Imprisoned Soviet defector says drink, debt, depression triggered his American nightmare HITTING THE WALL

June 15, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Writer

White Deer, Pa. -- Once, when he was young, angry and scared, Arnold Topazov broke free from the Soviet military and climbed across two heavily fortified fences and a ditch, scaling the Berlin Wall years before anyone dreamed that it would ever come tumbling down.

He packed lightly then, an unlikely defector carrying communications secrets, a pocketful of coins and big dreams on a journey that would take him to the inner sanctum of the Central Intelligence Agency.

But now, years later, Topazov can be found on a hilltop behind another barricade made of concrete and wire at the medium security federal penitentiary at Allenwood. He never fired a Kalishnikov in defense of his country, but he shot a hostage with a .357 Magnum during a bank robbery gone awry in Frederick in 1984.

This is his story: Arnold Topazov, Soviet soldier, defector, intelligence asset, armed bank robber and, for the past nine years, prison inmate.

"I got out of the Soviet Union's grasp, just to get into Uncle Sam's grasp," he said.

The tale comes from the attic of the Cold War, a musty place filled with desperate tales from desperate times. But the saga of the ex-warrant officer turned armed bank robber provides TC peephole to a tense and hostile era, when the CIA and its Soviet counterpart, the KGB, valued every shred of secret information like gold.

Back then, even a low-level military officer could exchange communications information for cash.

"What I learned from the Cold War is that it was all a game," he said.

The man who once breached the Berlin Wall now lives in obscurity. Topazov claims to have no friends in prison, and he rarely receives visitors.

Over and over, in legal documents some 2 inches thick, he relives the moments that stand like signposts on an odyssey from a childhood in Ukraine to a military hitch in East Germany to an uncertain life in America.

He is 36 years old, 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, trim and muscular, his strength returning after a recent 30-day hunger strike to protest his continued incarceration. With shoulder-length brown hair and a brown mustache, he could pass for a rock star -- or a revolutionary. He speaks with the trace of a Russian accent, his language flecked with legal terms, psychological theories and American expletives.

He was born Sergey Vasily'yevich Taranushenko but changed his name to Arnold Topazov when he switched sides, arriving in the U.S. in the summer of 1979.

Asked why he defected, he launches into a lengthy account of his life, from an unhappy childhood in the Ukraine to his draft in the Soviet Army at age 17 to a military tour in East Germany that he compared with prison.

He also talks of the gap between the myth and reality of Soviet life, of trying to live like a "New Socialist Man" while being confined to barracks in East Germany.

"There is no one single factor," he said. "It is a blend of many things. Basically, it came to this: I had enough with the system."

Like almost everything else with his life, Topazov turned inspiration to action from the unlikeliest of sources.

He defected because of a motorcycle.

Topazov was placed under house arrest for riding his beloved Java bike near the Soviet base in Torgau, Germany. It was a nasty sentence carried out by a commanding officer who then destroyed Topazov's motorcycle piece by piece.

Going over the wall

Angered and humiliated, Topazov made plans to flee to the West. He photographed documents relating to communications codes, his specialty. Fearing an interrogation from the KGB, Topazov set out for West Berlin on May 13.

He went by car -- and ran out of gas. He took a train. And then, on May 14, he searched for an opening in the Berlin Wall. A day later, he found a spot, where the wall of guard towers and concrete blocks gave way to two fences.

He rested for several hours, gathered his thoughts, took one deep breath and, finally, ran, crossing a mesh wire fence, a barbed wire fence electrified at the top and a ditch. The dash took less than a minute. It is a journey he now recalls as a blur of sweat and fear.

"Some old man on the western side saw me," he said. "I couldn't speak any German and he couldn't speak any Russian. He shook my hand. I asked for a cigarette. He didn't have one. He gave me a candy."

Topazov had planned to go immediately to the police. But he couldn't find any officers on the street, and he couldn't flag down any squad cars.

So he hopped on a bus and was taken to the central police station by a driver who took him for a fare-cheater.

"Within a couple of hours, they turned me over to the Americans," Topazov said.

Over the next several months, American intelligence officials discovered that Topazov had a great deal to offer. He gave them codes and ciphers, storage sites for nuclear warheads and details on selected Soviet commanders.

And all along, as he gave up his information, Topazov said he felt cleansed. He wanted to infuriate the Soviets, and he wanted to make a life for himself in America.

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