When Victor Petrov was a very young man in his native China, he worked as a bodyguard for a warlord and carried two pistols, ready to fire at anybody daring to attack his boss. Later, as a cowboy, he brought wild horses from Mongolia. But when hard days came and he found himself unemployed, he joined a funeral band. He stayed with the band until it was discovered that he was just pretending to play his trumpet.

Today, a historian and geographer by degree and a world traveler at heart, Petrov has no regrets about his onetime flimflam. "It helped me to keep my body and soul together," he jokes.

He's certainly done that. The author of 31 books, Petrov, at 83, is hard at work on three more -- an autobiography, a travel book and a historical work, Russians in America: 20th Century, under contract to a Soviet publisher.

Although Petrov is ethnically Russian, he never lived in Russia -- Soviet or Czarist. He moved to the States in 1940, and most of his novels and non-fiction books were written while he held professorships at George Washington University and California State University at Los Angeles. The majority are in Russian or English.

When his Russians in America: 18th-19th Century was smuggled into the Soviet Union last year, it became a hit. Then, after many years of banning his books and calling him "a White Army bandit," Soviet officials informed him that they like his books and want to publish them. In addition to the work on Russians in 20th-century America, Petrov has Soviet contracts for publication of two earlier works -- Russians in American History and The Great Escape.

As the Washington area representative of the Congress of Russian-Americans, a cultural and lobbying group, Petrov drives from his Rockville home to State Department briefings once a month. But he recently had to give up the presidency of the Washington chapter of the group -- his writing keeps him too busy.

"It was my hobby that now has turned into a full-time job," he says.