The five young men filed into the room looking slightly apprehensive. Wearing open-necked pastel shirts, casual pants and new sneakers, they smiled gamely for photographers as they positioned themselves in front of a large Canadian flag hastily unfurled by cheering onlookers. But in their first public appearance—before dozens of journalists at a news conference in Toronto last week—the Soviet army deserters who had been spirited out of Afghanistan with the help of Canadian officials appeared more eager to get on with their new lives than to provide details of their politically sensitive ordeal. Indeed, as they filed out, blinking as cameras flashed in their faces, the former Red Army soldiers had raised as many questions as they had answered.
The five—Nikolai Golovin, 24, Igor Kovalchuk, 27, Sergei Busov, 22, Vladislav Naumov, 25, and Vadim Plotnikov, 21—are recovering from years of hardship and uncertainty in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. Leaders of Canadian groups that had lobbied Ottawa to help them since 1984 say that the young men just want to live normal lives. But even last week it was clear that anonymity would be difficult to achieve. Said Neil Reynolds, editor of the Kingston Whig-
Standard, the small Ontario newspaper that played a central role in the saga: “There is a real danger that some of the groups involved will feel they own these men and deprive them of the freedom they came for.”
The Soviets arrived in Ottawa on Nov. 21 aboard a Canadian Forces transport plane.
They were immediately questioned by external affairs department officials, who said later that no restrictions would be placed on their activities in Canada. Even so, the former soldiers said that they were told not to reveal details of how they were brought out of Afghanistan—or where they had been held—so that other deserters held by anti-Communist Afghan rebels will not be endangered. As many as 400 Soviet deserters are held by the guerrillas, who have been fighting the pro-Moscow Afghan government and 115,000 Red Army troops since 1979.
In Ottawa, government officials stressed that the mission to bring the
men to Canada was undertaken on humanitarian, not political, grounds. Said an External Affairs spokesman: “It is not in anyone’s plan to use these people as propaganda.” But Soviet officials expressed skepticism. They warned that Soviet-Canadian relations could be damaged if anti-Soviet groups use the deserters to attack their country. Said Igor Lobanov, press attaché at the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa: “Much will depend on how this case will be presented.”
On Tuesday the five men met Soviet
consular officials at immigration department offices in Toronto. There, second secretary Vladimir Kuznetsov and viceconsul Gennadi Samsonov told the five they are welcome to return to the Soviet Union. They were also told that other deserters who had returned home after escaping to the West were living quietly at home with their families. All five rejected the offer out of ~ hand. Said Naumov, a £ paratrooper who defected to the rebels in 1983:
“They promised nothing would happen to us if we went home. They were lying.”
The group’s account of the meeting, delivered through an interpreter, was straightforward. But they were more
guarded about exactly what they did while in Afghanistan. Ludmilla Thorne, a Russian-born New York-based human rights activist who has made several trips to Afghanistan on behalf of the deserters, said that two of the five men had transferred Soviet arms to the Afghan rebels. Several, she added, had fought with Afghan guerrillas against Soviet troops, and two had been severely beaten and tortured in a Soviet military prison.
Naumov, who said that he plans to write a book about his experiences in Afghanistan, denied that he had fought against Soviet troops. But he did say that while he was with the rebels he entered an Afghan village shortly after Soviet troops had withdrawn. All 98 people—including women and children—had been killed, he said, even though “there was only one guerrilla in the village.”
The affair also set off a heated debate about how the government handled the soldiers’ case. Robert Mykytiuk, president of the Canadian Ukrainian Immigrant Aid Society, one group that lobbied on behalf of the deserters, charged that senior officials of the external affairs department “never wanted the soldiers to come here.” The reason: they did not want to risk a rupture in Canada’s diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. And Mykytiuk repeated earlier allegations that previous attempts by External Affairs to get the men out had been mishandled. In Ottawa, government officials responded angrily. A political aide in the office of External Affairs Minister Joe Clark declared that Mykytiuk’s “stock-in-trade is bitching that the world will not be right until the Soviets are toppled.”
As the debate continued, the five young Soviets moved in with Russianand Ukrainian-speaking families in Toronto and sampled pleasures they had not known for years: clean clothing, hot showers and watching hockey on television. They also visited the Ontario legislature, where members of all parties gave them a standing ovation.
But the five young men tried to discourage efforts to portray them as heroes in the fight against Soviet aggression in Asia. Golovin, who was just 18 when he was sent to Afghanistan six years ago, explained his motives for deserting in two simple sentences: “I did not want to fight. I wanted my freedom.” At week’s end, it was far from clear that either Golovin or his comrades would be allowed to use that freedom to live as they wished—quietly and in a peaceful land.
— ANN FINLAYSON in Toronto with HILARY MACKENZIE in Ottawa
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.