The subtitle of this book is “A true story of cold war espionage and betrayal.” A sore point for me which I’ll come back to later.
At its heart, The Billion Dollar Spy is the story of the CIA agents who operated out of the Moscow station, with various other relevant anecdotes from other countries behind the Iron Curtain. The eponymous Billion Dollar Spy turns out to be a Russian weapons designer by the name of Oleg Tolkachev who was willing to risk his life and safety to supply the Americans with technological secrets developed by the Russians.
The author did a good job of following the agents as they went through their routines of meeting up with the Russian spy, although I confess there are only so many wintery, snow-filled Moscow night time scenes one can endure before it starts to get repetitive.
What I found interesting about the story was the very real, practical effect that the spies leaks from inside Russia had on America’s ability to wage war. The book definitely does not shy away from more than a little rah-rah American exceptionalism, which results in a serious blindspot. As much as this might be a story of the courage of the Russian spy, one can’t help but feel like he was ultimately used by his American handlers, before being betrayed by a disgruntled CIA employee. The number of steps the Americans took to ensure that Tolkachev stayed in place, continuing to steal and disseminate military secrets, while receiving a relative pittance compared to the true value he brought to the American military-industrial complex. I’m sure the subtitle is intended to refer to the betrayal by the CIA defector, but it could equally apply to the CIA’s treatment of their asset.
The book is well-researched, and is up there with other true spy stories. It is not, however, without its flaws mentioned above, but is ultimately an intriguing look at an interesting piece of