When Aleksandr Ushakov decided to defect from the Soviet Union in 1984, he took the hard way out. He walked. The former associate professor at the Higher Maritime and Engineering Institute in Odessa hiked over the Caucasian Mountains into Turkey -- a grueling 19-day journey, during which he ate dried meat and black bread, swam icy streams, crossed mine fields and survived a Russian helicopter attack at the border.
Once in the West, he was debriefed by US intelligence and ended up in New York City, living in a shabby hotel, unable to speak the language, out of work, and alone. Only recently has he begun gathering together the threads of his life, he says. He lives in Washington, studies English, and has written a book about his experiences.
Mr. Ushakov, who hopes to eventually find a position as a professor in an American university, asks emphatically: ``Who helps the defectors?''
It's a question being asked with increasing urgency in recent months, sparked by several noisy redefections, particularly that of Vitaly Yurchenko, a top KGB official who walked away from his CIA escort in Washington last year and returned to the Soviet Union.
Ushakov's experience illustrates what many experts say are serious shortcomings in the way the United States resettles defectors and hints at the problems that can drive some defectors back to the East. The root of the problem, say those familiar with the situation, is an ``inefficient'' and often ``callous'' resettlement system.
In one case, a talented Soviet diplomat and Middle East expert was assigned a German identity -- a particularly ridiculous choice, since he couldn't even speak that language -- and encouraged to enroll in a motel management school. The school turned out to be a dubious operation which soon folded, and the defector found he could not find acceptable work using the resum'e of a German immigrant that did not reflect his own skills.
Despite such grim stories, some defectors find it easy to enter US society. For the most part, these are the ballet dancers and athletes who have skills which can be easily transferred.
``It's the diplomats and intellectuals who have the greatest difficulty adjusting,'' says William Geimer, director of the nonprofit Jamestown Foundation in Washington, which seeks out and assists East bloc intellectuals. Mr. Geimer says these are the people who -- together with KGB agents and military officers -- are accustomed to operating at the highest levels of society.
Experts point out that these former members of the East bloc elite are often distressed by the prospect of driving taxicabs or washing dishes to earn a living in the United States. And yet, in realistic terms, the group's professional job prospects are limited to a narrow range of fields such as translation and teaching. There is virtually no opportunity for a former diplomat or KGB agent to work in a security-sensitive area of the US government or industry.
And in cases such as that of Ushakov, the language barrier can pose a challenge. ``I'm a professor, but I can't give lectures in English,'' says Ushakov, in precisely phrased, but halting, English. Undaunted, he presented a series of prepared lectures at Georgetown University in June, and has given talks to private foundations.
Ushakov and others familiar with the experience of defectors say the hardships faced by many of them could discourage future defections, drying up an important source of intelligence information for the West. According to one estimate, about 100 individuals are granted special sanctuary in the US every year -- in exchange for the information they provide to US intelligence.
Not all defectors are useful for intelligence purposes, however. Many intellectuals and artists are given short debriefings, while diplomats and agents can be sequestered by the CIA for months.
``There's a tendency to bring [intelligence sources] out to suburban Virginia and squeeze them like a lemon . . ,'' says F. Mark Wyatt, a retired CIA agent who spent 31 years with the agency. And, while praising the work of the agency in general, Mr. Wyatt says the organization's resettlement department is extremely weak.
Part of the problem, he says, is the low prestige associated with the CIA's defector resettlement division. ``The people put in there are the ones with futures going nowhere. It's a dead-end job,'' he says.
Complicating matters are a number of cases in which counterintelligence agents infiltrated the ranks of genuine defectors. The Soviets send agents to the West disguised as defectors in an effort to discredit the information provided by earlier, legitimate defectors.
In addition to the problem of double agents, says Wyatt, ``there's a feeling that defectors have betrayed the trust of their former country, so you can't really trust them.'' This strains the relationship between defectors and US officials, who must decide whether or not the defectors are genuine. Observers say this cloud of mistrust, compounded by the challenge of adjusting to US society, can be overwhelming.
``I probably expected too much,'' says Vladimir Sakharov, a Soviet diplomat who defected to the US in 1971. Dr. Sakharov expected to become an analyst once he defected, but instead spent a decade in a series of low-level jobs. The most important thing he learned during this time, he says, is to rely on himself.
Experts say East bloc defectors find it difficult to adjust to the many choices left to the individual in the West. Says one American analyst: ``What to us is freedom, to them is anarchy.''
In the aftermath of the Yurchenko redefection, the Reagan administration ordered a complete review of the way defectors are handled.
What is needed, critics say, is a system in which those involved in resettlement keep close contact with the defectors. Many point to Britain as a model for the US to consider. One of the major strengths of the British system is the close contact maintained between intelligence agents and the defectors.
In most cases, experts say, the most successful defectors in the US are those who quickly learn how to take care of themselves. Ushakov, characteristically terse, offers this advice to other defectors: ``Help yourself -- that's the key.'' Services for defectors
One place East bloc intellectuals can turn to for help in adjusting to life in the United States is the Jamestown Foundation.
A private sector initiative, this nonprofit organization founded in l984 serves as a central clearinghouse for information on defectors and provides them with a variety of free services, ranging from legal aid to editing and translation help for those who write books or articles. The basic idea, says one supporter, is to help intellectually gifted defectors disseminate their ideas in the West.The foundation currently works with more than 20 individual defectors, 12 of whom are working on books, opinion pieces, and magazine articles.
Because of limited financial resources -- which come from individuals, foundations, and corporations -- the foundation has not in the past been able to provide direct support to individuals. Earlier this month, however, the board of advisers approved a plan to begin supporting defectors who do research at academic institutions.
William Geimer, Jamestown's president, says the organization has made a number of recommendations for ways in which the government's handling of defectors could be improved. ``In the future, it should be better,'' he says.
Critics charge that the foundation doesn't voice strong enough criticism of the Central Intelligence Agency, and Mr. Geimer is reluctant to discuss the controversy over CIA resettlement efforts.
Much of the foundation's work depends on a network of contacts Geimer has nurtured as a Washington lawyer. Defectors are often housed temporarily in the homes of foundation ``friends.'' And when a defector needs help finding a position in an academic institution, for example, Geimer can call upon American University President Richard Berendzen, who serves on the foundation's board of advisers. Other notable figures on the 12-person board include Rep. Dick Cheney (R) of Wyoming and former national security advisor Richard Allen.