Still looking over his shoulder Defector: Seven years after his decision to flee the Soviet Union, fear of the KGB remains fresh for the former Tass reporter.

Catching Up With... Valery Kostylev

March 15, 1998|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Even in the small, staid, all-American city of York, Pa., Valery Kostylev has never quite lost the fear that one day the KGB will turn up on his doorstep.

"I think maybe I am the last man to escape from the Soviet regime," Kostylev says. "I think I am."

Possibly only the KGB knows. The State Department doesn't keep lists, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service won't say. But Kostylev, now a college professor and a prolific writer was certainly among the final defectors from the Soviet Union.

Kostylev and his family fled to asylum in March 1991, when, after 19 years as a Tass News Agency correspondent, he found himself caught in a Kafkaesque trap in Morocco.

Six months later, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev would be seized in a short-lived coup, then resign as general secretary of the Communist Party. By the end of that year, the Soviet regime would collapse, and Gorbachev would resign as president. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics would no longer exist.

Memories still fresh

In serviceable if not elegant English, Kostylev tells his tale. Now on a cold day in 1998, it sounds remote and dusty, like the plot of Cold War spy novel. But for Kostylev and his family, the memory of that day -- and lingering fears -- remain fresh.

"I remember this morning very well," he says. "We sat in our car. It was 7 o'clock in the morning."

After more than a month of unnerving tension, he, his wife, Irina, and his daughter, Dasha, then about 8, had finally been granted political asylum by the United States. They were ready to flee to Italy.

"We survived a terrible time," he says, "especially my wife. She was so afraid. Especially this day. She couldn't move. She couldn't speak. She was so afraid.

"Even in 1991," Kostylev says, "it was very close to the death penalty if they get you."

And there was no legal recourse. There still isn't. The laws pertaining to defectors remain unchanged in post-Soviet Russia, says.

"At that time, if you escape from the country you're automatically termed guilty. Nobody has changed this law."

The Kostylevs shared a "wonderful" house in Rabat, the capital of Morocco, with his boss, the other Tass correspondent in Morocco. But his boss was actually a colonel in the KGB, the dreaded Soviet secret police.

Kostylev figures that 60 per cent of the people at Tass, the official news agency of the Soviet regime, were KGB agents. Some of them worked as reporters.

"It was a roof for them." Does he mean "cover"? "Yes in Russia we use 'roof.' "

Other spies hid under the Tass roof as well, he says.

"Two sorts of officers worked for Tass. Some worked for KGB. Some worked for military intelligence, GRU."

Probably even the CIA could tell the difference.

"It was very funny," Kostylev says. "For example, they played soccer. Two teams. One team was KGB officers. The other team was GRU officers. And during receptions at the embassy, there was a table for all KGB officers, and at the other table, GRU officers.

"And by the way," he adds, "they hated each other. KGB hated GRU and GRU hated KGB. They never mixed."

Little secrets

While he never worked for the KGB, Kostylev says, he did some work with the GRU, picking up information part-time. Nothing major. He never uncovered any big secrets, he says.

"Little secrets, yes, not real secrets," he says. "When NATO defense ministers met in Morocco, we tried to penetrate. A piece of paper was for us a very good deal. Any piece of paper, even from the garbage container."

But it was a GRU security contretemps that sparked his defection.

"The GRU people made a mistake," he says, some sort of intelligence error, "I don't know what."

Whatever it was, he learned of a plan to set him up as the fall guy by luring him into a staged photo with a suspect Moroccan.

He knew the penalties facing whoever was punished could range from being fired from Tass to going to prison.

"We decided to escape because I understood if I go back [to Moscow] they'd start to blame me, instead of their people."

There were at least two major hurdles to freedom: persuading the United States -- secretly -- to OK his defection, and getting past his housemate, the KGB boss.

"In my life I met thousands of people. He was one of the worst," Kostylev says of his former boss. "With foreigners or people the same rank as him, he was friendly, but to people on lower level, he was like dictator. Not even dictator -- very dirty guy.

He did know one thing about the boss: "I worked," Kostylev says. "He only drank."

Kostylev went to the American Embassy and asked for political asylum.

'We don't know you'

"The Americans said, 'We don't know you,' " he says. "They check if you are KGB officer maybe, maybe a double agent, too."

For nearly two months, he and his family waited nervously and worried.

"Not only very worried, we were afraid," Kostylev recalls. "If somebody knew about our decision, of course, they could arrest us, and they could put us into prison for I don't know how many years, to the end of my life."

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