WASHINGTON — During his years of imprisonment, Soviet dissident Anatoly Sharansky chanced to meet a Russian criminal, a professional con artist who was pursuing a bizarre goal: Despite the rigors of prison life, he was diligently studying English in hopes of emigrating to America--to ply his trade as a swindler.
America, he declared, was a land of easy pickings. Three of his friends were already there.
"But how will you get there?" asked the astonished Sharansky, who knew first-hand how hard it is for Russians to get permission to leave their homeland. "You aren't Jewish."
"The KGB will help me," the confident swindler replied. The Soviet secret police had helped his friends get to the United States by obtaining exit visas to Israel, he said, and he expected the same.
Sharansky's encounter, described in a recent interview, reflects growing evidence that the KGB has systematically helped criminals leave the Soviet Union. And U.S. officials say the Kremlin appears to have, from its point of view, two eminently practical reasons for doing so:
--First, to be rid of the criminals--much as President Fidel Castro did when he opened Cuban jails during the Mariel boatlift a decade ago.
--Second, to create a network in the West for their agents.
Under Soviet law, members of ethnic and national minority groups who have relatives in the West are theoretically allowed to emigrate to their "historic homeland." Soviet Jews make up by far the most prominent group seeking to take advantage of this rule, but ethnic Germans, Armenians and others are also sometimes allowed to leave. Jews get permission to go to Israel but most now come instead to the United States, where they also have relatives.
Lives of Crime
Some of these emigres embark on or continue lives of crime here as part of groups known to U.S. law enforcement officials as "the Russian Mafia" and "Russian Jews." In fact, although they are often associated with the Italian Mafia, the Russian gangs are themselves not well organized, the officials say. And as Sharansky's encounter suggests, some may not even be Jewish.
"Soviet yes, but Jewish, I'm not so sure," said a Brooklyn district attorney's aide who deals with criminals in the Brighton Beach area, where many Soviet emigres now live.
"They (the Soviets) deported these guys under the guise of letting Jews go," echoed a Baltimore detective. "Some are Jews, sure, but I know they also sent Gypsies as Jews. To me, they were just exporting thieves."
According to a report by the President's Commission on Organized Crime, the more than 200,000 Soviet immigrants who arrived over the last two decades "included a significant number of criminals who were forced to leave Russia." It suggested that by means of Jewish emigration:
"The Soviet Union attempted to empty their prisons and rid their society of undesirables, much as (Cuba's) Fidel Castro did several years later during the Mariel boatlift. . . . Some agents of the KGB were included among the large numbers of Russian emigres. . . . (A) possible connection (exists) between the KGB and Russian immigrants now involved in organized crime here.
"Approximately 12 Russian organized crime groups" exist in New York, with other groups in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago, Dallas, Portland, Boston, Miami and San Francisco, the commission said.
Western counterintelligence agencies have long suspected that the KGB "salted" the emigres with their agents. One such plant was uncovered in December in Israel when authorities arrested Shabtai Kalmanovich, 46, and alleged that he had spied for 14 years. During that time he had worked briefly for a member of the Israeli Knesset (parliament) and, during a period in which he worked as an international businessman, he reportedly helped in at least one U.S.-Soviet spy trade.
In the most celebrated American case involving the KGB and Soviet emigres, Nikolai Ogorodnikov, 55, and his wife Svetlana, 36, were convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage in 1985, along with renegade FBI man Richard W. Miller in Los Angeles. Miller, whose FBI duties consisted of surveillance of the Russian community, was allegedly recruited by the Ogorodnikovs to work as a KGB agent.
Nikolai Ogorodnikov, who said he had changed his name from Wolfson, pleaded guilty at the trial and was sentenced to eight years, but now proclaims his innocence. In an interview in the Federal Correctional Institution in Phoenix, he denied having been recruited by the KGB but admitted spending over 10 years in Soviet prisons on six criminal charges, mostly burglary, before coming to the United States in 1973.
His last arrest there, two years before he emigrated, he said, was on a rape charge trumped up by the KGB because of his contacts with U.S. diplomats. But the charge was dropped in what was a rare case of Soviet justice triumphing over the KGB, Ogorodnikov maintained.