Joseph Kanon’s most recent espionage novel is “Leaving Berlin.”
By David E. Hoffman
312 pp. $28.95
Let’s cut right to the chase: “The Billion Dollar Spy” is one of the best spy stories to come out of the Cold War and all the more riveting, and finally dismaying, for being true. It hits the sweet spot between page-turning thriller and solidly researched history (even the footnotes are informative) and then becomes something more, a shrewd character study of spies and the spies who run them, the mixed motives, the risks, the almost inevitable bad end.
The spy was Adolf Tolkachev, a middle-aged engineer at the Scientific Research Institute for Radio Engineering (NIIR) with a specialty in radar systems. As part of the hopeful and then disappointed post-thaw generation who had revered Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Tolkachev was so seriously disaffected with the sclerotic Communist Party of the 1970s that he looked for a way to undermine the regime. He found it in the secret weapons research papers that crossed his desk every day. A first attempt to contact the Americans to offer his services — by dropping a note through the window of an embassy car at a gas station — met with no response. Four more attempts followed, again without result. The CIA’s Moscow station, wary of a KGB trap and under strict orders from Langley to halt personal intel operations (a total “stand-down”) refused to take the bait. Finally a reference to a “look-down, shoot-down” radar system, a crucial piece of intel, and yet another letter persuaded the CIA to take the risk, and CKSPHERE (Tolkachev’s code name) was born.
The first clandestine meeting was on New Year’s Day in 1979. Twenty more meetings would follow over the next six years, none of them detected by the KGB (the preparation and execution of these meetings are at the exciting heart of the book), and they provided the CIA with information so valuable that its worth (in research saved, weapons programs redirected, etc.) was estimated to be in the billions. At enormous personal risk, Tolkachev photographed reams of secret documents — at one memorable exchange, he handed over 179 rolls of 35 mm film covering 6,400 pages of documents — and even managed to smuggle out blueprints and circuit boards. He was, by any measure, Moscow station’s most important agent. And then he was betrayed.
All this would make a good story at any time, but one of the special pleasures here is that we are back in the pre-digital era, when not everything happens on a laptop screen with only the discreet click of a keyboard in the background. We are instead in the heady, familiar world of espionage thrillers: dead-drop sites, surveillance-detection runs, miniature cameras peeking through holes in the ceiling, suicide pills, park-bench meetings, agents jumping out of cars just as they round the corner. Disguises were used, the jumping agents replaced by cardboard dummies to confuse the trackers two car lengths behind. (Taxpayers will be fascinated to learn that inflatable dolls from a D.C. sex shop were considered, but — consumer alert — they leaked.) On one movie-chase run, the cardboard dummy has a spring mechanism by which it pops out of a birthday cake box.
But Hoffman never loses sight of the fact that what may be fun for the reader was deadly serious to the participants. The CIA had never recruited an agent in Moscow before Tolkachev (the others were contacted abroad). It was simply considered too dangerous. The KGB had almost unlimited resources at its command, not to mention the home-court advantage. But Tolkachev changed all that. Most of his 21 meetings with his handlers were held right under the nose of the KGB, within three miles of its headquarters. For Moscow station, long paralyzed by counterintelligence chief James Angleton’s paranoia and then the Carter administration’s wariness of human source intel, this was an espionage triumph.
Few writers have better credentials to write this story than Hoffman. A former Moscow bureau chief for The Washington Post (now a contributing editor) and the author of “The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race,” for which he won the Pulitzer Prize, he knows Moscow well and does a first-rate job of putting the events here in historical context. His narrative is based on 944 pages of declassified CIA operational files, primarily cable traffic between Langley and Moscow station; on personal interviews with the participants; and on other sources (presumably Russian), all backed by scrupulous notes that inspire a rare quality in espionage writing: trust. “The Billion Dollar Spy” may often read like a thriller, but Hoffman never panders, never tries to punch up the material with novelistic touches to make it more dramatic. It is already dramatic, and, a good reporter, he lets it speak for itself.
In this he has the great advantage of Tolkachev’s own voice, speaking to us through his ops letters — quarreling with the CIA over money, worrying that he’ll be caught, demanding a cyanide capsule, asking for Western records for his teenage son (Led Zeppelin, Uriah Heep). It’s an authentic and oddly touching voice as he tries to navigate his own contradictory impulses: He loves Russia, yet is betraying it; he knows he will probably be caught, yet refuses to consider exfiltration. There are even moments of unexpected warmth: the desire for human contact with his handler.
Hoffman catches all this without italicizing any of it, just as he gives us the day-to-day feel of Moscow station, the office politics, the frustrations. This is le Carre territory, spies fighting over budget allocations and chafing under misguided orders, and Hoffman draws it with the same open-eyed knowingness. But it’s really at the end, with Tolkachev’s fate, that he achieves a novelist’s sensibility. I wouldn’t dream of ruining Hoffman’s story by telling you what happens to Tolkachev except to say that Hoffman handles it beautifully and, like the best Cold War novelists, shows us that in the secret world, people are unpredictable and often behave badly, and that one can never underestimate what Graham Greene called the human factor. This is a terrific book.