Photographer Sergei Petrov was one of the Soviet Union's best-known refuseniks. Now he's a Washingtonian, rejoicing that he's learned what 'normal' is -- and skeptical about the American faith in Gorbachev

PAINTER AND PHOTOGRAPHER SERGEI PETROV, 37, emigrated to the United States from the Soviet Union on April 22, 1989. Petrov was born just outside Moscow and raised in the Soviet capital. In 1981 he met and married an American woman, and over the next eight years applied repeatedly for permission to emigrate to the United States. Each time he was denied permission on the grounds of national security. Petrov says he never knew any state secrets but did do Soviet antiballistic missile research at a defense institute for three months, from November 1976 to January 1977.

He became one of the best-known refuseniks when he went on a 50-day hunger strike in 1982. ''Free Sergei Petrov'' T-shirts sprouted around Moscow, and his case began to attract international attention. He and his American wife divorced, but Petrov never gave up his dream of emigrating to America.

Petrov became friends with the American ambassador to Moscow, Arthur Hartman, and his wife, Donna.

The Hartmans arranged two exhibitions of Petrov's black and white photographs at the ambassador's residence, Spaso House, in Moscow, and in 1988 his photographs were displayed at the State Department. The photographer was invited to attend the State Department opening but was again not allowed to leave the Soviet Union. Secretary of State George Shultz made a plea for Petrov's freedom in his speech at the opening of the exhibition. Meanwhile, Petrov's case had become a matter of discussion between Kremlin and State Department officials before summit meetings.

On April 17, 1989, Petrov received a postcard from Soviet authorities notifying him that he should pay the visa department 201 rubles. No explanation was given. In this way Petrov learned he would be allowed to emigrate to the United States. Five days later, he boarded a plane for Washington to join his 72-year-old mother, who had been granted permission to leave three months earlier.

Petrov was interviewed shortly before leaving the Soviet Union last April and three more times since coming to America. His comments reflect a man caught between two worlds -- excited by the experiences of his new life, yet still trying to come to grips with the events that shaped his previous one.

April 18, 1989, in his two-room Moscow apartment, one day after receiving permission to come to America: I applied to leave in 1981 -- eight years ago. The first shock was the first refusal. They only wrote one word on my application: "Undesirable." Not even a full sentence. Later it changed to "It contradicts the interests of the Soviet State." I had hit a wall, there was nothing I could do.

The experience of being refused was educational. My occupation was as a freelance photographer. When I applied to leave, all my contracts were canceled. I had no job. So I started working with American journalists and Western diplomats. My contact with Soviet society became zero. But what's more important is that practically all my friends became diplomats or journalists. For the last several years, I have been speaking Russian only occasionally. I mostly speak English.

My alienation from this society is very deep. I find myself on the border of two societies, Russian and American. The exposure to Americans was important for me. I realized their work ethic is completely different from the Soviets'. In America the reality is, you have to get an education and to work.

In Russian society it's the other way around, it's irrational. Russians basically daydream. That's because the the truth about Soviet society is impossible to live with. The best answer is not to face reality. If you try to be realistic, you become depressed, so the less realistic you are, the more chance you have of survival.

Someone asked me, "Sergei, now that you have your passport, when are you going to leave?" I said, "Yesterday." I basically said goodbye a long time ago. I have nothing left here. I am taking only my toothbrush, my paintings, my Linhof camera and my cat.

I don't really feel any emotions or nostalgia about leaving this place, because when someone is refused and nothing happens, you have all the time in the world to think about leaving. For the last eight years, being stuck in the Soviet Union was like being stuck in an elevator. You just can't wait until the doors open to get out and live normally. Now, I feel like the door is about to open. The repairman is outside with his tools and he is going to set me free.

May 16, 1989, at the Washington home of former ambassador Hartman, where Petrov is staying until he finds a place to live: I love it here. There is no military on the streets. I have been here for three weeks, and this is the first three weeks in my life that I haven't had to show my documents to anyone. I feel that I am changing, in directions that I couldn't foresee in Moscow. I couldn't anticipate I would feel so good just being here, just walking down the streets. When I was in Moscow, in order to survive I had to suppress my emotions. Now, I can start feeling again.

When I arrived here April 22, everything was in full bloom. I felt that it was my first spring in many years. My first glimpse of Washington, D.C., was in the late afternoon. There were clouds and a low sun, below the clouds. It was absolutely gorgeous. We drove by the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. I had seen photos of them, but suddenly I could see their relationship to one another. It reminded me of ancient Greece, the green and the classical architecture.

During my first day here, it was not the wealth that struck me, but the enormous amount of work and labor which goes into things. That's the biggest difference I see between the Soviet Union and here. In the Soviet Union everything looks as if it were put up in a hurry, without proper care. It is not supposed to last long, and people don't really care about what they are building.

It took me several days before I made a trip to see parts of Washington other than where I am staying. I went to H Street in Northeast and just walked around. It is poor, but believe me, there is no comparison to the Soviet Union. It is closer than anything else to the Soviet Union, but it is still much, much better.

I argue with my friends here a lot. For example, about crime. They say Washington is more dangerous than Moscow. In Moscow the press doesn't report the crime. You don't see it on TV so you think you are safe. But as a matter of fact, the real crime rate in Moscow is amazing. And look, the other thing is, I came from a country where, during the last 70 years, 60 to 80 million people were killed. You cannot blame it on Stalin alone. To kill 60 million people requires more than one Stalin or a dozen henchmen. This is what the society did to itself.

It's amazing how Americans stand in line. I had to go stand in a line to arrange my papers. It took me a few minutes, but I realized I had cut into the middle of the line. You see, in the Soviet Union if there is a gap of more than one yard, it cannot possibly be the same line. Americans give each other a lot of privacy.

In the Soviet Union my artwork was on hold. Now I am looking for a gallery to establish a relationship with. I have gone to some galleries to show my portfolio, and I am remounting my photographs. You know, in the Soviet Union, there are no galleries for photographs, there is no market for photographs, there is really no appreciation for it. Here it is different.

I went to the National Gallery and saw some photography shows. What was even more important for me was to see some of the paintings at the National Gallery, specifically, the Rembrandt self-portrait and Leonardo da Vinci's work. I had never seen their work. It was amazing.

There is so much to do and see, but I can wait. I waited so long without really knowing whether I'd ever see anything. Now, I know I can go to Paris, I can go to Japan, I can drive cross-country here . . . There are so many things to see, but I don't want to rush. I'd like to enjoy every bit of it.

November 19, 1989. Petrov has moved with his mother and cat into a two-bedroom town house in Arlington furnished with hand-me-downs: This is the first house I've had in my whole life. I chose this house specifically because it has a finished basement where I can set up all my equipment and a darkroom. I can work here easily. You know, by American standards it's a small house, but for me it's a palace. Just the living room is the size of my entire apartment in Moscow.

Looking for a place to rent, I saw about 20 houses. I found that I still suffered from "Moscow syndrome." I was tempted to jump at the first possibility, the first choice. It was hard to realize that if I didn't take one house that there would be another one.

What I like about Arlington is that it's very peaceful, very quiet and there is plenty of light, and that is important for my work.

When I first came to the United States I thought that just being outside the Soviet Union would be enough. But, you know, America makes you very hungry, hungry for doing things, for achieving things. You really feel like time is running and you have to do something.

My big decision was whether to take a full-time job or try to remain a freelancer. I decided not to take a full-time job, because working five days a week would leave me no time for my art. Life everywhere is filled with choices. In the Soviet Union, a major choice is whether to stay or to leave. Right now, it doesn't seem like I was making a choice when I left. It seems to have been such a natural decision, a good decision. Life in Moscow seems like a bad dream.

Right now, I'm still getting settled and I don't have a lot of time to do my art. I had to get a car, the car registration, a driver's license, and I had to get a home work permit and special tax forms because I'm working at home. For me, when I do these things, just finding the right building takes a lot of time.

I recently drove cross-country. When I was doing it my constant feeling was, "This is impossible to explain to a Soviet, just impossible." In the Soviet Union there are many differences, but they are ethnic. Here, there are regional differences. Like crossing from Nevada to Utah and going from Reno, with all of its casinos, over to Utah, with the Mormons.

What was most striking for me was that America is very provincial. I'm used to keeping up with international news, but I stayed in a number of very small communities, and I was able to see that people are preoccupied with their local issues. They don't pay attention to world politics or what happens in the Soviet Union. This is not ignorance, this is just the normal way of life for people. I was glad to see that the life of Americans is not really affected by what happens in Washington. In the Soviet Union, everyone keeps an eye on Moscow because you never know from which direction it will hit you.

Another thing I have noticed is that Americans take democratic principles very literally and try to push them in every aspect of life. This system here is an extremely fragile system, and you have to take great care with it. To maintain a democratic system requires a lot of moderation. Let me give you an example: If more than 30 percent of Americans stopped paying their income tax, there is no way the IRS could prosecute them. If only 30 percent of the drivers started to break the rules, it would be a complete mess. If there is a conflict, I think people should try to smooth it out.

April 9, Union Station, where Petrov has just arrived on the Monday morning Metroliner after a week in New York City: I was in New York to take prints to Marty Carey, who represents me now. I am going to have a show in his gallery near Woodstock, New York, in August. I also took two of my photographs to a private collector and sold them to him.

Americans take things for granted, and I think that's great. It's important that people do take things for granted. Like, we take for granted electricity and run- ning water. Americans also take for granted freedoms, such as liberty, private property, and this is wonderful. For me this is the ultimate goal of civilization, that we progress and there are more and more things we take for granted.

I'm starting to take things for granted too, and this is part of my liberation. One of the first things I started to take for granted was that I had an unlimited source of art supplies. I don't worry about it anymore, and I don't worry about food, about clothes.

The Soviet Union has let me go. For so many years, not a single day would pass when I wasn't having a conversation or arguments about the Soviet Union. It's not really what I should do. I'm an artist.

I have done several works of art, paintings and photographs since I arrived here, and they are different. It's hard to explain exactly how they are different, but in general they are more peaceful, there is less tension. I feel that I can finally concentrate on my art.

In a simple phrase, I feel that I woke up from a nightmare. The prevailing feeling that I have is that I am getting back to "normal." I now know what "normal" is. I think it is normal to live in a house, to do what you like, see people you enjoy, to have arguments, conversations, to have access to anything you want, to any book, any work of art, to be able to travel and think about life.

April 30, Arlington, a month before Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's arrival in Washington for talks with President Bush: I think too much is made of Gorbachev. His power is exaggerated. Gorbachev is like a man on a surfboard and everyone is looking and saying how skillful he is because he manages to stay on top of the board. But they forget to pay attention to the surf itself. The surf is the forces in the Soviet Union, the collapsing economy and ethnic rioting. Gorbachev is riding on those forces, but he is not the one controlling them.

If I were to give advice to President Bush, I would suggest his administration have more contact with the other forces in the Supreme Soviet. The outcome in the Soviet Union will be determined by the Soviet Union, not by Gorbachev or by Bush. They are wrong to think that a meeting between them will affect anything. Many think that Gorbachev runs the show and that Bush can play an adviser role. They are mistaken.

Right now, the Soviet Union is facing up to history. It is paying for mistakes made before. The Soviet Union is like a train on a railroad track: Where it goes is determined by history, by the tracks, not by who the conductor is. I think the Soviet Union is heading toward economic collapse and toward complete anarchy, like in 1917. Out of it will come a strong Russian nationalism, similar to German facism. You see, there is no communist ideology anymore to keep order. This development is dangerous and frightening.

I'm not excited about Gorbachev's visit here. I wasn't excited about Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, and so I'm not excited about him coming to Washington. Gorbachev feels like he is from my old life. For eight years I was a refusenik, and I followed every political development in detail. But now I am an artist. I have found my place in life.

Katie Davis is on a leave of absence from National Public Radio.