Underground as an ex-spy, but in spotlight Former Russian agent wants to keep telling about his old masters

Yuri Shvets stepped out of his compact car onto the blacktop in front of the suburban Taco Bell restaurant somewhere in Virginia and announced with fatherly pride: "I wanted to come here because my son works here. He's saving money for a trip back home."

"Home," though, isn't quite the right word for the former Russian spy. Because a year after Mr. Shvets, 42, published his acid tale of Moscow's espionage in Washington, he's no longer welcome in Russia.


And that would be an understatement. The Russian Intelligence Service virtually put a price on Mr. Shvets' head even before "Washington Station: My Life as a KGB Spy in America" was published by Simon & Schuster. Reacting to a New York Times article on the forthcoming book, an RIS spokesman warned publicly: "This guy is risking his life, both there [in the United States] and here" in Russia.

So Mr. Shvets went underground in Virginia -- sort of. His address is guarded by friends, his telephone is unlisted, and as terms of this interview, he asks that his exact whereabouts not be published. But he's also started a new, highly visible career, as a regular contributor to the satirical Fox Network news show "TV Nation." And he wants to start a newsletter on activities of the Russian "mafiya" in the United States.


Is he trying to rub the KGB's nose in it?

He shrugs. If Moscow Center wanted to kill him, he says, they could do it easily enough. "It can always happen," he says coolly. "In an extreme situation, they just pick a professional and say, 'Handle this.' And that's where a deadly force could come from. It happened in 1974, against a Bulgarian dissident in London." His dark Cossack eyes blink.

He brightens, however, when I ask him about his escape from Moscow. It's a spy yarn.

"Moscow refused to issue me a new passport," he explains. "They told me I was on a special list and couldn't leave for eight years. So I went to mafiya, basically. I went to mafiya. I paid them 2,000 bucks and they stamped me for a Russian exit visa, in my old passport, which was valid for one more month."

Problem: He didn't have an entry visa for anywhere.

"So I took a car and I drove to a nearby, a so-called near-abroad republic," he says with obvious enjoyment, preferring not to be more specific. "I crossed the Russian border with this passport. But now the question was at the next border. They said, 'Where is your entry visa?' I didn't have an entry visa."

"So I resolved the situation" in the time-honored Russian way -- "with two bottles of vodka." He smiles again.

Next, he walked into an American embassy in the Baltics and applied for a visa.


"I filled out the application. There was a question -- 'Have you ever been to the United States?' I write yes. Then it asked, 'In what capacity?' and I write, 'KGB.'

"The guy goes, 'Uhhhhh ' "

Another surprise: The clerk came back and said the embassy couldn't process the application right away.

Mr. Shvets was astounded. If the KGB had handled Aldrich Ames this way, he thought, the CIA traitor might still be sitting on a curb outside the Soviet Embassy in Washington.

"In four days, there was still no response," Mr. Shvets says, shaking his head. "I could imagine the cables flying back and forth across the ocean." Finally, on the fifth day, they gave him a visa -- "with a stone face." He laughs when he mimics the revulsion of the young American diplomat handing over the passport as if it were a dead mouse.

"I was amazed. I was amazed," Mr. Shvets chuckles. "Working for 10 years with the KGB, I assumed they were just as inefficient, but to actually see it "


More rude awakenings came, though, when he applied for political asylum in the United States. Mr. Shvets, a former KGB major, was turned down because he had divulged classified information -- Russian classified information -- in the unpublished manuscript he sent in with his application.

In a letter dated April 21, 1994, the Immigration and Naturalization Service called his story "believable, consistent and sufficiently detailed," and judged him personally "credible," but declared: "It appears that you have violated laws of your country with regard to state secrets known to you as a former KGB agent."

But Mr. Shvets hadn't spent his time as a KGB spy in Washington for nothing. He hired a well-connected Washington lawyer, Jack Blum.

Shortly after that, Mr. Shvets got a second letter from the INS, which made no reference to the first letter. This one, dated May 16, now said, "It has been determined that you have a well-founded fear of persecution were you to return to Russia." It granted him permanent political asylum.

Mr. Shvets laughs out loud and taps his palm on the table. (A former senior FBI counterintelligence agent recently said: "Mr. Shvets is entirely credible, at least in terms of his service with the KGB. He was in Washington, we certainly knew that, working for the KGB but undercover with Tass," the Soviet news agency.)

The media glare intensified on the eve of the book's publication about a year ago. Mr. Shvets was the lead story on "60 Minutes."


Then came the offer to work on "TV Nation," a satirical show started by Michael Moore, the iconoclastic journalist who made his mark with an Academy Award-winning 1990 documentary on General Motors. The thing Mr. Moore liked was Mr. Shvets' portrayal of KGB agents in Washington as lazy, incompetent slobs, not the shrewd, tough operatives usually described by the FBI.

"The real scoop in my book was that the enemy that you believed was the most powerful, the most shrewd, sophisticated, was just not," Mr. Shvets says. "This was the message. But when I brought this message [to publishers] they said, 'It looks like you're trying to lull us.' They said, 'What about Ames?' And I said, for me, it means your intelligence service is even worse than ours."

Mr. Shvets says he quit the KGB after coming under suspicion, ironically because he had recruited an American spy, a low-level former consultant to the Carter White House who now lives in Moscow. He was also bothered by the KGB's moves against democratic forces in Russia.

Now he hopes to launch a newsletter about Russian mafiya operations in America, using the contacts he still has in the Russian intelligence and military services -- if he can raise the start-up money.

"This is the biggest threat now, the Russian mafiya, because this is institutionalized," he says. "Once again, Russia is doing it its own way. Not a single country, ever, was mafiya institutionalized, not even in Italy. Now the Russian government, the mafiya" -- he braids his two fingers -- "this is one organization."

And it's making inroads into the United States, especially New York, but also in other port cities.


"The Interior Ministry, traditionally, is one of the most corrupt institutions of the Soviet government," he declares. "Washington sent three FBI guys to Moscow to fight the Russian mafiya, to prevent the Russian mafiya from working against the United States. But according to the agreement, they have to do their business through official channels, that is, the Interior Ministry, which is part of the mafiya."

He brushes off threats to himself.

"I don't expect to see a tail," he says calmly. "If that happens, it will be too late for me to react." Until then, he's just going to relax.

"Virginia -- this is my home now," he smiles, getting into his car.

I half-jokingly ask if he wants me to drive off first so he won't worry if I'll follow him.

"Oh forget it," he laughs. "You don't have to do that."


Then Yuri Shvets drives off into a maze of shopping mall traffic -- with eyes as dark as the Don in the rear-view mirror.

Jeff Stein is the author of "A Murder in Wartime: The Untold Spy Story that Changed the Course of the Vietnam War."