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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

LETTER FROM VLADIVOSTOK: Kondratov Stands Out In a Land of Napoleons

The first time I walked through the lobby decorated with a bust of Feliks Dzerzhinsky and took the elevator up to General Viktor Kondratov's office, I think I spooked him.

Kondratov is the Primorye region Federal Security Service chief and President Boris Yeltsin's regional representative. He had agreed to be interviewed last fall when I approached him at a party thrown by the British ambassador. What caught him off-guard, as the interview started, was the announcement by a U.S. journalist that I was writing a profile of him and would like to ask a little about his background and personal life.

Kondratov is a burly man who keeps barbells in his office and swims several times a week in the sea once the ice clears. Nevertheless I thought I saw a glint of alarm. The past is probably not something a former KGB man enjoys being grilled about. I think he figured I was a CIA operative sent to extract information.

The same feeling came to me this week when Kondratov held a news conference Monday to which my paper wasn't invited (the FSB press office's chief function seems to be to hide from the press). When my deputy editor called to ask about the event, the press officer said, "We're not having a press conference. Who told you that?"

"The mayor's office," I said.

"Well, it's not true. Besides, the general's office is very small. He can't fit many reporters in at once."

The deputy editor called Kondratov, who said he would make sure we got in.

Kondratov is one of the paradoxes, like Yeltsin himself, to emerge from the Communist Party. Despite rising through the ranks in a totalitarian system, the general seems comfortable with the public and the press. He sometimes seems to be the only political grown-up in a region dominated by new-money thugs and screeching Napoleons.

By his account, Kondratov was allied with the more liberal wing of the party. He says he was present at a 1982 meeting during which First Secretary Yury Andropov, the former KGB chief, announced a 20-year plan to liberalize the economy. Thus he makes the somewhat dubious claim that the KGB helped launch democracy in the Soviet Union.

Kondratov hasn't been above reproach. After police searched his drunken and allegedly belligerent son-in-law during a raid on a night club, the two officers were fired. Many papers suggested Kondratov had a role in this, a charge he denied.

If nothing else, he has learned to be comfortable with his nation's former enemies. On Monday, another journalist joked about the presence of a spy in the room. The general looked at me.

"But we have become friends now, haven't we?" he said.

Russell Working is editor of the Vladivostok News.