How a troubled past turned a Soviet military engineer into one of the CIA’s most valuable spies.
His family and friends called him Adik. His eyes were the color of ash, under a broad forehead and thick brown hair, with a crook in the bridge of his nose from a boyhood hockey accident. He stood about five feet six inches tall. Adolf Tolkachev seemed a quiet fellow to those who knew him. He was so reserved that he never told his son what he did at work, in a Soviet military-design laboratory where he specialized in airborne radar.
But his mind was not at ease. He was haunted by a dark chapter of Soviet history, and he wanted revenge.
His anger drove him to become the most successful and valued agent the CIA had run inside the Soviet Union in two decades. The documents and drawings he passed to the United States in the early 1980s unlocked the secrets of Soviet radar and revealed sensitive plans for research on weapons systems a decade into the future. His espionage put the United States in position to dominate the skies in aerial combat and confirmed the vulnerability of Soviet air defenses—that American cruise missiles and bombers could fly under the radar.
As in many other areas of technology, the Soviet Union was struggling to catch up to the West. In the early 1970s, Soviet airborne radars could not spot moving objects close to the ground, meaning they could fail to detect a terrain-hugging bomber or cruise missile. This vulnerability became a major design challenge for Tolkachev and the engineers he worked with; they were pressed to build radars that could “look down” from above and identify low-flying objects moving against the background of the earth. The United States was planning to use low-flying, penetrating bombers to attack the Soviet Union in the event of any war. Tolkachev had joined the Scientific Research Institute for Radio Engineering, later known as Phazotron, in the 1950s as it was expanding into research and development of military radars, which grew in sophistication from simple sighting devices to complex aviation and weapons-guidance systems. It was the only place he had ever worked.
Tolkachev was 54 years old in 1981. He suffered from high blood pressure and tried to pay attention to his health. He drank alcohol only rarely. He was usually up before dawn, especially in the long winter, according to letters he wrote to the CIA. Every other day during the week, he got out of bed at 5:00 a.m. and went for a run outdoors, if it wasn’t raining or biting cold. In one letter to the CIA, he described himself as a morning person. “You probably know,” he wrote, “that people are sometimes divided into two different types of personalities: ‘skylarks’ and ‘owls.’ The first have no trouble getting up in the morning but start getting sleepy as evening approaches. The latter are just the opposite. I belong to the ‘skylarks,’ my wife and son to the ‘owls.’”
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