Even if you know a lot about the Cold War, chances are good you’ve probably never heard of Viktor Belenko. He was a lieutenant in the Soviet air force and an ace fighter pilot. Thirty-seven years ago today, on September 6, 1976, while flying his MiG-25 “Foxbat” fighter on a practice mission from Chuguyevka air base in Siberia, Lt. Belenko suddenly dove to treetop level, switched off his radio, and flew as fast as possible toward Japan. With his plane’s fuel tanks nearly bone dry, he narrowly missed a commercial airliner taking off and plowed the MiG-25 onto a runway at a civilian airport in Hakodate, on the island of Hokkaido. He had defected to the West, and quickly requested political asylum in the United States.
Belenko’s defection was pretty unusual by the standards of the time, even without the MiG (which was, of course, carefully examined by U.S. military experts before being returned to the USSR). Most Soviet defectors had connections to the West or first-hand knowledge of life on the other side of the Iron Curtain–ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, for instance, who defected in 1961, had traveled to Western countries many times on various dance tours. Belenko had never been outside the USSR. He was fed up with his life there, and especially with the egregious lies told by the Soviet leadership about how life in the USSR was a wondrous paradise–but the reality was that most ordinary citizens were desperately poor, the economy was ruined, and hopelessness and despair stalked the land that the Communist Party said was the greatest country on earth.
The story of Viktor Belenko’s defection, and particularly his acclimatization to life in the United States, was told brilliantly in the 1980 biography MiG Pilot by John Barron, which I read years ago and greatly enjoyed. As a (now) high-profile Soviet defector, Belenko thought, during his early days in the USA, that CIA officials arranged things for him to make the United States look good–a supermarket, for example. In a memorable incident recounted in MiG Pilot, Belenko went into a store, was overwhelmed by the vast array of goods for sale, and thought it was sort of a Potemkin village created for his benefit–only to learn later that all stores are like that.
A MiG-25 “Foxbat,” the kind of plane Belenko flew to Japan. As it turned out, Soviet technology was so far behind U.S. military technology that Western engineers learned very little of value from it, despite being the most advanced fighter the Russians had at the time.
Belenko, who became a U.S. citizen in 1980, married an American woman and started a family. He later returned to Russia in the 1990s after the breakup of the Soviet Union. He gave a fascinating interview to Full Context magazine, available here (it’s a Wayback Machine link), in which he said that conditions in Russia as of 1996 were even worse than when he defected:
[T]he old system is not dead yet. The new one cannot function on its own. So it’s a very difficult transitional period. You cannot just retire the old system or order them to die out. The nomenclatura (the military brass and the former KGB) are calling themselves not comrades but “gospoda.” It was a derogatory word after the revolution. People used to go to gulag for that word. Now they’re calling themselves gospoda. It means like master or sir. But answering the question, people’s lives got worse because they’re going through this period. They’re at loss. I compare them with someone who was born, grew up, matured and got old in jail and now the door is open-but that person is afraid to go outside because there is no roof, no schedule, no food. That’s the closest thing I can compare.
These words are pretty prophetic, considering that the current dictator of Russia is a former KGB agent, and life in Russia has become much more, not less, repressive in the last ten years. The Cold War is over, fortunately, but the legacy of it still remains with us today. I thought a guy as brave and insightful as Viktor Belenko deserved a mention and a memory on the anniversary of his courageous escape.