The long swim to freedom – A true story

Two people are enjoying a relaxed evening swim in the Black Sea. The setting sun has been warming up the water for the whole day and it is the perfect moment to enjoy it. The year is 2019 and the sea is calm, friendly and easily accessible to all.

The situation was very, very different 57 years ago, when a young Siberian boy entered these very waters on a warm June evening of 1962 and did what many had tried, but no one had been able to accomplish before.

This is a true story, told by the very people who lived through it. At the end I will give you all the details about where to find a long interview to the protagonist, but for now “sit back and enjoy” this incredible, true, story.

Pyotr Patrushev was born 20 years earlier in a small village deep in the forest and near a Soviet Gulag: Kolpashevo. The youngest of three sons, he never met his father, who died fighting in WWII for the Red Army when he was just one month old.

In Pyotr’s own words, his mother was: «generally kind of an angry and very powerful and at times aggressive woman». Often times circumstances and poverty forced her to be so. One of the recurring problems was that of neighbors pilfering the ever so precious family stack of burning wood, an absolute necessity to keep the fire going in the stove during winter months, when outside temperature would often reach 50 degrees below zero. To counter this, Pyotr’s mother resorted to drilling holes in the longs and filling them with some gunpowder. When the thief would then put the log in his stove, a small explosion would occur, with the double effect of discouraging him (or her) to steal from the Patrushevs again and at the same time reveal who the culprit was.

Pyotr remembers his mother telling him: «I don’t want you to love me. I want you to grow up and survive in this world. The faster you grow up, the faster you are made into a survivor, the better».

A typical Russian forest in winter. Photo by me.

Life in general was incredibly hard in that corner of the world. During the Great Purge Kolpashevo was the site of mass executions carried out by the NKVD, with the corpses of those executed being disposed of in a mass grave. In May 1979 meandering of the Ob river caused a mass grave containing more than 1,000 mummified corpses to become exposed. A number of cover-stories were issued by the local government, following which the provincial party chief, took charge of a cover-up operation to destroy the mass grave and used the KGB to coerce local people to dispose of the corpses by sinking them.

But in 1979 Pyotr was long gone. After finishing school he took the river boat to Tomsk, the closest large city, about 320 km upstream. There he would study engineering and become a champion swimmer.

University life in Tomsk also gave Pyotr the first taste of what it meant to live under a strict regime. As many other students he found himself drawn to literature that was forbidden and experienced the thrill of listening to foreign radio stations, an offense with possible serious consequences at the time, even if it was just to hear some jazz or rock music.

Considering he was a student with no previous history of rebellion, these were still “innocent” transgressions and the success in competitive swimming were taking Pyotr on a very good path: he was destined to serve in an elite sport military unit.

This was all to change, very rapidly, very unexpectedly and very drastically.

Pyotr’s success in competitions brought him to district and then state level competitions. His coach at the time was the niece of the swimming pool director in the city of Tomsk. As fate would have it, a better coach arrived in the Siberian city and Pyotr wanted to go with him.

The “abandoned coach” went to his uncle and told him that she felt betrayed by Pyotr, her best athlete, who had decided to go with another coach.

«I will destroy them both» was the curt answer of her uncle.

What almost no one knew at the time, and certainly not Pyotr, was the real identity of the Tomsk swimming pool director. This guy had been a henchman of Beria, the fearsome KGB (Secret Police) director under Stalin.

Following the dictator’s death in 1953 Beria was one of the possible successors to power, but he eventually lost that “race” and was imprisoned and then shot by his political opponents. After Beria’s death his former goon used his connections to flee the Russian capital and found himself a nice “cushion position” as director of the swimming pool in Tomsk. But he remained a powerful, vengeful man.

Pyotr was to find out about this only many, many years later, when the daughter of his new coach wrote him a letter, after the fall of the Soviet Union, telling him how the wrath of the former KGB agent had ruined their lives. The new coach was fired and wherever he went all across the Soviet Union a phone call to the local KGB officer would always precede his arrival, declaring him persona non grata, until he finally ended his poor career in Belarus, thousands of miles from Tomsk.

Pyotr himself didn’t fare much better. He was immediately kicked out of the sport elite military company and sent to serve in a “normal” army unit in Novosibirsk, where the officers had already been instructed to haze him heavily. He never received any form of explanation for this change and he himself wondered for decades what had happened in that occasion. Keep in mind that for the mandatory military service (conscription) in the Soviet Union service terms were 3 years in ground forces and 4 years in the navy.

His good heart and his quick thinking would literally save him his life just a short while later.

After a night of drinking (which was not at all uncommon in the Army at that time), Pyotr witness a group of soldiers heavily hazing and beating down on another new recruit. The guy was on the floor, getting beaten and kicked. Pyotr saw a sergeant getting ready to intentionally kick him on the head with all his strength. He would have probably killed the poor guy. Without even thinking, Pyotr pretended to be part of the attacking “pack”, but he tripped the sergeant, hoping that in his semi-drunken state he would not realize what had happened. The sergeant fell, badly, and hit his head on the floor.

The way the sergeant look straight, directly at Pyotr made him understand that he had perfectly understood what had happened.

«That night – Pyotr recalls – I knew I couldn’t go back to the unit. I would get maimed or killed. It was as simple as that».


I don’t want this post to be so long that people stop reading it halfway, and I think this is such a remarkable story that it deserves to be told in full, so I will continue it in the next post. Click here for Part II.

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