Now you see him. Soon you probably won't.
Vitaly Yurchenko, the KGB agent who is returning to Moscow this week after a splashy renunciation of his defection, will probably become a cipher in the volumes detailing the intense battles waged by American and Soviet spies.
His motives in question, his credibility in doubt, Mr. Yurchenko will probably quickly disappear into the secret warrens of the kommitet, as the Soviet secret police, the KGB, is often known here.
Some Western diplomats here suspect that Yurchenko was a double agent all along, and that the entire operation was a skillful ploy to embarrass the United States Central Intelligence Agency. If that is true, Yurchenko will undoubtedly be assured a place of honor in KGB headquarters in Moscow.
If, as other diplomats believe, he was a genuine defector who had second thoughts, he will probably quickly disappear from view.
Speculation on the fate that would then await him ranges from a death sentence to the Siberian labor camps. Some analysts here do not rule out the possibility that Yurchenko will be produced at a news conference after his return, to elaborate on his charges that he was kidnapped, drugged, and brainwashed by the CIA. But if there is any one point on which virtually all Kremlin-watchers agree, it is that Yurchenko will probably never again be seen outside the Soviet Union.
If he was a double agent, then his ``cover'' has been stripped away. If he was a defector, then he will never be given the chance to repeat his transgression. But Yurchenko, if he really was as highly placed in the KGB as the CIA first indicated, undoubtedly has some idea of the fate that awaits him.
The only rough precedent in recent years was the case of Oleg Bitov, a journalist with the Literary Gazette, who defected in London, lived and traveled in the West for a year, then returned to Moscow. He, like Yurchenko, also claimed to have been drugged and held against his will.
Mr. Bitov conducted a press conference shortly after his return last year and wrote a spectacular account of his experiences in the Literary Gazette. Lately, however, his name has not been spotted in the newspaper. ``He seems to have dropped from sight,'' says one diplomat.
A call to Literary Gazette asking about Bitov brought assurances that he is still working for the newspaper, but that the number of the telephone extension at which he could be reached was ``not at hand.''
Why would either man return to an uncertain fate?
It is a question that is probably extremely hard to answer -- except for a Russian.
Russians speak of a bond between themselves and their country that is part patriotism, part something more -- an almost inexplicable link that binds people and place together.
Even many of those immigrants who successfully integrate into Western society express deep and profound regret that they will never again be able to see the rodina -- the motherland.
``We love our country,'' says one Muscovite.
On the more cynical side, Soviet authorities are also able to manipulate personal concerns of a would-be defector. For the most part, Soviet officials -- even spies -- are not allowed to leave this country unless there is something -- or, more often, someone -- they value that stays behind. It could be a spouse, children, parents, or other close relatives, and the implicit threat of harm to them is a powerful incentive not to defect.
No matter what Vitaly Yurchenko's motivations were, he is unlikely to be heard from again once his brief time in the headlines ends. The KGB is one of the world's most efficient agencies when it comes to keeping a secret.
Notably, the fact that Yurchenko was a KGB agent has never even surfaced in the Soviet press, despite intense publicity here about his ``kidnapping'' and subsequent ``escape'' from the CIA. He has only been identified here as a ``high-ranking Soviet diplomat.''
That is not to say, however, that the Soviet state views espionage and counterespionage as unseemly. The KGB is routinely praised in the official press as a ``guardian'' of the Soviet homeland, which consistently foils the unseemly designs of the CIA to undermine and weaken this country.