Wednesday, November 30, 2016
Book Review: The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal by David E. Hoffman
It was very hard to spy in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Very hard. The CIA had an operation in Moscow, but it was mostly hamstrung for decades. Between the difficulty of operating in a closed society, and the skittishness of the powers that be back in Washington, they really didn't get much done until the late 1970s. Then a man approached a car with diplomatic license plates indicating it was American, and tossed a note in a car window. Thanks to that aforementioned skittishness, the CIA finally started letting this man be a spy TWO YEARS later. His name was Tolkachev and he was an engineer. Among the oodles of insanely useful data he passed along were actual circuit boards from radars and MiG planes, blueprints, and details of the capabilities (and the gaps) in the entire Soviet air force system. He passed along incredibly valuable and useful information for many years, to avenge the poor treatment of and eventual killing of his wife's parents when she was a child, by the Soviet regime. Tolkachev didn't ask for much, considering what he was giving us. He did ask for a lot of money but he couldn't really use any of it. He wanted some medicine and drawing pencils for his son along with rock and roll records. One of the hardest things he fought for was a cyanide pill, as he knew what would happen if he was ever caught.
For me, I had trouble remember when this book took place. The technology that the spies had seemed primitive at best, and of course the Soviets were decades behind with anything pop culture or fashion. But it was amazing just how backwards it was, as I had to keep saying to myself, "In just two years, Top Gun takes place," when they were having trouble with small cameras that could work without very bright light, and other basics that you think were mastered in the 1960s.
The book is very readable. Slightly slow going at first, but once Tolkachev comes on the scene, it rattles along breathlessly to the conclusion (no spoilers). The photo insert did give away a big event with the ending (which infuriated me considering that for some reason the photo insert is towards the front of the book—it isn't even halfway as usual. And if it doesn't need to be in the middle, couldn't it be towards the end when that wouldn't be a spoiler? Grrr. But other than that, this book was an excellent history of a time and place I knew little about. If you're remotely interested in spying, the Cold War, or the Soviet Union, this book was just great.
I bought this book at Watchung Booksellers, my local independent bookstore.