkachev, who, at 52, was close to Guilsher in age and also married with children. When Guilsher's tour of duty was over in Moscow, Tolkachev was handed off to other U.S. agents. Guilsher went on to other postings around the world, before returning to CIA headquarters in Virginia, and Tolkachev continued feeding the Soviet secrets to the CIA.

In time, Kissa Guilsher came to know some of the details of the case and the role she played that night at the Bolshoi.

One day, probably in the fall of 1986, her husband came home from work at CIA headquarters and stood in the den of their Arlington home. He looked distressed.

"What happened, my love, today?" she asked, "You look very sad."

Tolkachev was dead, he told her. Later, it was learned that he had probably been betrayed by the notorious American informant, and former CIA employee, Edward Lee Howard. Tolkachev had been arrested in 1985. He is believed to have been executed by the Soviets on Sept. 27, 1986.

Kissa Guilsher did not ask for the details at the time. She decided she should leave her husband with his thoughts. "It was not an easy moment for him," she said. Her husband and Tolkachev were actors in the risky theater of espionage. Each knew the hazards for the other. Once, years after the Guilshers had left Moscow, another agent commented to Tolkachev that something the Russian was planning to do sounded dangerous. Tolkachev replied: "Everything is dangerous."

Michael E. Ruane is a staff writer for The Post's Metro section.

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