The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal
From the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning history The Dead Hand comes the riveting story of a spy who cracked open the Soviet military research establishment and a penetrating portrait of the CIA’s Moscow station, an outpost of daring espionage in the last years of the Cold War
While driving out of the American embassy in Moscow on the evening of February 16, 1978, the chief of the CIA’s Moscow station heard a knock on his car window. A man on the curb handed him an envelope whose contents stunned U.S. intelligence: details of top-secret Soviet research and developments in military technology that were totally unknown to the United States. In the years that followed, the man, Adolf Tolkachev, an engineer in a Soviet military design bureau, used his high-level access to hand over tens of thousands of pages of technical secrets. His revelations allowed America to reshape its weapons systems to defeat Soviet radar on the ground and in the air, giving the United States near total superiority in the skies over Europe.
One of the most valuable spies to work for the United States in the four decades of global confrontation with the Soviet Union, Tolkachev took enormous personal risks—but so did the Americans. The CIA had long struggled to recruit and run agents in Moscow, and Tolkachev was a singular breakthrough. Using spy cameras and secret codes as well as face-to-face meetings in parks and on street corners, Tolkachev and his handlers succeeded for years in eluding the feared KGB in its own backyard, until the day came when a shocking betrayal put them all at risk.
Drawing on previously secret documents obtained from the CIA and on interviews with participants, David Hoffman has created an unprecedented and poignant portrait of Tolkachev, a man motivated by the depredations of the Soviet state to master the craft of spying against his own country. Stirring, unpredictable, and at times unbearably tense, The Billion Dollar Spy is a brilliant feat of reporting that unfolds like an espionage thriller.
“In an era of suicide bombers and ISIS beheadings, the spy dramas of the Cold War can seem tame, almost polite affairs. Central Intelligence Agency officers who worked in the Soviet capital complained about operating under “Moscow rules,” meaning the relentless scrutiny of the K.G.B. And they knew that any Soviet citizen caught spying faced certain execution. Still, there were rules. Those rules may actually be a reason that David Hoffman’s The Billion Dollar Spy, about Adolf Tolkachev, a Soviet radar expert who spied for the C.I.A., is such an engrossing tale. The story played out over several years, almost entirely on the streets of Moscow, in a twilit chess game that pitted American intelligence officers against their Soviet counterparts.”
—New York Times
“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.”
“[A] dramatic spy vs. spy story, complete with a trove of trade-craft tricks, is the grist for Pulitzer Prize-winning author David E. Hoffman’s scrupulously reported The Billion Dollar Spy, a true-life tale so gripping at times it reads like spy fiction … Hoffman interviewed key players and gained access to more than 900 pages of long-secret CIA files and operational cables to fill in a crucial gap in the Cold War espionage canon.”
—Los Angeles Times
“[The Billion Dollar Spy] packs valuable insights into the final decade of the cloak-and-dagger rivalry between the United States and the former Soviet Union, which came undone in 1989. It is a must-read for historians and buffs of that era, as well as aficionados of espionage … Hoffman draws on extensive declassified CIA and FBI files and myriad other sources to chronicle how the United States gained and lost one of the elite spies of the Cold War.”
—Christian Science Monitor
“The Billion Dollar Spy not only chronicles the life and motives of [Soviet engineer Adolph] Tolkachev but also provides a rare look at the dangerous, intricately choreographed tradecraft behind old-school intelligence gathering … What [Hoffman]’s accomplished here isn’t just a remarkable example of journalistic talent but also an ability to weave an absolutely gripping nonfiction narrative.”
—Dallas Morning News
“David Hoffman is a scrupulous, meticulous writer whose pages of footnotes and references attest to how carefully he sticks to his sources … His book’s value is in its true-life adventure story and the window it offers into a once-closed world.”
“The fine first sentence of The Billion Dollar Spy could almost have been written with an icicle. A work of painstaking historical research that’s paced like a thriller.”
“Hoffman [proves] that nonfiction can read like a John le Carré thriller … This real-life tale of espionage will hook readers from the get-go.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Hoffman carefully sets the scene with both cautious and free-wheeling CIA directors and staff and also provides intimate details that prove fascinating and give human faces to these brave participants, including spies often known by code names and encountered in ‘fast drops.’ The book’s hero—who gave the U.S. technological information worth billions, with the technology still in use today—is Adolf Tolkachev, a Russian engineer, and Hoffman’s revealing of him as a person and a spy is brilliantly done, making this mesmerizing true story scary and thrilling.”
—Booklist, starred review
“Gripping and informative … Focusing on Adolf Tolkachev, who served as a spy inside the Soviet Union for more than 20 years before being betrayed, the author sets out to write the story of a spy and in so doing, chronicles Cold War espionage and an overall compelling tale that draws on secret documents from the CIA as well as interviews with surviving participants. Hoffman succeeds on both accounts.”
“This painstakingly researched tale reads like le Carré”
“David Hoffman has written one of the best real-life spy stories ever told. This is a breakthrough book in intelligence writing, drawing on CIA operational cables—the holy grail of the spy world—to narrate each astonishing move. Hoffman reveals CIA tradecraft tricks that are more delicious than anything in a spy novel, and his command of the Soviet landscape is masterful. Full of twists so amazing you couldn’t make them up, this is spy fact that really is better than fiction.”
—David Ignatius, Washington Post columnist and author of The Director
“A fabulous read that also provides chilling insights into the Cold War spy game between Washington and Moscow that has erupted anew under Vladimir Putin. The Billion Dollar Spy is an espionage thriller worthy of John Le Carré but much more than that. It is also an evocative portrait of everyday life in the crumbling Soviet Union and a meticulously researched guide to CIA sources and methods. I devoured every word, including the footnotes.”
—Michael Dobbs, author of One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War
“A scrupulously researched work of history that is also a gripping thriller, The Billion Dollar Spy by David E. Hoffman is an unforgettable journey into Cold War espionage. This spellbinding story pulses with the dramatic tension of running an agent in Soviet-era Moscow—where the KGB is ubiquitous and CIA officers and Russian assets are prey. I was enthralled from the first instance of a CIA officer ‘going dark’ all the way to the terrible, tragic climax.”
—Peter Finn, co-author of The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book
“The Billion Dollar Spy reads like the very best spy fiction yet is meticulously drawn from real life. It is a gripping story of courage, professionalism, and betrayal in the secret world.”
—Rodric Braithwaite, British Ambassador in Moscow, 1988-1992
About the Author
David E. Hoffman is a contributing editor at The Washington Post and a correspondent for PBS’s flagship investigative series, FRONTLINE. He is the author of The Dead Hand, about the end of the Cold War arms race, and winner of a 2010 Pulitzer Prize. He lives with his wife in Maryland.