Moscow — The image of the KGB, the massive security and intelligence system recently inherited by Gen. Vladimir Kryuchkov, is going through a difficult transition. The traditional attitude toward the KGB (the Russian initials for the Committee for State Security) has been one of private fear and public praise. When a conversation turns to the committee, people often knock three times rather than say the three letters out loud. On the other hand popular films and books regularly depict the heroic exploits of the KGB and its forerunners, particularly Lenin's Cheka, the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for the Struggle Against Counterrevolution and Sabotage.
This has now changed. Media coverage of the dark side of the security organization has gone far beyond denunciation of Joseph Stalin's secret police. Atrocities committed by the Cheka during Lenin's lifetime or soon afterward are being openly described in the media. The KGB's participation in the 1964 overthrow of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev has been publicly documented. And the first criticism of KGB repression of dissidents under Yuri Andropov - a hero to some prominent reformers, and patron of present KGB chief Kryuchkov - has begun to surface in the official media.
Faced with this, the KGB has tried to develop its own authorized version of history.
It admits to excesses under Stalin, but tries to limit them to the period 1937-53 - from the unleashing of the ``great purge'' to the arrest and execution of Lavrenty Beria, Stalin's chief of secret police. Viktor Chebrikov, KGB chairman until last month, also stressed that the purges had also claimed the lives of 20,000 security officials.
From Stalin's death until the appointment of Andropov as KGB chief in 1967, the security organization went through a ``neutral period,'' KGB officers recently told a French writer. Then under Andropov, it recovered its past glory.
Until very recently, the heroic image of the Cheka in official media was unquestioned. The term Chekist (member of the Cheka) is still used by the KGB and the official media as a term of praise. Feliks Dzerzinski, the Cheka's first chairman, is praised as one of the forerunners of reform.
But in the last few months Soviet writers have published horrifying accounts of Cheka brutality. In the latest issue of the literary journal Novy Mir, for example, a poem by Velimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922) tells of the Cheka's ``castle of death'' in the city of Kharkov in 1919. Footnotes to the poem, published for the first time, refer the reader for further details to Alexander Solzhenitsyn's still-banned book Gulag Archipelago - and scornfully quote from an official account that plays down the horror.
One symbol of Cheka excesses is the brutal camps opened on the Solovetsky Islands in 1923, a year before Lenin's death. A film on the camps, which are in the far north, will be premi`ered this weekend. One of their survivors is Dmitry Likhachev, a reform-minded literary historian who has worked closely on cultural issues with Raisa Gorbachev, the wife of the Soviet leader.
Equally striking - though currently more guarded - criticism is beginning to surface about the KGB under Andropov. The criticism is cautious, but a pattern is beginning to appear.
First came literary critic Yuri Burtin, who in a ground-breaking essay published in August 1987 described how, in the 1960s and '70s, the best of the Soviet intelligentsia was forced into the opposition, punished ``with the full severity of the law,'' or driven abroad. (Leonid Brezhnev was party leader from 1964 to 1982, while Andropov headed the KGB from 1967 to 1982, when he succeeded Brezhnev.)
In July another critic, Igor Zolotussky, wrote of people who, during the Brezhnev years, resisted attempts to restore Stalin's reputation. The ``heroes'' of this generation, Mr. Zolotussky recalled, ``wrote petitions and protests, themselves went out into the squares [to demonstrate], and were put in prison, in psychiatric hospitals or exiled.'' Neither Mr. Burtin nor Zolotussky mentions the security police by name.
But in September two writers finally pointed the finger directly at the KGB. Writing in the monthly Twentieth Century and Peace, they described how Prof. Yefim Etkind, a Jewish academic who was opposed on principle to the idea of emigration, was forced out: ``In 1976 on the representation of the KGB, Y.G. Etkind was dismissed from work and expelled from the Union of Writers.'' He was then stripped of his academic degrees and titles. Mr. Etkind, the authors write, had appeared as a witness for the defense in the trial of the poet Joseph Brodsky. Unable to bear the shame of his dismissal, they write, Etkind emigrated to France.
The idea of KGB political neutrality after the death of Stalin was debunked in a long essay published in September by Fyodor Burlatsky. A longtime aide to Andropov, Mr. Burlatsky described how the KGB under Vladimir Semichastny played a major role in Khrushchev's overthrow. Supporters of Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms, who have expressed apprehension about the KGB's current activities, quickly asserted that Burlatsky's article should be taken as a warning to the leadership. Other accounts of the period, including the recently published reminiscences of Khrushchev's son, Sergei, casually refer to the bugging of top leaders' phones and homes.
The KGB is using its own active public-relations machine to try to counter the bad press.
``They send us stuff all the time,'' commented one Soviet editor when asked about a bulging envelope marked ``KGB press bureau'' that was on his desk.
Early in September, then-KGB chief Chebrikov gave a rare interview to the Communist Party daily, Pravda. In it he noted that 235 books and 10 feature films about Chekists had appeared last year. September also saw the publication of a memoir about two of the KGB's big successes: the Soviet spies Rudolf Abel and Konan Molody, alias Gordon Lonsdale. And, about the same time, KGB official Vladimir Rubanov published a long article attacking the cult of secrecy.
The KGB may have been heartened by one the year's best sellers, Anatoly Rybakov's ``Children of the Arbat.'' This book contrasts the relatively decent old Chekist, Alferov, with the unprincipled Stalin-era recruit, Sharok. And a play that opened last May, ``Four Interrogations,'' depicted secret policemen in a much more positive light. In it, a young interrogator during Stalin's purges is won over by the nobility of an old Bolshevik prisoner. The play's premi`ere was tepidly received, and there is no sign so far that it will run in Moscow this season.