KGB leader's coup role derails PR push Spy agency set back by Kryuchkov's act THE SOVIET CRISIS

August 28, 1991|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- All this coup business has the KGB rather put out. They'd been working tirelessly to improve their image, and then their boss gets himself arrested for overthrowing the government.

"I've worked for a year and a half to create a new image," Col. Vladimir Maslennikov, first deputy chief of the KGB press center, lamented yesteray. "Now, it's smashed -- suddenly smashed. The coup has thrown the KGB back to 1953 or 1954."

The new public relations mood before the coup last week was so infectious that the inventive Moscow district office even came up with a beautiful Miss KGB.

Now every time the men of the Committee for State Security look out their front windows, they are reproached by a different image: the empty base of the statue of their founder, Felix Dzerzhinsky, who once proclaimed, "We stand for organized terror."

The huge, 14-ton statue of "Bloody Felix," standing in his greatcoat in the middle of the expansive square outside KGB headquarters, was unceremoniously pulled from its pedestal last Friday while thousands of Muscovites cheered.

"It would be a lie if I didn't mention what happened on the square," Colonel Maslennikov sighed. "Of course we feel a bitterness. Our moral and physical feelings make us want better times."

"When I saw what happened to old Felix, it was very unpleasant," said Oleg Tsarev, deputy head of press services.

Mr. Tsarev said the people in the square that day were drunk and on drugs. Others said there were no more drunks out than usual on a Friday night in Moscow.

He said he had mixed in with the crowd to find out what was going on. "Of course, not like this," he said, gesturing to his sharply cut suit, tie and red and white striped shirt.

Colonel Maslennikov was proud that no one at the Lubyanka, as the headquarters are known, allowed himself to be provoked by the crowd that day. "Maybe you wouldn't believe it," he said, "but no one in this building was armed."

He said the public vituperation that is being directed at the KGB is unfair. Just because the chairman, Vladimir A. Kryuchkov, was involved with the coup doesn't mean the agency as an institution was conspiring, he argued.

"We are satisfied that until now there is no evidence of direct involvement on behalf of the KGB," the colonel said, although KGB tank drivers were accused of being responsible for the three deaths in Moscow during resistance to the coup.

The most bewildering thing, said Mr. Tsarev, was that Mr. Kryuchkov himself had been so dedicated to the new image at the KGB.

"The participation of the chairman himself [in the coup] was ironic," he said, "because he was very keen on glasnost. We started to talk to people. Before that it was completely closed. And then with his own hands he ruined all that had been done."

All was quiet yesterday at the Lubyanka, notorious for its basement prisons. Walking through wood-paneled halls on Oriental-style carpets, a visitor noticed few people in a building that looked only extremely prosperous by Moscow standards.

Clocks could be heard ticking, and the few visible bureaucrats seemed to be worrying about being late for meetings. Downstairs, two young soldiers stood guard behind two sets of heavy doors. A thick steel door stood open.

With quiet pride, Mr. Tsarev guided a reporter around the shrinelike office of the late Yuri V. Andropov, a former KGB chief who succeeded Leonid I. Brezhnev as Soviet president. He showed off the meeting room, with a marble fireplace; the inner office, with another marble fireplace; and the adjoining bedroom with a single bed, refrigerator and table.

He continued on to a museum of sorts, displaying pictures of captured CIA agents, and some clever eyeglasses a captured spy can remove and, while nonchalantly chewing on the end, inject poison into his mouth.

"When you're caught," Mr. Tsarev said, "they let you keep your glasses. The glasses are a CIA invention."

These were only a few trophies of a terrifying past. During and after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the secret police killed an estimated 500,000 people. They became even more powerful under Josef V. Stalin, who died in 1953.

Nikita S. Khrushchev then had Stalin's notorious secret police chief Lavrenti Beria "liquidated." Khrushchev tried to control the secret police -- at least so they wouldn't threaten

the government -- by reorganizing the operation and turning it into the modern KGB in 1954.

These are the kind of image problems latter-day KGB officials such as Colonel Maslennikov inherited. To be knocked back to 1953 or 1954 is serious business indeed.

Now once again the KGB is facing complete reorganization. President Mikhail S. Gorbachev has already removed the bodyguard unit from the KGB because some of his own security guards held him prisoner during the coup last week.

Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin intends to place KGB operations in Russia under his control. The governing board of the agency has been disbanded. Its independent military units have been reassigned to the army and the Interior Ministry.

The KGB is wondering what will happen next. Yesterday, a KGB unit was taking credit for helping destroy the coup. The deputy commander of the elite "Alpha" unit said his men refused an order to storm the Russian parliament building and kill Mr. Yeltsin.

"Dismantlement of the KGB," wrote author John Barron, "would remove the very foundation of Soviet society, a foundation laid by Lenin more than half a century ago."

Mr. Tsarev may have been pondering that conclusion as he looked out at the place where "Bloody Felix" Dzerzhinsky's statue had been hauled away last Friday.

"He was political prisoner No. 1," Mr. Tsarev said of the KGB hero. "He spent 26 years in prison -- in czarist prisons, of course. This is history, but they spit on history."

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