MOSCOW -- Just two months ago, Sergei Kirichenko was in a cell at one of the most notorious islands of the Gulag Archipelago, Perm-35 in the Ural Mountains. He was serving the sixth year of a 10-year sentence for treason. With experience as a young army officer studying and working at Moscow's antiballistic missiles system, he tried to tell the American Embassy about what he said were Soviet violations of the 1972 ABM treaty. "Until then I had sincerely believed all the dogma which had been instilled in me for 24 years," said Kirichenko, who had been listed as a political prisoner by several international monitoring groups and the U.S. government before his release in May. The story of Sergei Kirichenko is full of ambiguities. Only he can attest to much of his story, though several prominent dissidents here vouch for him. And he will not discuss in detail the alleged violations of the U.S.-Soviet ABM treaty, not until he gets an exit visa for the United States, he said. "Though whatever I have to tell is, by now, probably known to everyone," he said. Yet there is something about his education, his disenchantment, his bungled attempt at what he thought was "the right thing to do," his imprisonment and his release that comprises, in his own ironic words, "a typical Soviet story of growing up." Kirichenko was born 30 years ago in Leningrad and raised in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. His father was an army officer and a scholar who taught at the local military institute. As a boy, Kirichenko was a kind of Soviet computer hacker, working away the hours on the most primitive sorts of hardware. He thought he would follow in his father's footsteps. "I figured that all people in the army were like my father and his friends," he said. He studied advanced technology and computer programming. Eventually he graduated from the Zhitomir College of Radio-Electronics, specializing in antiballistic missile systems. As he spent more time studying at the launching sites and radar base near Moscow, Kirichenko began to feel that "colossal amounts of money were being spent" on an ABM system that would not protect the country in case of attack. What was more, he said, he was witness to various violations of the treaty itself and also saw how ranking officers gave relatives important jobs in the ABM system. Although the Americans have claimed that the Soviets violated the treaty with their Krasnoyarsk radar station in Siberia, they have never formally charged the Kremlin with illegal activities at the Moscow ABM base. Kirichenko said he began to talk about his disillusionment with friends in and out of the army, with economists, "even with teachers of Marxist-Leninist philosophy." "Regrettably, these are very sensitive questions," he said, and it was not long before someone informed on him. "One of the officers of my acquaintance wrote a denunciation of me to the KGB. When I was preparing my court case a year later, I discovered a document in the file that showed it was him," Kirichenko said. "It said I didn't properly understand defense policy of the Communist Party and the government and I had expressed a lack of confidence in the highest command of the ABM. . . . I tried to talk to my direct superiors about all this, but they just said I was crazy." The irony of it all, he said, was that in the Soviet Union, village people know "many things" that are considered state secrets. "The girls in Zhitomir, for example, are experts on the issue of who is being sent where from the institute after graduation. This is called a major secret." Soon it was made clear to him that he was throwing away his chances of promotion. "I took this with the merriment of youth," he said. The KGB raised the level of intimidation and, according to Kirichenko, charged him with rape. "It was completely false. So I left the army. I deserted. For a while I even thought about suicide," he said. During three months on the move, he slept in parks or on the street, eating only every other day. In July 1982, he addressed two letters to the American Embassy in Moscow, writing that he knew of Soviet ABM treaty violations from his own military experience and was willing to present the U.S. government with "necessary information." Kirichenko was in over his head. To this day, he is a bit naive about his foray into the world of superpower politics, a realm in which both sides deal harshly with anyone who would seek to expose their frailties, much less their secrets. "I never intended to transfer military secrets, but just give the Americans information that the Soviet Union was obliged to give under the treaty," he said. "Also, I was in a desperate situation. I didn't want to rob people, but I needed help. I didn't want money from the Americans, I wanted protection -- political asylum." According to Kirichenko, his own letters got through, but a "slightly coded letter" from the embassy to him was intercepted by the KGB. "I guess the embassy was less artful than I was," Kirichenko said. "I was lucky that the KGB intercepted the letter rather than found it on me later on. If that had happened, I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you now." An official at the U.S. Embassy did not deny Kirichenko's story but said there was no record of any letters. If the embassy does keep records of such letters, it is unlikely officials there would talk about them openly. Nevertheless, the official said, "Basically, the story seems believable." During his trial, Kirichenko spent nearly a year in a Moscow prison, and after his inevitable conviction, he was sent to Perm-35, a labor camp that has been described by such dissidents and former political prisoners as Vladimir Bukovsky, Natan Sharansky, Stepan Khamara, Anatoly Marchenko and Lev Timofeyev. Kirichenko claims that he never committed espionage or treason, but does say that he now understands the "gray areas" of his case compared to other prisoners in Perm-35 who were jailed for writing political poetry, organizing Bible classes and circulating political literature. "I thought when I got to the camp I'd tell everyone about my case and they'd be surprised, but when I saw why others were there, I understood I was not the most unjustly imprisoned," he said. Kirichenko was young when he arrived at Perm-35, and he said that he got his real education in the camps. For half a year, he shared a cell with Sharansky, who is now living in Israel. The two men spent long hours discussing mathematics and politics. Khamara, a Ukrainian dissident, said that the older prisoners saw that it was their "task not to let Sergei fall." "We did everything we could to make him a fighter, a real political prisoner, a force for the good against the totalitarian machine of the camp," Khamara said. "And like all of us, he paid a dear price." During his years in the camp, Kirichenko said, he spent at least 150 days in a punishment cell, a windowless chamber of rough concrete that measured 5 feet by 10 feet with a hard stool in the middle of the floor. "It's impossible to sit on the stool for more than 15 minutes," Kirichenko said. "You can't sit against the wall. You can't sleep because it is so cold all day and night. And they feed you once every two days. "There was a hole in the corner where you could urinate and defecate, and they never opened the door for 15 days at a time. And they didn't stop using the punishment cell after March 1985," Kirichenko said, an obvious reference to the rise to power of Mikhail Gorbachev. One of the most humiliating punishments for a prisoner was to make him build higher and stronger fences around the camp. To keep his sanity, Kirichenko took advantage of one of the privileges of the camp: he ordered books on computer technology and mathematics. "There was a certain beauty to such things inside a place like Perm," he said. On the day of Gorbachev's speech to the United Nations last December, the prisoners all gathered around the television -- by order of the camp commandant -- to hear the Soviet leader tell the world there were no more political prisoners in Soviet jails. "You should have heard the laughter," Kirichenko said. "It was lovely." In 1987, Gorbachev began releasing some political prisoners, and that brought hope to everyone else in Perm. One day last May, guards brought Kirichenko to a room for a three-hour talk with a KGB officer. "It wasn't one of the local KGB people, but, still, I had no idea what was happening," he said. Strangely, Kirichenko had grown "almost satisfied" with life in prison. "If I hadn't gone to the camps, then I would have understood the true state of affairs only much later -- and that would have been tragic. The true essence of this system is cruelty and amorality." "It's clear that Sergei has learned a great deal in his young life," said Larissa Bogaraz, Marchenko's widow and a well-known human rights activist here. Soon after the interrogation, however, a door opened in Kirichenko's cell and a voice said, "Come on, let's go." Without words or ceremony, Kirichenko was given the money he had come to camp with -- about 100 rubles. He was put in a car, driven to the railway station and given a ticket to Moscow. He was free. "On the train ride, all I could think was, 'What do I do now?' " Kirichenko will no doubt have a difficult if not impossible time trying to get a job in computers. Also, he has applied at the U.S. Embassy here for refugee status, but even if he is granted such status, he will still need an exit visa from the Soviets -- and, considering his former job with the ABM system, that could be a very long time in coming. By approaching a newspaper reporter with his story -- through people like Khamara who are known for their honesty -- Kirichenko said he was acting "on my own responsbility." "My view of life has changed so drastically since I went into the camps," he said. "If I could do it all over again, I think I would have acted more directly from the start, I would have spoken out more directly. And damn the cost."