One of the CIA's most valuable assets in the Soviet Union.
- Washington Post

"The impact of [Tolkachev's] reporting is limitless in terms of enhancing US military system's effectiveness, and in the potential to save lives and equipment".
- internal DoD memo

[Tolkachev's intelligence] was of incalculable value.
- Gen. Lew Allen Jr., former Air Force Chief of Staff

Adolf Tolkachev, also known by the CIA codename 'GT/VANQUISH', was one of the most valuable spies the agency ever ran. Some say he single-handedly paid the CIA's rent while he worked for them, passing information from a Moscow research institute that designed electronic systems for Soviet aircraft. This intelligence saved the United States billions of dollars and years of unnecessary research, probably exceeding the value of the Soviet defector Viktor Belenko, whom Tolkachev cited specifically as an example he wished to follow.

He is dead now though, executed for treason after he was betrayed to the KGB by Edward Lee Howard, a CIA agent who defected. Who is also dead now.

A Tenacious Russian (1977)

On a cold January night in 1977, an American man was filling up his car at a petrol station in Moscow. Standing by his car he was approached by a short, middle-aged man who asked him if he was American. When he replied he was, the man dropped a note onto the front seat of car and walked away. It just so happened that the American was Robert Fulton, Moscow's CIA Station Chief. As he later realised, his was the only car with U.S. plates at the petrol station.

The note read that the man wished to talk on a "strictly confidential" basis with an "appropriate official" about providing information to the United States. It suggested places and times for possible meets and a signal to indicate agreement, such as a parked car facing a certain direction at a certain place and time. The man gave no information about who he was or where he worked. This, combined with the CIA's paranoia about KGB 'dangles' (KGB agents disguised as intelligence volunteers, used to identify CIA agents so they could be expelled from the country) led headquarters at Langley to forbid contact.

Sometime in February the same man approached Fulton outside the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, waiting until his car was blocked from view of the militiamen guarding the Embassy by a bank of snow. The man repeated his desire to establish contact with U.S. officials, as did the note he left on the station chief's car seat, but again the CIA did not respond for the same reasons as before.

About two weeks later the man approached Fulton again as he was leaving work, leaving a note in his car. The note repeated the man's request to contact U.S. officials but also stated he understood the CIA's worry about provocation, but was unsure how to proceed, saying he had "no knowledge of secret matters". He wrote he had not given any personal information because he worried about how it would be disseminated.

By this point Fulton was impressed with the man's persistence and asked Langley for permission to respond to the man's requests. Again he was refused permission due to Langley's continued security concerns. The CIA's silence elicited a fourth approach in May, the man banging on the Fulton's car to get his attention. The station chief ignored him.

Aspiring to Espionage

By December Fulton had left Moscow and been replaced as station chief by veteran Gardner Hathaway. During that month he received a note from the security chief at the U.S. Embassy, who had been passed it by the Italian majordomo of the US Ambassador's Moscow residence. He had been at a market in town when a man had approached him, having singled him out by the U.S. plates on his car. The man pleaded with the Italian to deliver a message to a U.S. official.

This message repeated a desire to establish contact with the U.S., but this one included two pages of typewritten intelligence relating to the electronic systems of a Soviet aircraft. The enclosed note said that the man wanted to "do what Belenko did" (Viktor Belenko defected to the U.S. in 1976, with a MiG-25 Foxbat aircraft). Hathaway thought a serious attempt should be made to contact the man and headquarters provisionally agreed, pending review of the intelligence he had passed.

In January 1978 Langley again prohibited contact with the man. They concluded the intelligence, though "highly interesting" was not likely to do "grave damage" to the Soviet Union, an apparent prerequisite to contact with intelligence volunteers. It was not unknown for KGB dangles to try to tempt the CIA with compelling yet undamaging information, so the response remained guarded.

Coincidentally the following month an internal memo from the U.S. military to the CIA asked them for any information they could provide on the electronic systems of Soviet aircraft, which was exactly what this volunteer had supplied to the Agency in Moscow.

On the February 16th the man again approached Hathaway and his wife, saying he understood the situation they were in: the CIA being hesitant to respond to him, fearing a KGB sting, and him being unwilling to reveal too much about himself. The note he gave them suggested a secure method of identification. It contained all but the last two digits of his telephone number, saying that at a certain time he would be at a particular bus stop holding two objects with a number on each. These would be the last two digits of his telephone number. Hathaway's wife drove by the bus stop at the appointed time and saw the man there, holding two pieces of plywood, with a number on each.

Tentative Contact (1978)

Now convinced that the man was a serious volunteer, Hathaway tried again to get Langley to allow him to establish contact. This time permission was given, and on February 26th Hathaway's deputy John Guilsher, after a two-hour detour around the city to ensure he was free of KGB surveillance, telephoned the man from a public phone booth. The volunteer's wife answered so Guilsher was forced to abort the contact attempt. The same happened when he tried again on the 28th.

On March 1st the man approached Hathaway for a seventh time, again as he was leaving work. This time the man passed eleven pages of typewritten intelligence on Soviet research into aircraft electronics. He also included his full name, address, contact instructions, employer and biographical information. He also emphasised his desperation by that point, that this would be the last time he would try to contact the Americans.

Four nights later Guilsher finally succeeded in contacting the man, now known to be Adolf Tolkachev. The case officer identified himself as "Nikolay", as Tolkachev had suggested in his letter of March 1st. Guilsher assured Tolkachev that all the information he had passed was received and secure, going on to say that he should now cease his approaches and wait to hear from the CIA, which was interested in finding out what information he could provide.

During May of 1978, the CIA's Office of Technical Service (OTS) had a handwriting analysis done on one of Tolkachev's notes. The analysis in retrospect was "positive, accurate, and even prophetic"(1):

The writer is intelligent, purposeful, and generally self-confident. He is self-disciplined, but not overly rigid. He has well above-average intelligence and has good organizing ability. He is observant and conscientious and pays meticulous attention to details. he is quite self-assured and may plow ahead at times in a way which is not discreet or subtle. All in all, he is a reasonably-well-adjusted individual and appears intellectually and psychologically equipped to become a useful, versatile asset.

Tolkachev was not contacted until August 24th, when Guilsher telephoned him from a phone booth near his home. He was told to come out to the phone, where he was to retrieve a worker's mitten that had been left nearby. Inside it was a message from the CIA detailing some intelligence requirements they had to help them determine the level of Tolkachev's access to secret materials. The drop also contained a one time pad, secret writing materials and instructions, three dummy letters for Tolkachev to conceal his communications in and CIA-controlled addresses for him to send them to.

That September all three dummy letters were received back from Tolkachev. Although all showed signs of being opened, presumably by Soviet authorities, there was no evidence that the ciphertext had been broken. The information therein convinced most of Tolkachev's legitimacy; he had sent intelligence on Soviet aircraft radar reconnaissance and guidance systems, performance evaluations of several of these systems and the status of work on aircraft weapon systems currently under development. He also indicated he had a further 91 pages of materials to pass.

On receipt of this intelligence, Langley cleared Guilsher to make personal contact with Tolkachev and to establish secure in-country communications with him. This would begin one of the most successful episodes in espionage history.


Adolf Tolkachev was born in 1927 in what is now Kazakhstan, but lived in Moscow since the age of 2. He had a younger brother, Yuri, who worked as a train mechanic at the time. Tolkachev married Natalia Ivanoca née Kuzmina, an "antenna specialist" who worked, as he did, at Moscow's Scientific Institute of Radio Building. He wrote that his wife's mother had been executed in 1938 but did not say why; her father had been in a forced labour camp for some years until he was freed in 1955. He did not state why this persecution took place but cited it as one of his reasons for wishing to work against the Soviet regime.

The couple had a son, Oleg, born in 1966. In 1979 Oleg was said to be attending "art school", going on to study at an architectural institute from 1982. Tolkachev wrote that he had his family's interests at heart in everything he did, making it clear that had not and would not tell them about his work for U.S. intelligence.

In detailing his own work and qualifications, Tolkachev wrote that he had completed "optical-mechanical radar training" in 1948 and graduated from the Kharkov Polytechnical Institute in 1955. Since then he worked at the Radio Building institute, as what he described as a "leading systems designer." He and his family lived on the 9th floor of a cathedral-like apartment building, only 400 metres behind the U.S. Embassy. This was very useful for making contact with the CIA as Tolkachev routinely walked by the Embassy.

Dipping further into his motivations, Tolkachev wrote that he was not a member of the communist party, having lost interest in politics early in life because it had become "enmeshed in such an impassable hypocritical demagogy." He stated that he was a "dissident at heart," who wished to contribute to the cause by taking advantage of his access to information. He noted that he had considered joining a dissident group with access to foreign journalists, but had quickly dismissed the idea because the KGB would quickly discover him, upon which he would immediately lose his job and possibly be imprisoned.

A Prolific Spy (1979)

On January 1, 1979, after the usual lengthy run to shake KGB surveillance, Guilsher telephoned Tolkachev from a public phone booth, directing him to one of several predetermined meeting spots. The two met without problems and Tolkachev handed over the 91 pages of notes he indicated he had, during a forty-minute walk around the city. He included an in-depth description of his duties, detailed hardware specifications, hand-copied schematics, oscilloscope recordings and diagrams of items currently under development. Guilsher passed Tolkachev further intelligence requirements and a 'good faith' payment of an unknown amount.

In February, equipment was left for Tolkachev in a dead drop to aid his intelligence gathering. This one contained a matchbox-sized camera and several rolls of film, a light meter, instructions for using both and operational instructions. The camera was intended for Tolkachev to use discreetly taking pictures at his office (he had previously mentioned he worked in a large, open office with 24 other people). The instructions he received detailed methods by which he could contact the agency. For example Tolkachev could be called at home on a day of the month corresponding to the number of the month, e.g. January 1st, February 2nd, etc. He would cover the telephone on those days between 6pm and 8pm. The caller would be a 'wrong number', and depending on the name the caller asked for, Tolkachev would be directed to one of three prearranged dead drop sites. A fourth name used would trigger a personal meeting one hour from the time of the call.

By March the importance and impact of this information was apparent. An internal memo to the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) stated that [Tolkachev's] latest information agreed fully with information it overlapped with that had been gathered by photo or satellite surveillance. It stated that the Soviets would view it quite damaging to their interests for the U.S. to be in possession of this information(1), again strongly indicating that the volunteer was genuine. Tolkachev had provided encyclopaedic documentation of systems that were not even operational yet.

It was clear Tolkachev was an agent with immense potential, demonstrating a level of access to intelligence eclipsing that of previous volunteers. A meeting at the CIA in May by some of the principal recipients of Tolkachev's 'products' concluded that it could save them up to five years of research time. Tolkachev was looking more impressive with every meeting.

Personal Concerns

In April, he met with Guilsher and passed him a note in which he wrote he did not understand the CIA's predilection for dead drops. Any information he left at a site could easily be traced back to him if it were found, so he strongly preferred passing information at a personal meeting. He concluded that they were no more dangerous than dead drops because the case officer would still have to be free of surveillance, but they would be much safer for him and the continuation of his work. The agency apparently agreed, as the majority of future contact was through personal meetings.

At a second April meeting, Tolkachev turned over five rolls of film taken with his miniature camera and fifty pages of handwritten notes (partly to explain the photographs). During the meeting with Guilsher he outlined his plan for cooperating with the US. It would consist of seven stages spanning twelve years. Tolkachev considered the first of these to be complete when he had passed the 91 pages of intelligence that January.

It was at this point Tolkachev broached the subject of compensation, requesting he be paid a set amount as each stage was completed. He went on to say he did not feel he had been adequately compensated for the work he had completed thus far, or his "lonely efforts" breaking down "the wall of distrust."(1) It was also at this meeting that Tolkachev first requested he be issued with a poison pill in case of arrest, saying he "would not like to carry on a conversation with the organs of the KGB." Guilsher rebuffed this initial request himself.

At the meeting in June, Tolkachev passed several more rolls of film taken with his miniature camera, totalling about a dozen since April. Unfortunately when developed the photographs were almost all unintelligible. The camera had a high capacity but had to be at a precise height to focus properly and did not photograph well indoors. Tolkachev also complained that the shutter clicked too loudly and that it was difficult to hold steady because it was so small. He suggested he be issued with a 35mm camera instead and took documents home to photograph. At the second meeting that month, he was passed a Pentax 35mm and a clamp to hold it steady.

The difference was obvious when, at the October and December meetings, Tolkachev passed more than 150 rolls of film containing photographs of documents he had taken at home. All the photographs were of excellent quality, as were the notes he included to explain the photographs.

At the October meeting Tolkachev repeated his request for compensation, this time asking for a figure in millions of dollars. He said he didn't think this was unreasonable, mentioning American experts estimated the Soviet Union would have to spend the equivalent to three billion dollars refitting the MiG-25 Foxbat as a result of Belenko's defection (he had heard this on the Voice of America). Tolkachev also repeated his request for a poison pill, and continued to do so in his future letters. Guilsher passed Tolkachev two improved miniature cameras at this meeting. Although they were much better than the miniature camera he currently had, the cameras had to be returned for the films to be changed.

At the December meeting Tolkachev was passed four more of these miniature cameras and a 100,000 ruble payment. He accepted this, admitting his previous salary demands had been excessive. He went on to say that he was not making them for personal wealth, but to prove to himself that the United States valued his work.

Guilsher raised the subject of Tolkachev's exfiltration at this meeting. From the beginning of his serious handling as an asset, the CIA planned to extract him and his family at an indeterminate point in the future, though it wished to delay it as long as possible to take advantage of Tolkachev's access. Tolkachev asked to be notified of these plans as they were formed, and what he would be required to do to support them.

Tolkachev also said at this meeting that his employers had instituted new security procedures at work, meaning that he was now unable to remove documents from the building to photograph (previously, employees had been able to check out as many documents as they liked as long as they were returned by the end of the day). Employees now had to turn over their building pass when checking out documents, and a building pass was required to leave and enter the building.

Production Increases (1980)

The CIA's first meeting with Tolkachev this year took place in February, when he returned several of his spy cameras. The new security measures at his employer forced him to take photographs at work; the only secure way he found of doing this was by taking them to the men's toilet. Still, he managed to expose all the film in four of the six cameras he had.

Still, he continued to have problems with the cameras, complaining about their poor performance in low light and their unreliability. He suggested to Guilsher that a copy be made of his building pass so he could still take documents out of the building and photograph them at home. He suggested "losing" his building pass and giving it to his case officer, but instead was told to take a photographs of it and give a physical description, so OTS could try to copy it.

Fortunately soon after this meeting the new security measures were relaxed due to the inconvenience it placed on the majority of the workforce, so Tolkachev could take documents out of the building again.

By the time Tolkachev met his case officer again in May, his compensation arrangements had been finalised. He would be paid a salary equivalent to that of the US President, which would be placed in escrow for release at a future date. At the time Tolkachev suggested that his salary be donated to Russian dissident movements, given that he had no more actual need for this money than he did the 100,000 rubles he had been paid the previous year. The CIA did not follow this up due to security concerns, though it helped convince the Agency his motives were deeper than personal wealth (though he was not above occasionally taking advantage of it).

Relaxed security gave a tremendous boost to Tolkachev's intelligence-gathering activities, a fact highly evident that June when he passed over two hundred rolls of 35mm film to his case officer, the most he ever turned over in one meeting. Yet more basis for CIA memos which had circulated in March and April:

"We never before obtained such detail and understanding of such systems until years after they were actually deployed"(1)
-internal CIA memo, March 1980
"...even if Tolkachev's spying were discovered, the value of the information that he [has] provided [will] not diminish for at least eight to ten years"(1)
-internal CIA memo, April 1980

A DoD memo to the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) the previous December stated that the Air Force had "completely reversed direction on a $70 million dollar electronics package for the F-15 Eagle,"(2), further evidence of the depth and quality of Tolkachev's information.

Even so, Tolkachev continued to be concerned about contingencies should he be compromised. After Guilsher refused his initial requests for a poison pill he began passing him letters to give directly to the DCI and the President, stating that it was his wish that he be given a poison pill and not his case officer's. He passed the first of several letters to Guilsher at this June meeting.

The letter said that Tolkachev's position would be indefensible in the event of an investigation, that to satisfy the CIA's intelligence requests he had checked out many classified documents outside the scope of his own work, and had to get written permission to acquire any documents from other Soviet agencies. Clearly any security investigation would quickly finger him as the leading suspect. However he reasoned that it was just as much in the US's interest that he be able to commit suicide if compromised, saying that it would conceal the full breadth of his espionage, greatly impeding a full damage assessment by the Soviets.

This initial request was refused by the DCI but Tolkachev was not deterred and kept sending letters. Nine months after he originally broached the subject he was finally issued with a cyanide capsule, hidden inside a pen.

In September 1980, shortly after John Guilsher left Moscow and Tolkachev's case was taken over by case officer David Rolph, Langley recommended that he be introduced to their latest Short Range Agent Communications system (SRAC), for emergency contacts or arranging meetings at short notice. The equipment was procured and the idea suggested to Tolkachev in a note given to him during that October's meeting. At that meeting he gave his handler a note which requested some Western music cassettes for his son, and equipment to play them on.

In November's meeting Tolkachev again raised security issues. He asked if the CIA could fake him a new document signing out card, because all documents signed out of his institution's library were recorded on the card. Again Tolkachev felt uncomfortable having all of these document names against his record, especially since many of them were nothing to do with his work. His idea was to replace his own card with a new card with all the 'suspect' documents removed. This was completed early 1981 along with a fake building pass, Tolkachev making the swap sometime in March.

In 1980's December meeting he responded positively to the idea of the short range communications system and also raised the subject of his remuneration. He asked that he be paid the 8.75% interest from his salary at the end of each calendar year. This was arranged for payment the following year.

Compromises (1981)

This period of Tolkachev's 'career' was one in which both he and the CIA were forced to take many risks, but production continued at high levels of quality and quantity.

In March Tolkachev was given seven tapes of rock n' roll music for his son, packaged in such a way as to look as if they had been purchased on the black market to minimize the security risk. He then asked for some headphones for his son, some more albums and English lyrics for all the songs that he had been given already.

The aforementioned SRAC equipment was also passed to Tolkachev at this March meeting. It consisted of a small encoder/decoder unit about the size of a pen case, a small keyboard with English and Russian overlays, an antenna, batteries, charger and communications plan. A message would be entered using the keyboard, the unit encrypting it as it was entered. At an agreed time the unit could be used to send a burst transmission lasting a few seconds, to a receiving unit within a few hundred metres.

Tolkachev could initiate sending a message like this. He would go to a site which the CIA regularly used and monitored. The officer would then go to a specified position, close enough for the units to communicate but far enough apart for no connection to be apparent between the two men. After the message was sent a signal - for example, a car parked facing a certain direction at a certain place and time - would be used to indicate success or failure to receive the message.

Sometime during this month Tolkachev returned his fake building pass to his case officer, saying the colour of the cover was not quite right.

Shortly, the Agency decided to break contact with Tolkachev for a while to reduce the chances of detection by the KGB. His work presumably continued but it was not until November 1981 that communications were re-established. At this meeting Tolkachev was given another fake building pass, fortuitously as it seemed since he reported his employer had re-instituted their security procedures. Again it had become impossible for him to remove documents from the building. He also returned his SRAC equipment, saying he couldn't get it to work. He was given an alternative communications system but through various complications it could never be used and was returned about a year later. Eventually the SRAC equipment was repaired and returned.

In December Tolkachev called an unscheduled meeting to return the fake building pass, because the colour was still not quite right. He stressed that his production would fall if the pass could not be duplicated, but Rolph told him this was preferable to his being compromised.

At the scheduled meet that month the effect of the tightened security on Tolkachev's output was evident. Unable to take documents out of the building he was reduced to photographing what he could with his miniature cameras. He passed several rolls of film and a dozen or so more the following February, but production was noticeably down on previous levels. He was occasionally able to get around the new restrictions by taking documents out of the library, returning later to get his pass and saying that he could not return the documents because his boss was reviewing them. He would then take the documents home to photograph.

Winding Down (1982)

The first meeting this year took place in February, when Tolkachev made further salary requests. In his note passed during that meeting he stated that he should be paid at the black market exchange rate for rubles and dollars, which in his mind was the true exchange rate. If agreed upon he would be owed more than quadruple what he had actually received. His request was eventually granted, given the extraordinary value of the intelligence he was passing. This was set up to start in 1983.

Tolkachev first used his burst transmission equipment to trigger an unscheduled meeting on March 13th this year, to give his case officer more feedback on his fake building pass. This time he passed a colour photograph of it and a small sample of the cover which he had torn off.

At the regular March meeting Tolkachev "reluctantly" (the quote marks belong to one of my sources) made some more personal requests. He asked for more music cassettes for his son with accompanying lyrics, and various drawing materials for technical drawing. He also asked for some non-Soviet razor blades for himself, writing in a note that "shaving with Soviet razor blades is an unpleasant operation."

Meetings following up to May were again concerned with successfully fabricating Tolkachev a fake building pass. This was apparently successful, though when is unclear. Contact was then lost with Tolkachev as heavy KGB surveillance of CIA case officers forced several planned meets to be aborted. Contact was finally re-established in December, when Rolph was able to use a device called a 'jack in the box' (JIB) to evade a KGB vehicle trailing his.

A JIB is a device that pops a dummy head and shoulders out of a box, kept in the passenger footwell. The agent being surveilled waits until his car has rounded a corner before getting out (meaning the trailing vehicle has briefly lost sight of his car), then his driver triggers the JIB. The passenger quickly hides before the trailing car rounds the corner, giving the occupants the impression that two people are still in the car they are following. The agent is then able to continue, free of surveillance.

At this meeting Tolkachev reported he had been able to use his fake building pass to get documents out of the building to photograph at his home. He turned over 35mm film of these, but was depressed that his production was down. To make matters worse, a new security system had been introduced at his institute that used different passes, meaning his fake building pass was now useless!

Production under threat (1983-1984)

Early in 1983, Langley speculated that the new security procedures at Tolkachev's employers might mean that a security leak was suspected, leading to uneasiness about his continued operating. He was now unable to leave the building during work hours without written permission, making it virtually impossible to monitor for short range communication signals during the day.

At meetings in February and March, Tolkachev provided samples of his new building pass and photographs, hoping OTS would again be able to create a copy for him. He also asked for more miniature cameras so he could photograph documents in his office. He had passed the point of providing new information: now he concentrated on keeping the CIA updated on new developments in fields he had already provided intelligence on.

The meetings in the first half of 1983 saw further personal requests from Tolkachev, both for himself and for his son. In February he asked for some specialised drafting equipment for his son, and a few months later asked for some architecture books for him as well. He also asked for a Russian Bible, the DIA publication Soviet Military Power, the memoirs of Golda Meir, and curiously enough a copy of Hitler's Mein Kampf. The KGB would later use this last detail combined with Tolkachev's first name to smear him as a closet fascist.

The April meeting saw the issue of exfiltration raised again. This time Tolkachev refused to accept the envelope he was offered containing exfiltration options, due to his "current family situation." In a note he passed he explained he would not leave Moscow because his wife and son had both commented that they did not wish to leave their city or their friends. He concluded saying "I cannot think about exfiltration since I would never leave my family."(1)

Langley's concerns about Tolkachev's safety lead them to turn down his requests for more cameras, even going to the point where they recommended to Moscow station that he be directed to stand down for several months to let the air cool. In the event Tolkachev continued to take photographs of his own volition, smuggling his Pentax into the office and providing about a dozen rolls of film at his March meeting, the same again at his April meeting.

Mindful of Tolkachev's enthusiasm to keep production despite the security restrictions, CIA headquarters decided to issue him with their latest miniature camera, one which was much more versatile than the previous ones he had used. He was issued this at his May meeting so he could continue to photograph documents at work, but was directed to stop trying to smuggle documents out of work to photograph at home.

Contact was lost with Tolkachev in the latter half of 1983, five separate meetings in the summer and autumn months failing. On three occasions Tolkachev failed to show due to minor problems at home, on the other two Tolkachev did show but his case officer was unable to shake KGB surveillance so aborted the meeting.

Contact was re-established in November, Tolkachev his usual calm self and appearing happy to see his handler again. He passed Rolph 16 pages of handwritten notes but no photographs. Translated later, his notes were an alarming account of the time period over which he had missed his meetings, beginning in April when a major security investigation took place at his institute. Possible leaks of information on a Soviet fighter's target recognition system had been identified; this included intelligence that Tolkachev had recently passed to the CIA, so he was positive that he would be identified as the source any moment.

On learning of the investigation Tolkachev asked for the following day off. Then, he gathered all his intelligence-gathering equipment, cameras, contact instructions, as well as all the books and money he had been passed. He drove to a small dacha he owned and burned everything he could, throwing all of the metal parts left over out of his car on the drive back to Moscow.

Immediately afterwards Tolkachev started taking his poison pill everywhere with him, thinking he would likely be arrested at work. Whenever he was called to his boss's office he would keep the pill under his tongue so he could bite it immediately if he was seized. Tolkachev wrote this was why he had not continued his photography, though he continued to gather written notes and he stated his intention to continue doing so. There was no indication at the meeting that he had suffered such a tremendous scare.

A transmission from CIA's Moscow station to headquarters commented on his relentlessness, saying "this is indeed a driven man who is determined to produce, by whatever means he deems necessary, right up to the end, even if that end is his death."(1) When replying to this, Langley noted that the information being investigated at Tolkachev's employers had not been spread outside the Agency until June, so no leak had occurred unless from inside the Agency itself. This possibility was never seriously entertained until the Aldrich Ames disaster.

Over the following months much time was given to the issue of the increasing difficulty of keeping Tolkachev safe but keep his production going, as well as the issue of his payment, which the CIA was now behind with. It was decided to keep meetings to a minimum - only two or three per year - and another exfiltration plan would be prepared for him and his family. Sadly Tolkachev again refused to accept this plan when it was proffered at the April 1984 meeting, insisting he would not leave. Nevertheless he had continued working, passing to his case officer 39 pages of handwritten notes, radar system schematics and all of the miniature cameras he had, films fully exposed. In return he was given two new miniature cameras, 100,000 rubles and several books he had asked for.

The note he passed Rolph went on to apologise for destroying his equipment the previous year and he appeared in good spirits to continue. He said he thought he could be safely met more than twice a year, and asked for more miniature cameras and another 35mm camera (CIA had apparently succeeded in fabricating him another building pass, though sources don't say when he was given this).

In September 1984, dismissed CIA agent Edward Lee Howard paid a visit to the KGB in Vienna. He was aware of Tolkachev and many other assets from 1983, when it was planned to make him Moscow station chief.

In October 1984 Tolkachev passed 22 pages of written notes and returned the two spy cameras he had been given in April, again fully exposed. He repeated his request to be reissued with a 35mm camera but was told that CIA headquarters had turned down this request. He was disappointed with this decision, saying he was eager to continue his work despite the danger. He was issued two new miniature cameras, but Langley worried he would simply go out and buy a 35mm camera himself, so decided to issue him with more at future meetings. He was given another list of intelligence requirements, medicines he had previously requested and drafting materials for his son.

All Good Things... (1985)

1985's first meeting was held in January, Tolkachev again returning two fully exposed spy cameras. He also included 16 pages of intelligence and operational information, and a great deal of personal requests. He apologised for making so many "trivial" requests, suggesting someone be hired and paid out of his escrow salary to procure these items for him. He was issued with five new spy cameras with accompanying intelligence requests, as well as another 100,000 rubles and more books he had previously requested.

When the photographs from this meeting were developed, virtually all of them were unreadable. Tolkachev had stated when he turned over these cameras that he worried about the lighting since they were taken on a cloudy day. It has been suggested that Tolkachev may have been under KGB control at this point, since it had been a technique of theirs to force compromised agents to pass unusable but seemingly-genuine intelligence to keep up their relationship with the CIA. Given that the notes Tolkachev passed at this meeting were consistent with past quality, this seems unlikely.

However, this was the last meeting Tolkachev had with the CIA; he was definitely compromised sometime afterwards.

In March, the CIA signalled for an unscheduled meeting with Tolkachev to repeat their request for the intelligence that had not photographed properly. A new film had been developed for low light environments, which would be passed in some new miniature cameras.

Tolkachev did not respond to the CIA's signal indicating they wanted to meet, though did appear to respond positively to another signal in the middle of the month by opening one of the windows of his apartment at a specified time of day. That he opened a different window to the one he usually did may have been an indicator something was wrong. He failed to attend this meeting. A third request to meet also went unanswered.

In April, former CIA agent Edward Lee Howard paid a second visit to the KGB in Vienna. According to a KGB Colonel who defected to the U.S. in August 1985, Howard compromised Tolkachev or gave sufficient information to identify him at one of these two meetings.

Later that month, Tolkachev was suddenly arrested by the KGB's 2nd Directorate somewhere near his dacha outside Moscow:

There had been no resistance. The CIA's superagent had gone limp, knees buckling under him. In those first seconds, Tolkachev's arms were pinned to his sides and [team leader Vladimir] Sharavatov deftly forced a thick rope between his teeth to prevent him from swallowing, or biting down, in case he had a suicide pill hidden in his mouth. His jacket and shirt were roughly stripped from his shoulders, in case a poison pill had been sewn into his collar. He was then dragged to a windowless bus, where he was expertly stripped, with gloved hands probing his bodily cavities, and dressed in a blue KGB running suit.(1)

During his months-long interrogation, Tolkachev revealed everything to his captors without hesitation, always having expected it would eventually come to this. Amongst the information he gave the KGB was his contact arrangements with the CIA, including signals to trigger a meeting.

KGB Ambush

The CIA, not knowing Tolkachev had been arrested, continued to run his case as normal. On June 5th a window in his apartment was opened at a specific time, indicating his willingess to meet. Heavy KGB surveillance forced the case officer to abort this meeting, but Tolkachev's apartment window was again opened at the agreed time on the 13th, which again was picked up by a CIA drive-by. Unknown to the CIA, KGB Major General Sergeyevich Krassilnikov of the 2nd Directorate personally triggered both of these meetings, intending to trap and expel another CIA officer from the country.

CIA agent Paul Stombaugh, after a surveillance detection run lasting several hours, had walked to the meeting site with two plastic bags containing more miniature cameras for Tolkachev, books and music tapes he had requested, a list of intelligence requirements and a note thanking him for the information provided at the last meeting, suggesting again replacing his document sign-out card "as we did in 1980"(1). The KGB didn't need to follow him (although teams did keep tabs on him from a distance): the arrest team simply waited at the meeting site for him to show up. They had even arranged a staged arrest for a Tolkachev double a short distance from the meet site, to keep the CIA in the dark about when he had been compromised.

When Stombaugh arrived at the meeting site he was ambushed by five men in military fatigues: two men grabbed the bags from his hands, two grabbed his arms and a fifth man forced his head down while his arms were lifted high above his head, a characteristic 'chicken wing' KGB siezure. When he was finally allowed to look around again, still restrained, the area was floodlit and cameras were flashing in his face, the scene watched by senior KGB personnel. He was forced into a KGB van before he had time to see 'Tolkachev's 'arrest'.

Stombaugh was held from 9.40pm to 12.20am at Lubyanka Prison where he was interviewed though not harmed, something of a professional courtesy between the CIA and KGB. The KGB Major General provided a running commentary as officers dissected the contents of the bags Stombaugh was carrying. He said only that he was an American diplomat (all CIA agents in Moscow work(ed) under cover as diplomats and therefore qualify for diplomatic immunity) and asked for the U.S. Embassy to be notified of his whereabouts. Shortly afterwards he was expelled from Moscow and returned to Washington.

Stombaugh's arrest was highly publicised in Moscow, but Tolkachev was not mentioned in conjunction with him or at all, until 1986 when the Soviets confirmed he had been executed for "high treason." It is worth noting that although Howard gave the KGB Tolkachev's identity, Aldrich Ames is believed to have done so on the same day that Stombaugh was detained. Ames, a CIA agent who had become a double agent for the Soviet Union, had been greatly troubled by the recent arrest of a major Soviet spy ring in the U.S. He tried to cover himself by giving the KGB the names of all Soviets he knew to be working for the CIA (who could potentially know he was a double agent), including Tolkachev.

According to Moscow Police, Edward Lee Howard broke his neck in an "accidental fall" in Moscow in 2002. The circumstances of his death are still unknown. He was later cremated per his family's wishes.

Despite Tolkachev's capture and execution in 1986, he made an incredible contribution to the work against the Soviets; the intelligence he provided continued to be valuable until about 1990, a CIA article stating it "could have meant the difference between victory and defeat, should a military confrontation with the USSR have occurred."(1)

Part of Tolkachev's legacy is his apparent success in protecting his family from the effects of his intelligence work: both his widow and son are believed to be alive and well, apparently having suffered no reprisal from Soviet authorities over his espionage. Oleg Tolkachev is now reported to be a prominent Moscow architect.

Sources disagree slightly on event chronology so I went with the CIA source. Please let me know if you find mistakes.

  • Royden, Barry G.; "Tolkachev, A Worth Successor to Penkovsky";
  • Bearden, Milton & Risen, James; "The Main Enemy: The CIA's battle with the Soviet Union";
    printed word, published by Century, ISBN 0-7126-8151-5
  • Goebel, Greg;
    • "The Mikoyan MiG-29 Fulcrum";
    • "MiG-31 Foxhound";
  • Risen, James; "Unwritten rule in spy games: Get caught, you go home";
  • Pincus, Walter; "CIA Defector Edward Lee Howard Said to Have Died in Moscow";

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