A cold-war pawn in the game of superpower politics

TWO LIVES, ONE RUSSIA by Nicholas Daniloff

Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 307 pp. $19.95

IT was on Aug. 30, 1986, that Nicholas Daniloff, an American journalist of long Russian lineage and experience, suddenly became a cold-war pawn. With barely a week to go of a five-year stint in Moscow for U.S. News & World Report, he was arrested on the street by the KGB, handcuffed, and held on espionage charges in Lefortovo Prison.

This event followed the espionage arrest by the FBI of Gennadi Zakharov, a Soviet employee of the United Nations in New York.

What happened to Daniloff until he was exchanged for Zakharov and left Moscow on Sept. 29 is told in this warm, direct, and intensely personal memoir. It is not intended for specialists, though they will, of course, be able to draw certain conclusions from the bureaucratic blunders - on both sides - that helped create a first-class international incident.

Daniloff's focus is less on policy or political cut-and-thrust (to which the Reagan-Mondale campaign certainly contributed) than on what he said, felt, and was told in conversations with his cellmate, Stanislav Zenin, in some 30 hours of questioning by Colonel Segadeyev of the KGB, and in visits and phone conversations with his wife, son, American diplomats, and others.

Behind all these words stand Daniloff's feelings about a Russia, both czarist and Soviet, of vast spaces, emotions, and contradictions, a Russia that is not merely ``a state, but a state of mind.'' There are overtones here of the Slavic mystique found in, say, George Kennan's memoirs, or in Mikhalkov's wonderful tragicomedy, ``Dark Eyes.'' Here is Russia as the compelling motherland, evoking both love and fear, joy and sorrow, intensity and rejection.

If Daniloff's Russia is larger than life, he comes by it naturally. For this descendant of the old czarist nobility, the service class that staffed the state apparatus and was suddenly uprooted by the Bolshevik Revolution, is himself trying to come to terms with Russia. Both a grandfather and a great-uncle were important generals during World War I. The family fled after 1917; his father went to Harvard - in spats and a cane - and, hating the country that had destroyed his patrimony and driven him abroad, married an old-stock American, and even considered changing his name to McDaniel!

So Nick Daniloff grew up coping with mixed messages: a father who rarely mentioned Russia (and who remained aloof from America); a charming, domineering Russian grandmother who insisted that ``Russians are the world's most talented people, and have something to tell the world''; and an American mother who held everything together.

Nor was Daniloff the first of his line to know a Russian prison. A great-great-grandfather, Alexander Frolov, was a Decembrist, one of the officer conspirators who had tried - and failed - to overthrow Czar Nicholas I in December 1825. The very cream of the liberal nobility, these young idealists sought to transform Russia through a military coup; they paid with 30 years in Siberia.

Here was a family legend: Daniloff began investigating it systematically while in Moscow, with a biography in mind.

That political troubles should intervene, as they had with Frolov, is a small irony. So is the role of sheer happenstance. The absence on vacation of several key players in Washington meant a green light when the FBI argued that Zakharov, small-timer though he was, posed a serious problem by aggressively recruiting college students as spies. That the KGB might retaliate for the arrest of its employee was - apparently - not considered.

So it was that inexperience, shortsightedness, bureaucratic self-centeredness, and ideological shrillness reigned in both camps until the diplomats hurried in for damage control.

The conclusions are clear: It all could have been avoided; and when security services - be they the KGB, FBI, CIA, MI5, or Mossad - mold foreign policy, wisdom suffers and disaster approaches.

From `Two Lives, One Russia'

The colonel looked up from behind his desk....

I felt at a terrible disadvantage, standing in front of my well-dressed adversary, hands behind my back, trousers falling down, shoes half laced. The stubble on my chin itched, and I reeked of sweat. These indignities made me cringe inside, but I struggled not to let my distress appear on my face.

Sergadeyev let me stand ... while he looked me up and down without saying a word. Then he gestured toward a chair, signaling that the little game between suspect and inquisitor was over.

``And how have you fared, Nikolai Sergeyevich?'' he inquired in a friendly tone, as though humiliating me was the last thing on his mind. ``Do you have any complaints?''

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