Defectors, Soviet Era

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Defectors (perebezhchiki ) during the Soviet era were people who left the Soviet Union without permission and in violation of Soviet law. Soviet authorities applied the term defection more broadly than in the West, where a defector is usually defined as an individual who has committed treason by cooperating with a hostile foreign intelligence service. Because Soviet citizens were prohibited by law from leaving the country to settle elsewhere, anyone who sought political asylum in another country was labeled a defector and a traitor. This included scientists, artists, film directors, dancers, writers, musicians, scholars, journalists, and seamen. (The term did not apply to writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn or cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who were forcibly exiled; the dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, who was brought to the West as part of an exchange; or former KGB general Oleg Kalygin, now residing in the United States, who criticized the KGB publicly but remained a Soviet citizen.)

Among well-known Soviet defectors who fall into the broader category were Stalin's daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva; ballet dancers Rudolph Nureyev, Natalia Makarova, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Alexander Godunov; pianist Dmitry Shostakovich; theater director Yuri Lyubimov; and chess grandmaster Viktor Korchnoy.

In addition many Soviet defectors betrayed their country by passing on secrets to Western intelligence. Often they wrote books about their experiences. Among the earliest such defectors was NKVD (People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs) officer Walter Krivitsky, who sought asylum in the United States in 1937, wrote the book I was Stalin's Agent, and died under mysterious circumstances in 1941. Another NKVD officer, Viktor Kravchenko, the author of I Chose Freedom, defected to the United States in 1944 and died in 1966. Igor Gouzenko, a cipher clerk for Soviet military intelligence (GRU), turned himself over to Canadian authorities in Ottawa, Canada, in 1945. Gouzenko's revelations about the Soviet spy network in the West, supported by documents he brought with him, helped to spark the Cold War. Intelligence officer Peter Deryabin sought American asylum in Vienna in 1953, later writing several books about his career in the Soviet secret services. In 1954 KGB agents Vladimir and Yevdokia Petrov defected in Australia and later settled in the United States, where they published Empire of Fear in 1956. KGB officer Anatoly Golitsyn defected to the United States in 1961, reporting that the KGB had placed an agent at the highest levels of American intelligence, but unable to give details to identify the agent. Oleg Lyalin, a KGB officer posing as a trade official, defected to Britain in 1971. Alexei Myagkov, a KGB captain serving in Germany, defected to West Berlin in 1974, later writing Inside the KGB: An Expose by an Officer of the Third Directorate. Arkady Shevchenko, a high-ranking Soviet diplomat serving at the United Nations, defected in New York in 1978. In 1985 he published a best-selling book entitled Breaking with Moscow. Stanislav Levchenko, a KGB officer posing as a journalist, defected in Japan in 1979 and now resides in the United States. Ilya Dzhirkvelov, a KGB officer now living in Britain, defected while working under cover for the Soviet news agency TASS in Switzerland in 1980. He later wrote Secret Servant: My Life with the KGB and the Soviet Elite. Among other KGB officers who defected to Britain in more recent years were Vladimir Kuzichkin, a KGB officer who was working in Iran before he sought asylum in 1982; and Oleg Gordievsky, a high-ranking KGB colonel who had collaborated secretly with British intelligence since 1974 and escaped to the West in 1985.

For Western intelligence services, one challenge was to establish that the Soviet defectors were genuine and were not acting as double agents for the KGB. When Yury Nosenko, a middle-level KGB officer, offered himself to the CIA in Geneva in 1962, a debate ensued over his bona fides that lasted for ten years and seriously impaired CIA operations against the Soviet Union. Another controversial case was that of Alexander Orlov, an agent of the Soviet NKVD, who defected to Spain in 1938 and ended up in the United States. Orlov, whose book The Secret History of Stalin's Crimes created a sensation when it appeared in 1953, passed on information to the CIA and the FBI, but some historians have claimed that he remained loyal to the Soviets. When high-ranking KGB officer Vitaly Yurchenko defected to the United States in 1985, it was an enormous blow to the KGB, because he passed on details of KGB secret agents and operations to the CIA. But when Yurchenko apparently became unhappy with his treatment by the CIA and, after a few months, slipped away and re-defected to the Soviet Union, the case was highly embarrassing to American authorities.

See also: cold war; immigration and emigration; state security, organs of


Andrew, Christopher, and Gordievsky, Oleg. (1990). KGB. The Inside Story of Its Foreign Operations from Lenin to Gorbachev. London: Hodder and Stroughton.

Krasnov, Vladislav. (1985). Soviet Defectors: The KGB Wanted List. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press.

Amy Knight