THE BRITISH abolished their debtor prisons after Charles Dickens published "Bleak House," and the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that detention for contempt of court must be finite. So you might think it impossible in this day and age for someone to be held in prison in America indefinitely, without trial or charge. You'd be wrong. Meet Nikolaiy Ogorodnikov, a stateless citizen who has been incarcerated since October 1991 and whose fate is now in the hands of the Supreme Court.

Ogorodnikov is one of life's losers. He was born in the wrong place at the wrong time. He married the wrong woman and he emigrated to the wrong country. He was born Nikolaiy Wolfson in the Soviet city of Kiev in 1932. His father died when he was 5. Germany invaded his country when he was 9. He changed his Jewish name to an uncle's, Ogorodonikov, in case he was captured by the Germans. He was an 11-year-old soldier in the Red Army, then a street tough of 13 in liberated Kiev. In the 26 years that followed the war, he committed four burglaries and seduced a girl when she was drunk, landing him in prison for a total of 14 years.

In 1968, at 36 and freshly divorced, he met and married Svetlana Malutina, a 17-year-old Russian whose dream was to go to Hollywood. In 1970, after a son, Matvei, was born, the little family received permission to go "to Israel." At the airport in Vienna, they changed their minds and chose the United States. Had Nikolaiy been British or Irish or Scandinavian, his criminal record would have barred him from even a tourist visa; but, being of Jewish descent, he could expect a full immigrant visa as a "political refugee."

The couple settled in West Hollywood, where a Jewish organization found them an apartment and Nikolaiy a job. When Matvei went to school at 5, Svetlana had time for her ambition -- to become a part of the film industry. The nearly 30,000 Russian emigres in Southern California were anti-communist but homesick; Svetlana began borrowing Russian films from the Soviet consulate-general in San Francisco and showing them at her church. For Svetlana at least, it was a new and more romantic life, meeting Russian-movie fans like Shirley MacLaine and Diana Ross. Meanwhile, Nikolaiy was butchering meat for supermarkets.

Then the intrigue started. In 1982, FBI special agent John Hunt approached Svetlana and asked her to become an FBI "asset" -- an informer on the Russian community and the San Francisco consulate-general. Svetlana says that she and Hunt became lovers and that he promised to divorce his wife and marry her. Hunt, a member of the "Russian Squad" of the Foreign Counter-Intelligence Unit of the Los Angeles office of the FBI, was trying to lure the KGB into approaching him as a prospective mole. Acting on his orders, Svetlana approached the consulate-general, who didn't take the bait. Hunt gave up on the ploy, and, the following year, on Svetlana. Devastated, she turned to drink.

But the spy games would come to ensnare flighty Svetlana's husband. In 1984 Hunt's colleague Richard Miller revived the "mole" offer to the KGB, again using Svetlana but without authorization from anyone in the FBI. The Soviet KGB Rezident (the equivalent of a CIA station chief), Aleksandr Grishin, knew a scam when he saw one. He used the offer to run a sting on the FBI. He made a series of telephone calls to the Ogorodnikov apartment, which both the Ogorodnikovs and Grishin knew was bugged by the FBI. He always called on the same day of the week and at the same hour, arranging for Miller and Svetlana to meet with a Soviet general in Vienna.

The FBI fell for it. Suspecting that Miller was selling himself to the KGB, the bureau bugged his house and car, as well as Svetlana's car. In October 1984, when Miller went to his supervisor and said he had spooked the Russians into setting up the meeting and needed authorization to go to Vienna, he was grilled for five days and then fired. Then, William Webster, the FBI (and later, CIA) director, decided to overrule his subordinates and have Miller arrested for espionage -- passing a minor classified document to San Francisco as bait, an action which Miller denies. Svetlana was arrested too.

And so was Nikolaiy, though why remains unclear. Russell Hayman, then one of the U.S. attorneys who prosecuted the case, says: "Except for the fact that, after each time she met Miller, Svetlana and Nikolaiy walked out of their {bugged} apartment and chatted in the street, we had nothing on Nikolaiy. We hesitated to arrest him. I guess you can say he was really arrested for being Svetlana's husband."

The prosecutors urged Nikolaiy and Svetlana to plea-bargain. They told Svetlana that if she was found guilty at trial, they would ask for several consecutive life terms. However, in return for a guilty plea, which would "fix" Miller (who had got a hung jury and was about to be retried) they would ask for "only" 18 years. Svetlana's lawyers told her that no one accused of espionage in the United States had ever been acquitted. She decided to plead. But now the prosecutors said they wouldn't accept her guilty plea unless Nikolaiy followed suit. Nikolaiy's lawyer advised against it, saying the government had no case. But the prosecutors arranged for him to hear the hysterical Svetlana crying her heart out in the next room of the courthouse, and Nikolaiy made the greatest mistake of his lamentable life: He agreed to plead guilty to being a Soviet spy and to accept an eight-year prison term. He served five years.

When he was released in January 1990, fortune finally seemed to smile on him. He became the driver of a hotel bus at Los Angeles International Airport and was later reunited with his son Matvei, who was working his way through medical school as a paramedic. One night, when an armed gunman tried to hijack the bus, the skinny little 58-year-old veteran of the Red Army threw himself on the rascal and held him until the police arrived. He won a citizen's commendation from the L.A. Police Department. Hampton Inns International made him "Employee of the Year" and hung his portrait in hotel lobbies from Vancouver to Valparaiso. At every opportunity, he appeared on TV, beaming proudly with his son.

I met Nikolaiyjust before Christmas 1990, chauffeuring him from National Airport to the Soviet Embassy to meet Ambassador (later foreign minister) Aleksandr Bessmertnykh, and afterward to the Washington bureau of Tass. In both places, he was told he was an embarrassment; would he please go home to Los Angeles and stop appearing on television!

The Immigration and Naturalization Service also decided that Nikolaiy -- a convicted spy after all -- was an embarrassment. The following summer, it ordered him deported to the Soviet Union. When he fought deportation in court, he was arrested in October 1991. Six months after the Soviet Union's demise, the INS finally changed "Soviet Union" to "Russian Federation" on Nikolaiy's deportation order -- apparently unaware that his native city, Kiev, was in Ukraine. The Russians offered him travel papers but he refused them. His new lawyer tried Ukraine and Israel to see if they would take Nikolaiy. Both said no.

In February of last year, Lt. Gen. Vadim-Alekseivich Kirpichenko, former head of the KGB's "S" directorate, which oversaw spies without diplomatic immunity, assured me in Moscow that neither of the Ogorodinikovs were ever considered as possible agents for any Soviet intelligence service. Meanwhile, Nikolaiy remained in jail in Virginia. He was transferred to a San Pedro prison so that he could be closer to Matvei -- and then had a heart attack.

Lawyer David Carliner has tried to go around the procedural straitjacket and get the various bureaucrats to be "human" -- allow the inoffensive Ogorodnikov to go home and back to work, while his deportation status is decided. But at the top, he finds little sympathy. Nikolaiy is described as a "self-confessed spy," even if the country for which he obligingly pretended to have spied is no longer an enemy, and no longer in existence.

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond has ruled in his case that the INS can hold potential deportees indefinitely if they are a "danger to national security." Carliner took Nikolaiy's case to the Supreme Court on Oct. 14. Now it is up to the nine justices to decide if someone held in contempt of an INS order has the same protection from indefinite incarceration as, say, the denizens of "Bleak House."

Russell Warren Howe is a veteran foreign and Washington correspondent. His book "Sleeping With The FBI," on the Richard Miller spy case, has just been published.