KIRISHI, Russia -- For three decades, Vladimir Malinin carried in his mind the image of a lone American soldier, a man he saw only twice, each time pacing the perimeter of a KGB prison courtyard in companionless exercise.
For many years, as Mr. Malinin and his first wife lay in bed at night talking in fearful whispers of the dreadful secrets they had discovered about the Soviet prison camp system, he would recall the American and wonder what had become of him.
"Often, when my wife and I discussed these things, I would think about this person," said Mr. Malinin, 74, a retired Soviet Army colonel. "He was all alone there, with no one else. Usually, when you would see prisoners, there would be four or five of them in a group. But he was all alone."
Then, three weeks ago, the image of the solitary man in the bleak courtyard leaped out at him again from a book of photographs, and Mr. Malinin finally had a name to go with the face: Philip Mandra, a U.S. Marine sergeant from College Point, N.Y., who disappeared in combat in North Korea 41 years ago.
In pointing to Sergeant Mandra's picture, Mr. Malinin was seeking to project a glimmer of light into one of history's blackest holes, and not for the first time. For he has had his own long journey of painful discovery through a Soviet system that he once believed in and served loyally, but then rejected at great personal cost.
Mr. Malinin's identification of Sergeant Mandra represents the first concrete piece of evidence to support the long-held suspicion that many of the more than 8,000 American GIs missing in action from the Korean conflict were taken prisoner, handed over to Soviet authorities and never returned after the war ended.
According to Malcolm Toon, a U.S. diplomat who is co-chairman of a joint Russian-American commission studying the issue, the Korean era is the last major prisoner-of-war problem still to be resolved by the two governments. "We have evidence of extensive Soviet involvement in the interrogation of prisoners from the Korean War," he said recently. "We have had the feeling that there must be some information in the Russian files about this. We have had the feeling that someone has not been fully forthcoming."
Last spring, Mr. Toon's commission placed ads in several Russian newspapers asking anyone with information about U.S. citizens held on Soviet territory to contact the commission's office in Moscow or the U.S. Consulate in St. Petersburg.
When Mr. Malinin saw the ad, he says, he immediately recalled the solitary prisoner he had seen many years before from the window of the commandant's office in a KGB prison in Russia's (( far eastern port city of Magadan, which lay at the heart of a vast network of camps for political prisoners.
In an interview this weekend at his home in Kirishi, about 90 miles southeast of St. Petersburg, Mr. Malinin recalled how he had visited the prison one day in the early 1960s to discuss some business with the commandant in his capacity as civil defense director for the region.
"I suddenly approached the window and looked out, and in the courtyard a solitary man was walking," Mr. Malinin said. "I asked the director, 'Who is this? What's going on here?' He said, 'I think he was an American spy. He was handed over to me from a camp. I don't know his name.' I asked how he knew he was an American, and he said, 'They told me, "This is an American spy." ' "
About three years later, Mr. Malinin said, he returned to the prison on similar business and saw the same man again exercising alone in the courtyard, dressed in virtually identical clothes. "It was the same man, but he looked much older," he said. "Two or three years in prison will do that to you."
Mr. Malinin's identification has triggered a U.S. request for a thorough search of old Soviet archives in hopes of learning what might have happened to Sergeant Mandra. But whatever the details of Sergeant Mandra's odyssey, Mr. Malinin has had his own dark passage through the relentless Soviet system.
Mr. Malinin says the pivotal moment in his life came during the 1960s when his first wife, Yevgenia, an archivist for the state prison system, accidentally discovered a secret report written to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev by the director of the camps administration in the Far East.
The report recited a litany of horrors that shocked the couple out of their previous unquestioning devotion to the Soviet state. According to Mr. Malinin, the report recounted that 17.5 million people had been imprisoned in a sprawling network of labor camps for political prisoners in the Kolyma River valley north of Magadan between 1933 and 1952. Of those, the report said, 16.3 million had died of exhaustion or illness and another 85,877 had been shot to death.
Having stumbled upon such forbidden knowledge, Mr. Malinin said he agonized over it for months, then finally shared his secret and sought advice from a friend named Ivan Chistiakov, who held a high position in the Magadan regional administration. "He told me, 'It's better you forget all about it,' " Mr. Malinin said.