Cold War espionage continues to be among my favorite topics to read. Spies in the Family is a terrific book written by the daughter of a CIA case officer whose postings included Berlin, Mexico City, Rome, and New Delhi.
This book revolves around the case of Dmitri Polyakov, a senior GRU officer who made contact with the CIA in the early 1960s and served as a deep cover spy for the United States for nearly two decades. What made the narrative particularly compelling is that Dillon presents both sides of the coin. She shares deep background and family stories from both sides of the operation. Dillon covers her father’s career from her own perspective, and Polyakov’s from the perspective of his son. This type of story is very rare and is indeed, a gem.
Polyakov, code name TOPHAT, was the highest placed known US intelligence asset in the GRU. The KGB and GRU were intelligence cousins, much like the CIA and FBI, and so Polyakov’s work was very similar to that of Oleg Gordievsky. Unlike most intelligence assets, Polyakov wasn’t the victim of blackmail or seeking to enrich himself. Rather, he had a deep personal love for his country and an abiding hate for the leaders of the Communist Party who he saw as destroying Russia.
The book was very well written, Dillion having worked in publishing for years. The story was engaging, interesting, and it really pulled back the veil on what life is like for the family of a CIA case officer. At one point her father was helping a defector adjust to life in the United States, and he spent many nights at the family dinner table, including Thanksgiving! The story demonstrated the quiet dedication that the men and women in the intelligence community carry out every day, with little known by the general public. My one disappointment was how Dillon framed her father’s Catholic faith. Her father, Paul, was Irish-Catholic and by all accounts, a man of deep faith. When Dillon wrote on the theme of religion as central to her father’s ethos, she was uncharacteristically pedestrian. Particularly in the area of human sexuality, she missed multiple opportunities to share the practical implementation of Church teachings. Instead, she fumbled, perpetuating myths, and presenting false information to the reader. It didn’t inhibit the work as a whole, but it did miss on the chance to share how the beauty of Catholicism’s views on the dignity of the human person and human reproduction edify and strengthen the family.
This book tells an important story and underscores how in the course of international politics, national leaders make speeches, but the intelligence communities shape decisions.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★