Asylum-Seekers – Famous (and Not So Famous) Soviet Defectors

On Sept. 6, 1976 the air traffic controllers at Hokodate airport in Japan watched in amazement as a Soviet MiG-25 interceptor made a surprise landing. The jet's pilot, Lt. Viktor Belenko, was defecting with the top secret warplane.

On Sept. 6, 1976 the air traffic controllers at Hokodate airport in Japan watched in amazement as a Soviet MiG-25 interceptor made a surprise landing. The jet’s pilot, Lt. Viktor Belenko, was defecting with the top secret warplane.

Tom Clancy.

Tom Clancy.

Last week, the literary world lost one of its most accomplished authors – Tom Clancy. The 66-year-old former insurance agent’s career as a novelist spanned four decades, during which time the Maryland native penned seventeen best-sellers and achieved sales of more than 100 million books. His works have inspired no fewer than four blockbuster Hollywood films (with another slated for release in the coming weeks) and more than 40 computer games. Clancy’s stellar career began in 1984 with the publishing of The Hunt For Red October. The novel, which was originally released by non-fiction publisher the Naval Institute Press, tells of a Lithuanian-born submarine skipper named Marko Ramius who flees the Soviet Union with a top secret Typhoon-class ballistic missile sub — thanks in part to the help of a junior CIA analyst named Jack Ryan. The book would go on to sell more than 2 million copies in just a few years and spawn a film adaptation starring Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin. Clancy said he was inspired to write Red October by real world events like these:

The Storozhevoy Affair
Clancy often claimed to have come up with the idea for Red October following a November of 1975 mutiny aboard the Burevestnik-class Soviet frigate Storozhevoy, which at the time was part of Russia’s Baltic Fleet.

The uprising was initiated by the ship’s own political commissar Valery Sablin. The 36-year old naval officer and committed Marxist had grown disaffected with Moscow’s growing lack of revolutionary zeal. Under the leadership of Sabin, a group of crewmen arrested the ship’s captain and senior officers while the vessel was at anchor at Riga. The mutineers planned on sailing the Storozhevoy to Leningrad where Sablin would broadcast an appeal to the people of the Soviet Union to rise against the corruption and repression of Leonid Brezhnev’s Politburo.

The plot was foiled when one of the ship’s officers escaped confinement and alerted naval authorities. A flotilla of 13 warships, along with Russian warplanes, converged on the Storozhevoy as it steamed out into the Baltic. After a series of warning shots, Sablin surrendered the vessel. The dissident officer was swiftly tried an executed for treason. For its part, the Soviet Union attempted to conceal the entire incident. But when news of the event did leak to the west, it was spun by Moscow as a foiled defection rather than an attempt at revolutionary renewal, the optics of which would have appeared far worse for the regime.

The crew of the Soviet warship Storozhevoy mutinied in 1975 under the direction of the vessels communist zealot political officer. The Politburo painted the mutiny as a defection attempt

The crew of the Soviet warship Storozhevoy mutinied in 1975 under the direction of the vessels communist zealot political officer. The Politburo painted the mutiny as a defection attempt

Jonas Plaskus -- Inspiration for the Hunt for Red October?

Jonas Plaskus — Inspiration for the Hunt for Red October?

Jonan Plaskus – The Real Ramius?
It’s widely believed that Clancy was also influenced by the story of Jonas Plaskus, a Soviet naval captain who defected with his vessel to Sweden in 1961. While stationed in the port of Klaipeda in his native Lithuania, the 26-year-old submarine supply-ship captain ignored orders that directed him to convey his craft to Tallinn, Estonia more than 600 km away and instead made a dash for the Swedish-owned Baltic Sea isle of Gotland, less than 150 km to the west. Sweden harboured the defecting naval officer but agreed to return the ship, which yielded little for western intelligence. Plaskus went on to settle in the United States where he attended university and pursued a career as a computer programmer. Later, he moved to Caracas, Venezuela. Moscow tried the defector in absentia and handed down a death sentence. Accordingly, Plaskus was unable to visit his homeland until the fall of the U.S.S.R. in 1992. He died the following year.

Although Clancy never claimed to have been directly inspired by the case of Viktor Belenko, he surely would have recalled the famous incident while writing his breakout novel. It was certainly a humiliation the Soviets would not soon forget.

Although Clancy never claimed to have been directly inspired by the case of Viktor Belenko, he surely would have recalled the famous incident while writing his breakout novel. It was certainly a humiliation the Soviets would not soon forget.

Viktor Belenko — MiG Defector
In September of 1976, a seemingly loyal Soviet pilot named Viktor Belenko, flew his top secret MiG-25 Foxbat from a Russian airbase near Vladivostok to a civil airport on the island of Hokkaido, Japan. The 29-year-old Ukrainian flier who concealed a growing resentment towards communism undertook his daring gambit while on a routine training flight over the Soviet Far East. After fooling the ground crew into filling his plane with enough fuel to make good his escape, the young lieutenant unexpectedly broke formation during the exercise and dove for the wave tops of the Sea of Japan. Once away from the squadron, Belenko lit his jet’s afterburners and dashed eastwards towards freedom. By the time his comrades had guessed the young lieutenant’s intentions, the wayward MiG was too far out of range and travelling too fast to intercept. Perilously short on fuel and after narrowly avoiding a collision with an outbound civilian airliner, Belenko set down on the runway at Hokodate airport. As staff from the terminal cautiously approached the strange fighter jet, the pilot climbed down from the cockpit and handed over a pre-written note advising them to contact U.S. officials at once.

The defection couldn’t have come at a better time for western intelligence. The MiG-25, which had entered service in 1970, had confounded American defence planners since it’s introduction. It could fly faster and higher than any fighter to date, but NATO had yet to observe the plane up close. After the defection, U.S. intelligence officers and aerospace engineers quickly loaded the interceptor into a C-5 Galaxy cargo jet and spirited it away to a classified location for a thorough inspection. By way of a bonus, Belenko handed the jet over with a complete set of manuals. These became an invaluable resource as American experts took the fighter apart piece by piece. Once the Foxbat’s many secrets had been discovered, the machine was returned to the Soviet Union by the Japanese (completely disassembled and packed into shipping crates).

Belenko, who is now 66 years old, was granted asylum in the United States where he later worked as an advisor to the American defence sector. He was made a U.S. citizen in 1980. The full story, which is available here, was made into a best-selling book entitled MiG Pilot.

American intelligence made full use of Belenko's MiG. The plane was completely disassembled and studied before being returned to the Soviet Union.

American intelligence made full use of Belenko’s MiG. The plane was completely disassembled and studied before being returned to the Soviet Union in pieces.

Belenko was just one of several Soviet pilots who defected with aircraft from the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The last was Captain Alexander Zuyev who fled the U.S.S.R. with a MiG-29 Fulcrum in 1989 amid his outrage at being passed over for a key appointment. After drugging his squadron mates with sleeping pills, the embittered aviator made for an armed and fuelled Fulcrum on the runway. Shot and wounded by ground crew while boarding the plane, Zuyev still managed to get airborne. The 25-year-old pilot sped into Turkish airspace where he made an emergency landing and requested political asylum. Turkey returned the MiG to the Soviets but Zuyev was allowed to remain. He eventually settled in San Diego. He died in an accident in 2001 while flying a Yak-52 stunt plane in Washington state.

2 comments for “Asylum-Seekers – Famous (and Not So Famous) Soviet Defectors

  1. 18 December, 2013 at 7:40 pm

    It is fascinating to read about these Soviet defections over the years…especially since they mostly occurred during the Cold War. Would you consider Hess’ going to Britain during WWII a defection? I was never really clear on it.

  2. weetam
    17 July, 2014 at 9:13 pm

    i dont think anyone is really clear on hess’ intentions. there are several stories, but the most widely accepted is the story saying he was to meet with british officials to discuss an anti-hitler plot

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