Author POV – Viktor Belenko, Hero or Traitor?
Miguel Vargas-Caba is the author of Bear: Flight to Liberty (iUniverse, 2007), a word of historical fiction about the defection of the crew of a Soviet Naval Aviation’s Tu-95 RTs "Bear D" long-range reconnaissance aircraft from Kola Peninsula to Northern Canada on August 4th, 1976. A native of the Dominican Republic who now resides with his family in The Bronx, New York, he asks questions about who is a traitor and who is a hero.
Immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Belenko was sometimes hailed as a hero.
In September 1976, Lt. Viktor Belenko defected from the Soviet airbase at Chuguyevka, Siberia, to a civilian airport in Hakodate, Japan. In his defection he brought to the West the best fighter the Soviets had managed to produce up to that time, the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25 Foxbat, along with its pilot’s manual. Immediately after landing, he requested and obtained political asylum in the United States.
(Editor’s note: The Japanese government limited the U.S. to ground tests of the MiG’s radar and engines. The plane was then disassembled and returned to the USSR on a Japanese ship.)
In his book MiG Pilot, the Final Escape of Lieutenant Belenko (McGraw-Hill 1980), John Barron, using the manuscript Belenko provided him, exposed in detail the reasons that moved Lt. Belenko to defect to the "adversary." Among the reasons given was the absurd life that common Soviet citizens were forced to live in those days, the so-called "years of Brezhnev’s stagnation." There were constant shortages of everything imaginable, from major food staples such as meat and sausages to toilet paper. When such items were available, citizens had to form kilometric lines to purchase them. As an elite fighter pilot, Lt. Belenko had access to many articles that were beyond the reach of the common citizen, such as meat and other food items (but not even he had access to toilet paper; old issues of Pravda was used).
It was not so much the scarcity of those articles that pushed him to defect, however; it was what he considered to be the obvious discrepancy between the promises of the Soviet communist system and the reality of life under it. All the promises the system made for a better life were accessible only to a select few members of the Nomenklatura in the upper echelons of Soviet life.
Another point of contention for him was the apparent contradictions between what Soviet propaganda fed their citizens about the West and the achievements Western society produced. In Belenko’s own words: "If they were so bad, how come they could send a man to be moon and bring him back? If they are falling apart right now, how come they’re producing better fighters than ours and have more Nobel Prize winners than we do?"
Immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Belenko was sometimes hailed as a hero for having escaped the totalitarian oppression of the Soviet regime in a bold and daring way, but after 2004 he was once again vilified as a traitor to Rodina, "Mother Russia." His detractors accuse him of having been "recruited" by the CIA while still in fighter pilot school, and of defecting solely for monetary gain, namely, the promise of U.S. $100,000 given to all those who defected to the West bringing with them a fighter plane.
My questions are: Is the old adage "once a traitor always a traitor" true? Is one who betrays a totalitarian regime a traitor or a hero? By defecting with a Mig-25 Belenko betrayed the Soviet Union; is he therefore a traitor to "Mother Russia?"
Post a comment below to offer your answers to these questions. After two weeks, we’ll post the author’s own POV on the answers.
Learn more about Miguel Vargas-Caba and Bear: Flight to Liberty. View images of the TU-95 Bear aircraft or see a video about the airplane.