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The Billion Dollar Spy

David E Hoffman
Quite a remarkable history of one Soviet spy, Adolf Tolkachev.

The billion dollars in the title refers to the amount of money the US saved on “look down, shoot down“ radar and other high tech radar projects due to the sheer amount of high quality information sent by Tolkachev. The Soviets were certainly ahead of the US in this respect.

It is a classic of spy stories and not one bit like a James Bond tale at all, and nor is it like some of the higher ranking defectors either. It is a very gritty and often painful to read description of spying. Tolkachev was certainly a troubled man, and his family had been subject to the Stalinist and Brezhnev terrors but then again so were millions of others. What sets Tolkachev apart is his top security clearance and his incandescent hate for the Soviet regime. He approached the CIA at a petrol station but despite giving good quality information, the CIA did nothing, as it was policy at the time NOT to acquire Soviet assets. Eventually he was recognised for what he was, a purveyor of technical documents of top secret radar projects. Despite some high tech (for the time) spying equipment, like cameras in pens, his main tool was an ordinary Pentax 35mm camera and his preferred place to take photos of documents was a toilet. Many rolls of film were delivered by dead drop.

He feared many things, most of all capture by the KGB. He requested a suicide pill in case he was arrested. The CIA played with the idea and denied him this simple measure. There are two photos of his arrest which are unremarkable at first sight but when taken in context, are harrowing.

The CIA management of Tolkachev leaves much to be desired, including not doing something with Tolkachev's American betrayer, a certain Mr Edward Lee Howard, whose antics are worth a book to itself. Tolkachev did not appear to be attracted to money, but sometimes in near panic he asked for money to help him and his family to defect. Nowhere near a billion dollars worth, but substantial.

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Hoffman's book is gripping and fascinating. He speculates little, and lets the facts push the story on with great pace. It is clearly deeply and accurately researched, and the quality and clarity of the writing is exemplary. It is indeed one of the best spy stories to come out of the Cold War.
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