Ex-Soviet Spy Exposes Stretch Credulity

YOU might think that when the real Communist spymasters came in from the cold war to tell their stories, the market for spy novels would languish. But Ian Fleming, John LeCarre, and Tom Clancy needn't worry yet. From what we've seen of the revelations of the old KGB crowd, truth tends to be duller than fiction and often a lot less plausible.

In ``Special Assignment,'' retired KGB Gen. Pavel Sudoplatov boasted of having enabled Stalin to catch up with the American atomic bomb by enlisting the cooperation of American nuclear scientists Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and Enrico Fermi. That has been denounced by most American scientists as hogwash and defamatory, but it helped sell books.

Now come a couple more of the alumni. Between publisher pressure for sensations and the fact that deception has been their way of life for so long, how do the comrades expect to be believed? Yuri Modin was, for three key years, controller of British spies Guy Burgess, Donald MacLean, Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, and John Cairncross. His book, ``My Five Cambridge Friends,'' fills out some details of what they were like and how they operated, but does not essentially change the accepted picture of traitors for a cause they believed in.

But then the bragging - about tens of thousands of Soviet troops saved by secrets ferreted out by the British spies. Modin savors the story of the big flap in Washington when the Soviets arranged to leak to columnist Drew Pearson the secret record of Kremlin talks between Stalin and Roosevelt emissary Harry Hopkins. But just as interesting is the further evidence of what was the premise for all this spying: the conviction of Stalin and his successors that America was planning a nuclear attack on the USSR.

Yuri Shvets, who writes ``Washington Station: My Life as a KGB Spy in America,'' covers a more recent period, from the viewpoint of a run-of-the-mill spy, rather than spymaster. Much of his book has to do with KGB red tape and in-fighting, probably not much different from the CIA's. Some of it has to do with the art of evading FBI ``tails.'' One of the principal jobs of the Washington station, he says, was to spot what Pentagon and other government lights were on late at night that might tip off the coming US surprise attack on the Soviet Union.

The best stories in Shvets's book are totally implausible. One is about the US contact who discovered enough information working as a trash collector in defense contractors' offices to enable the KGB in 1982 to brief Soviet boss Yuri Andropov about American missile capabilities and basing modes. The scene ends with Andropov saying, barely above a whisper: ``It's over then.... We have to come to terms with the United States.'' Do you believe that? Some garbage collector!

Or try this one: Six days before the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1986, Soviet disinformation specialists arranged to have concocted documents linking the Colombian cocaine cartel to the Nicaraguan contra support operation found on the plane piloted by Eugene Hasenfus that was shot down over Nicaragua. Remember that this was the incident that blew open the Iran-contra scandal. Shvets says the purpose, however, was more parochial - to endanger the summit. Why? Because the KGB was souring on Gorbachev. An unlikely story.

Want my advice? Stick with LeCarre, Fleming, and Clancy. Overt fiction. Spy stories that make sense. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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