In the late 1970s, former Central Intelligence Agency officer Bill Plunkert, BC ’68, and his family moved to the Soviet Union, beginning his career as an undercover spy for the U.S. during the Cold War.
Plunkert returned to the Heights on Wednesday to discuss his undercover role in Moscow during the Cold War. The event was hosted by the Winston Center for Leadership and Ethics, the political science department, and the International Studies Program.
Plunkert was able to give details about his influential involvement with Adolf Tolkachef, the Soviet agent who for over six years delivered valuable information to the CIA. Tolkachef is featured in David E. Hoffman’s 2015 publication, The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal.
The late 1970s and early ’80s was a particularly interesting time for Plunkert and his family as they entered Russia, where communism was a huge concern and the threat of a nuclear attack was a menacing unknown. At the same time, as Plunkert described, the Soviets were aggressively making war plans against NATO in Western Europe.
“There was going to be a winner and a loser … and we set out everyday to make sure the U.S. won,” he said.
When Plunkert and his family went through customs, arriving in Moscow, it quickly became evident that the KGB—the communist government of Russia’s main security agency—controlled everything.
Plunkert remembered seeing KGB observation posts everywhere and likewise noted how the KGB would follow anyone and everyone. It spared no expense, Plunkert said.
“There was going to be a winner and a loser … and we set out everyday to make sure the U.S. won.”
As a result of such great resources being spent toward maintaining communism in Moscow, quality of life suffered—so much so that it was like living in a third-world country.
Plunkert expressed these feelings and effects from his day-to-day life in Moscow.
Often, Plunkert said, hot water and heat would suddenly stop working—he and his family would be left wearing winter jackets in their 45-degree living room and boiling water in order to bathe.
Further, if his family ever tried to get tickets to a local show or eat dinner out somewhere, the KGB could make sure that they were refused service.
Despite all this hardship, Plunkert spent his days gathering intel, learning Russian, and practicing role play for when he would meet with Tolkachef, whom he described as a friend and the most valuable human resource to the CIA.
“[Tolkachef] gave us everything—and we knew what their weak points were,” Plunkert said.
Although Tolkachef was exposed to the same propaganda as every other Russian, Plunkert said, he was able to figure out that communism is bad.
In retelling the scene, as it is detailed in Hoffman’s book, Plunkert illustrated how the KGB mostly knew who was in the CIA, so he and company had to be especially careful and precise in order to make contact with and obtain information from Tolkachef.
On the day of the meeting with Tolkachef, Plunkert rode in a car with his wife and two other people, which the CIA could safely assume was being tailed by the KGB.
Pretending the family was going to a birthday party, they carried a fake cake that operated like a jack-in-the-box and contained a lookalike of Plunkert. So when Plunkert hopped out of the car, they would release the fake Plunkert from the fake cake to make it seem as though four people were still in the car.
With only five pre-planned seconds to execute this part of the mission, Plunkert wore the garb of an old Russian man under his American clothes. He quickly changed into the outfit and popped on glasses with a mask as he exited the car.
“Planning is essential, plans are useless,” Plunkert said, quoting President John F. Kennedy.
Plunkert recounted the pulse-pounding details of how his glasses fogged up each time he attempted to breathe through the mask, making it nearly impossible to see where he was walking. He also described seeing a drunk KGB officer near the spot where he was supposed to meet Tolkachef.
Eventually he was able to rendezvous successfully with Tolkachef and get the information back to the embassy for the CIA. Plunkert recalled that it was the adrenaline rush of a lifetime.
“[Another CIA officer] gave me eight ounces of scotch, and I never felt a thing,” Plunkert said.
Although Tolkachef was later arrested and killed by the KGB, he said, Plunkert considered him to be massively important to the team effort.
Tolkachef, Plunkert said, saved the CIA billions of dollars that otherwise would have been poured into plans that may not have worked.
“A lot of people put in a cup to fill the bucket,” Plunkert said. “Tolkachef definitely put in a few cups of his own.”
Featured Image by Amelie Trieu / Heights Editor