The odyssey of Viktor Belenko: a fascinating footnote to the Cold War.

viktor belenko

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.

Russian_Air_Force_MiG-25

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.

The photo of Viktor Belenko originally appeared in Full Context magazine in November 1996. I believe my use of it here constitutes fair use. The image of the MiG-25 is by Leonid Faerberg and is used, via Wikipedia, under a GNU Free Documentation License (1.2).
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26 Comments

  1. I read the book “Mig Pilot” back in early eighties. I differ with you on respect to the technology of the plane. It was discovered it had vacuum tubes and the west laughed about that and thought it was funny. It turns out vacuum tubes are immune from EMP when a nuclear blast occurs so the Soviet planes electronics were protected. The west’s electronics would be blown out and useless during a nuclear detonation, so who was the fool here?
    Also, the plane did not have high dollar titanium or strategic metals in the metal skin and parts, but the engines were designed to easily able overcome the weight issue. This factor reduced the cost of production and more planes could be produced for a given cost. You need to get your facts straight when saying they were behind. Because in reality they were far ahead…but it appeared they were behind and I understand your mistake.

    1. Dennis: I completely agree. Being an Air Force veteran and being familiar with air combat strategies and tactics from an observer’s view, I say with confidence that the MiG-25, even though exposed as a flying Potemkin Village, taught the U.S. a great deal. The Foxbat’s presence and the shootdown of Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 by Soviet rockets in 1960, forced the U.S. to forego reconnaissance overflights of Soviet territory and changed the philosophy of its strategic bomber development, which led to the cancellation of the B-70 Valkyrie and the manufacturing of bombers (B-1, B-2) that effected penetration at very low, rather than very high, altitudes.

    2. Sorry no, the Soviets didn’t chose vacuum tubes because they were more resilient to EMP but because they were not good at producing solid state electronics. Solid state devices would be hardened against EMP, not only but the statement that vacuum tubes are “immune” to EMP is patently false.

      The Soviets were clearly behind in most scientific and engineering endeavors.

    3. you kidding me? It is true that Russians designed their equipment to be less faulty and work in harsher environments. However in a normal environment it has been proven technologically advanced American equipment is far superior.

      1. Vacuum tubes failed the EMP, you have been duped, comrade. The Soviets used American made tools to work on their planes because Soviet tools were inferior most

  2. Thanks for running this comment. I too enjoyed John Barron’s book (although VB was allegedly dissatisfied with it), and have attempted to follow the life of the pilot in the US in the years since.

    One amusing incident is worth sharing with you. Viktor took on a number of flying jobs, all incognito of course, including piloting a crop duster in the US Midwest. One day the bored pilot offered to take a local farmer up for a joy ride. He couldn’t resist doing loops, rolls and spins in the crop duster, and when they landed the farmer, all shook up, looked at him sternly and said “I know who you are. You’re that Russian fella who flew your fighter jet to Japan”.

    Any idea what Viktor is up to these days? Still flying?

    1. As I recall from the research I did for this article, I saw something to the effect that Mr. Belenko is now retired from some sort of consulting business he created that was related to aviation. I suspect he lives a pretty quiet life these days, which seems like a very happy ending for him.

      1. I also frankly found it amazing that VB would return to visit Russia – and equally amazing that he’d be allowed to do so freely.

  3. I was told, by a co-worker former F-4E pilot in RVN that he had personally Belenko speak at several US Air Force venues and events.
    Belenko’s description (in the book) of those first few days in Virginia are priceless, in terms of the difference between Russia and the US.

  4. I read as a Korean both books on
    MIG 15 and this MIG 25 defected to
    Korea and Japan when America was
    thirsty on those challenging models. Common denonminator of these two inccidents is just human
    freedom above all. Moving and
    evocative stories of Cold War days.

  5. Interesting story. Wondering how Belenko felt going from being an elite fighter pilot to a crop duster. I hope he can find all kinds of wonderful, nutritious, fresh, unadulterated food in that supermarket. Wondering where did you get the notion of a Russian “dictator” and that life is more oppressive in the last 10 years… Could it be relentless propaganda? Why don’t you live there for a year, and then decide if life really is repressive? The truth is, Russia was happy to end the Cold War, the US never did end it. The Russophobia has been driven to dizzying heights in the last 2 years, the only beneficiary being, as it always was, the military-industrial complex. Was Bush Sr. a dictator, too, because he was the HEAD of the CIA (not just an agent)???? I don’t remember anyone calling him a CIA agent every time his name was mentioned.

  6. Back in March 1988, shortly before I separated from the USAF, Victor came through my base in Utah and gave two talks, as part of a speaking tour to most of the Air Force bases in the U.S. One talk (AM) was for the F-16 pilots of the 388th Fighter Wing (I was not one of them, but was invited to attend by friends who were), and the other talk (PM) was for the other officers on the base, in general. Much of what Victor talked about, as he mentioned in his interview with the reporter from the Full Context magazine (see link in the article above), was primarily about the Russian mindset… everything from what it was like for the farmers in the area around his base (who he talked about “rushing” a neighbor to the local hospital on the top of a tractor, since no ambulances existed in their area), to the pilots and maintenance-types on his base (the enlisted men often tried to drink the methanol-based alcohol used in the aircraft, and would go blind from it), to the nature of the Russian society and their R&D vs. ability to manufacture stuff they designed (basically, he said they were unable to make the transition from R&D to actual production). I can honestly say that Victor was one of the funniest speakers I’ve ever heard. If any of you are familiar with the Russian-American comedian, Yakov Smirnoff (who is terrifically funny), you can guess what Victor’s sense of humor is like by understanding that he could have written half the jokes that Yakov told in his performances. Maybe this is a general indication of the cynical Russian mindset, but Victor was every bit as funny as the professional comedian was. He mentioned, for example, how the Russians made the world’s biggest microchips, which was why they could only send an astronaut to the moon, but not be able to bring him home the way the U.S. did. He also talked about having purchased a used Chevy Luv pick-up truck, and putting brand new 70,000 mile-rated tires on it (so that he could tour the U.S. and see what it was really like, and verify that what he was shown by the CIA in Virginia was not just “grocery stores for the party elite” like they had in Russia, after he was released from his debriefings by the CIA/Military intel types) while at the same time, brand new 7,000 mile-rated tires were JUST being offered for sale in Russia. He also talked about how advanced Russian technical R&D was, while at the same time, they had to import color TVs from Czechoslovakia, because they were unable to manufacture them in Russia, and how they imported leather shoes from Poland, while bulldozing the ones they made into landfills because the quality was so poor. I don’t remember Victor saying much about specific military aircraft comparison’s (e.g., the F-16 vs. Russian aircraft), but he did talk about tactics, and how, even if a Russian pilot could see his (American) enemy in the sky, he would have to turn away and go home if that same plane could not be seen on radar by the ground controllers, who controlled everything the Russian pilot did in the air…. basically, the Russian pilots had absolutely no independence in their actions, and could not do anything not ordered / authorized by the guy’s on the ground. Listening to Victor speak was a morale booster (which is probably why the USAF paid for his speaking tour), but, more importantly, it gave the “average American” officer some insight as to what our “7-foot tall” enemies were like (and, at that time, they were still very much in the enemy category), especially in terms of Russian morale, as well as their combat capabilities (I do remember him talking about how little actual flying time they were allowed, due to the Russian air force’s inability to afford fuel for training), but that they were also reasonably skilled pilots (even with their limited flying annual flying time). If anyone who reads this ever has a chance to meet Victor personally, or hear him talk in any venue, you’ll not only come away with a better appreciation of the U.S., but also knowing that you’ve been well entertained in the process. I can only hope that there are more guy’s like him in the Russian military, who don’t believe their country’s propaganda about the U.S., and would prefer to buy their groceries in America (if only they could), rather than seriously think about bombing us in the next war (which I have no doubt is a possibility if Putin thinks he may lose power due to the Ukraine situation).

  7. Why his story was never made into a movie is beyond me. If told today maybe word would get to Russia that Freedom is the difference in our cultures. Russia is still ruled by the old guard of the Cold War. Maybe we are, to with the influence of the MIC Eisenhower warned us about. But, we are all the same when it comes to wanting freedom from tyrants who somehow seem to gravitate to positions of leadership and screw things up with narcissistic control of others..

  8. I worked a NAS Chase Field, Beeville, Texas during the 80’s as a radar/and electronics foreman, in a civilian capacity. VB came to the base theatre there and gave a lecture, along with a question and answer session. It was a very fascinating hour, as i met and shook hands with him. He was not at all what i expected in stature or personality. He was very down to earth and looked so much like a typical, regular fellow, it was uncanny. He answered everything with what i felt was the utmost in honesty, and seemed to have a pretty good command of the english language. I will never forget, having a one on one conversation with him. Franklin D. Adams, retired.

  9. My husband mentioned he read an excerpt from VB’s book in the Reader’s Digest when he was a child. I got on Amazon and bought a used paperback for Christmas. It was the best gift. I wound up reading it first – I could not put it down and my husband had to wait his turn. I also wonder why it was never made into a movie: it is exciting and entertaining. For example, when he landed in Japan, the traffic stopped and everyone jumped out of their cars and started taking pictures. the Japanese authorities came out with a white flag. After the Japanese took apart the entire Jet, they sent it back to Russia in pieces, and the Russians inventoried all the pieces before they accepted it. There were many, many funny things that would do so well in a movie.

  10. My squadron commander in the Air Force Reserves was a FAA Inspector and in civilian life and got a call to go to a hotel and issue a FAA Flight License to Victor Belenko. He had been flying around the country in a light civilian airplane and he related to him that is how he learned about controlled airspace by violating it.

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