WHEN Stalin died, Laverentii Beria, his murderous henchman and the head of the secret police, began disgorging the nation's prisons of all but the ``politicals.'' His plan was to plunge the nation into anarchy and drive it into the strong and protective arms of his agency, the MGB, today's KGB. Similar stories are the stuff of rumor today in the Soviet Union. Sharply worsening economic conditions and the jump in crime are attributed to ``anti-perestroika forces'' said to be hoarding scarce goods and sabotaging production in an attempt to discredit the changes mandated at the top. Two Russias face each other again. But this time the nation's jailor wants to be on the side of the people it sent to jail.
The KGB is touted as the most restructured and self-criticized civil institution in the USSR. It has, with much publicity, come to terms with its past by informing on some former collaborators and offering its services to those searching for victims from earlier decades of repression. Most of its political prisons have been emptied. It has surrendered its monopoly on information, most importantly on information about the West.
Invariably, whenever KGB holding cells were pointed out in Soviet provincial towns where I traveled for eight months two years ago, my unofficial guides would say their prisons are empty now, but the KGB is as active as ever. By all accounts, even in an era of free expression and impulses toward the rule of law, the KGB has not been quiescent. Just what is this organization of some 1 million souls up to?
Certainly there are secessionist groups to infiltrate and police work required by the tiny experiment in free enterprise. A mixed economy cannot function without audit and control. (Too bad for the honest and hard-working entrepreneurs caught up in a backlash of popular resentment against the operators who have their hands in the till of the state-run economy.)
Besides performing typical police work the KGB has, from the start, been able to shadow, if not claim outright, the spirit of perestroika. Two years ago, then KGB head Viktor Chebrikov explained the KGB's mandate as the ``lofty humanist'' work of ``furthering democratization and glasnost.'' The KGB recommends itself as an incorruptible vertical organization free from the influence of local cliques and directly responsive to the center. And there is evidence that the KGB has been maintaining an avenue for an occasional end run around provincial authorities. It has prevented local oligarchies from interfering with demonstrations of popular discontent. The intervention of the KGB saved a friend of mine from certain destruction at the hands of a party mob in an outlying republic. But as my friend said: ``Now we flex our muscles but we only push as far as they let us.''
The elevation of KGB head Yuri Andropov to party general secretary in 1982 came as a total surprise to most Sovietologists, who had argued that the puppeteer would never relinquish control to puppets like the KGB. It may be even more surprising to think of perestroika as a KGB initiative - started by Andropov and continued by his prot'eg'e, Mikhail Gorbachev. Some reformist elements in the USSR supported the elevation of Andropov to party general secretary, reasoning that only the man with the dossiers could clear away the corruption. They also reasoned that he was less a creature of his own propaganda than others and would be less likely to make dangerous mistakes about caricaturized enemies in the West.
Gorbachev's methods have not been Andropov's methods, and the historic process that was set in motion may yet take on a life of its own. But accepting a reinvigorated KGB as a partner in the process sacrifices the ends to the means. The assignment to hand out Western food aid is just another indication of the KGB's importance to the new order. KGB chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov's shrill warning about spies under every bread loaf bespeaks the arrogant confidence of its source. The Soviet public knows better.
Is the KGB presenting the bill for a bit part or will it claim its own? There are no foreordained conclusions - not even in Russia. But I see the short step from handing out food to resuming the old role as the nation's jailor.