1986: Adolf Tolkachev, the Billion-Dollar Spy

Add comment September 24th, 2016 Headsman

The U.S.S.R. executed alleged* U.S. mole Adolf Tolkachev on this date in 1986.

Tolkachev (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) had grown up during the Stalin years — background he would cite by way of explaining his subsequent actions against the Soviet state and its “impassable, hypocritical demagoguery.” (His wife had been orphaned by the purges of the 1930s.)

Inspired, he said, by the dissidence of writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974) and bomb engineer Andrei Sakharov (prevented from leaving the Soviet Union to collect his 1975 Nobel Peace Prize), Tolkachev in the late 1970s boldly made contact** with U.S. intelligence officers at the Moscow petrol station where they fueled their cars. He immediately became one of the Americans’ most valuable assets — literally so; the 2015 book about him is titled The Billion Dollar Spy.

Tolkachev’s day job for a top-secret aviation laboratory gave him access to priceless documents on the development of the Soviet aircraft, radar, and weapons guidance and using a James Bond-esque miniature Pentax supplied him by Langley, Tolkachev snapped photos of those secrets for delivery to the Americans. It’s claimed — this is the reason for the billion-dollar stuff — that Tolkachev’s tips drove research and development in American military technology in vastly more effective directions.

The spy himself was paid for his risks in rubles and in a U.S. escrow fund pending his eventual defection.

But his last payment turned out to be a bullet, courtesy of betrayal by CIA turncoat Edward Lee Howard and/or that bane of spies Aldrich Ames.

* The date is supplied courtesy of a September 25, 1986 Politburo document referring to Tolkachev’s execution “yesterday”.

Note however that the prevailing Tolkachev story as presented in this post is disputed by CIA historian Benjamin Fischer, who has argued that “Adolf Tolkachev” was a KGB prank on its opposite number in the Cold War’s Spy vs. Spy game.

** Tolkachev really had to insist upon himself to his American handlers: the first four times he approached US embassy personnel with overtures he was rebuffed or ignored as a probable Soviet plant.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,History,Russia,Shot,Spies,USSR

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1985: Vladimir Vetrov, Farewell

Add comment January 23rd, 2013 Headsman

This date in 1985 spelled farewell for the KGB agent Vladimir Vetrov … code-named Farewell by the western handlers to whom he passed Soviet secrets.

Vladimir Vetrov was a career officer in Soviet intelligence who grew disgruntled* and in 1980 went to work for the West.

And he was no ordinary spy. Think Aldrich Ames, to the power of ten.

Vladimir Vetrov oversaw the entire KGB directorate charged with a critical program: Line X, which surveilled western R&D and passed its fruits back to Mother Russia. In the 1960s and 1970s, Line X stole jaw-dropping volumes of military, computer, and industrial advances.

And by 1980, all that information passed through Vetrov’s hands for distribution within the USSR. His betrayal blew the entire thing to smithereens.

When he turned, Vetrov gave 3,000 pages of top-secret documents to his French handlers, information which also made its way to the CIA. “The Soviet military and civil sectors were in large measure running their research on that of the West, particularly the United States,” recalls the gobsmacked American defense advisor who reviewed the file. “Our science was supporting their national defense.”

Book CoverSergei Kostin calls his book about the man Farewell: The Greatest Spy Story of the Twentieth Century, and Vetrov has surely got a claim on that title. (It’s either Vetrov or Sorge when it comes to the annals of Soviet espionage.)

The Farewell dossier exposed the entirety of the Soviet technology-stealing infrastructure, with a couple of enormous consequences.

One, it influenced Cold War strategy in the West, supporting the Reagan administration’s view that the Soviet economy (absent its stolen technological advances) could be pushed into collapse.

And two, it facilitated Langley’s most spectacular counterespionage coup, brainchild of Gus Weiss. Rather than smashing up the Line X network, the CIA turned the enormous (and in Moscow, trusted) apparatus against its creators.

By feeding Soviet agents promising but subtly flawed technology, the Americans infiltrated sabotage points into the USSR — a Trojan Horse for the information age. In 1982, software running the Soviet Trans-Siberian Pipeline allegedly escalated gas pressure fatally on the Urengoy-Surgut-Chelyabinsk pipeline, triggering an explosion so large (three kilotons) that some foreign monitoring stations initially suspected a nuclear detonation. Weiss just told them not to worry.

Meanwhile, goes the story (and one must discount appropriately here for triumphalist spin), other crapware started failing elsewhere in the Soviet Union. “Pseudo-software disrupted factory output. Flawed but convincing ideas on stealth, attack aircraft and space defense made their way into Soviet ministries.” Suddenly, the Russians couldn’t know which Line X acquisitions were dependable and which were time bombs.


From Farewell, a 2009 film.

Vetrov’s candle burned bright, but brief: he stabbed his mistress (non-fatally) during a drunken argument in 1982, then stabbed to death the man who knocked on his window to intervene. Vetrov got a trip to Siberia, but while serving his time, he casually revealed that he’d authored maybe the most spectacular inside betrayal of Russian intelligence in the 20th century. He was duly recalled for a new trial and, eventually, a bullet in the head in Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison. Even in the post-communist state, he’s still considered a villain in his homeland.

More about Vladimir Vetrov and the Farewell dossier in this BBC Witness podcast.

[audio:http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/worldservice/witness/witness_20120726-0900a.mp3]

* Vetrov didn’t betray the Kremlin for money. Sergei Kostin believes it was professional frustration — the revenge of the underappreciated nebbish whose merits couldn’t break through the nepotism ceiling at the clubby KGB. However — though the explanations are not necessarily inconsistent — Vetrov also wrote a pre-execution “Confession of a Traitor” savaging the Soviet system: “My only regret is that I was not able to cause more damage to the Soviet Union and render more service to France.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,History,Russia,Shot,Spies,Treason,USSR

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1957: Adolfas Ramanauskas-Vanagas

1 comment November 29th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1957, Lithuanian anti-Soviet partisan Adolfas Ramanauskas-Vanagas (Lithuanian link) was shot in Vilnius.

Ramanauskas-Vargas himself was born in the U.S., but his Lithuanian family soon returned to the motherland, where Adolfas grew up and taught seminary during the war years.

When the USSR finally broke the Siege of Leningrad and sent the Wehrmacht running west in 1944, it (re-)occupied the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. And the Soviets didn’t plan to leave.

Bands of anti-Soviet partisans formed in these anti-Soviet states, as elsewhere in Eastern Europe — the evocatively named Forest Brothers. Ramanauskas-Vanagas joined up.

Absent western support which was not forthcoming, these nationalist guerrillas were overmatched against the Red Army — but the movements held out in their secret wilderness fastnesses for years, and in the case of at least a few intransigent individuals, decades.

The Soviets answered with ruthless suppression to quell resistance, coupled (after Stalin’s death in 1953) with an amnesty offer that largely emptied the forests.

Ramanauskas-Vanagas, the South Lithuania commander, wasn’t captured until late in 1956. He enjoyed the customary favors of his KGB captors, and after torture, the Lithuanian SSR Supreme Court sentenced him to execution. (His wife got a trip to the gulag.)

There’s a Lithuanian biography of him here, and a few good photos in this forum thread.

A few topical books

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guerrillas,History,Lithuania,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Russia,Separatists,Shot,Soldiers,Torture,Treason,USSR

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