JERUSALEM — For about two hours Monday, the most authoritative report that Soviet President Konstantin U. Chernenko had died came from an unlikely source--Israel's largest-circulation newspaper, Yediot Aharonot.
The Soviet Union broke diplomatic relations with Israel 18 years ago and lists the Jewish state as among the greatest enemies of the world's "progressive forces." Nonetheless, since 1971, Yediot Aharonot has had as its part-time correspondent in Moscow the Soviet Union's most notorious leaker--a high-living former prisoner in Stalin's labor camps with the un-Russian name of Viktor Louis.
Louis cabled the Israeli paper--whose name means Latest News--at 11 a.m. Monday advising: "For your information, Konstantin Chernenko is dead." The cable arrived two hours before the official announcement in Moscow.
"He's never led us wrong," gloated Dov Yudkovsky, the paper's executive editor.
Louis is one of the Soviet Union's most intriguing characters. He emerged from prison camp speaking good English and sought work as a translator for foreign news organizations in Moscow. Later, he became the first Soviet citizen ever allowed to work as an accredited correspondent for a Western newspaper--the London Evening News.
For all his lowly beginnings, Louis seems to have access to an amazing amount of inside information. For example, he leaked news of the late Nikita S. Khrushchev's ouster to Western correspondents in 1964, and he later reportedly had a hand in smuggling the former Soviet premier's memoirs to the West.
Yudkovsky said in a telephone interview Monday that Louis' most important previous "scoop" for Yediot Aharonot was one of his first stories for the newspaper, hinting that Moscow would allow Soviet Jews to emigrate.
"I remember (then Israeli Prime Minister) Golda Meir telephoning to me and asking me to read her the exact working of Louis' cable," Yudkovsky said.
The editor refused to disclose his newspaper's financial arrangements with the Moscow stringer. However, it is clear that it is not his work for foreign newspapers that supports Louis' sumptuous life-style, which includes frequent travel abroad, Swiss boarding schools for his children and a large country estate filled with antiques and the latest in Western electronic gadgetry.
Louis is widely considered by Soviet affairs specialists in the West to be working for the KGB secret police as a middle man used to pass selected information--and "disinformation"--to foreigners. He is nonetheless cultivated by diplomats, journalists and others in Moscow as a necessary, if unsavory, source.
Yudkovsky said Yediot Aharonot's London correspondent recruited Louis, and that the Muscovite writes a story for the Israeli newspaper once every three or four months. The articles tend to be brief and to the point: His Chernenko scoop consisted of five sentences, and was signed "Regards, Viktor Louis."
Yudkovsky doesn't even mind that it arrived too late for his newspaper's deadline. Word of the unused "scoop" was passed to Western news agencies, he said, and "we had very good worldwide publicity."