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Russian KGB Agents Go From Undercover to Hard Cover

Espionage: Six onetime operatives coauthor a gently humorous travel guide to world cities. They hope to change stereotypes about Soviet spies.

July 26, 1996|VANORA BENNETT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — The days are past when KGB agents struck terror into the hearts and minds of people at home and abroad as the notorious spies slipped around the world gathering dangerous secrets. Now, the tables are turned.

Six Cold Warriors bared their own souls this week, telling secrets of the cloak-and-dagger trade they had pursued outside their homeland as part of the launch for a gently humorous travel book that promises to "show the world's most famous cities from an unexpected angle."

"The KGB Guide to World Cities" will hold few revelations for committed Kremlin watchers.

Pressed, for example, for details of his favorite assignation spots with his spy colleagues, plump Oleg D. Brykin, a former KGB agent in New York, just chuckled bashfully. He described the sites only as being "in Times Square, under the big clock" or "in a bar--they're the best places. In a dark bar."

But if the six authors of the 300-page Russian-language volume were giving up few secrets, they had many public hopes for their book, published by, of course, Top Secret: They want the tome to show Westerners that they have got Soviet spies all wrong. They want to set the record straight for posterity. The brutal but bumbling bad-guy Russian spy--especially as depicted in American movies--never existed, said Mikhail P. Lyubimov, a former KGB agent in London.

He and the others long to replace that offending cliche with a more flattering, sympathetic portrait of those Russians who pursued an ancient profession at the height of the Cold War.

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"Your James Bond wouldn't do for us at all because we don't think he'd be any good at writing," Lyubimov opined. "All he's good at is running around, leaping into cars and shooting from cars. He's more like a superior policeman . . . but he would be a hopeless intelligence agent.

"Our kind of spy," he noted, "has to have higher education, be a beautiful writer, be well-read and understand that you have to use both official and other sources to cover a country properly.

"It's a completely different class of person from the one who, unfortunately, is shown in the West," Lyubimov added wistfully.

"I have quite often come up against this Western impression of our intelligence agents--nothing has changed since the Cold War. Our spies are still portrayed as half-idiots and fools, whereas Western agents are always some wonderful George Smiley," he said, referring to the masterful character created by author John Le Carre. "Now, this book is different: It presents the human features of the normal Russian intelligence agent."

As a spy in New York, Brykin's life seems to have been one of suppressed glee at the absurdities of existence. When, for example, Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev visited the Big Apple and got it into his head to buy three black Cadillacs to cruise the city, Brykin was one of the negotiators who had to find the luxury vehicles.

The Soviet capitalists ended up paying six times the Caddies' usual price just to get them on time.

Brykin laughed aloud only when an elevator carrying the Soviet leader at the Empire State Building zoomed upward when not all in his entourage were ready, forcing Khrushchev's security guards to dash up 86 flights of stairs to the viewing platform.

There was no such hurly-burly at Wednesday's book promotion, conducted with clubby charm in an elegant mansion along the winding streets of old Moscow. It is the present home of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, one of the successor agencies left after the KGB was carved up following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Several of the authors ruefully described their early ideological beliefs--from Lyubimov, who recalled feeling resentful that V. I. Lenin had let the British off lightly by accepting that they would come to communism gradually while Russia had to undergo a revolution, to Leonid S. Kolosov, who said he had never taken Marxism-Leninism very seriously anyway.

Tatyana V. Samolis, press secretary of the Foreign Intelligence Service, waxed lyrical about the romance between spies and their assigned countries. "I am sure you will discover that an intelligence agent who works in a country for many years falls in love with it. . . . Otherwise, the profession is impossible. How will you get your sources if you don't know the country, its cooking and if you don't understand how people there think?" she said.

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But underlying the jokes and the laughter was a note of economic anxiety. Inessa M. Lastochkina, manager at Top Secret publishing house, said she hoped the travel book would be profitable as well as prestigious.

Yuri G. Kobaladze, the Foreign Intelligence Service's suave spokesman, would not detail the pension of a former Soviet spy but stressed that it was "miserly" compared with the sum paid to an American in a comparable post. Five years of grinding economic reforms in post-Soviet Russia have caused citizens' pay and pensions to dwindle.

Times are hard even for those still at work in Russia's new and oft-confused intelligence and security services, said Konstantin Preobrazhensky, a retired KGB lieutenant colonel and now an analyst for the weekly Moscow News. "When I used to meet former colleagues from the KGB, I asked them if their enormous offices had changed in any way . . . 'Yes,' they replied. 'Things have become worse.' "

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