Yurii, Judy Vry, her brother Bill Lynch. “This was something I could help with.”
It’s been a year and a half since Yurii Aleksandrovich Vetokhin leapt off a Russian cruise ship in the middle of the night and swam for twenty hours through the shark-filled Moluccan Sea. It’s been just about a year since he arrived in San Diego, penniless. Somehow the La Mesa Rotarians’ program chairman recently heard Yurii’s story — heard how his marathon swim washed him up on an Indonesian jungle island; heard, furthermore, how it was Yurii’s third attempt to escape from the Soviet Union.
Yurii's wife reported her husband’s criticism of the Soviet way of life to the Communist Party committee.
The first — unsuccessful — one had led him into the clutches of the KGB, and the second foiled escape cost him nine years in prison. Now, on this hot June afternoon at the head table in the Bronze Room in La Mesa, Yurii sits erect, slowly chewing his fruit salad, while in the background someone plays ’’Lara’s Theme” from Doctor Zhivago. Sometime after 12:30 he stands with the mob of jolly Rotarians to salute the American flag; he listens impassively while they sing “Stouthearted Men” and the “The Impossible Dream” in his honor. His composure contrasts starkly with the Rotarians’ antics.
He explored Crimea and the Caucasus. He finally discovered the town of Batumi, located about nine miles from the Turkish border.
During the interminable “business” section of the meeting, the club members act like some paunchy Cub Scout troop. They bay and they wisecrack, and when one balding man ceremoniously pins up a poster of sexpot Loni Anderson behind the podium, I think I can detect Yurii squirm ever so slightly. It’s close to one o’clock before he’s introduced.
He inflated the rubber craft, and no sooner settled aboard when — completely coincidentally — a navy ship loomed on the horizon.
The club members applaud him warmly. Then Yurii starts reading one of the chapters from the book he’s written. His Russian accent obscures his grisly tale; he sounds a lot like Boris Badunov in the old “Rocky and Bullwinkle” cartoons. The well-fed business and professional men look numbed. When Yurii stops reading, they ask a few questions. Then they hurry out the door. And as they scatter, I think about the twenty-four years in which Yurii plotted his escape to America. I wonder if he ever dreamed that he’d wind up lecturing to such a group. And now that he’s here, what does he think of them, of us?
He swam strongly and steadily, avoiding any thought of sharks. Suddenly, the moon came out and Yurii could discern the unmistakable outline of an Indonesian island.
Not long afterward, I visited him at the place in Normal Heights where he’s lived for the last year. The Madison Avenue Manor is one of those huge, enclosed complexes ("Pool — Jacuzzi — Recreation Room") where he has a modest one-bedroom apartment distinguished by the monastic severity of its furnishings. A table constructed from unfinished two-by-fours occupies the center of the living room. A single plant, a healthy schefflera, sits in the very center of the tiny private patio. Another table in the dining area located off the kitchen contains a Russian-English dictionary and the stacks of paper which are the heart of Yurii’s existence these days; the manuscript that describes his two dozen years of struggle and his ultimate success.
Yurii Vetokhin is a man of average height with thick, wavy hair turned prematurely white. (His trim mustache is still charcoal gray.) A year of San Diego sun has tanned his unwrinkled face.
In one chapter of his book, Yurii describes treatment, in which political prisoners were injected at least eighteen times with ten to twelve cubic centimeters of sulphur.
He’s gained some weight since his last marathon swim, but he still looks far leaner and springier than most fifty-three-year-old men. One of his characteristics which impressed me is his tendency with strangers to mask his emotions; he’d make a wonderful poker player. But despite his distance, he is gracious, even courtly. Each time I interviewed him he would greet me with a heart-warming smile and usher me to a seat before a low coffee table topped with cookies or fruit, tea, and soft drinks. For the most part he only grew impassioned and animated when he was talking about his burning, all-consuming mission, the publication of his book.
We talked, for the most part, with the help of another Russian defector, a friend of Yurii’s named Alex Kiamilev. Yurii’s English is so-so. He first began studying it when he was an officer in the Russian navy (he says all the officers did so because international maritime charts are in English). He recommenced his studies years later in the insane asylum when one of the doctors needed some technical papers translated from English to Russian. Though it was forbidden, the doctor asked Vetokhin to handle the task, which he did in exchange for other contraband English reading materials: Walter Scott, translations of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. So today he can read English well and speak it haltingly, but he calls on the aid of his friend Alex for more complex discussions.
Yurii says his parents anticipated some literary direction for him. His father was the son of a farmer, he had moved to Moscow and prospered as a restaurant owner until he lost everything in the Russian Revolution. Although Yurii’s father was intellectual and well-educated, he had turned his back on his profession, agronomy, after witnessing the starving of the collective farmers under Stalin around 1930.
Thereafter, he had worked in ill-paid, third-rate industries. Yurii thus grew up in poverty in Leningrad. “Mv first childhood memories were of features of a dire need," he has written. “My father had no money to buy a toothbrush and therefore brushed his teeth with his finger. . . . The only pretty thing that my mother had was a silken scarf, which she found in the forest while gathering mushrooms there." Yet his doting parents presented their little son with a heavy, lined writing notebook, which Vetokhin cherished for years. “After the war ended,
I continued with other notebooks. However, it is a pity that in our pseudo-democratic country, to keep a diary is much the same as to squeal on oneself to the KGB.” So he burned all his diaries in 1961. By then he had conceived the idea of writing an anti-Communist expose.
Yurii’s opposition to the political regime had developed gradually over the years. Both his parents were religious (Russian Orthodox), and their child grew up imbued with a deep, unarticulated faith. He learned Communist principles in the state-run schools, and defended them when his parents argued with him about politics. But he says it was only later, after he entered the Naval College in Vladivostok, that he began consciously to rebel against the tenets of the political philosophy. The preaching of atheism disgusted him, as did the injunctions to betray disloyal comrades. “Hardest of all was to listen day after day, hour upon hour, to praises heaped on Stalin, Lenin, and the entire Bolshevik hierarchy. ... I would sit and think. It must be some kind of monstrous joke and anytime now the lecturer will laugh and turn the subject around to let us know that it was not meant to be taken literally. But no such thing happened.”
He nonetheless became an ensign, and that same year, 1951, he married. “For other people, love brings happiness, but for me this one and only love was a curse on my life,” he soon learned. His striking-looking wife turned out to be grasping, materialistic, and totally unsympathetic to Yurii’s growing anti-Communism. In 1953, when he could no longer tolerate the military, he resigned his well-paying naval commission. His wife bitterly resented the decline in the family’s finances, and after repeated threats, she finally reported her husband’s criticism of the Soviet way of life and his interest in the BBC and Voice of America radio programs to the Communist Party committee at the torpedo plant where Yurii worked. Through political happenstance, that report was largely ignored, but the couple was officially divorced in 1956. Yurii says about that time he began dreaming of committing his convictions to paper.
He was living in Leningrad then and he went to the city department of the Union of Soviet Writers and obtained a permit to join the Leningrad City Literary Association, which met in the city library Tuesday nights. Yurii attended meetings of the group for almost seven years and produced a number of politically neutral short stories. Before long, however, his secret goal of writing the expose was subsumed by another, pressing aim: to flee, from the Soviet Union.
After leaving the navy, he had entered the field of computer programming, and the same disciplined logic that helped him to excel in that field shows through over and over in his account of his first escape plans. He says he realized that, unlike the members of the Soviet elite, he never would have the money or permission to travel abroad. So he would have to cross the Soviet borders surreptitiously. He decided that the ability to swim long distances, which he had mastered as a child, was his best asset. Since few Russians at that time were very interested in swimming, the authorities weren’t well prepared against escape by such means.
He says he easily solved the first problem — that of deciding where to try to swim out. “The sea boundary of the Soviet Union in the Far East was known to me. I knew that . . . Japan is far, and North Korea extradites the fugitive back to the Soviet Union immediately. Besides, in the Far East there are prohibited zones everywhere and a new man cannot arrive there unnoticed. In the north, only white bears can swim in the cold water." He figured the southern region of the Caspian Sea was promising, but then he learned that prohibited zones blanketed that area and almost no tourists traveled there. The Baltic Sea contained the same pitfalls and was seldom warm enough for a marathon swim. Only the Black Sea remained for study, and Yurii undertook that with painstaking precision.
In the summer of 1961, he spent his vacation exploring the coasts of the Crimea and the Caucasus. He finally discovered an ideal candidate in the town of Batumi, located about nine miles from the Turkish border, with relatively unrestricted swimming, warm water, and plenty of rainfall (and thus clouds to protect him from sunstroke). Hour after hour that summer he practiced techniques for emerging from the surf onto rocks, in the event he was forced to come ashore in similar terrain. He swam in raging storms, which exhilarated rather than frightened him. “In a case where the wind and the waves are favorable and move in the same directions as the swimmer and the swimmer is getting into the same rhythm as the waves, then a resonance occurs and the speed of his movement increases much over. Then ... the swimmer feels like a flying fish. A greater delight than this I have never experienced in my life.”
He returned to Leningrad and applied himself to solving other logistical problems. After weeks of searching, for example, he bought a waterproof flashlight from a flea market vendor for eighteen rubles, but he couldn’t find a waterproof watch at any price. So he concocted his own using rubber washers. He decided a fine woolen shirt would best protect his body from cold, but his frustrating search for such a garment in the depleted Leningrad stores was to last for two years. In the public library, he found only two references on the subject of marathon swimming, but he read them closely. Then with the aid of medical texts, he set about calculating which foods would weigh the least and provide the most nourishment. He finally decided to take fifty-gram chocolate bars, which he wrapped in prophylactics, and grape juice, which he stored in medicine bottles. At work he consciously cultivated the reputation of being an eccentric fisherman/swimmer, and he took two extra jobs to finance his covert plans. He spent the summer of 1962 on more practice swims at Batumi and the next winter he snow skied intensively to build up his stamina. On Monday, August 13, 1963, he was ready.
That night he successfully evaded the routine searchlights. But storm clouds obscured the stars and Yurii felt as if he were encased in a dark sack. Some twenty-two hours later he crawled out on a shore he felt sure must be Turkey — only to discover that a brutal current had shoved him almost forty miles in the opposite direction — further into the Soviet Union. There his unusual attire soon drew the attention of the local authorities and he was sent to the KGB for interrogation.
They grilled him for a week, but finally released him, a fact Yurii speculates may have reflected either the Georgians’ anti-Moscow sentiments or a desire to tail him and eventually uncover some bigger conspiracy. In any case, he returned to Leningrad, broke and dispirited, but already alert for other opportunities to get out.
By the fall of 1964 the nub of a new idea had come to him. Inspired by Thor Heyerdahl's account of the raft Kon-Tiki, he once again began the exhausting task of plotting, this time searching for materials with which he might build a little raft of his own. All the literature on Black Sea currents and winds was classified “For Official Use Only” in the public library, but Yurii convinced the librarian he needed access to it to design a child’s toy. (In 1955 he had in fact invented a children’s game called “The Young Navigator,” which was widely distributed in Leningrad stores.) He tried to test his makeshift craft in the summer of 1965, but was thwarted by the lack of a remote location. Then in the spring of the following year, something dramatically interrupted his labors.
By chance he heard a notice on the radio which set his pulse to racing: it told of a cruise which would carry Russian passengers from the Pacific Coast port of Vladivostok down to the equator and back. Yurii learned that a third-class ticket would cost 220 rubles and that a visa wasn’t required, since the ship wouldn’t enter any foreign ports. He had saved the 220 rubles and he raised the additional 125 rubles for a plane ticket by borrowing money from a friend and by pawning his winter coat, suit, and watch. He flew to Vladivostok on the evening of February 27, 1966, and the ship sailed two days later.
He still has vivid memories of the flying fish, the mysterious “sea serpents” (which he says looked like gray fire hoses), the sharks, and the other tropical creatures the cruise ship passed. Equally vivid was the film about insatiably bloodthirsty sharks shown by the ship’s personnel. Yet he still resolved to jump overboard the night of March 28, his thirty-eighth birthday, when the ship was anchored off the coast of the Philippines. He dozed for a while, then woke up at 2:00 a.m. precisely.
He says that after all these years, he still feels shameful when he remembers what happened then. When he went to move, he found himself rooted to the bed by a paralyzing fear. Finally, he forced himself to the handrails, but this time the tremor seized his whole body. “Yura!” he addressed himself. “Take yourself in hand! You must take a jump beyond the side, because it is the only real possibility for escaping. You will regret all your life about it if you do not take a jump. This possibility will not repeat itself any more!”
But soon, he writes, “I understood that no persuasions, no arguments would help me this time. Hating myself, 1 went to bed again and watched for a long time the moving away and disappearing in the distance of the anchor lights of the ships standing on the Manila roadstead.”
It took him months to subdue the sense of mortification, of failure, and to resume his work on the raft. (His diligent searching had been rewarded when at last he found someone selling a simple rubber raft. His extensive modifications included the addition of sails.) He didn’t attempt to escape with it for another year, until one night in July of 1967. Leaving from Koktebel, on the northern shore of the Black Sea, his goal then was to swim out of sight of the coastal patrol boats, then to sail the full width of the great inland body of water. With the aid of a snorkel and backpack, he laboriously towed the raft behind him, feeling like a horse hitched to a heavy, ill-fitted cart. But at dawn he exulted in the knowledge that the patrol boats should have returned for the day. He inflated the rubber craft, and no sooner settled aboard when — completely coincidentally — a navy ship loomed on the horizon.
Once again he was arrested. This time there was no concealing his intentions; the failure of his rafting escape launched him irrevocably into the Gulag Archipelago of Solzhenitsyn’s description. The shuttling between prisons and interrogation points began immediately. In Simferopol Prison in the Crimea, the KGB charged him with “treason of the fatherland,” punishable by ten to fifteen years in prison, or death. In the Kherson Psychiatric Hospital in the Ukraine, he was examined for insanity and found indubitably sane. But by the end of the year he was sent to the Serbskii All-Union Scientific Research Institute of Judicial Psychiatry in Moscow, where more psychiatrists poked and peered at him. At first Yurii was confident they would confirm his mental health; he reasoned that he was too insignificant for the extraordinary punishment of confinement to an insane asylum. However, at the end of March his trial was held (in his absence), and he was not only found guilty, but judged to be “troubled by the paranoidal development of personality” and a “possibly affected brain.”
Today Yurii says he faced one moment, while he was in Moscow’s Lefortov Prison about six months after his arrest, when the possibility of long incarceration first began to settle in his consciousness. And he realized that without a goal to absorb him mentally, he would lose h'is mind or see his personality crumble. “I got up and began to walk in the cell,” he writes. “I always walk when I think. . . . Finally I formulated the problems for me to resolve during the time of my imprisonment.” He says among the most important of them were “to find a new, effective principle of struggle against Communism, insuring a complete victory. . . ; to summarize all my thoughts about God. . . ; and to analyze the mistakes I made in my attempts to run away from the USSR, and to outline the technical, organizational, and psychological principles that could insure success” of his next attempt to escape — an attempt he resolved to begin the very day he got out of prison.
That day wouldn’t come for another nine years, nine years which he would spend for the most part in a “special hospital” in the town of Dnepropetrovsk, Brezhnev’s home town. A few months before his conviction, Yurii had caught a glimpse of the place, and what he saw had stunned him. In a courtyard there, he had found himself unable to take his eyes off a group of creatures who only vaguely resembled humans, who seemed like bizarre characters in some slow-motion film.
Dressed in rags, “they did not talk to each other,” he writes. “Their gestures were preposterous. Suddenly they stopped and for a long time remained in the same position. Their faces had a grayish complexion and many had bags under their eyes. The sight of them conveyed the feeling of utter hopelessness.” Only a few months later, in the spring of 1968, he became one of them.
Yurii says it was in that special hospital that he wrote his book for the first time — wrote it in his head. A substantial portion of that book, a section he titles “Between the Bayonet and the Syringe,” describes his years there. They were years in which he forged a few rare friendships with other prisoners, but for the most part it was a period of senseless beatings, starvation, and fiendish chemical “treatments.”
I asked Yurii one day about the purpose of those treatments and he bitterly shot back that they were “just torture.” But when I persisted and asked why anyone would use expensive drugs to torture people when simpler, cheaper methods would work as well, he told me he had answered too hastily; some doctors in the political section of Moscow’s Serbskii Institute really believe that such treatments may “cure” sick opinions. “I can’t say all the doctors believe such treatment can change the mind of prisoners, but there is such a doctrine,” he explained. But he said it was obvious that most of the technicians who administered the treatments in Dnepropetrovsk were perfectly aware of, and even sadistically stimulated by, the unbearable agonies they caused.
For example, some political prisoners received a series of insulin “treatments.” “Injected into the body of a hungry man, insulin destroys the supply of sugar that was accumulated in the organism and the brain remains without nourishment,” he writes. “Therefore, the man loses consciousness and is slowly dying. We were forced to die every day from 8:00 a.m. to 12 noon.” He describes becoming conscious after one such routine. “I could breathe again. But I was still under the impression of that nightmare which was born in my brain, perishing from lack of glucose and maybe from insufferable pain. Nobody has ever described exactly what a man feels under an insulin shock, and why he is crying.”
Even more devastating was another course of “treatment” in which political prisoners were injected at least eighteen times with ten to twelve cubic centimeters of sulphur. In one chapter of his book, Yurii describes one day of such treatment, a day which began with an injection about eleven in the morning. He records the onset of the burning pain, starting in his buttock but gradually extending through the whole right side of his body. By nightfall his temperature had reached 104 degrees. “I lay motionless, feeling the rising pain. ... I saw in my imagination how the poison of the sulphur was absorbed by my blood, and then how the blood carries this poison to all organs of my body, to the liver, the kidneys, the stomach, and especially to my heart. It was an awful feeling — to comprehend that the executioners were using the coordinated and flawless mechanism of my body to harm it, to know that poison was being injected into my body and to not be able to do anything to neutralize its effect.”
As the darkness deepened, he estimated “that the worst pain and suffering was going to come around the midnight hour. . . . With great difficulty, I managed to get beforehand a tablet of aspirin, and I planned to swallow it when the pain would get unbearable.” He describes the hours creeping by, as he shivered with cold, waiting and suffering. Finally, when he felt that his heart was about to stop beating, he unwrapped his hidden aspirin. He waited for the saliva to collect in his dry mouth, then swallowed the tablet. Near dawn he finally obtained permission from a guard to go to the toilet. “The distance from our third cell to the toilet was some ten meters. I made it in several minutes. I moved in such a manner as if I were a vessel filled with pain and was afraid to spill it.” Only after expelling some of the sulphur with his bright red urine and returning to his cell did he begin to feel better. “There was one more horrible, painful night, incomparable with anything, behind me.”
On one recent sunny day at Yurii’s Normal Heights apartment, he told me that many political prisoners in the mental hospital had immediately “confessed” their insanity to expedite their release. I asked him whether he would now advise other political prisoners to follow suit, and he was silent for so long that I thought perhaps the translation had gone awry. But he finally answered. “Only the Lord God can give a person advice on how to act in such a case. I can say Pavel Fetishev [an indomitable old political prisoner who died in Dnepropetrovsk rather than compromise his conscience] with his death built a monument to himself. Maybe this monument will give a lot of people inspiration. Maybe it was a goal of the Lord that Fetishev stay there and die like this.”
However, in the eighth year of his incarceration, Yurii faced a decision over whether to accept the same fate. It came after a forced fast, when he calmly concluded that under the continued drug treatments he could live only one or two weeks longer. He says he realized that “if I died in prison, my book, which was written in my head, would be dead, too.” He prayed as never before and says he got the impression that God wanted him to get out by any means possible in order to save his literary testimony. With a heavy heart, he finally asked the nurse for a sheet of paper and conceded in writing that he had been mentally ill, and that, now cured, he would never again try to escape. He says that spiritually, he couldn't have penned the hated words earlier; his body first had to be weakened and poisoned.
The drug “treatments” stopped that very day, and over the next few weeks, as the chemicals worked their way out of his system, his hunger increased. He got a job as a waiter in the prison kitchen, where he could eat more of the soup or even pilfer an occasional mug of milk or piece of meat. Even as he waited to be released he began work on a small net, which he planned to use in his next attempt to escape the country. But his release didn’t come until September 15, 1976 — exactly nine years, two months, and three days after his arrest in the Black Sea. He walked out of the hospital with ninety rubles (seventy of which he had earned making woven shopping bags in the special hospital and twenty from a friend), wearing a prison suit and shirt and a pair of underwear. Besides that he had only one extra shirt and a winter coat and boots he had bought twenty-one years before. That night he celebrated his release by eating melon. Then his thoughts turned to his next escape scheme.
Briefly he considered the fact that the Soviet government had begun allowing some Jewish emigration, but he says he rejected the possibility of finding a Jewish woman who might marry him and get him out of the country legally. “I was not young and handsome and could not conquer her heart. And I had no money to give her in return for that service.”
Even more important to him was a moral consideration. "It was inadmissible for me to be indebted for my freedom to someone else beside myself. . . . Besides, some skeptics or malevolent ones could say, ‘Where there is smoke, there is fire! There is something wrong with his mind. The Communists could not put him in the special mental hospital just for nothing.’ ” Yurii writes that “the shadow which the KBG threw on me ... to discredit me as an enemy of the Communist regime would shield for some people those positive thoughts which are contained in my book. . . . Therefore I had to remove this shadow, this suspicion, by the realization of the bold, extremely risky escape by swim. . . . If this escape could be successfully performed, then nobody would be able to reproach me with the special hospital. If someone would dare to reproach me, nobody would trust him. In order to get the moral right to deal with the problems of freeing Russia [from Communism], it is necessary for anyone to first be able to free himself.”
Yet he was forty-eight years old, a skeletal man whose principal escape vehicle — his body — had been damaged, perhaps irreparably. His only consolation was the Russian proverb, “The person who has had an unlucky experience is worth two who have never had any experience.” The day after his release he went to the Leningrad Information Bureau to obtain the addresses of local swimming pools. He got a temporary room, which, to his joy, contained a chair (for months he lived with no other furniture, sleeping on the floor and eating on the window sill). He says he sat down in that chair and immediately drew up a list of the tasks before him, including, most critically, the need to re-condition himself physically.
Only two of the city pools were long enough to allow him to swim laps. So he bought a twenty-ruble pass at one of them and got official permission to swim there twice a week, an hour each time. (Later he managed to sneak in regularly for an additional two hours per week.) His first 300-meter swim exhausted him. Nonetheless, he grimly told himself that the next time he would swim 1500 meters — or die trying. He succeeded and began driving himself so hard he almost suffered a heart attack, at which point he reluctantly cut back and resigned himself to building up his strength more gradually.
When he tried to get a job, he found his political imprisonment stigmatized him from doing any but the lowest of labor: unloading provisions at a restaurant. For that he earned just sixty rubles a month. He used his spare time to begin committing his book to paper and working on his escape plans. In the summers of 1977, 1978, and 1979, he returned to the Black Sea to train. As the months passed, he came up with an idea for bringing in some extra income: collecting wild mushrooms to sell at the Leningrad collective farmers’ free market.
As a youth Yurii had learned that the mushroom season ran from August through the beginning of October, so for three consecutive years — 1977 through 1979 — during those months, he would quit his restaurant job. He would leave Leningrad about 12:30 a.m., taking an eighty-mile train ride, a thirty-seven-mile bus ride, then walking the last nine-mile stretch leading to a wild wood inhabited with wolves and bears. He would arrive about nine in the morning, then pick and load about sixty-five pounds of mushrooms into a huge basket made of bark, a job which would take him till about four in the afternoon. He used to reach his room in Leningrad by about ten in the evening, then he would sell the load the next day at the market for about thirty rubles. That same evening he would undertake the trek to the forest once again. He made a bit of money collecting cranberries from a remote swamp.
By the fall of 1979, three years after his release from prison, he had completed his book, regained most of his previous stamina, and saved 550 rubles. One Saturday in October of that year he made one of his routine visits to the travel bureau on Zhelyabov Street in Leningrad. He had been there just two days previously, so he expected nothing new. But he spotted the pinned-up notice of an upcoming cruise just like the one he had taken back in 1966. Tense with excitement, he learned that although the tickets had just gone on sale, only a few remained. The price was 580 rubles — thirty rubles short of what he had.
He went home, collected all the glass jars he possessed, washed them, and earned a ruble and a half by turning them in to a collection station. Back in his room, he figured he could also sell some dried mushrooms, a grocery handbag he had made from imported sack cloth, and twenty-six pounds of cranberries at the market on Monday. He went there at 6:00 a.m. Someone stole his dried mushrooms almost immediately, but he got twenty-eight rubles for the cranberries and a ruble for the handbag. Hurrying to the travel bureau, he counted off the money for the ticket, some of it in small change. He returned home with his reservation — and fifty kopeks.
Next, he quickly got a new job as a restaurant loader to increase his chances of obtaining authorization from the Bureau of Permits to enter the border city of Vladivostok. When he submitted his application he was certain the KGB would intercept it and perhaps even arrest him. To his shock he received the permission a few weeks later. He could only surmise that the secret policemen wanted to catch him in the act of escaping, a suspicion that hardened his determination to avoid making the smallest of errors.
If ever a man was ready for any mission, Yurii was ready for this one. He planned to take with him only items which could arouse no suspicion: his passport, military service card, a picture of his parents, a pocket knife, and a fishing line and hook. Aware of one cause of his previous fear, he had read all the literature on sharks in the Leningrad library and had noted that red umbrellas scare the fish away. Based on that, he decided against taking his blue fine wool shirt but instead chose a red plaid garment calculated to be more offensive to shark sensibilities. He obtained a pair of women’s hose to cover his bare legs, both to discourage sharks and as protection from sunburn. He got a swimming cap colored green to blend in with the water.
Convinced that psychological preparation was critical, he resolved to abstain from alcohol and from all sweets on the day before his jump, to eat with moderation, to avoid looking at the passing sea creatures, to avoid any involvements with women. He found a slogan with which he girded his spirits: “No Emotions.”
He quit his job on November 26, only the day before his airplane flight to the east. The next morning, when he packed, he included two changes of underwear and a pullover sweater in case he wound up in prison. Then he donned his winter coat. Though he had planned to hide his precious manuscript in one extra-large pocket, he saw that it noticeably bulged, an added risk. So, vowing to reconstruct from memory the fruit of his three years of labor, he poured boiling water on the onionskin paper and dumped the sodden mash in the garbage.
The flight east and departure from the Pacific port went smoothly. As the days on the ship dragged by, Yurii found it almost impossible to do laps in the tiny on-board swimming pools jammed with tourists night and day. Soon, however, he began eyeing the shores of the Philippine Islands far in the distance. But conditions for the jump seemed wrong, as they did when the ship cruised by the Talaud Islands and one other small Indonesian landfall — too far from shore and no favorable currents. The ship crossed the equator on December 7, the geographical and temporal midpoint of the journey. The next day, as the ship neared another set of islands, Yurii knew that his chance was slipping him by. He would jump that night, he decided.
Yurii’s recollections of that last day are almost unnaturally sharp-edged. He played two games of chess and won both. He read a novel by Pesemkiy and at supper, he skipped dessert. Carefully, he checked the position of the stars by which he would navigate. Finally, when his cabinmate left for dinner, he pulled on his hose and swim trunks. Then he napped. When he awoke, he knew that the hour had arrived. Donning his final vestments, he shoved his body through the porthole, hit the sea with a splash, and watched the brightly illuminated stern move away.
He swam strongly and steadily, avoiding any thought of sharks. “All cats look gray at night, and any wave could be mistaken for a shark, and, conversely, a shark could look like a wave.” Suddenly, the moon came out and Yurii could discern the unmistakable outline of an Indonesian island.
He swam for hours. But by daybreak the land, though much closer, still lay in the distance. When no pursuing ship bore down on him, he savored that relief, but he began to encounter other marine fellow travelers. They weren’t dolphins, “which I could recognize by their specific jumps.” He wasn’t sure what they were, but says, “When, for the first time I saw an animal straight ahead and quite close, I swam around it at quite a distance. Later on, I just evaded them, turning right or left and passing each other as ‘two ships passing in the sea.’ ” New problems arose. Irritated by the salt water, his eyes burned so badly that he had to close them and swim blind. Even worse, he began to realize that offshore currents, like phantom Communist guardsmen, were wrestling him away from his personal promised land.
Remaining calm, he swam along two sides of the island, trying to read the currents like a lifeguard. He devised one plan. But by noon it failed. His strength was ebbing. A third, and then a fourth attempt to forge through the currents failed. Only late in the afternoon, about twenty hours after his plunge, did his feet touch a small sandy beach. Moaning out loud, his eyes blazing with hot pain, he crawled on all fours across the coastal rocks, and collapsed, exhausted.
What followed was easy. After a while, he began to pick his way through the uninhabited jungle of the island, which he later learned was named Bacan. A gray orangutan startled him at one point, but fled. Choked with thirst, Vetokhin pressed on. Close to nightfall he finally spotted a motor boat offshore. Its occupants, four local young men, rescued him and tended to him solicitously.
He was taken to the capital of the Moluccan province and lodged in a big house protected by two bodyguards. In two days his eyes healed and he asked the friendly chief of police for some paper and a pencil to begin reconstructing his book. In turn the policeman asked him to substantiate his story by swimming thirty kilometers in the bay, to which Yurii readily agreed. But after only about three kilometers the easygoing officials stopped him, satisfied, and adjourned to a nearby restaurant.
Fifteen days after his escape he was transferred the 1500 miles to Jakarta. In the Indonesian capital, he lived in the house of a local security policeman, where he worked obsessively on the book between interrogations and lie detector tests. He declared his desire to seek asylum in America, and gave as references a few other ex-political prisoners who had since escaped to the West. The American consul in Jakarta assured Yurii he would be able to immigrate. But first he’d have to fly to Athens, which unlike Indonesia, had an official U.S. immigration department.
He arrived in Greece January 28, 1980. There the American government paid for him to live at a modest hotel while he worked on his book and waited to receive his documents: a special passport with an American visa. There he met for the first time Alex Kiamilev, who had just come from Indonesia. (Kiamilev, a Crimean Tartar, had been stationed there as a Soviet diplomat, had married an Indonesian woman and had decided to defect in order to seek a better future for his racially mixed children.) On June 5, with the book completed and the papers in order, Yurii was flown to New York. His official sponsor, the Catholic Community Services agency, installed him in a hotel in Midtown and gave him five dollars a day for food. Yurii had carried twenty-five rubles away from the cruise ship, but had been unable to find anyone who would accept the money in Indonesia or Greece. One New York bank finally did, but instead of changing the money at the official rate (according to which twenty-five rubles equals $35.71), the bank gave Vetokhin only five dollars, the value of the Russian currency on the open market.
Yet money wasn’t a major problem, Yurii says. He had bought a hot plate in Greece, and he says he was able to buy with the five dollars a day enough food to cook in his room. Other things were more dismaying. In all those years in which he dreamed of reaching America, Yurii had never thought about where in America he would live. Somehow, crowded, grimy New York didn’t seem to match up to the dream. And far more disappointing than his surroundings was the reaction which greeted his immediate efforts to share his book with the world.
That goal seemed urgent to him for several reasons, chief among them the thought that its publication might help other political prisoners with whom he had become friends but who still languished in Soviet jails. He says he was greeted cordially by the head of Radio Freedom (a broadcasting enterprise based in Munich which beams programs into Russia), who interviewed him twice and advised him about book publishing. But when he tried to contact a former Russian scientist named Jjelidze, who now heads a Soviet dissident movement in New York, he was ignored. He says the head of another dissident group, the Tolstoy Fund, told him if his manuscript had been smuggled out of Russia (presumably while Yurii remained behind), she would have been happy to publish it. But since he had escaped, she couldn’t help him.
He handwrote letters describing his recently successful escape to about ten major American periodicals whose addresses he obtained from a street news kiosk. Only Time magazine and the Christian Science Monitor answered him — and they did so with stock rejection slips. After about two weeks he began to feel ill in the New York heat and smog. So he called his friend Alex Kiamilev who had arrived in San Diego in April of 1980. Alex arranged permission for Yurii to join him here, and the Catholic Community Services paid for the flight, but only with the stipulation that Yurii would then be Alex’s responsibility.
Yurii arrived here June 26 of last year, moving in with Alex’s family of five. A few days later, Alex told the San Diego Union about his friend’s arrival and writer Barbara Moran’s story ran on July 5. It provoked several people to offer some aid. A woman in Point Loma offered Yurii clothing. Two Russian women, Nina Stepanova and Sonia Alexander, volunteered to help with translating his manuscript. But most significant was Rancho Santa Fe entrepreneur Bill Lynch’s perusal of the article on the front page of the local section that morning.
Lynch is a vigorous, youthful man of thirty-nine who moved to San Diego eight years ago after making a fortune in the grain elevator business back in Iowa. He says he’s never been particularly philanthropic, but that first newspaper article jolted him. He couldn’t forget it; couldn’t dismiss a strong feeling that “this was something I could help with.”
He met Yurii and decided the refugee needed shelter and transportation, then aid in marketing the manuscript. So after Alex helped Yurii to find the apartment in Normal Heights, Lynch acquired some modest furniture for it and started paying the $295-a-month rent. He bought Yurii some driving lessons, and later got him a second-hand Buick. Through the government CETA program, Yurii participated in group English classes, which he attended from July to October last year. Lynch says after being here for four or five months, Yurii refused to accept any more cash assistance. So Lynch gave him a job as an assistant mechanic at an Econo-car used-car lot Lynch owned on El Cajon Boulevard.
Yurii has worked there six days a week, four hours a day, earning six dollars an hour. Mornings, he usually gets up about 5:30 or 6:00 to labor over his manuscript. All the translation has been completed, but Yurii has been polishing the translated version with agonizing care. He says some mornings he only manages to complete one page; on a good day he’ll revise four or five. The woman in Point Loma who offered the clothing has been typing all the revised editions, then Yurii has been passing the revisions on to Lynch.
At the same time. Lynch and his sister Judy Vry have been toiling over the manuscript separately. This past May they managed to compile a further-edited volume of excerpts from Yurii’s tale, which they mailed to ten major publishing houses. As of last week they’ve received back nine rejections. Lynch says he’s not discouraged; he’ll send out ten more, plus he’ll also contact religious organizations who might be taken by the stirring anticommunist manifesto.
If Lynch isn’t discouraged, however, the unpublished manuscript seems to weigh upon Yurii’s brow like one of those heavy Russian fur hats. He frets that the story of his escape is already a year and a half old. Worse, he’s five years removed
from his fellow political prisoners. But he argues that besides the possibility of his book rallying world support and thus aiding his jailed friends, its publication would achieve something else.
Yurii believes that all books about the USSR which thus far have reached publication here have been written by people who in Russia belonged to the Soviet elite: former generals, academicians, dancers, writers, and composers. In Russia the Solzhenitsyns, the Baryshnikovs, the Shostakoviches lived in special compounds, shopped at special stores, entered government offices through special entrances. Even when jailed, they found themselves privileged, Yurii asserts. “They do not know anything about the life of the . . . ninety-three percent of the ordinary people who are changed into working cattle by the Communists.’’ In contrast, Yurii thinks his account of the life and escape of such an ordinary person may open American eyes, something he believes could affect the very future of the world. “If the Americans, because of lack of information or wrong information from the Soviet elite, take the Russian for the Soviet and the Soviet for the Russian and ignore the fact of the poignant hostility between the Party and the ordinary people — then the Russian people may be forced, whether they like it or not, to take the side of the hated Communist government in the case of conflict between the USA and the USSR.”
These are the kinds of thoughts which make Yurii’s voice rise and fall like distant thunder and make his eyebrows flash over his blue-gray eyes. The storm subsides, and an impenetrable fog moves in to replace it when Yurii is pressed for his reaction to this adopted home of his. He says he wasn't surprised by much when he came here because in Russia he had several sources of information about America. Back in the navy, he knew another officer who had visited here (to take command of a Lend-Lease ship) and who told long stories about this country. Yurii says he also read the works of Jack London and J.D. Salinger. And he listened regularly to the Voice of America since the early Fifties.
One day Alex did tell me that he and Yurii think it’s interesting that any American who defected to the Soviet Union and was willing to denounce the United States would be flaunted by the government like some prize gem, and cared for lavishly. But when I later asked Yurii if he was let down by his reception here, he shot back heatedly, “I absolutely have no bad feelings and I have absolutely no disappointment!” He says he’s been impressed not only by the freedom enjoyed by Americans, and by their high standard of living, but by the social acceptance of people from every economic stratum. In Leningrad, his work as a loader caused others to scorn and ostracize him. ”In the United States, any kind of job you make is okay. People still respect you,” Alex translated.
But what about the high cost of living here? I pressed Yurii. He had earned only sixty rubles a month as a loader, but his lodgings had cost only seven or eight rubles a month. In contrast, the monthly rent on his apartment here costs more than half of his gross monthly salary. The comparison visibly agitated him and he answered directly in English. “It is difference! Very big difference! Nobody have apartment like this in USSR. Only elite.” He explained that his eight rubles only bought him one room in an apartment he shared with ten other families. All ten shared one kitchen, one bathroom, one phone. In his room he had “only wood floor. Only ceiling and wall and nothing [else]. Nothing! And in winter, very, very cold.”
I asked if he had ever worried while in Russia about how he might support himself in America, and he told me that his overriding concern had simply been to deliver his book. But also, "I realized I have never rejected any kind of work.” He figured he could get some modest, even manual, labor and earn some money. He also thinks he could return to school and relearn fairly quickly some of the computer languages he last used twenty years ago — but that would rob time now from his book, an alternative he simply will not accept.
Furthermore, his literary aspirations don’t end with the publication of the English edition of this first book. Next, he says he wants to see it published in Russian. And then he has an idea fora new book. He plans to call it. The Truth About Russia Under the Czar. ‘‘This book is absolutely necessary because the Communists falsify history,” he maintains. In such a book, he says he would present the truth: that conditions in czarist Russia were ‘‘not ideal, but much better” than the conditions in Russia today.
I asked him if he knew that it was almost impossible to make a living here writing books, but he’d already thought of that. He says he has a dream, a dream of carrying on the tradition of his restaurateur grandfather on American soil by starting a small Russian restaurant, the profits of which could fund his book writing. And yes, he’s aware that it takes capital to start such an enterprise — so he has yet another scheme in the making.
He works on it in the evenings, when he’s exhausted from his work on the book and at the car lot. It’s a toy for children, the idea for which he conceived back in the Soviet Union. He showed me the prototype, a gray plastic device which looks a lot like a sextant, and works like one, only in reverse. To use it, you aim at the horizon, then center the image of the sun through a series of filtered mirrors. When the toy is properly adjusted, an arrow on the side of it reveals the time of day. “Is astronomical clock!” Yurii says proudly.
I could see the way the mind of this proud, stubborn man was working. You want to achieve the impossible? To escape from the Soviet Union? You simply proceed step by step. When you fail, you start with the first step again. When you fail again, you simply start again. And you succeed.
Now — you want to live in America and battle world Communism by writing books? You simply start by building an astronomical clock for children, carefully calculated to tell the time when aimed at the sun over San Diego, California. If it sells, you will recalculate it for sale in San Francisco. And then you will open your Russian restaurant, and found your publishing empire, and perhaps the reverberations from it will carry halfway around the world and make those bastards who tortured you sit up and take notice. And if you fail? You only think about it then. And of course you come up with something else.