A Soviet defector's wearisome tale of life in KGB's fast lane

On the Wrong Side: My Life in the KGB, by Stanislav Levchenko. Washington: Pergamon-Brassey. 244 pp. $18.95.

Defectors who write autobiographies are stuck between a rock and a hard place, a former Czech intelligence officer told me recently. If they write a serious, academic book, it won't sell to anyone but scholars and KGB nuts, a very small market. If they sensationalize their story and weave a lurid tale of intrigue, they can sell a few million copies and make a pile of money, but they might lose their cachet as detached analysts, being seen instead as politically or financially inspired.

This dilemma surfaces in ``On the Wrong Side: My Life in the KGB,'' by Stanislav Levchenko, who tries to accomplish both and doesn't succeed on either count. He provides instead a sometimes interesting but very slow-moving, fairly dry, formulaic account of a life in the KGB: enthusiasm, hard work, disillusionment, defection.

Levchenko's career began in counterintelligence, showing foreigners Potemkin villages, a cover for collecting information on them. He became increasingly disillusioned with the Soviet Union after vacationing in free and prosperous Japan, where he went to escape what he thought was an immoral job. It wasn't long before he became a ``secret Christian'' and member of the Communist Party, and was summoned for training by the KGB's foreign clandestine service, a weird sequence of events. Notwithstanding his afflatus, he was tops in KGB school, making some of the highest marks in its history. During one exercise in evading surveillance, Levchenko shook a surveillant after noticing that in changing disguises he forgot to change shoes.

After training, Levchenko landed in Tokyo as correspondent for New Times magazine, a cover for his real job as KGB provocateur. Using the MICE (money, ideology, compromise, ego) method of analyzing the potential weaknesses of a target, he successfully recruited reporters and high-level government officials, including a labor minister. In another maneuver, Levchenko helped a high-level member of the Socialist Party start a newspaper by giving him a million yen, then tricked him into signing a ``receipt'' for the money on a business card. After a few years plying his trade, Levchenko began waking ``from sound sleep in a cold sweat,'' eventually confessing to his wife, ``I feel so dirty, so awful about the things I'm doing to decent well-meaning people.''

That guilt prompted ``the crucial decision'' to defect. By 1977, ``I had grown to hate my decision to become a KGB officer.... I tended to confuse loyalty to a country with loyalty to the regime and therefore to wonder if the act of becoming a political refugee were not an act of treason against my people.'' He decided it was not, and on Oct. 24, 1979, showed up at an American reception at the Hotel Sanno and requested asylum.

Although Levchenko led a wearisome life on the wrong side, his story isn't without humor. Early on, he kept track of American GIs ``defecting'' to the Soviet Union from duty in Vietnam. In Japan, he cut one mission short when fellow subway passengers noticed a transmitter antenna hanging from his trousers.

He prefaces each chapter with such snippets as a daydreamy stroll on the beach at Kill Devil Hills, N.C., reflecting on growing up in the Soviet Union, life on the wrong side, and his journey home - home to the beach house, and metaphorically, home to the United States, the warm hearth long sought by communist spies coming in from the cold. The device is too contrived. Levchenko seems tired - as tired during this walk in the sand as he was of working for the bad guys. This fatigue permeates the rest of the book. He closes with a list of the most frequently asked questions about the KGB - an attempt to give the book an academic quality that should have been reserved for another effort - that only repackages well-known facts.

For Levchenko, ``On the Wrong Side'' is a ``form of spiritual surgery, a catharsis, a cleansing of old wounds''; the emotional and psychological wounds from his years as a disinformant and conspirator with Japanese traitors. Unfortunately, the captivating anecdotes are burdened by a literary effort lacking the panache one expects from the autobiography of a spy.

R.Cort Kirkwood is a writer for the Washington-based wire service American Press International.

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