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Illawarra Mercury (Fairfax newspaper) Interview with Pyotr Patrushev                   

His escape had to be made under the cover of darkness, and Pyotr Patrushev knew he had only one night to make it across the more than 30km of cold waters to safety.

He admits that years later, knowing what he now knows, he may have been a little scared of what he was about to do, but as an 20-year-old with only one thing on his mind the marathon swim didn’t seem that big a deal.

After all he knew that if he stayed in Russia he was going to be killed anyway.

On an early spring night from the border town of Batumi, Patrushev set off – in the dark, wearing  swimming trunks and a pair of flippers, and plunged in to the waters of the Black Sea heading for Turkey.

It was 30 years before he returned to his native homeland of Siberia, but his escape was one of the most daring in Soviet history and resulted him being sentenced to death by the Soviet courts for high treason – a charge that was only downgraded in 1989.

Now in his mid 60s, Patrushev lives on the idyllic and peaceful coastline of Jervis Bay – a far cry from his boyhood in freezing Siberia, but the softly spoken gentleman says the South Coast reminds him very much of his homeland.

I grew up with nature, which is probably what gave me the strength to do what I had to do,” he says.

I would go hunting and fishing in the forests around our village. Sure we endured great privations, but those forests and streams were teeming with fish and animals. It was cold, but you dressed for it and were used to it.

Looking back now I have memories of unspeakable beauty of the forests and sunshine glistening on the snow.

It wasn’t actually only the beach that drew me here, although I swim in it every day – it was the fact this place is also surrounded by forests and bush, like when I was growing up.”

Although Siberia holds fond memories for him, by the time he was a teenager, Patrushev, like all Soviet men of a certain age, was conscripted into the army – and it was there he was exposed to the brutality of a system which has only now been fully revealed.

It was a system of hierarchical violence, and there is no way a ‘normal’ person could understand a culture that was so politically violent,” he says.

This was a country that has killed up to 40 million of its own people through revolutions and purges. I was a young, idealistic person, I was a competitive swimmer, so I was already a little privileged. I got to travel and go to large libraries and read material that the general  population never knew existed.

I had a completely different mentality to the average Russian and so from that liberal background and the rebellious nature, I was thrust into this completely brutalized army culture.

And I soon came to realise if I did not do something dramatic I would literally not survive there. I was hated by our Sargent for sticking up for a mate whom he kept on ‘hazing’. We know now that many people were maimed or even killed as a result of punishment in the army.”

His first job was to get out of the army and to do that Patrushev managed to convince the hierarchy he was a paranoid schizophrenic and transferred to a psychiatric facility for further “testing”.

But he knew that he only had a certain amount of time before he was either found to be faking or put through a “rehabilitation” process of electroshock therapy and injections.

He managed to escape from the hospital with the help of friends who were undergoing training  there as young doctors and, in the dead of a winter and in the middle of night, he made his way to a railway station, stole a horse and sled, covered himself in rags to cover his hospital issue pyjamas and fled to the home of his swimming coach.

He risked his life and that of his family to help me,” Patrushev says.

I actually spoke to him the other day, he is an old man now, but he told me that after I left Russia he always felt that he was being watched.

If it was still in Stalin’s time, he would have been shot for what he did.”

Patrushev managed to secure an ID and made his way to Batumi – the most heavily patrolled border town in Russia - where he was immediately recruited by the local swimming team that badly needed a backstroke swimmer for the forthcoming competition.

This meant he had a job and a place to stay – all important pieces of his plan to escape.

I also was training every day, which was good,” he says.

But I was a 100 and 200m backstroke swimmer and the coach was wondering why I was insisting on doing endurance training, swimming with lead weights on my arms.”

But he knew his time was limited and when he made the mistake of waving to the Turkish consul during a walk in the town – who just happened to train at the same gym – he was immediately put under surveillance.

The atmosphere of surveillance and paranoia in a border town is just amazing and it is even hard for me to imagine it now,” Patrushev says.

I had done nothing wrong, but the attitude was ‘why would he know the Turkish consul?’ I was just being friendly but also careless and if I was much more mature I would have known exactly what was going to happen.”

What did happen was that Patrushev was notified that he needed to go and “have a friendly chat” with the KGB. And at that point the young man knew he had a limited time to get out of the country.

From that point on they increased the surveillance on me, and I knew I had about two weeks before they got all the information they needed to get me,” he says.

Now having travelled back to Russia I know they questioned all my relatives as well.”

With his flippers in hand, Patrushev chose a warmish night, with little or no moon to start his swim.

You needed to have flippers – even Ian Thorpe could not have made it without flippers,” he says.

It wasn’t the strong currents or the freezing upsurges of water that were worrying to Patrushev. He had to dodge nets, search lights, surveillance planes, submarines, sonar radar, depth charges and patrol boats.

If they saw a break in the waves, they didn’t risk that it may have been a dolphin, they just dropped a depth charge which killed everything in close proximity,” he recalls.

Swimming backstroke – “better for orientation” – Patrushev says he was accompanied by a dolphin for some of the way, but even after a night of swimming he knew he wasn’t going to make it to Turkish soil by daylight.

Instead he says it was a fluke which saved his life, when he pulled into a cove at the break of dawn, not knowing that it was a  submarine base near the Turkish border that had its own security and that was not patrolled by guard dogs during the day.

After hiding out for the day he went back into the Black Sea the next night and by the next morning swam ashore to what he hoped was Turkish territory.

But you can’t ever be sure. There’s no Turk that comes out and says you’re in Turkey,” he says.

He walked for a long time in the mountains – still not having eaten – until he came to a village with a mosque in view and knew he was safe. He broke into a barn, stole a couple of eggs and fell asleep.

But his journey was far from over. Suspicious of his tale of escape – there were no successful swims out of Russia although hundreds of people perished while attempting to cross the border -- the Turks locked him in a military facility for “debriefing” where he stayed in solitary confinement for six months.

That was when I started to get worried,” he admits.

But he was eventually cleared of any charges and entered Turkish society, fluent in the language which he learned in jail and with a mission to expose the Soviet system.

When you think about the fate that befell poisoned former Russian spy Litvinenko at the end of last year, what Patrushev was doing was pretty risky, but the young dissident published articles on the Russian military and its psychological brainwashing which were picked up around the world.

He didn’t realise until nearly 30 years later that his expose had resulted in him being sentenced to death for high treason, a fate that usually only befell top Russian military or political figures.

I later found out there were 12 volumes of information on me which I thought was an amazing waste of government resources,” he says.

Because really I was just a boy who liked swimming and who just didn’t like the crazy kind of system that the country had.”

When he first escaped from the psychiatric hospital, Patrushev knew he was also leaving behind his family, and it wasn’t until nearly 25 years later that he had his first contact with them when his sister arrived in New Delhi for a trade union sponsored tour.

But even then he – and she – were under the scrutiny of the KGB and Patrushev says he knows that his family did what they had to do when he left to ensure they too survived the Soviet system.

Survival is your first priority and all of the emotional links had to be sacrificed.  When I first came to Russia after 25 years and fully cleared of any offences – in fact I was being treated as a bit of a hero -- my mother still wanted to know if I had a proper visa for entering the country.

It was a difficult situation for them in the past and they had to think about the repercussions for themselves, but fortunately they were already in Siberia so there weren’t many other places to send them really.”

Life now is certainly at a slower pace but, after becoming first a BBC correspondent and later Radio Liberty science broadcaster, where he started one of the first Russian-language science and environment shows on foreign radio; working as a mediator and a top level translator, as well as penning two books so far – his autobiography and a fiction novel in the vein of George Orwell’s 1984, called Project Nirvana, Patrushev is still passionate about the world and making people realise that there is a better way to do things.

Coming from where I come from I don’t see what is going on in the world as being as catastrophic as many. We were so close to annihilation during the Cold War and from that point of view we will always live in a world which is dangerous,” he says. “Just think of the climate change and the nuclear proliferation issues right now.”

But I also believe there is a balance between good and evil and that there are lessons to be learned from what is happening now.

The technology of peacemaking is getting a lot more sophisticated and, although I have no illusions about what humanity is capable of, I am very appreciative of the steps that people take to achieve harmony.

Every person has a lot of choices and each person can contribute something to the world. Now I try to do it through my writing, trying to tell the truth as I see it.

 “We have to look at the world not as something that God or the evolution created with us as passive agents, but look beyond that and realise that however the world came about, it needs our conscious efforts to make it a better place.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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