Top Ten Spies of the Cold War

Top Ten Spies of the Cold War

There are two methods of identifying the top ten spies of the Cold War. One is to assess the damage inflicted by individual agents; another is to dig a little deeper and find out who made the major cases of espionage possible. All but two of the spies on the list were “walk-ins,” being self-recruited volunteers who literally strolled into the Soviet embassy in Washington, D.C., without a prearranged appointment and in defiance of the FBI’s physical and technical surveillance on the building, and offered their services for a price.

One of the great skills of a case officer is to recognize an authentic potential source when it first appears, and another is to react to the delicate situation in a manner that engenders confidence on the part of the putative spy. Results will testify to the efficacy of the approach adopted, and in this scenario, the outstanding professional must be Boris Solomatin, formerly the Washington KGB rezident who was responsible for recognizing US Navy NCO John Walker as the genuine article. When they met for the first time, for two hours in October 1967, Walker dispelled any fears Solomatin might have had about an FBI provocation or agent provocateur, because of the nature of what was being offered: crypto-cards from the current KW-7 cipher machine employed to communicate with Norfolk’s fleet of ballistic missile submarines. No “operational game” would risk compromising such vital information.

Solomatin’s intuition paid off and Walker remained an active spy, arguably the most damaging in the history of the United States, for nearly eighteen years until he was arrested in May 1985. By then, Solomatin had received several promotions, had successfully recruited another U.S. Navy NCO, Glenn Souther, and was safely back in Moscow, ready to retire three years later at the age of sixty-four.

By any standards, Solomatin was an extraordinarily accomplished recruiter, matched only by Viktor Cherkashin, the KGB counter-intelligence expert and deputy rezident in Washington who handled first Aldrich Ames in 1985 and then Robert Hanssen six months later, after he had been run originally by the Soviet military intelligence service (GRU). Although highly astute, Cherkashin found himself dealing with two extremely capable individuals who needed no lessons in self-preservation or tradecraft.

Whereas Walker (and his network, which consisted of a friend and three members of his family) compromised a substantial proportion of NATO’s nuclear deterrent by exposing the Trident nuclear fleet, Hanssen and Ames separately and independently betrayed dozens of secret operations, nullifying much of the work of the FBI and CIA. However, their access was somewhat restricted to their own rather esoteric world, in contract to Adolf Tolkachev, the Soviet aeronautical engineer who approached the CIA’s John Guilsher in Moscow. An experienced member of the local CIA station headed by Gus Hathaway, Guilsher sensed that Tolkachev’s almost foolhardy approach was genuine, and thereby began a relationship that would effectively neutralize the avionics, airborne radar, and IFF systems fitted to the latest generation of MiG and Sukhoi fighter jets.

Guilsher and Hathaway knew the danger of a “dangle,” intended by their adversaries to identify the CIA’s order-of-battle in the embassy, but judged the gamble worthwhile, and for seven years the aircraft designer passed aircraft secrets to a succession of fluent Russian-speaking handlers who followed. Guilsher was himself of White Russian heritage, and the CIA enjoyed a tradition of attracting personnel whose families had been forced to leave the country by the Bolsheviks. Another was Guilsher’s colleague George Kisevalter, another remarkable case officer who qualifies to be on our list. Kisevalter had been born in St. Petersburg but taken to New York as a child, and had joined the CIA in 1951. Two years later, he had been assigned to run a GRU officer, Major Piotr Popov in Vienna, but his great coup was his introduction in April 1961 to another, more senior GRU source, Oleg Penkovsky, who hemorrhaged Soviet missile defense plans during the Cuban missile crisis the following year.

Top Ten Spies of the Cold War

Another Soviet colonel who agreed to spy at about the same time was Dmitri Polyakov, the GRU’s deputy rezident then based at the United Nations mission in New York. From his original pitch to the FBI’s John Mabey in January 1962, the spy code-named TOP HAT would supply classified material and remain undetected for twenty-three years.

It was Vasili Dozhdalev, a KGB Line N illegals officer who ran the British spy George Blake in London under the noses of the local security apparatus, an impressive accomplishment, perhaps eclipsed by Tony Brooks’s recruitment of Oleg Lyalin in 1972. A member of the KGB’s London rezidentura, based at the trade mission, Lyalin had been conducting an affair with his secretary when Brooks exercised some leverage and persuaded him to switch sides. He may only have been an active spy for eight months, but his impact would be lasting, making Brooks, already hugely respected within the secret world because of his wartime resistance work in occupied France, a legend.

Exfiltration, the essential skill of removing an asset clandestinely from a hostile environment, saved the life of Oleg Gordievsky in 1985 when the Moscow station commander, Viscount Asquith, smuggled the KGB officer over the Finnish frontier, just as the CIA’s David Forden had arranged for his star agent, Colonel Ryszard Kuklinsky, to be concealed in a diplomat’s car in November 1981 for the journey from Warsaw to West Berlin.

In the event of failure to help a valued agent escape, as happened to Leonid Kvasnikov when he learned that Klaus Fuchs was in jeopardy, having been “blown” as a mole inside the atomic research establishment at Harwell, the scientist faced a long prison sentence. Nevertheless, his espionage had given the Kremlin the knowledge to build a nuclear weapon faster than Western analysts had anticipated.

Nigel West  

1 Boris Solomatin. John Walker

2 John Guilsher. Adolf Tolkachev

3 George Kisevalter. Oleg Penkovsky

4 John Mabey. Dmitri Polyakov

5 Vasili Dozhdalev. George Blake

6 Tony Brooks. Oleg Lyalin

7 David Forden. Ryszard Kuklinski

8 Victor Cherkashin. Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen

9 Leonid Kvasniko, Klaus Fuchs

10 Viscount Asquith. Oleg Gordievsky

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