The number of Soviet citizens seeking political asylum in the United States quadrupled last year, and many applicants cited fears that their country's turbulent politics could lead to a reversal of recent freedoms.

"I could foresee a crackdown coming against liberals, against nationalists," said Maxim Kniazkov, a senior official of the government-run Tass news agency who defected two months ago.

In 1989, 243 Soviets applied for asylum, said Duke Austin of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Of those requests, 109 were approved, 11 were denied and the remainder are pending.

In fiscal 1990, which ended Sept. 30, 1,043 Soviets applied. Of those, 239 applications were approved, 51 were denied and the rest are pending.

"We're seeing more Soviet defectors than ever before because of the deterioration there," said Leigh S. Lamora, a spokeswoman for the Jamestown Foundation, which helps resettle political refugees.

Many of last year's applicants cited fears that the KGB secret police and the Soviet military -- reacting to growing chaos, demands by many republics for independence and strident calls for democracy -- will reverse the freedoms introduced in recent years by President Mikhail Gorbachev.

Kniazkov, whose job was to supervise the foreign news desk at Tass, disappeared in October while participating in an exchange program in Lawrence, Kan.

"I was in government service," Kniazkov said in an interview here. "I would have had to support what could be a very bloody thing, to write propaganda about it.

"You know a crime is going to be committed by the government you work for, and hundreds could perish. You have to take sides," he said.

Kniazkov, who left behind a son and former wife, said he knew when he arrived for the week-long program that he wouldn't be going home with the 250-member Soviet delegation. He called the local police, who handed him over to the INS.

The agency granted him asylum a week later.

To be eligible for asylum, foreigners must prove "a well-founded fear of persecution" if they return to their homeland, said INS spokesman Austin.

The growing number of asylum seekers can be explained in part by the fact that under glasnost, Gorbachev's policy of "openness," many Soviets are free to travel. But that is proving to be a mixed blessing.

U.S. authorities once valued asylum seekers who fled the Soviet Union as tools in Cold War propaganda battles with Moscow and, in some cases, as intelligence assets.

But now, the asylum seekers are placing a strain on the INS -- already snowed under by the growing number of Soviets and Eastern Europeans seeking immigrant or refugee status in this country.

Dan Danilov, a veteran immigration attorney, said it is impolitic to grant political asylum to Soviet citizens. Such action, he said, announces "to all the world that that government is an evil government."

Administration officials said relations with the Soviet Union have improved to such a degree that asylum cases no longer pose the irritant they did during the Cold War. Gorbachev has pledged that his foreign policy will not be affected by measures taken domestically to restore order.

But Kniazkov said that despite improved ties with the United States and the relaxation of government controls on state institutions, "once you decide to leave a senior government position, you're considered an enemy of the Soviet Union."

Kniazkov said that when he first arrived in the United States, Americans believed things had improved so dramatically in the Soviet Union that no one was in danger of persecution.

"Now there's been an awakening of public opinion," he said.