MOSCOW (AP) _ Acting President Vladimir Putin says his many years in the KGB taught him the spy agency's aims were wrong, but at least it was well run.

His only failing as an agent was lack of fear, he added in comments published Friday that are sure that bolster the tough image Putin is riding to a wide lead in pre-election polls.

Putin told the newspaper Kommersant that he recognized the KGB served unpalatable totalitarian aims. But, he said, ``I never was dissident-oriented _ whether that is good or bad.''

He also praised the KGB as a professional and smooth-running operation and criticized its post-Soviet successors as sloppy. Putin's popularity in opinion polls before the March 26 vote appears to stem in part from his image as a hard-nosed administrator aiming for efficiency in the sprawling and disorganized country.

He has also called for increasing the state's strength, a stance that Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, said Friday made him wary.

``To say that he's not sinful, no, look at how many small and serious mistakes he has made,'' Gorbachev told a news conference. ``Some of them reflect his authoritarianism, but people are not afraid of this.''

Opinion polls show Putin getting support of about 60 percent, with his nearest challenger, Communist Gennady Zyuganov, recording about 20 percent.

Gorbachev assessed Putin as smart and serious. But Gorbachev said Putin's chances in upcoming elections could be damaged if he doesn't distance himself from the inner circle of former President Boris Yeltsin.

Putin has spoken out against corruption and how it undermines trust in leaders, but has not specifically addressed allegations of widespread corruption in the Kremlin during Yeltsin's term.

Putin told Kommersant that he could ``theoretically'' support the return of Yuri Skuratov, the prosecutor-general suspended by Yeltsin as Skuratov was probing corruption allegations last year.

The full-page interview gave Russians an unusually wide view of the man who was largely unknown to them before becoming prime minister last August and then acting president when Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned Dec. 31. Although he has received much media exposure since then, Putin appears intensely controlled and gives little personal information.

He offered few details about his years with the KGB in East Germany, but recalled a tense moment after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when he single-handedly turned back an angry crowd advancing on the KGB office in Dresden.

``It was a serious threat, we had documents there,'' he said.

He said the only negative characteristic his bosses noted was that he had a ``decreased sense of danger.''

``I don't and I didn't think that I had a decreased sense of danger, but psychologists came to this conclusion having followed my behavior for a long time,'' Putin said.

Putin said he decided to join the KGB at age 16 but an official at the headquarters told him they only recruit university graduates. The KGB offered a job to Putin shortly before his graduation, and he eagerly agreed.

Putin, a native of Leningrad, was involved in office work and then counterespionage operations in the city for about 10 years before he was posted to Germany.

He left the KGB in 1991 after the attempted hard-line coup against Gorbachev. At that time he had already quit as a full-time agent and was working as an aide to Anatoly Sobchak, then the reformist mayor of St. Petersburg. He became head of the KGB's main successor, the FSB, in 1998.

Putin also reinforced his tough stance on the Chechnya war. Asked by the newspaper whether it was necessary to have launched the Chechen campaign, he responded sharply: ``We didn't begin anything. We are defending ourselves.''

He angrily dismissed allegations that the FSB itself had set up apartment bombings last fall blamed on Chechen rebels, which helped trigger the Russian offensive.

``It's delirious nonsense,'' he said. ``There are no people in the Russian secret services who would be capable of such crime against their own people. The very allegation is immoral.''