The long swim to freedom – Part III

If you haven’t already done so, please read Part I and Part II of this incredible, yet absolutely true story before proceeding.

No one would have ever thought to look for a deserter in a secret military base. And no one did.

Pyotr slept through the day and when the sun set he again got into the water. By now he was incredibly close to the border, but he could not just swim towards it. In order to avoid the powerful search lights he had to swim far to sea, then South, then again toward the shore only once the border had been crossed. This meant another 15 Km or so.

Then, finally, by 4 or 5 in the morning he finally made shore on a beautiful beach, just as the sun was starting to rise once again. The natural instinct, at this point, would have been to jump with joy, to celebrate this incredible escape from the USSR, the first one in history by swim.

But how could he be sure he had actually crossed the border? There were no signs, of course, and the landscape of Northern Turkey is of course indistinguishable from that of Soviet Georgia.

Pyotr drank some water from a nearby creek and then made for the mountains. He walked upstream on the creek, just to make sure that the dogs couldn’t pick up and follow his scent and then he kept on going, inland and South. He walked for another 20 kilometers (12 miles) or so. There were no villages in sight and he was desperately listening for the only sound that would confirm to him that he had actually made it into Turkey.

And finally he heard it: the Muezzin reciting the call to prayer.

This was a long forgotten sound in the Soviet Union. A state that had razed most places of worship and converted the remaining mosques and churches into cinema theaters, macaroni factories or even Gulag camps.

«When I heard the Muezzin, I knew I was safe» says Pyotr Patrushev. But it won’t actually be quite that simple.

A solitary man admires the hills and valleys in the Black Sea region of Georgia. 57 years ago, that man could have been Pyotr Patrushev.

As he was the first swimmer to cross the border, at least since WWII, the Turks did not believe Pyotr’s story and they thought he was a spy.

They took him to the city of Erzurum, put him in solitary confinement and interrogated him for about one year. After this time they transferred him to a detention camp in Istanbul, where he spent another year and a half as a prisoner.

In all this time Pyotr says he was beaten only once, but the psychological pressure, which bordered torture, was relentless, with sleep deprivation, claustrophobic contained spaces and the threats to shoot him.

After two and a half years as a prisoner, Pyotr had enough. In an interrogation, he offered the Turkish intelligence officer interrogating him to “come up with a convincing story” on how and why he was a spy. Pyotr would agree to the story, so that the officer “could get another star on his epaulettes” and the whole thing would come to a stop. Somehow this made his captors realize that they had “reached the end of the line” with him. He was ready to confess to anything, but there was still no proof that he was a spy (which he wasn’t). Soon afterwards they let him go free.

He could go anywhere, except back, as he was sentenced to death for treason in absentia by the Soviet government for his escape.

Pyotr Patrushev soon emigrated to Australia, where he created a family and became a top-level Russian translator and interpreter, to the point that he interpreted for Russian and Australian Heads of State, including Vladimir Putin.

Patrushev returned to the Soviet Union only in 1990, for the first time in 28 years, with the aim of visiting his relatives, mainly in his native Siberia. Now a respected Australian citizen, both Soviet and Australian authorities had assured him that it was safe for him to travel to the USSR on his Australian passport, but in spite of this he was immediately taken away by guards and detained for more than eight hours when he first arrived at Moscow Airport.

Compared to his past experiences, this time it was a “soft” detention: «most of the time in a hot and stuffy airport hotel, without being able to contact the Australian Embassy or his waiting relatives» Pyotr recalls. He was then freed with no explanation, except that of the hotel manager who commented: «See, perestroika is working».

Pyotr Patrushev died on 28 March 2016 in the state of New South WalesAustralia.

His story survives him also thanks to the Australian film maker Michael Rubbo, who interviewed him in the last years of his life and created a four-part documentary on this incredible story.

I owe Mr. Rubbo a huge debt of gratitude as the details of this story and most of the quotes come directly from the voice of Pyotr Patrushev recalling his escape in front of the video camera. Here you can find Part I of that documentary.

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