Viktor Belenko: The Cold War Defector Who Thought The FBI Planted Stores With Goods
On September 6th, 1976, when Viktor Belenko dropped his MiG-25 to the treeline and turned off his radio he knew he wasn’t the first one to ride this rodeo.
In 1953, two Polish pilots defected to Denmark and one North Korean pilot defected to South Korea. All Belenko had to do was make it to Japan.
Belenko’s story demonstrates how oppressive Cold War Russia was. The man had not yet been to the United States, knew nothing of the life there, but figured it must be superior to his life in Russia. He would soon discover how different the two countries were.
Growing Up Belenko
Viktor Belenko was born after the end of WWII, in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains in Nalchik.
As a young man, Belenko was a socialist, loyal to the Soviets. Then he joined the military, worked up the ranks and became a fighter pilot.
As a fighter pilot, Belenko would enjoy a lifestyle not afforded to the average Soviet citizen or soldier. On top of that, as a pilot, he was one of the best, dedicated and talented.
This positioned him well in society but, just like good opera seats, put him close to the players peeling back some of the magic. He started to see the disparities in the socialist economy, the cracks in the political system he trusted.
He saw that socialism only generated social benefits for the few, not all Soviets. The rest of the country lived as slaves, something he felt powerless to change. It’s easy to imagine how he could ignore these realities at first.
In his personal life, Belenko faced a divorce, the sort of thing that puts a magnifying glass on everything in one’s life.
In quiet moments, as he considered all the lies, imagining that the United States might not be the awful picture they painted. It couldn’t have been worse than the U.S.S.R.
That was when he formulated his escape plan.
It took years for Belenko to come to terms with reality, more to formulate his plan. He would have to steal an expensive jet from the country that fed him to make his escape. Once he accepted that choice, it changed everything.
“… the final decision I made a month before my escape, and when I made that decision I felt so good about myself,” said Belenko in a Full Context interview. “I felt like I was walking on the top of clouds. I felt free…”
He needed good weather and full tanks of fuel. It took two months before those two elements would come together. His performance in those two months was exemplary, so much that his commanding officers were ready to promote him.
The way Belenko tells it, he didn’t steal the jet.
“I had clearances,” he said. “I just changed my flight plans slightly in the air.”
En route, he almost clipped a commercial jet he was flying so low, but when Belenko landed in Hakodate, Japan, none of that mattered. He’d made it.
The Japanese allowed him to land his strange craft, perhaps because they’d not yet seen the MiG in person. The best we had at the time was blurry intel images. Belenko not only brought us the MiG but the training manual too.
Access to the MiG-25 and the manual was invaluable. It was the first time we’d been so close. The excitement fizzled when we learned that, other than straight line speed, it was inferior in every way to our jets.
Still, Viktor Belenko’s would be an American.
Life In America
President Gerald Ford granted Belenko asylum, and we set him up with accommodations. Since he brought us a jet with the instruction manual, it was the least we could do.
The first time Belenko made it stateside he was under supervision from the CIA, of course. He visited a supermarket because, you know, a man needs food in his kitchen if he’s gonna eat.
As Belenko walked the market he suspected a plot. The shelves were so stocked with fresh produce but suffered no lines out the door. He was sure the CIA had kicked everyone out and loaded the shelves to impress him.
Belenko would later learn that this was the way of life in his new country. He enjoyed trying all the new foods, including the time he cooked a can of food labeled dinner.
His friend, spotting the can in his trash basket, asked if he’d bought a cat.
“But it was delicious!” argued Belenko. “It was better than canned food for people in Russia today.”
In time, Belenko settled into his life in the United States. He wrote a book and took work as a consultant for various agencies. What he could offer us that we didn’t know we needed was a perspective on Soviet thinking, especially their approach to technology.
Belenko even married again in 1980.
In case you worried, we gave the MiG back to the Soviets in October of that year. It was in crates, missing the flight data for the escape, but we gave it back.
There were some other missing parts, for which the Soviets billed Japan, but to date, that bill remains unpaid. What they should’ve asked us for was our finest cat food.