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Defecting in the 1980s (Eastern bloc to USA)
[me] peaceful easy feeling
knowledgequeen wrote in little_details
Googled: procedure for defection ussr, how did soviets defect, embassy accepting defector ussr, papers needed for defector ussr, asylum for defectors 1980s, and other various permutations.

I have a FMC who defected from Russia in around 1985 by slipping through the back entrance of a hotel in Bonn, West Germany, and then heading to the American embassy. I know that "walk-ins" are common in some areas nowadays - Taipei and other East Asian embassies receive North Koreans, for example. However, I cannot for the life of me find any stories from ordinary Soviet citizens about going to the West.

Did "walk ins" happen back then? If so, would she need any of her papers? She'll have her passport, but not her birth certificate or anything - it's my understanding that Soviet birth certificates are kept at ZAGS (ЗАГС) and nowhere else, or is that a more recent, Russian development?

Would they place her under arrest? She's an antiques dealer by trade, but is not smuggling anything that might be of cultural value, and has no real intelligence value. Or would they simply make arrangements for her?

I know a fair amount about today's asylum law, but I have no idea if things were different back then. Especially when dealing with nationals from what was then an enemy state. Please advise me, it's going to drive me up the wall until I figure out where to go!

The Russian dancer Nurejew fled while he was in France and asked for political asylum. Same with Michaeil Baryshnikow who defected while on tour in Canada and asked for political asylum.

I would assume that your character could do the same, especially if she's in West Germany which has a lot of experience of dealing with people defecting from either the GDR or the Sovietunion. I'm not sure though that she really would have her passport.

I'm not sure though that she really would have her passport.

Well, if she was already in a hotel in Bonn and slips out of it (maybe the OP can clarify) it sounds like she was legally allowed to leave the country for a business trip or holiday trip or the like, so she would have a passport then. Only a very small percent of the population would have a passport that they can travel abroad with granted to them though, definitely.

Yes, sorry. She was legally permitted by the government to go to Bonn for a cultural trip, and took that opportunity to jump ship, so to speak.

Sometimes people who travelled to the West had to give their passport to the handler of their group to ensure that they wouldn't defect. That's what I was wondering about.

Edited at 2013-11-16 09:19 pm (UTC)

Ah! Yeah, that's what I thought you meant at first, but then I confused myself completely! XD

In 1980 the US changed their refugee policy. Before 1980 if you were an anti-communist and were fleeing a communist regime you were considered a refugee. But after 1980 simply fleeing from a communist regime was no longer enough for you to be granted refugee status by the US. Your character would have to demonstrate that she's either a worth-while actual defector with information (not the case, as you said), or that she was fleeing due to human rights abuses she was facing directly in Russia. With that change in policy the US also increased their quota of refugee statuses it would grant annually though. As you said, mostly to accommodate for the influx of people from East Asia though.

OK. That does change matters. I could conceivably push her arrival date back to 1978 or 79; she'd still have been an adult, and I know that cultural sightseeing trips were often designed for high ranking Party members' children, which she is.

Yeah, if you can push back the date then it makes it easier for writing. Passport should be enough proof of identity if she's the child of a high ranking Party member, I would think.

hm no, birth certificates aren't generally kept at ZAGS (well, maybe their copies are). i went to malta recently, with my mother, grandma and underage cousin, who was travelling without his parents and had an official paper permitting him to leave the country accompanied by his grandmother. it's not actually necessary but she dug out her daughter's birth certificate for the proof that he's her grandson. cousin's mom was born in 1974 and i'm pretty sure there's nothing unusual about her birth certificate being in her possession.

although if your character's parents are worried they could let her travel only with the documents she really needs for it. to me this feels like a more plausible reason not to have the needed documents.

Thank you :D I appreciate it. From what I can tell, it actually makes more sense for her to have her birth certificate on her than her passport.

She would need her passport at least for the visa and for crossing the border.

I meant at the actual moment of going to the embassy. :) As has been said above, she might have to surrender her passport to the group's handler.

FWIW, on the subject of walk-ins: when I was in graduate school in the mid-eighties, I got to know a man who had defected from what was then Czechoslovakia. I don't know the exact year of his defection, but it must have been in the mid to late seventies.

He had been a walk-in: he planned the defection for years, and waited until he was allowed to leave the country for a vacation in Switzerland. On the last day of his vacation, instead of going home, he sat on a park bench for several hours, getting himself ready to take the plunge, and then walked into the embassy.

I assume he had his passport, but I doubt he had any other papers. He said it was as simple as saying "I want to defect", but that it was the most terrifying thing he'd ever said. Before the moment of saying it at the embassy, he hadn't even been able to speak the word out loud, for fear of what might happen.

He had no particular political status or social importance; he was a tailor. He had always had strong political opinions, and his life had been a dead end as a result. He was not arrested; he was simply sent to the appropriate office for defectors from Czechoslovakia. He was then sent to a refugee camp, and eventually ended up in the US, after several months of waiting to find out which countries might take him. He became a citizen in about 1985.

There was more to the story, but those are the basic elements of the defection itself.

Edited at 2013-11-17 10:38 pm (UTC)

My supervisor when I was a student has a Russian wife. She left Russia I think during the 1980s, perhaps slightly earlier, and consequently had her citizenship revoked and was made stateless. (He is (East) German, incidentally.) I think she ended up in Germany initially but not sure. They travelled Europe together for a while but had to stop at every border to get her permission to enter, even when they were backpacking and it was the dead of the winter and -20C outside, leading to some interesting anecdotes involving snow-covered tents. Eventually one way or another they both made it to the USA, where she acquired American citizenship, which she still holds, though they both live in the UK now. Not sure how helpful that is as I don't know her well, but that's my understanding of what happened.