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Defector Arkady Shevchenko and Wife Elaine Set a Heartening Example of East-West Relations

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It was past midnight on an April evening in 1978 when Arkady Shevchenko, a Soviet diplomat posted at the United Nations, stood in the doorway of his darkened New York bedroom and looked at his slumbering wife for the last time. Near the door he quietly placed an envelope which held several thousand dollars and a letter revealing his painful decision to defect to America. Clutching an overnight bag and a briefcase holding family photos, he made his way down 20 flights of stairs to a fire exit and sprinted 50 yards to a waiting FBI getaway car. Before daybreak he had been dropped at a hideout in the Pennsylvania countryside.

The astonishing news of Shevchenko’s defection was made public five days later. As under secretary-general to the UN, he was the highest-ranking Soviet official ever to have broken with his government. What was not reported at the time, however, was that for the previous 32 months Shevchenko had operated as a spy on behalf of the U.S. government. He did so reluctantly, believing his cooperation would prove his sincerity and allow more time to arrange for his wife and 16-year-old daughter to join him.

Five weeks after his defection, while still sequestered by the FBI, Shevchenko learned that his wife, Lina, who had returned to Moscow, was dead. The Soviets said she committed suicide, but Shevchenko believes his wife, a strong-willed woman not given to depression, was murdered by the KGB.

Lina’s death devastated the already fragile Shevchenko, whose defection left him cut off from his family (his daughter and son remain in the Soviet Union) and his cherished homeland. “No Russian ever feels like an American,” says Shevchenko, 54. “There is no way to convey how hard it was to adjust to a new culture.”

Today Shevchenko has fashioned a new life in his adopted country with the help of his second wife, Elaine Jackson, 42, a slender, blue-eyed native of North Carolina whom he met at a dinner party seven years ago. Last month he published Breaking With Moscow (Knopf, $18.95), a best-seller that documents his charmed ascent within the Soviet elite and his eventual disillusionment and defection. Elaine helped her husband on every chapter. He wrote in English; she made corrections, typed, rearranged and coaxed. “Soviets are taught to be very reticent about themselves,” she says. “It’s difficult for them to express their feelings because they are trained to conceal. His had to be brought out with pliers. I don’t think he would have told anyone else what he told me, and he wouldn’t have let anyone else fight with him as I did.”

Living with Shevchenko has been a study in Sovietology for Elaine. “When you talk to a Soviet,” she says, “you think, ‘He looks like me; he ought to understand me.’ We forget that their society teaches them a totally different approach to the world.”

In turn, Elaine has served as Shevchenko’s mentor in all things American. “Without Elaine I don’t know whether I would have been able to make it,” he says. “She explained how Americans feel and how to behave—that Americans never ask one another how much they earn, for example. In the Soviet Union that is one of the first things you ask a person.” Elaine Americanized Arkady’s appearance with new glasses. “He used to wear these dark ones,” she says, “that made him look like a Miami dope dealer.” She also introduced him to blue jeans. “He was so formal,” reports Elaine, “he would wear a gray suit and a striped tie to a barbecue.” She guided her husband through the bewildering business of establishing credit and obtaining a driver’s license and medical insurance (a four-year ordeal because he had none of his records). She also gave him lessons in Western etiquette. “Former Soviets have some bad habits,” allows Arkady. “They are used to speaking rudely when they want something. I might have walked into a store and been very impolite to a salesperson.”

As a best-selling author and expert on the Soviet psyche, Shevchenko has recently been introduced to another peculiarly American tradition: hype. For the past month he has been a talk-show dervish, recounting his saga of defection again and again.

“I had everything in the Soviet Union but my personal freedom,” he says. A member of the elite, Shevchenko had a large Moscow apartment, a dacha filled with antique furniture and priceless icons, a chauffeured car, access to special medical facilities, and as much caviar and quality meat as he wished, at a discount. “But it was a golden cage,” he says, “because I was under permanent surveillance. They watch you, they listen to you, they open your mail. My chauffeur reported on my activities.”

“He wasn’t born a revolutionary,” says Elaine. “They made him one.” The Ukrainian-born son of a physician, Shevchenko graduated from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations with a degree in international law. His expertise in disarmament propelled him swiftly upward in the foreign ministry, and in 1958 he visited the U.S. for the first time, as part of the Soviet delegation to the United Nations.

“When I came to the United States, I found that much of what I had heard about the free world was lies,” he says. The young diplomatic attaché found himself enchanted with New York, its striking skyline and all its abundance: bookstores and newsstands everywhere, markets that swelled with ripe produce. To him, it was a nation rich with new tastes, including Coca-Cola (which he loved) and Wonder Bread (which he hated). Most important, he got his first taste of freedom.

In 1963 Shevchenko was posted to the UN and settled into the Soviets’ overcrowded mission with his wife and daughter, Anna. (His son Gennady remained in a Moscow school.) His wife, whom he describes as a hot-tempered woman, never adjusted to America. She spoke only Russian and took no interest in his diplomatic work, preferring to keep house and shop. Says Shevchenko: “All she liked was to be invited to some of the UN receptions and be in high society.”

In 1970 Andrei Gromyko chose Shevchenko as his personal political adviser. Three years later he was named UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim’s deputy. Ironically, the more intimate he became with the inner workings of the Politburo, the more disillusioned he became with its principles. “I sat at the same table with Brezhnev, Gromyko and other members of the Politburo,” he writes. “I saw…how their hypocrisy and corruption had penetrated the smallest aspects of their lives.” After months of tortured ambivalence Shevchenko approached an American colleague in 1975 and announced his desire to defect. U.S. intelligence agencies, however, decided to make use of his access to Soviet policymakers. In the fall of 1977, overcome by the pressures of his double life, Shevchenko demanded he be given asylum the following June, after his daughter—who had returned to school in the U.S.S.R.—had joined him for the summer. He had not discussed his plans with his wife, at first because he wanted to protect her in the event he was captured, then for fear she might object or inadvertently betray him.

In March 1978 Shevchenko received a cable from Moscow summoning him home. Believing he had been discovered, he made a panicked call to his CIA contact using his code name: “This is Andy, it’s urgent.” (The Soviets have stymied all his efforts to contact his daughter, Anna, now 23. Gennady, 32, is married to the daughter of a high-ranking Soviet official and is not likely to have approved of his father’s defection.)

Shortly after his defection Shevchenko’s odyssey took a humiliating turn when he met a call girl named Judy Chavez. The FBI had supplied him with the telephone number of her escort service. Using an assumed name, Shevchenko spent the next few months pursuing Chavez, then 22, and giving her large sums of cash (his personal savings had been supplemented by a $76,000 cash settlement when he resigned from the UN). Chavez eventually learned his true identity and proceeded to publish a lurid exposé entitled Defector’s Mistress. Once again Shevchenko was the subject of splashy headlines. “I have quite a strong character,” he says softly, “but I lost it for several months. If I had not been so upset, and in my normal state, I would never have done that. Never.”

Not long after the Chavez affair Arkady met Elaine. Born on a farm near Asheville, N.C. and raised in Washington, she had graduated from George Washington University with a degree in fine arts and was working as a court reporter. “We talked many hours about art and politics. She was very knowledgeable and quite a beautiful woman,” says Shevchenko, who asked for her phone number. “I would have tackled him and stuck it in his pocket if he hadn’t,” says Elaine. “I wanted to find out what kind of person he was. I didn’t deluge him with questions because I’d been brought up to be reserved, but still I was pretty curious.”

After a two-week courtship, Shevchenko arrived at her doorstep bearing an armful of red roses and a proposal. “He didn’t speak English as well as he does now,” she says, “and I didn’t realize he was asking me to marry him.” Once they negotiated the language barrier, Elaine accepted. “He was starting over in the middle of his life in a society he didn’t know well,” she says. “I wondered if we were going ahead too quickly. I knew that marriage was difficult, and if you don’t love the person you’re with, it’s impossible. I had been married before [long ago and briefly]. I decided to do this because I cared about him.”

The Shevchenkos share a tidy house in the Washington area appointed with flowers and family photographs. Arkady makes his living on the lecture circuit (averaging eight lectures per month at a minimum fee of $10,000) and teaching negotiating techniques to diplomats at the U.S. Foreign Service Institute. He is also available as an unpaid consultant to the government and recently testified at Congressional hearings on the MX missile.

He sometimes lends his expertise to the kitchen, concocting kasha or borscht(“I have to clean the ceiling when he’s finished,” says Elaine with a laugh). They are not avid followers of the capital’s cocktail-party circuit; their evenings tend to be quiet. Occasionally they listen to old Russian songs. “My life is here now,” he says, “but my affection for my motherland will always be with me.”

Shevchenko has applied for U.S. citizenship—he becomes eligible in October—and the couple is looking forward to celebrating the day when he becomes a citizen as a special anniversary. Elaine will put in a request to her congressman in hopes of presenting Arkady with a truly American gift: the actual flag that flies over the Capitol on that day.

Now that the dream of citizenship is within his grasp, the nightmares Shevchenko suffered in the early days of his defection are all but gone. “I have lived as a free man for seven years in this country,” he reflects. “If I want to meet someone, I do. No one controls my lectures. It’s an incredible feeling after living a life in which you can’t even talk frankly with your family. Now I talk freely.”

“Yes,” says Elaine. “Even the neighbors hear us sometimes.”