Adolf Tolkachev

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Adolf Georgievich Tolkachev (Russian: Адольф Георгиевич Толкачёв; 1927 in Aktyubinsk, Kazakhstan – September 24, 1986) was a Soviet Union electronics engineer who provided key documents to the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) between 1979 and 1985. Working at the Soviet radar design house Phazotron as one of the chief designers, Tolkachev gave the CIA complete information about such projects as the R-23, R-24, R-33, R-27, and R-60, S-300; fighter-interceptor aircraft radars used on the MiG-29, MiG-31, and Su-27; and other avionics. Among the equipment compromised by Tolkachev was the passive phased array radar used by the MiG-31 Foxhound fighter, which the U.S. considered the most advanced airborne radar. He was executed as a spy in 1986.


Tolkachev claimed his distrust of the Soviet government arose from the persecution his wife's parents had suffered under Joseph Stalin. He told the CIA he was inspired by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov.[1]

From January 1977 to February 1978, Tolkachev attempted to approach cars with U.S. diplomatic license plates in Moscow five times,[2] coincidentally approaching the CIA Moscow bureau chief Gardner Hathaway at a gas station, but the CIA was wary of counterintelligence operations by the KGB. On his fifth attempt the CIA assigned a Russian-speaking officer named John I. Guilsher[2] to make contact with him. Eventually Tolkachev established his bona fides with intelligence data that proved to be of "incalculable" value to US experts. The U.S. Air Force completely reversed direction on a $70 million electronics package for the F-15 Eagle as a result of Tolkachev's intelligence, although historian Benjamin Fischer says that this was "the projected overall cost, not a cost savings".[3]

Because Tolkachev resisted the use of traditional CIA methods including dead drops and radios, preferring personal meetings,[4] he was able to transfer a much larger volume of classified data, much of it collected using various matchbox-sized cameras. The need for these meetings necessitated several innovations in CIA tradecraft such as signals and concealment. Although he demanded money for his cooperation, he insisted that he only wanted payment as proof of the value of his effort and risk. He was eventually paid a salary "equivalent" to the U.S. President, at the time $200,000 annually, most of which was to be held in escrow until he defected.[citation needed]

Compromise and arrest[edit]

At some point in 1985, Tolkachev was compromised. While attempting to meet him, a CIA officer was arrested and questioned at the Lubyanka KGB headquarters and prison, and incriminating materials including spy equipment such as cameras was seized from him. The source of the exposure is believed to have been Edward Lee Howard, an ex-CIA officer who fled to Moscow to avoid treason charges.[2] Aldrich Ames apparently also passed his name to the Soviets.[4]

Tolkachev was arrested by the KGB while on his way to meet his CIA contact, and was later executed, but he had carefully compartmentalized his spy work and his family, so they were not punished. His son Oleg Tolkachev is now a prominent architect.[4]

The arrest of Tolkachev, commanded by KGB Lt. Colonel Vladimir Nikolaevich Zaitsev, was carried out by the KGB's Alpha spetsnaz group. Zaitsev also says that the KGB kept Tolkachev's arrest secret in order to feed the CIA disinformation over the course of 10 months.[5]


A painting of Tolkachev by Kathy Krantz Fieramosca hangs in the CIA's Langley headquarters to this day.[6]


Fischer, the former chief historian of the CIA, has presented a contrary view of the Tolkachev case. He argues that:

  • Since Tolkachev "made no less than six or seven attempts to contact the [CIA] Moscow Station," including senior CIA officials, it is implausible that the KGB did not detect him.[7]
  • Tolkachev claimed that he took documents home to photograph them during lunch, but traveling by means of public transit would have taken about an hour.[8]
  • Since Tolkachev claimed to be asking for documents that were outside his area of work or security clearance, then he would not be able to obtain them without arousing suspicion in the secure, KGB-guarded facility.[9]

Fischer also questions the value of the intelligence furnished by Tolkachev, asserting that since CIA HUMINT only constituted "one small ingredient" of the Pentagon's decision-making process, Tolkachev cannot be credited with saving taxpayers billions of dollars.[3] He concludes that Tolkachev was a "dangle" agent run by the KGB to obtain CIA technical equipment such as spy cameras, project a false image of Soviet military and economic vitality, and absorb the CIA in a resource- and time-consuming operation.[10]

However, contradicting Fischer's assertions, the Soviet Politburo discussed Tolkachev on September 25, 1986, and top Soviet officials stated that he "was caught with two million rubles" and "handed over very important military-technical secrets to the enemy". The conversation transcript states that Tolkachev had been executed the previous day for his espionage on behalf of the U.S.[11] Historian Nicholas Dujmovic criticized Fischer's article as "speculative," saying that he makes "few factual statements".[12] Hoffman rebutted Fischer's theory, reasserting that Tolkachev furnished genuine technical information.[13] Fischer responded that the CIA has not released the intelligence provided by Tolkachev; that the Politburo transcript is "suspicious" and possibly falsified; and that the KGB, which ran other "dangles" providing intelligence on Soviet weapons technologies, was also in control of Tolkachev.[14]


  1. ^ Fischer 2008, p. 36.
  2. ^ a b c Schudel, Matt. "Cold War Spy Tale Came to Life on the Streets of Moscow". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2010-04-23. 
  3. ^ a b Fischer 2008, p. 53.
  4. ^ a b c Royden 2003.
  5. ^ Hackard, Mark. "The Downfall of Agent Sphere". Espionage History Archive. Retrieved 2015-08-24. 
  6. ^ Hoffman, David. "How the CIA ran a 'billion dollar spy' in Moscow". The Washington Post. The Washington Post. Retrieved 4 May 2016. 
  7. ^ Fischer 2008, p. 31.
  8. ^ Fischer 2008, pp. 40-42.
  9. ^ Fischer 2008, pp. 43-44.
  10. ^ Fischer 2008, p. 49.
  11. ^ Blanton, Tom; Savranskaya, Svetlana. "Soviet Politburo Discussed Billion-Dollar Spy". National Security Archive. The George Washington University. Retrieved 4 May 2016. 
  12. ^ Dujmovic, Nicholas (March 2016). "The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal". Studies in Intelligence. 60 (1). 
  13. ^ Hoffman, David (Fall 2016). "Tolkachev's Bona Fides". International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence. 29 (3): 639–640. doi:10.1080/08850607.2016.1148511. 
  14. ^ Fischer, Benjamin B. (Winter 2016). "Tolkachev Evidence Still Skimpy". International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence. 29 (4): 846–848. doi:10.1080/08850607.2016.1177413.