In the afternoon of September 6, 1976, with only 30 seconds of fuel remaining, a MiG-25 broke through the clouds above Hakodate, Japan, narrowly avoided a departing Japanese airliner, and dove down to the city's commercial airport where, in front of hundreds of amazed Japanese motorists, it landed screeching, skidding, blowing a tire, plowing 800 feet off the runway, and finally stopping a few feet from a large antenna. Soviet Pilot Lt. Viktor Ivanovich Belenko had arrived in the west.
Lt. Viktor Belenko was from the 513th Fighter Regiment at the Siberian Base of Sakharovka, Soviet Air Defense Command. President Ford granted Belenko asylum in the United States and the pilot underwent five months of questioning and interrogation. The United States Government established a Trust Fund for him and the interest alone afforded Belenko very comfortable living in the U.S. He nowdays works as an aerospace engineering consultant and lecturer.
His life in the Soviet Union, his spectacular defection (flying at times barely above sea level to avoid pursuit and surface-to-air missiles) and his discovery of life in the United States is told in the thrilling and inspiring book "MiG Pilot: The Final Escape of Lieutenant Belenko" by John Barron (McGraw Hill, 1980), regrettably, now out of print.
The following excerpt is from Karen Reedstrom's interview with Viktor Belenko in the November 1996 issue of Full Context.
Q: What did you think of John Barron's book about you?
Belenko: I believe John Barron did a good job for that condition. He did use my manuscript, but at that time I was not strong with my language to express my feelings. Also, I did not know much about American society. But he did a very good job.
Q: When you were growing up in Russia the book Spartacus, by Howard Fast, was an inspiration to you. What was inspiring about it?
Belenko: As brief as possible, you can't keep a free soul in a cage. You can't keep eagle in a cage. I'm talking about Spartacus. And that's a very short answer to the influence of that book.
Q: When you were a fighter pilot, in Russia, you must have been living better than the common worker. What made you want to leave Russia when you did not know what the conditions in the U.S. were really like?
Belenko: Soviet propaganda at that time portrayed you as a spoiled rotten society which has fallen apart, no human rights and so forth. But I had questions in my mind, a few of them.
Q: What made you question?
Belenko: Because I am very practical, technically oriented, person. I love to be in wilderness alone with Swiss army knife and matches rather than have a huge surplus and a huge crowd. When you're around very sophisticated equipment you have this honest trait-do it right and enjoy, do it wrong and die. You cannot use ideology to survive, or be like American lawyers who can talk themselves out of any situation. So I questioned the Soviet system by using my technological knowledge. I said okay U.S. is so bad how come they send man on the moon and bring him back? (Russians could send men on the moon in only one way.) If U.S. is so bad how come they're building best fighters in the world? If U.S. is fallen apart how come they have more Nobel Prize winners than progressive communist society? At same time I could not ask anyone those questions. If I had, at that time (in late 1960s), I would have ended up in mental institution. So I made my conclusion that U. S. is not that bad. At same time I did not have a clear picture of American society. And when I came to U.S. I behaved like someone from outer space. I put myself in very funny situations. Americans were laughing at me. I behaved worse than Mork in "Mork and Mindy".
Q: Like what did you do, for example?
Belenko: First of all American super-market, my first visit was under CIA supervision, and I thought it was set-up; I did not believe super-market was real one. I thought well I was unusual guest; they probably kicked everyone out. It's such a nice, big place with incredible amount of produce, and no long lines! You're accustomed to long lines in Russia. But later, when I discovered super-market was real one, I had real fun exploring new products. I would buy, everyday, a new thing and try to figure out its function. In Russia at that time (and even today) it's hard to find canned food, good one. But everyday I would buy new cans with different food. Once I bought a can which said "dinner." I cooked it with potatoes, onions, and garlic-it was delicious. Next morning my friends ask me, "Viktor, did you buy a cat?" It was a can of chicken-based cat food. But it was delicious! It was better than canned food for people in Russia today. And I did test it. Last year I brought four people from Russia for commercial project, and I set them up. I bought nibble sized human food. I installed a pâté, and it was cat food. I put it on crackers. And they did consume it, and they liked it. So the taste has not changed. By the way, for those who are not familiar with American cat food. It's very safe; it's delicious, and sometimes it's better than human food, because of the Humane Society.
I bought a box of Freedom with the picture of nice looking lady. I did not know what it was. (I'm talking about maxi-pads.) I brought it to my apartment, I opened it, and I tried to figure it out. I thought well it's probably some cleaning device for the kitchen to give these American women freedom in the kitchen to clean up and absorb everything, because even today Russian women do not have this convenience.
Q: What do they use?
Belenko: Well, what American women did in 1920s. This is the gap between two societies. During my presentations I emphasize this by using samples from everyday life. I had so much fun and adventure during my assimilation of American culture. You could write a book or make a movie, "Top-Gunski in America." I know how Russians live today, and as long as I live I'll never take those things for granted which many Americans do take for granted.
Q: How long did you plan your escape, and what did it involve?
Belenko: In terms of the evolution of my thoughts and making the conclusion to escape I do not have a precise time. I did make that decision based on my dissatisfaction with that country. I tried to do my best. I was one of their best fighter pilots. When I was young I was possessed by socialist and communist ideas which are very appealing because they promise full employment, free education, free medical care, good retirement, free child care, and so on. But later I discovered that those ideas were serving only a very small number of Communist nomenclatura, and the rest of the people were basically slaves. I made my conclusion that I could not change that system. The system is so big that there's no way I could change it or exist inside of it as a normal human being. For me, it was the best thing to divorce myself from that system. I was a fighter pilot, but that had nothing to do with my decision to escape. If I had not been a fighter pilot, I would still have found way to escape from that concentration camp. Even today, with all the slogans and all the freedoms, that country is still a closed society.
It took me a while to build the critical mass in my mind to make that decision, but the final decision I made a month before my escape, and when I made that decision I felt so good about myself! I felt like I was walking on the top of clouds. I felt free. But for me to achieve my objective I must have good weather in Japan and 100% fuel, and it took one month to have those two components in place. During that month I performed my duties so well that my commanding officers were ready to promote me. But on September 6, 1976 all components were in place. By the way, I did not steal the airplane. I had clearances. I just changed my flight plans slightly in the air.
Q: Why did you choose the U.S. over other countries?
Belenko: We studied, in high school, the history of the United States. I considered United States as country of immigrants, and also because of my analytical conclusion of achievements in that country. I made my conclusion that U.S. was still the best country in the world. Yet at same time I did not have clear picture of U.S.
Q: After your arrival what was the hardest thing for you to understand in the USA?
Belenko: After my arrival, the hardest thing for me to understand was freedom of choice. When you are in a closed society and the government is making decision where you live, what you do for a living, and even where you die, it is very hard to understand freedom of choice. Those people who spend many years in U.S. in jail have a hard time after their release. But when I discovered the freedom of choice in the U.S. it became the best part of my life today.
Q: What have you been doing since?
Belenko: I was hired as a consultant for government agencies, and I've had real fun exploring United States. I've been involved with different aero-space companies here in the U.S. and abroad. What I discovered was that my biggest value for the West was not the hardware, MiG-25, but the Russian mind. American scientists and Russian scientists and designers are abreast with each other, but Russians have a big short-coming. They are not equipped for transforming their discoveries into manufacturing technique or into processes that will benefit people in terms of practical application. It's a big short-coming. They have so many smart, genius Russian scientists who make discoveries, but their discoveries are sitting on the shelf. In 1990 President Gorbachev made that point during his presentation for Russian scientists. So in terms of secret hardware I did not bring anything because Americans knew everything about MiG-25 already. In terms of practical application American technology is two decades plus ahead of the Russian.
Q: Is that because of red tape, and everyone has to approve every decision?
Belenko: Not only red tape. Scientists in the government structure are not motivated by the system to make their scientific discoveries be in place for practical use. So it sits on shelf for a very long time. By the way, radio transparent technology, which Americans applied for to F-117 and B-2, originally came from a Russian scientist. An engineer scientist from American company discovered it by reading scientific paper and he said, "Hey, we can do something with that." Other areas show that Russians are not using their discoveries for practical application. At the same time it means that American scientists can help them. American society is equipped to find the best and fastest way for practical application of some new discovery. I'm talking about a friendly corporation, and how it can help Russians. In the aerospace industry we know that the Russians make a very good fuselage for aircraft. At the present time Russians do not have small commuter aircraft. We can help not only Russia but third world countries, who do not have small, affordable commuter aircraft, by using good Russian fuselage and good American engines and avionics these two countries could build a very good commuter aircraft which could corner the market.
As soon as I discovered freedom of choice I started doing different things. I built my own home from scratch, started from zero. I hired a few construction workers, and I told them, "Look I'm going to work for you." I learned so much. Now I have, with my partners, a construction company. I love to do things with my hands. Landscaping is piece of cake. Commercial sport fishing is a big business, and I have piece of action in Alaska.
Q: What kind of speeches and presentations do you do for audiences?
Belenko: I make presentations for basically four groups-for business, military, political, and educational. And I tailor my presentation according to audience. The toughest audience is high school kids. If you keep that audience on the edge of their seats for an hour and a half you're in the speaking business. And I do it. With high school kids I have slide show about life for high school kids in Russia today. I show them one day in a Siberian village, including all their chores. It's a challenge for me, and at the same time it keeps my presentation skills on the edge. For business groups I act as a bridge between Russia and United states. There's lots of opportunities in Russia today, and many American entrepreneurs are trying to do things. Since I do know both sides, I'm helping both of them. For instance last year I brought four people from Moscow for five different projects. I raised money for the trip. Russians are very poor; at the same time they have pride, but I have found ways to convince them that it's good for them to come to America. They'll be more productive to both groups than for Americans to go to Russia, and it's cheaper. I had so much fun with that group in one week. I felt like I had four babies on my hands; their behavior was akin to Viktor's 20 years ago. I took them to the super-market, the shopping mall, to the poor neighborhood, the middle class neighborhood, and the rich neighborhood.
For military groups I am covering changes in Russian military and the Russian experience in Afghanistan and Chechen Republic. For political groups I talk on how to save Yeltsin and "Who is Yeltsin? Another Chameleon from the Kremlin."
Q: You don't think much of him then?
Belenko: No, he's just a symbol. If he dies tomorrow nothing will change. You have to look at their situation as a system, and I have specific details about that.
Q: What do you do for fun?
Belenko: This country has so much to do for fun. I'm outdoorsman. I've done hiking and fishing with General Chuck Yeager for 16 years in High Sierras, usually it takes two weeks.
Q: You catch Golden Trout?
Belenko: Yes, Golden Trout. You know California is over-populated state, but, even in that state, you can find real wilderness, clean air, clean water. Obviously, it takes 3 1/2 days to hike up to that point. It's hard work. Besides California there are so many beautiful states in this United States. I do not understand those Americans who like to spend their vacation in Switzerland or Italy or Europe. Many of them have never been in Yellowstone Park or Glacier Park. But that's their choice; I've made my choice. I've been in 68 different countries after I received my American passport.
When I became U.S. citizen with American passport I travel around the world. My first trip was actually a business trip with U.S. Air Force. I went to England. I did not speak English when I came to U.S., and I learn American-English. When we went to England I thought well English is English. After my arrival I heard very strange English. It was British-English. I had very hard time to understand them. But the British do speak English. Customs are almost the same, except British cows give tea instead of milk. Also they're driving on the wrong side of the road! And they do serve warm beer; it's ridiculous. I noticed, after my experience in U.S., that there was not warm reception for you, as a stranger, when you walk into their pubs. Later I complain about that to my friends in Wyoming. And they said, "Viktor, Brits love cowboys." I said, "Really?" Next trip I had cowboy hat, cowboy boots. I show up in their pubs; they look at me with astoundment. "Are you cowboy?" I say, "Yup." My vocabulary was very limited: Yup and Nope. But I did notice that they accept American cowboy with respect. And not only in England, in Europe and other countries as well. So I do advise my friends, who are traveling abroad, wear cowboy hat, cowboy boots, and act as a cowboy. American cowboys belong to the world!
Anyway, in terms of doing fun in America there's so much. What I do I like to fish, hunt, travel. I have friends in all 50 states, and basically I have room and board in all 50 states. It means I do not have to spend money in hotels. Even in northern California, General Chuck Yeager ordered me: "Viktor, when you're in town stay at my house." It's a big privilege for me to stay in real American hero's house.
Also I'm working on this global traverse expedition with Jack Wheeler. So in America there is so much to do for fun; I do not understand those people who are sitting on their big cushions in front of T.V. and complaining.
Q: After you escaped what was said about you by the Russian government?
Belenko: At present time the general population in that country thinks that I was killed decades ago. My death was confirmed in a St. Petersburg newspaper, this summer, in Smena .
Q: Oh, really! They're still thinking about you?
Belenko: Oh yes, and by one of their high ranking military people who discussed activities of foreign intelligence agents in Russia. They caught ten agents, the majority of them from Germany. When I read that article, it was in Russian, my conclusion was that as long as we have people like this General Alexander Rodeonov we will not have good relationship with the Russians. And he is part of the establishment, so we have to wait another decade until he and they retire or die.
Q: They said you died in this article?
Belenko: Oh yes, they confirmed my death in an automobile accident. I'm gonna frame this article. When my book is out, I'm going to use it, "A dead man is talking!"
Q: Did they say you died in Russia or the U.S.?
Belenko: The U.S.
Q: So people knew you took the jet and left?
Belenko: Oh, yes. But what the establishment did was spread rumors that I was killed in an automobile accident with the hint that they had arranged it.
Q: To make others afraid.
Belenko: Yes, and make them feel that the agency is very important.
Q: Since the "fall" of the Soviet Union do you think they've forgiven you or that they don't care about you any more?
Belenko: Well, at present time I do not know. This is not my concern, because I'm U.S. citizen. They cannot at present time figure out their own name. If I did violate Soviet law there's no more Soviet Union! I do not know their present position, but one thing I know is that they're so busy with their own investigations of each other that there's no room for them to worry about my case. And it's not my concern.
By the way, for my business, (I have contacts in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Siberia) when I communicate with people I do not use my real name. I use another name so those people will not be jeopardized. And my mission is the practical application of this opportunity between two countries for different businesses; that's it. I'm not interested in ideology. I know I'm not going to change all those chameleons from the Kremlin who change their name tags. They will die like that. But there is opportunity for us to do things which will be beneficial for both countries.
Q: Has there been any significant improvement in the people's lives?
Belenko: Things are worse since 1976.
Belenko: Because the 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.
Q: Is there less lying by the State?
Belenko: There's more openness. I do read their newspapers. There's less lying, but still any time there is an opportunity for old guard to do something against U.S. they do.