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Julian Semyonov's life of illusions. From the bush of Nagonia to the sanctum of the KGB

By Christopher Swan and Linda FeldmannStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / September 25, 1987


JULIAN SEMYONOV squares off. His deep, guttural voice becomes menacing. He points an accusing finger at a woman reporter and musters up the muscle of his imposing physique. ``Look,'' he growls, ``if I tell you the truth, you won't print it. So let me tell you what you want to hear: I'm the general in charge of interrogation and intelligence for the KGB.''

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The Soviet Union's best-selling author - one of its more colorful dramatis personae, a putative friend of Mikhail Gorbachev, privileged by any standards, especially those in the Soviet Union - has been rumored to be an officer of that country's secret police. He denies the association. But the speculation certainly hasn't hurt his marketability. Part of that marketability comes also from a self-styled image as the Soviet Hemingway. (Mary Hemingway ``told me I have not only the voice but the blood of Papa,'' he says, adding later: ``When things go wrong, a woman cries and a man shoots.'')

If Mr. Semyonov is playing the role of daring novelist-adventurer, he certainly dresses the part.

Looking as though he just stepped out of the jungles of Nagonia - with his close-cropped hair and scrubby beard, his leather pouch at his side (holding Marlboros instead of a pistol) - he describes his publishing exploits in rambling anecdotes. ``I crossed the whole of Russia from Omsk archives to Vladivostok archives'' searching for materials, he says in heavily accented English.

``I published a novel with the title `No Passport Needed.' It was reviewed here in Time. ... It was about prostitutes in Moscow, about gangsters in Moscow, about drugs in Moscow. It was the first novel of its type, and it got very positive reviews in newspapers here and in Britain, with a photo in Time. It's very important for the prestige of the author, you know.''

Later he adds: ``I'm not very good at promoting myself.''

The author-journalist is, in fact, on a tour of the West, promoting the English-language translation of his 1979 novel set in the fictitious African country Nagonia. ``Tass Is Authorized to Announce'' is a prototypical Semyonov spy-thriller in which the KGB wears the white hats and the CIA does dirty deeds at the bidding of industrial bosses.

His 35 books may sell well (35 million copies in the Soviet Union), but they don't get particularly high marks from many American observers of Soviet literature.

``He's viewed as more of a pop writer than as a serious literary artist,'' says Jerry Mikkelson, professor of Russian literature at the University of Kansas at Lawrence. Other experts in Soviet culture told the Monitor they never bother to read Semyonov.

His freedom to travel for as long as he has and his other privileges have earned him a reputation among cognoscenti as a man who toes the line to keep his privileges. Whatever the techniques for getting there, Semyonov has some rare freedoms. ``We can't find another case like him: He's a first,'' comments Leonard Sussman, executive director of Freedom House, referring to Semyonov's ability not only to publish in the West but to take a press tour alone, promoting his books.

Still, Semyonov considers himself an outsider and rebel - a longtime between-the-lines crusader for reform, whose time has come with the advent of Mr. Gorbachev.

``I was the first to put into a novel [in 1971] the name of [Nikolai] Bukharin with positive meaning,'' he says, referring to the Bolshevik revolutionary purged under Stalin. ``I proposed positions in my novels published in early '70s: I said we need individual labor, we need individual caf'es, restaurants, cars, and so on and so on. It was only me who published it in Soviet press. I did it.''

He acknowledges, however, that he has made compromises to stay out of trouble, following an ``I'd rather switch than fight'' philosophy. In fact, he has more than stayed out of trouble. He drives a Volvo wagon, has an apartment and atelier in Moscow, a dacha outside Moscow, and a villa on the Black Sea. He sports gold bracelets and a ring with a 40-carat diamond - a gift, he jokes, from ``the dictatorship of the proletariat.''