Russian spy Dmitri Polyakov (1921–1988) was the highest-ranking Soviet military officer ever to pass information to U.S. intelligence agencies during the cold war of the mid-20th century. The Soviet Red Army general collected and delivered top-secret data on weaponry and counterintelligence programs for nearly two decades but was ultimately betrayed by two of the most notorious double agents in the history of American espionage: Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames.
Dmitri Feodor Polyakov was born in Luhansk Oblast in Ukraine on July 6, 1921, the same year that Ukraine lost a four-year-long war for independence and was folded into the newly created Soviet Union. Of his family little is known, save for the name of his bookkeeper father, Feodor. As a young man Polyakov entered the Sumy Artillery School and served with distinction during World War II as an artillery officer. After the end of the war in 1945, he trained further at the elite-level Frunze Military Academy in Moscow and took a job with the Soviet military intelligence service, the GRU (Glavnoye Razvedyvatelnoye Upravlenie, or Chief Intelligence Directorate). This was a separate organization from the better-known KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti, or Committee for State Security).
In 1951, Polyakov was assigned to the Soviet military delegation at the United Nations (U.N.) in New York City, where he lived for the next five years. It was a time when the amity between World War II's erstwhile Allies—the United States, Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France, who mounted a joint effort to defeat the threat of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan—was dissolving into a decades-long ideological turf war that played out for decades in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. At the onset of this “cold war,” only the most rigorously vetted and loyal Communist Party members were selected for overseas assignments in urban metropolises considered decadent and potentially corrosive to collective-spirit Communist values.
Some members of the Soviet mission to the U.N. lived at the former Pratt estate in Glen Cove, Long Island, originally built for an heir to the heating-oil dynasty for whom New York City's Pratt Institute is named. Others were housed in apartment buildings owned by the Soviet Union, including an address at 680 Park Avenue. It is unclear where Polyakov lived with his wife Nina and three young sons during his five years at the U.N. in the early 1950s. According to U.S. intelligence sources, the youngest child was born with a heart condition that required surgical intervention. That procedure failed and Polyakov and his wife were urged to consult a pediatric cardiology specialist, who recommended another operation. The cost of this fell to the Soviet mission at the U.N., but Polyakov's request for a special disbursement of funds was denied, and the boy died.
In 1956 Polyakov and his family returned to the Soviet Union for a period. Still an army officer of high rank, he maintained his employment with GRU at its headquarters in Moscow and began a series of regular rotations from Moscow to Soviet embassies abroad. In the field, his intelligence work entailed the recruitment and supervision of “illegals,” undercover agents who lived outside the Soviet Union but who collected and passed on classified information; like the KGB, Polyakov's organization relied on a vast network of these informants to glean access to sensitive U.S. foreign-policy and military-technology data. Later in the 1950s, Polyakov worked out of East Berlin, where he moved illegals in and out of the divided capital city of Communist East Germany. In 1961, he returned to New York City for another stint at the Soviet U.N, mission, this time with the rank of lieutenant-colonel.
It was during this period that Polyakov first approached a U.S. military official at U.N. headquarters and offered to divulge information. Like other hardline Communist veterans of the Soviet Union's masterfully fought war against Nazi Germany, he had become disillusioned with recent political developments at home and was particularly fearful about the proliferation of nuclear weapons that could be developed. In November of 1961, he sought out a top U.S. Army general who was commander of the First U.S. Army division stationed on Governors Island in New York City. That general arranged a covert introduction for Polyakov to John Mabey, an agent of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Mabey was part of a local FBI effort codenamed “Operation Courtship” and undertaken to win over Soviet spies. According to Jonathan Haslam in Near and Distant Neighbours: A New History of Soviet Intelligence, “the first approach by such a high-ranking Soviet official like Polyakov was unprecedented.” In the fall of 1962, while on board the Queen Elizabeth II ocean liner ferrying passengers between New York City and Europe, FBI agents met clandestinely with Polyakov, who divulged the names of four American military officers who had received payments from the GRU or KGB for providing classified information.
Polyakov and his family were sailing on the Queen Elizabeth II because he had been rotated back to Moscow for another stint at GRU headquarters. Mabey and other U.S. intelligence-service agents were hopeful that the Russian would continue to provide information, but the risk of meeting with anyone even remotely connected with foreign-intelligence-gathering programs was too risky inside the Soviet Union for a figure of Polyakov's rank. By a prearranged signal, Mabey and others even ran a classified advertisement in the New York Times reading “Moody, Donald F, please write as promised,” according to a 1998 interview Mabey gave to the National Security Archive of George Washington University. Although Mabey estimated that the FBI office ran the ad in 1963, cold-war historians have placed its run-date within a tenday stretch in May of 1964.
Polyakov finally made contact with American intelligence operatives shortly before he was assigned to the southeast Asian capital of Rangoon, Burma (later Yangon, Myanmar), in 1965. Language difficulties forced the FBI to request help from case officers of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which dealt with overseas intelligencegathering operations. CIA officers gave Polyakov the codename “Bourbon,” which replaced his earlier designation “Tophat” in the FBI files. Initially, the CIA treated him with some suspicion, fearing that he was actually a plant, an agent deliberately feeding false information to U.S. intelligence agents. To affirm his loyalty, Polyakov divulged the name of a British man, Frank Bossard, who was employed by the U.K. Ministry of Aviation and had been leaking classified documents to Russian agents in exchange for cash. Bossard was arrested in 1965, convicted, and spent ten years in prison.
In 1974 Polyakov was promoted to the rank of one-star general and posted to New Delhi, India, as military attaché to the Soviet embassy. Again, he continued to provide a trove of information to his CIA case officers, using miniature cameras, dead drops, and other traditional methods of spycraft. In the mid-1970s, when he returned to Moscow for another rotation at GRU headquarters, CIA gadget technicians devised a state-of-the-art radio-signal device specifically for him. This was a hand-held burst-transmitter that, after being loaded with data, he carried with him on a tram whose tracks went past the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. At a prearranged point, he covertly pressed the button to dump its contents onto a special receiver set up inside the embassy. He continued his espionage activities when posted a second time to New Delhi in 1979. In exchange for these services, Polyakov requested hard-to-procure items from his CIA case officers, including luxury watches that he passed along to GRU colleagues and did not seem to arouse any suspicion. An avid sport fisher and amateur cabinetmaker, he also asked for specific fishing lures and Black & Decker power tools.
In May of 1980, Polyakov informed his CIA case officers that he was being recalled to Moscow. He retired from the GRU later that year and made no other attempts to contact U.S. intelligence agents, who had enjoyed a close working relationship with him over the years and feared that he may have been exposed. At CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, those case officers combed through the latest issues of Okhota, a Soviet magazine for hunting and fishing aficionados to which Polyakov contributed articles. After 1985, he seemed to vanish entirely, along with a number of other Soviet citizens who had worked with foreign-intelligence agencies undercover for several years. In 1986, CIA officials discovered that a top-ranking GRU officer had been arrested on charges of espionage, but they were unable to compare that information with details pinpointing Polyakov's whereabouts.
The first report of Polyakov's death allegedly surfaced during the 1988 Moscow Summit when U.S. President Ronald Reagan made a historic visit to Moscow to sign a new nuclear-disarmament treaty. When American officials were said to have mentioned the possibility of a spy-swap between the two countries and hinted that they would be receptive to an asylum deal involving the as-yet-unknown GRU officer, they were told that the Soviet traitor had been executed two months earlier. In January of 1990, the Soviet newspaper Pravda published an article referring to a retired army general who had been convicted of treason in late 1987. Pravda named him only as “Donald,” a chilling hint that linked Polyakov's identity to the 1964 New York Times classified ad. CIA sources also learned that Polyakov's son, Petr, a Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs official, had committed suicide.
The full story of Polyakov's masterful deception was revealed in two posthumous chapters. In 1994, after a long investigation, a veteran CIA counterintelligence officer, Aldrich Ames, was arrested and charged with spying for the Soviet Union; back in 1985, Ames had passed along a list of names to Russian officials in Washington, D.C. in exchange for $50,000. In 2001, another U.S. intelligence officer, FBI special agent Robert Hanssen, was arrested and also convicted of espionage. Hanssen had exposed Polyakov's name as an informant inside the GRU back in 1979, and this had prompted Polyakov's recall from India in 1980. At the time, Soviet officials investigated Polyakov, but his reputation and solid ideological credentials protected him from further inquiry.
It was Ames's 1985 leak that conclusively identified Polyakov to Soviet counterintelligence analysts. In July of 1986, the retired Soviet officer was summoned to GRU headquarters on the pretext of an official retirement honor that coincided with his 65th birthday. He arrived in full-dress uniform and his arrest was captured by video cameras in an audioless 66-second clip that surfaced years later on You-Tube. Longtime CIA chief Robert Gates told Time magazine in 1994 that Polyakov played an invaluable role in preventing the escalation of the cold war. “There were a lot of debates at the time over Soviet military strategy and doctrine in terms of how their forces would be used in a war,” Gates told journalist Elaine Shannon. The trove of data passed on by Polyakov, Gates continued, “gave us insights into how they talked to each other about these issues, whether they thought that victory in a nuclear war was possible.”
Haslam, Jonathan, Near and Distant Neighbours: A New History of Soviet Intelligence, Oxford University Press, 2015, p. 224.
Vertefeuille, Jeanne, with Sandra Grimes, Circle of Treason: A CIA Account of Traitor Aldrich Ames and the Men He Betrayed, Naval Institute Press, 2012.
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September 2000.
New York Times, January 23, 1990.
Time, August 8, 1994.