The first wave of Soviet defections began prior to World War II, primarily in response to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's political purges. One of the earliest Soviet defectors was Boris Bajanov, once Stalin's personal secretary, who fled to France in 1928. A key early Cold War defector was Igor Gouzenko, who in September 1945 left his job as cipher clerk at the Soviet embassy in Canada and afterward revealed secrets about the Venona code used for sending Soviet diplomatic cables. He also exposed a Soviet spy ring operating in Canada and brought to light Soviet atomic espionage activities.
The total number of Cold War defectors from the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc countries remains to be determined. It has been estimated that about 50 Soviets successfully defected each year, the majority seeking political asylum in the United States. According to a sketchy report issued by the Jamestown Foundation to the U.S. Senate in 1986, however, in the four decades following World War II, there were 434 defections from the Soviet Union. The same report tabulated other Eastern bloc defection figures for the period 1946–1986: the German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany), 431; Poland, more than 900; Hungary, 176; Czechoslovakia, more than 1,300; Bulgaria, 42; and Romania, 144. These numbers do not include the 3.5 million who fled East Germany to the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany) between 1949 and 1961 or the 80,000 Czechs who fled their country or stayed abroad during the Prague Spring of 1968.
The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea), China, Vietnam, and Cuba also suffered defections. Conservative estimates, covering the period from the end of the Korean War in 1953 to 1989, reveal more than 600 defectors from North Korea, with a majority settling in the Republic of Korea (ROK, South Korea). Following the final prisoner exchange at the end of the Korean War, 14,200 Chinese prisoners of war (POWs) chose not to return to their country. In November 1982, after completing his studies at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, Wang Bongzhang defected from China in order to stay in the West and to agitate for greater freedom in his homeland. After the Tiananmen Square Massacre in June 1989, a number of Chinese dissidents, such as the prodemocracy activists Wuer Kaixi and Li Lu, escaped arrest by fleeing via Hong Kong to the West. Between 1975 and 1989, more than a million Vietnamese left their country in three different waves, some 275,000 finally settling in the United States. Cubans escaping Fidel Castro's regime also headed for America's shores, most notably 125,000 in the 1980 Mariel Boatlift.
In the West, defectors from communist countries were cast as symbols of ideological disillusionment. So it happened with Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin's daughter, who during a 1967 trip to India obtained American asylum. Western nations viewed high-profile defectors such as diplomats, artists, musicians, athletes, and authors as proof of Marxist failings. This mind-set of Western superiority suffused the film Moscow on the Hudson, which portrays a Soviet circus saxophonist who defects inside a New York City department store.
However, not all defectors went from East to West. Even some Americans switched sides. During the prisoner exchange at the end of the Korean War, twenty-one American POWs reportedly elected to stay. Later, a small number of American soldiers crossed the demilitarized zone and defected to North Korea, including Charles Robert Jenkins, who remained there during 1965–2004. In 1985, Edward Lee Howard, a spurned CIA analyst, defected to the Soviet Union after evading the FBI in New Mexico and flying to Europe.
Relaxed Cold War tensions during détente prompted some American officials to advocate turning away Soviet defectors. This happened in November 1970 to the Soviet fisherman Simas Kudirka, who was returned after he boldly leaped from his fishing vessel onto the deck of a U.S. Coast Guard cutter off the coast of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. Defectors were still warmly received when state secrets were involved, as in September 1976 when President Gerald R. Ford granted asylum to Lieutenant Viktor Belenko after he flew his Soviet MiG-25 jet fighter to Japan. These and other defection dramas were part of the larger Cold War political and ideological struggle in which the two superpowers vied for world supremacy.
Hollander, Paul. Political Will and Personal Belief: The Decline and Fall of Soviet Communism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.; Howard, Edward Lee. Safe House: The Compelling Memoir of the Only CIA Spy to Seek Asylum in Russia. Bethesda, MD: National Press, 1995.; Krasnov, Vladislav. Soviet Defectors: The KGB Wanted List. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1986.; U.S. Congress. Federal Government's Handling of Soviet and Communist Bloc Defectors. Senate Committee on Government Affairs, 100th Cong., 1st Sess., Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, 8, 9, 21 October 1987. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1988.