'Spies in the family'
It is a story that could easily play out in an episode of “Homeland” on Netflix, “The Americans” on F/X or in any number of intrigue-filled spy dramas on the big screen these days. A Russian spy turns to provide secrets to the United States, while working with a CIA agent based in India. Together, they avert a potential nuclear meltdown between the two superpowers. Sound far-fetched? Not to Daniel Island resident Eva Dillon. For her, in the most personal way, every word of it is true.
The CIA agent was her father, Paul Dillon, and the Russian spy was World War II hero Dmitri Fedorovich Polyakov. And Eva has written a book documenting the pair’s pivotal relationship during the Cold War. Already attracting rave reviews, the narrative is entitled “SPIES IN THE FAMILY: An American Spymaster, His Russian Crown Jewel, and the Friendship That Helped End the Cold War.” Eva recently shared details about her family’s story, and the process she undertook in writing the book, as the keynote speaker at the April 12 Daniel Island Speakers Series event.
In the summer of 1975, when Eva was just 17 years old, a newspaper article exposed Paul Dillon as a CIA officer. In what Eva would call a “WikiLeaks scandal of the 1970s,” his position was also “outed” in a tell-all book by Philip Agee. Her father died at age 53 in 1980, but she would only come to learn the full extent of his work after her mother’s death in 1997.
Eva told the capacity crowd gathered in the main ballroom at the Daniel Island Club that a box discovered in her mother’s attic inspired her to explore her father’s past.
“…The box contained a collection of documents and papers,” said Eva, who grew up believing her father worked for the U.S. State Department in a position that necessitated frequent moves around the globe. “We took it downstairs, and later, while my siblings and I were sitting around the dining room table talking about arrangements for selling the house, my husband, JL, pulled a magazine out of the box and started reading.”
JL mentioned that Eva’s father’s name was listed in an article and that he had handled a Soviet General during the Cold War whose code name was “TOPHAT.” The piece went on to report that TOPHAT was sent as a military attache to India, where Paul Dillon, an ex-marine from Boston, was dispatched to serve as his CIA case officer.
“My mother, probably keeping a vow to my father not to reveal anything during their lifetimes, hadn’t wanted to tell us herself, but clearly wanted us to know by leaving behind the article and other documents,” said Eva. “And that, in those pre-internet days before news found you rather than you finding it in a dusty box in an attic, is when I discovered the magnitude of my father’s secret career.”
The discovery prompted Eva to learn more about her father’s CIA days - and about Polyakov. She wondered why he was so important, about the nature of his relationship with her father, and about the political impact of their collaboration.
“I wondered, also, what kind of life the general had led in Russia, on the other side of the Iron Curtain,” said Eva to her audience. “Did he have children? What was it like for them to grow up in the Soviet Union with a spy for a father, compared to us?”
The magazine article had also mentioned a betrayal - and Eva was determined to find out more. Over the course of three years, she interviewed more than 18 of Paul Dillon’s former CIA colleagues and other intelligence professionals, some of whom asked not to be identified. She poured through works written by investigative journalists and spy book writers, as well as CIA and FBI reports, and various media from Russia and the former Soviet Union. But Eva considers Polyakov’s son, Alexander, to be her most “cherished source.”
“What came out of all of this research is an intimate double family memoir, within a broader Cold War history, spanning 50 years and three continents,” explained Eva, while citing the similarities of concerns over Vladimir Putin’s intentions and aggressions today. “…What I strove to do with my book was to show how geo-political events between governments affect real people in profound ways. One person in particular, the book’s main protagonist and my primary motivation for writing it, and hence, the book’s dedication, to honor Dmitri Fedorovich Polyakov.”
Eva would go on to learn much more about Polyakov and the unique asset he was to the United States during a critical time in our history. He was not tempted by the luxuries of the West, she explained to her Daniel Island audience, a weakness that often compromised other Soviet assets. Although his actions clearly put his life at risk, Polyakov didn’t ask for money or political asylum.
“Rather, he was motivated by a desire to lessen the very real threat of nuclear war by helping the Americans better interpret the Soviet leadership’s thinking and intentions,” continued Eva. “He considered himself a Russian patriot, seeing the Soviet leaders as corrupt thugs, mocking the sacrifices that the Russian people had made during the war. At the height of the Cold War, Polyakov offered the CIA an unfiltered view into the vault of Soviet intelligence.”
But perhaps the most significant information Polyakov was able to convey to his American counterparts, said Eva, was that the Soviet government did not believe it could prevail in a nuclear confrontation with the U.S. That realization, she continued, served to degrade the Kremlin’s ability to threaten America and her allies, and diffuse tensions - “eventually leading to disarmament talks between the superpowers.”
Throughout much of Polyakov’s covert involvement with the U.S, he worked alongside Paul Dillon, with whom he would develop a close friendship based on mutual respect.
“It was in Burma where Polyakov and my father first met,” explained Eva. “But it was in India where they became close, after we moved there in 1973. Polyakov had a reputation inside the CIA of being unknowable and humorless. But all of that changed with my father.”
Eva described her father as “warm and sentient” - and someone who “imparted a preternatural sense of trustworthiness - traits even the KGB would later acknowledge.” She did not divulge to her audience what would become of Polyakov after he returned to Russia, and instead encouraged all in attendance to read the book.
For Eva, who spent 25 years in the magazine publishing business for the likes of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Glamour and The New Yorker, writing “SPIES IN THE FAMILY” has been a labor of love. Recently, Kirkus Reviews awarded the book a coveted “Kirkus Star,” given to only 10 percent of the review site’s books. Eva, a former president of Reader’s Digest who holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Virginia Commonwealth University, hopes the real life espionage thriller will illuminate a once secret relationship that quite literally changed the world.
“I didn’t want to write the book that a journalist or historian would, and should, write some day,” explained Eva. “I wanted to write the book by a daughter, infusing the personal, human interest aspect into an incredible Cold War story, as it revealed itself to me, and to Alexander Polyakov. So, I seized the opportunity to tell my father’s and Polyakov’s story as a journalist could not, from the perspective of a daughter, and a son, in all of its newsworthy, and human, ways.”
For more information on the book, released by Harper Collins on May 9, visit https://www.harpercollins.com/9780062385888/spies-in-the-family.
“SPIES IN THE FAMILY” Upcoming Events!
Open House/Book Signing
Thursday, May 18
400 Ralston Creek Street, Daniel Island
Hosted by Dianne and Steve Potts.
Drop by any time between 3 and 7 p.m.
Bring your pre-ordered copy, pick one up at Barnes and Noble, or buy one there.
In a toast to Russia, Moscow Mules will be served.
No RSVP is necessary.
Monday, June 12
Society 164 King Street, Charleston
If you missed Eva’s presentation at the Daniel Island Club last month, she will be speaking again at the Charleston Library Society, 164 King Street, at 6 p.m.
Go to the following website to sign up: http://charlestonlibrarysociety.org/events-and-programs/ or call (843) 723-9912.