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

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.''

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.''

At one point in the interview, he says flatly that he compromises because ``I want to be free, I want to travel, I want to enjoy life.'' The price for these privileges has been ready acquiescence to the censor's pen: ``How do you succeed? With compromises. You cut some parts of your novels. I've cut things out of all my books.''

Taking that road has given him access to the mighty and the mysterious in the Soviet government.

He says, for instance, that when his novel ``No Passport Needed'' appeared, then-KGB head Yuri Andropov was inspired to call him on the phone and invite him in for a t^ete-`a-t^ete that opened KGB files for future books.

Today, he seems no less well connected. Gorbachev called him by first name at a press conference during the Geneva summit. Walter Laqueur of the Georgetown University Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote: ``It is an open question whether Gorbachev [gets] his information from ... a Semyonov novel.'' Semyonov's American publishers maintain he's ``a friend and adviser'' to the Soviet leader.

``Why don't you ask his publishers where they get the chutzpah to say that?'' asks Ray Benson, who just returned from four years as counsel for press and culture at the US Embassy in Moscow. Nevertheless, he acknowledges that Semyonov is widely believed to have special access to the power centers of the Soviet government.

Semyonov presents a figure in motion during an hour-long chat at an outdoor caf'e here. He shifts around constantly in his chair, gesturing frequently with his large, fleshy hands, smoking a string of cigarettes, obviously enjoying his ability to handle questions that arise.

Does he, for instance, believe that the CIA takes orders from industrial bosses, as his books indicate?

``May I ask you, who was author of these three words: ``military-industrial complex''? he asks rhetorically, going on to give a lengthy description of the term coined by then-President Eisenhower. ``So I want to explain to my readers that there is a big difference between bankers, industrialists, businessmen here in US involved in constructing houses, building roads, planes, and so on and so on and so on. And there exists a military-industrial complex with which you and I disagree.''

But does he think these industrial managers tell the CIA what to do?

``It's a habit of Russians and a habit of Americans to drink tea or vodka and to discuss some problems; and [my characters] are discussing a problem in another country.''

Finally, offered the opportunity to simply answer ``Da'' or ``Nyet,'' he says coolly, ``Am I in prison?''

No. It's a free country.

``Well, that's my answer.''

In such exchanges, Semyonov comes across as the wily, nimble talker who has managed to work his way through official associations that began with the local police (in his early detective-mystery novels) and eventually led to a 10-hour discussion with the late Vyacheslav Molotov, a Russian revolutionary leader and Soviet statesman, on the details of a novel. He is a survivor who has not only prevailed but prospered during successive regimes with very different agendas.

None of which detracts from his knack for writing what sells. (Many of his books have been made into movies or television series.) Despite his assertions that he is an early practitioner of glasnost, his writing follows many of the taboos on how history is portrayed. And his books are filled with time-honored stereotypes.

``His characters fit the clich'es,'' Mr. Benson observes. ``But I suspect our guys do the same thing, too.''

Semyonov's declamations on current events are sometimes remarkably direct, however.

``During two years, we have graduated from the university of democracy,'' he declares. Then he asks: ``Don't you think there should be a monument to journalists in Moscow for what they have accomplished in the last two years?''

Whatever the validity of these statements, he makes them with the assurance of one who knows just how much he can say and enjoys testing his listeners' willingness to challenge him. When they do, he's off and running with another lengthy anecdote - again, giving few clues as to how he got so far and how he has managed to stay there so long.

But, then, who is Semyonov, anyway?

He's not telling.

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