Q & A: Oleg Shmelyoff

Anatomy of a Soviet defection

September 8 1980
Q & A: Oleg Shmelyoff

Anatomy of a Soviet defection

September 8 1980

Anatomy of a Soviet defection

Q & A: Oleg Shmelyoff

On June 5 in Gander, Nfld., a young Soviet engineer whose electronics and computer specialties involved him in highly secret work with satellites, stepped off an Aeroflot flight bound for Cuba, escaped the notice of Soviet police monitoring the stopover and asked the first likely official he found to call the police. He was a defector. Defections are not unusual in Newfoundland, since it is a crossroads for many Eastern bloc flights and a base for their trawlers fishing in Canadian waters. Last year 13 Cubans, five Czechs, five Poles, a Russian and a Romanian left plane or ship for asylum in the province. There have been 13 so far this year.

Most often they are tourists or fishermen; the arrival of a sensitively placed Russian like Oleg Shmelyoff, 27, is unusual. So, perhaps, is Shmelyoff's motive, his idealistic love of Western values, his abiding hatred of Soviet Communism, incubated during his childhood and nurtured during years of intellectual isolation when his one goal was to get out. Shmelyoff expresses dismay at the complacency with which the Western nations view Soviet might, and he spoke with Maclean’s correspondent Geoff Hunt in St. John's thinking his own story might contribute to an awakening.

Maclean’s: Why did you defect? Shmelyoff: I long had badly wanted to get out of the Soviet Union, and for years looked for opportunities and made plans. My reasons can be simply summed up as my aversion to the Soviet system, but I think they are difficult to convey: can the Western mind, used to all this freedom and plenty, really understand living under the daily frustrations of Communist bureaucracy, the shortages, the killed opportunities, the lies and propaganda, the fear of speaking out? [Even] as a schoolboy, if with a boy’s understanding, I was developing serious doubts about the system. School itself was the lesson, with its regimentation and dogma, its first concern to subjugate the student to the collective. There was the official reprimand I received in fifth or sixth grade for my choice in the essay “My Favorite Book,” The Count of Monte Cristo. I was ridiculed and ostracized: a good pupil would have chosen the lives of heroes of the revolution.

And the hypocritical hierarchy of privilege was plain to see at that large naval base in the North not far from Murmansk where, at least till I defected, my parents still had civilian

jobs. The same high-ranking officers who would come to give us lectures on building Communism lived in luxury compared to the non-Coms and civilians. As I grew older, reading and listening to Western broadcasts helped to broaden my understanding. I was deeply affected by Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch and felt utter horror as the country learned of the 20 million murders in Stalin’s prisons and camps. And the nature of Soviet aggression was bared to me by the invasion of Czechoslovakia in ’68. I think of the treatment of my uncle, a war invalid, and his family, who lived in the Far North. It took them two years in the late ’50s to obtain permission to move south to an easier climate. So I hate the

system. I sometimes thought about trying to adjust and make a successful career, but finally my disenchantment would not allow it. Better to concentrate my abilities on winning a chance to travel, which could lead to escape. Maclean’s: How did you prepare to defect?

Shmelyoff: I had to be seen as a zealous Soviet citizen, keep a good social record; it would be needed for access to the type of profession that gives opportunities to go abroad. My first step, when I was still 15 in the summer of 1969, was to attend a youth labor camp held at the Black Sea for activists of the Young Communist League, in which virtually every Soviet youth is prudently a member. Back at school I took up English, deliberately obtaining low marks in it to disguise my interest. I wanted to attend a technical university for the type of education I would need for the West. I was accepted at the Moscow Engineering Power Institute. My specialty was computers and remote control, automated systems.

I rose steeply in the Young Communists. By about 1973, six of us ardent YCL activists received the important assignment to receive delegations of American and Latin American students studying in Europe—a chance to practise my English and Spanish. But since we had to stick to the unrealistic official Soviet line, a blatant propaganda exercise, the Americans just beat us on every point of discussion and the meetings were soon stopped.

Then came an offer from the KGB in the spring of 1974.1 was an obvious target for them because of my excellent YCL record, and it seems they were interested in my Latin American friends as possible instruments of Soviet influence once they returned home. They wanted any personal information I could provide. I was frightened. To go with the KGB is to enter a system with no way back. I knew cases of people just ceasing to collaborate with them, but these people were finished; their lives became very poor. Mildly, I turned the offer down, posing as someone interested only in scientific activity. So the KGB left me alone, but after that my entry into the Communist party was stopped. Maclean’s: Was that a major setback? Shmelyoff: I thought all was over, that I would never be allowed to leave the Soviet Union, and my emotions began to take control. I began to think I would rather stop wearing this mask of hypocrisy, posing as a model citizen, and to

try to gain permission to emigrate by arranging a marriage of convenience with a Jewish woman. But I saw that the policy of letting some Jews emigrate, initiated at the time of détente in 1972, was just hypocrisy and fraught with danger, designed as it is just to appease the West in exchange for badly needed high technology. Someone applying to emigrate may face anything from a heavy prison term to easy emigration, by Soviet standards.

Gradually I was becoming aware that I would not be allowed to leave the country without hostages to leave behind, a wife and children; this is a rule everybody knows about, and since my school days I knew I couldn’t bring myself to marry someone just to use her as a springboard.

Maclean’s: What was your next step? Shmelyoff: I went to work for an institute that was working to equip a satellite to study the state of the ionosphere and its propagation characteristics— very useful to the military for forecasting the radio frequencies likely to be used by the Americans. I made it my business to get acquainted with the organization and internal structure of the institute, who were the influential administrators, who had say over trips abroad. A trip to Yugoslavia fell through in 1978 because of my access to classified information.

Maclean’s: But despite that restriction, you finally got your trip.

Shmelyoff: Yes. Last year my superiors decided I should go to Cuba. If this chance to defect were to fall through, I was determined to end this charade and openly break with the Soviet Union by applying to emigrate. I think what

sealed my final approval to go was that I had finally found a hostage, or more precisely, a hostage-to-be. I feel some remorse that I deceived this girl with the promise we would marry after my return from Cuba, but I felt it was necessary.

Maclean’s; Were you confident of success?

Shmelyoff: I assumed even an attempt in Gander could be dangerous. I learned from my friends numerous examples of failed defections. And there were the hair-raising cases where the KGB would inject a man so he would appear sick or just drunk. I knew of men the KGB had abducted and took back some time after they had defected, such as canoe champion Vlados Chessyunas, carried out of West Germany on Sept. 13,1979. In case of physical confrontation I armed myself with a handy pocketknife, pepper to throw in the eyes and a seven-inch rod recommended by my commando friend as very damaging grasped in a fist. The plane left the ground at midnight in Moscow. You can imagine my joy. Now for the 71/2 hours to Gander I would summon every ounce of hatred I had ever felt for the Soviet regime, to keep unwelcome doubt from intruding; and, really, this proved not too difficult. The stopover at Gander was for one hour, and as all the passengers disembarked it was easy to mingle with

some Mexican passengers. I walked toward a room marked “Allied Operations.” There was a man in a blue suit. Hoping to prod him into instant action, I embellished my story: “I am a Soviet intelligence officer on my way to Cuba to monitor NATO naval exercises. I wish to stay in Canada and I have valuable information. Quickly, call the police. There are two KGB men following me and they may be armed.” I stepped as if to hide behind a glass partition and the security guard straightaway radioed the RCMP. The head of immigration in Gander was also called and arrived in a short time. So did the Soviet representative in Gander, but I refused to talk to him except in English so the police could understand. Then I was taken to a hotel and registered under an assumed name. The RCMP and immigration questioned me for an hour or so, then suggested I get some sleep, but I could not, though it was my second sleepless night in a row. I was very happy to be in the West.

Maclean’s: Will there be reprisals

against your relatives?

Shmelyoff: My parents will be in greatest jeopardy, I think. It’s possible the authorities at that naval base will order them out of their jobs and home with just 24 hours’ notice, and nowhere to go. They have some savings, but they might be forced to leave behind all their

belongings. I wouldn’t expect my sister in Leningrad, whom I will miss the most, to be so severely affected, but she may be economically blacklisted.

Maclean’s: Have you had any regrets, second thoughts?

Shmelyoff: No, except that I will miss my relatives. My hatred of Communism has hardly diminished; it has intensified, and the system’s everyday aspects have poisoned everything about Russia for me. You know, during the last few years I saw a great deal of the countryside, drove to the Crimea and to Leningrad and flew the breadth of the country to the island of Sakhalin in the Far East, and as I surveyed this vast country my dominant thought was that nowhere was there a single place in it for me; I rejected it all. I cannot say I have ever felt myself to be a Russian; the very sense of a Russian nationality has been all but destroyed by the Communists. It was as good as murdered, its rural backbone destroyed by Stalin in the 1930s, and the process of emasculation is still going on. It is not the state but the national culture that is withering away, and even the language, in its pure form so beautiful and precise, has been totally polluted by their socialist jargon.

Maclean’s: Do you find the West complacent?

Shmelyoff: Yes, appallingly so. The way

it has broken ranks with the U.S. in opposing the most recent Soviet aggression is a dereliction. Whereas Soviet rulers make their every move part of long-term strategy, the Western powers, even after Afghanistan, continue to follow their shortsighted policies, such as the sale of high technology, for a short-term gain.

Maclean’s: Has Western living kept its appeal to you now that you are actually here?

Shmelyoff: What I have seen so far has exceeded all my expectations. The people, the human relations—people are so friendly and polite. I did not imagine human relations could be so beautiful, and it’s all the more obvious contrasted with Communist propaganda. They are afraid of the human face of the West. In the Soviet Union people are plagued by the everyday problems and especially in Moscow they are very spiteful and angry and rude.

Maclean’s: What lies ahead for you? Shmelyoff: I think the period of adaption will go very smoothly for me; after all, it’s the continuation of a period of creative effort of more than a decade. I look with hope at all the opportunities here and I am eager to work in North America and build a life. I am very happy to be able to work to make North America even more beautiful and strong. ;£?