The latest afterword to the collapse of communism comes this week from the Russian crime tabloid Top Secret. The paper reports that the KGB secret police poisoned dissident novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn 21 years ago in an attempt to assassinate him with the same lethal chemical used to kill Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov in London in 1978.

A member of the KGB team allegedly assigned to kill Solzhenitsyn, Lt. Col. Boris Ivanov, described the failed mission to the reporter for Top Secret with a matter-of-fact precision, though there is no independent confirmation of his facts.

Ivanov said the team followed Solzhenitsyn to southern Russia and poisoned him as the author stood in line in a food store in the city of Novocherkassk on Aug. 8, 1971. The KGB, the article surmises, failed to kill the author only because the dose was too small.

"The whole operation lasted two or three minutes," Ivanov said in Top Secret. "The {KGB} man left the shop and our boss started to smile. Outside, he said, quickly but firmly, 'It's all over. He won't live much longer.' "

In Moscow, the successor agency to the KGB has expressed stunned disbelief at the report, while Solzhenitsyn, who has lived in the West since his exile in 1974, said Ivanov's revelations "finally explained what I could not understand at the time." In a letter sent by fax to the Russian reporter, Dmitri Likhanov, Solzhenitsyn said that at the time of the incident, he was suddenly stricken with such serious blisters covering his body that he was bedridden for nearly three months.

Of the day in Novocherkassk, Solzhenitsyn recalled feeling perfectly normal in the morning. He and a friend "visited the cathedral and the shops. I don't remember any injection, I certainly did not feel it, but by mid-morning the skin on my left side suddenly started to hurt a great deal. Towards evening (we had stopped to see people we knew), I continued to deteriorate and had a very large burn. The following morning I was reduced to a terrible state: my left hip, left side, stomach and back were covered with blisters, the largest of which were 15 centimeters in diameter."

Alexei Kondaurov, a spokesman for the Russian secret service, said the report in Top Secret was "absurd." In an interview with the Russian daily Izvestia, Kondaurov said that if the KGB chief at the time, Yuri Andropov, "had ever dared to undertake such an action, it would have inevitably caused a thunderstorm of indignation all over the world."

Possibly, but not if the mission had gone as Ivanov described it. Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize-winning author of "The Gulag Archipelago," might have been too well known in the West to be thrown in prison while Moscow was trying to negotiate detente with the West. At the time of the incident -- Aug. 8, 1971 -- Moscow also was anxious about the Nixon administration's new rapprochement with the Chinese. But a poisoning, made to look like a sudden illness, might have been another matter.

In 1973, Solzhenitsyn said in an interview, "If they announce that I have been killed or have died suddenly and under mysterious circumstances, you will know, without any doubt at all, that I have been killed by, or under the instructions of, the KGB."

"We always knew in those days that there was always the possibility that the KGB would kill Solzhenitsyn," the author's wife, Natalia, said yesterday in a telephone interview from the family's home in Vermont. "That was never far from our minds. But when he got sick, we never thought it was an assassination attempt. It just seemed like a strange, inexplicable disease."

She said, "I realized when I heard this news that two of my sons would never have been born if the dose had actually been enough to kill Alexander Isayevich. We never had any illusions about the KGB, but, still, it was devastating to hear it, even after all these years." The Solzhenitsyns have had three sons together: Yermolai, 21, Ignat, 19, and Stepan, 18.

Natalia Solzhenitsyn said that after her husband returned to Moscow from Novocherkassk, he could hardly leave his bed, write or even raise his head for almost three months. A series of doctors and other specialists, she said, were completely befuddled by Solzhenitsyn's illness. Some believed he had been stricken by an allergy, she said, "but we had no clue. He just gradually recovered and that was all."

Likhanov, the reporter for Top Secret, writes that one of the top Russian toxicologists, Yevgeny Luzhnikov, told him that the author's symptoms were "characteristic of poisoning caused by ricin, a poison extracted from Turkish hemp." On Sept. 7, 1978, Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was poisoned in London with a lethal capsule, apparently injected or fired from the tip of an umbrella. He contracted a raging fever and died four days later. An autopsy revealed a tiny metal pellet containing ricin under the skin of his thigh.

Likhanov is well known in Moscow for his reports in Top Secret and the weekly magazine Ogonyok on organized crime, the police and the KGB.

Since the collapse of the Communist Party following the August coup, the Russian press has been filled with revelations about operations within the KGB. An article in the popular weekly Argumenty i Fakty recently described the KGB's manufacture of drugs and poisons in laboratories under its control.

At the time of the alleged operation against Solzhenitsyn, Ivanov was working in the city of Rostov in the KGB's Fifth Directorate, which was charged with fighting "ideological enemies." Under the direction of Andropov, and the Communist Party General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet Union waged an open war against dissidents such as Solzhenitsyn, physicist Andrei Sakharov and human rights campaigner Larissa Bogaraz.

Solzhenitsyn was forcibly exiled to the West three years after the alleged poisoning, and he has said that now that the communist regime and the Soviet empire have collapsed, he wants to return to Russia. There are no legal barriers in his way, but the family said that he is working at least 14 hours a day to finish various literary and historical projects before leaving the United States for good. Natalia Solzhenitsyn said that considering the "millions killed by the KGB over the years," the family had "little moral right" to press charges over the alleged poisoning.

The status of the current Russian secret service is still a paradox. After the failed August coup, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev installed a liberal, Vadim Bakatin, to replace Vladimir Kryuchkov, one of the key leaders of the attempted putsch. For a few months, Bakatin tried to reform the gigantic apparatus (and even fired a few top officials), conducted tours of the Lubyanka headquarters and showed foreigners case files on the Kennedy assassination. But Bakatin resigned and it is unclear to what extent the Russian security apparatus has changed. Some analysts believe that the agency is still filled with so many old-guard agents and officers that it could pose a threat to the fragile Russian democracy.

In the meantime, however, historians and journalists continue to unearth more and more about the KGB's wretched history. Former KGB captain Yevgeny Ivanov, the spy who had been one of the starring players in a scandal that toppled Harold Macmillan's British government, revealed in his new memoir, "The Naked Spy," that he had stolen top secret information from the defense minister John Profumo and Lord Astor.

Ivanov is quite a shark. In an interview in Moscow with The Washington Post three years ago, he denied that he had stolen any papers or that he had slept with Christine Keeler, who was also Profumo's mistress. But for pay, in memoirs now being serialized in the Sunday Times of London, Ivanov claims that he slept with Keeler and filched documents indicating that Washington was pulling out of the Skybolt missile program months before the official announcement was reported in the press.

As with all spy stories ... reader beware.