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The Fascinating Story of America's Greatest Spy


Ravi is a traveler and foodie who loves to visit off-the-beaten-track places and understand the culture, history and customs behind them.

The Fascinating Story of America's Greatest Spy

The Fascinating Story of America's Greatest Spy

America’s greatest spy was not an American. He was a Russian who worked for America for 25 years.

And he was called by interesting names, Top Hat, Bourbon, Donald, Roam, and so on. And the important point was the voluminous information he brought along with him in every visit to the CIA headquarters at Langley. As an officer rightly said.

"It was like Christmas and Santa Claus had something for everybody.”

As per Time magazine, from 1961 to 1980, Polyakov supplied the CIA with 25 file drawers' worth of secrets. There were names of US military officers working for the Soviet Union, information about hardening China-Soviet relations, Technical data on Soviet-made antitank missiles, and even clandestine military deals done by the Soviet Union to rogue countries. And he was not only fearless but he was well positioned within the Soviet army intelligence GRU and one of the highest-ranking officers to spy for America.

Double agent Dmitri Polyakov was America's most valuable asset against the Soviets until one day he completely fell off the espionage map.

And the first report of his death came when US president Ronald Reagen made a historic visit to Moscow in 1987 to sign a new nuclear disarmament treaty. When he asked about the possibility of a spy swap between the two countries and pardoning of Dmitri Polyakov, Soviet general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev had said simply.

“We executed Donald two months back.”

Already in 1986, he was arrested by the KGB, put on trial, and sentenced to death for treason. And it was only years later in 2001, America came to know that former FBI agent Robert Hanssen was the person who betrayed Polyakov to his Russian bosses.

The story of Dmitri Polyakov

Polyakov was born in Ukraine in 1921. He was a son of a bookkeeper and an unremarkable person, unlike anything that is expected from a spy. He was a dutiful father who doted on his children and had carpentry and fishing as hobbies in his spare time. After serving in World War II, he was recruited by the GRU, the USSR’s military intelligence agency where he gradually rose to the ranks fairly quickly to reach the colonel level.

He was fiercely loyal to USSR and strongly believed in its socialist ideology. In fact, he considered himself a ‘true patriot’ until his very end believing that his actions are saving his country from possible devastation.

But somewhere in the late 1950s, he became increasingly disillusioned with the leaders of the USSR, the corruption at all levels, and the sycophancy that had become part of the party culture. He began to abhor all of this and believed that the leaders at the top are woefully ill-equipped in vision and strategy to handle a complex country like USSR.

As a CIA officer who worked closely with him says.

"He contrasted the horror, the carnage, the things he had fought for, against the duplicity and corruption he saw developing in Moscow.”

That was when he offered himself to America as a double agent. At the time, he was stationed at the Soviet Mission to the United Nations in New York and was in a perfect position to get and send all classified information.

Initially, there was mistrust and the CIA could not believe that a top-ranking Soviet official could agree to work for America. But soon that mistrust turned to glee as Polyakov began supplying material that was more valuable than gold in the espionage world.

As a CIA officer tells in an interview.

“He was absolutely at the top,”

Within the FBI he was called by codename TOPHAT. Because of his intelligence value, Polyakov was turned over to the CIA, who gave him the code names DONALD, BOURBON, and ROAM. In the mid-1970s, when he returned to Moscow for another rotation at GRU headquarters, the CIA technicians built for him a special hand-held transmitter device into which information could be typed, then encrypted and transmitted in a 2.6-sec. burst to a receiver in the U.S. embassy in Moscow. Polyakov would drive past the embassy in a tram and dump the information and this arrangement worked beautifully for many years without raising any suspicions.

And for all this information, Polyakov insisted to paid in the form of Black & Decker power tools, fishing gear, and shotguns. He also asked for luxury Rolex watches that he passed along to his GRU colleagues from time to time. And besides this, he only asked for $3,000 a year. Money was certainly not the motivation for him for doing this dangerous activity.

Over time he became more of a teacher than an informant for the CIA and he started advising them in meetings about dead drops and even technologies. He was the crown jewel of the CIA and the information provided by him helped America take valuable decisions in the cold war era.

But in 1980, he was suddenly summoned back to Moscow. He completely disappeared from the espionage map from that point onwards as the CIA lost all contact with him.

The end of Polyakov

In 1984, U.S. spies monitoring the Soviet press found an alarming piece of news in a Russian magazine. It was the recipe for coot stew, a small water bird eaten extensively in Eastern Europe.

The recipe was a secret message agreed between CIA and Polyakov that whenever Polyakov was in danger he will publish that recipe. And as it turned out, Polyakov had been compromised.

America’s most valuable spy was finally caught and sentenced to what the Russians call vyshaya mera, a humiliating punishment in which the condemned person is taken into a room, made to kneel, then shot in the back of the head. Polyakov wanted to save his country from his incompetent rulers and in the process lost his life and his dignity.

As CIA Chief James Woolsey told about Polyakov later in an interview.

“His work didn't just help us win the Cold War; it kept the Cold War from becoming hot. Polyakov's role was invaluable, and it was one that he played until the end, in his own words--for his country."

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.


Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 02, 2021:

Thanks Liz

Liz Westwood from UK on April 02, 2021:

This is a fascinating espionage account. I had not heard of this double agent before. It is sad that he lost his life in this way.

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