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THE

VOYAGERS



BY BILL DONAHUE

In 1945, a father and his young son set out across the Bering Strait, fleeing Soviet Russia for a better life in America. Neither knew how perilous their journey would become.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 124


Bill Donahue has written for The New York Times Magazine, Outside, and Harper’s, among others. He lives in New Hampshire. His last Atavist story, “The Free and the Brave,” was published as Issue No. 106. Follow him on Twitter: @billdonahue13.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Adam Przybyl
Illustrator: R. Fresson

Published in February 2022.


PART ONE

At 4 a.m. on June 23, 1945, beneath the bright Arctic sun, Valeri Minakov picked his way down to a beach on the cold, treeless coast of Chukotka, near the easternmost point of Russian Siberia. There, near the Cape Chaplino military weather station, Valeri climbed into a motorized kayak that he’d built himself, using walrus hide, a section of bicycle frame, and a small three-horsepower engine. The seawater in which his kayak bobbed was about 34 degrees Fahrenheit that morning, and clotted with blocks of ice the size of school buses. In the kayak’s bow, Valeri had a few five-liter cans of gasoline, some tinned food, a milk jug filled with drinking water, and a single passenger—a little boy.

Valeri’s son, Oleg, was six years old, black haired, and scrawny, with tentative brown eyes. He’d already been through much in his short life. When Oleg was three, his infant sister died of starvation, one of the Soviet Union’s 25 million war-era casualties. Oleg watched as his father placed the baby’s corpse on the metal kitchen table before it was taken away for burial. Soon after, in 1942, Oleg’s mother, Anna Yakovlev Kireyeva, ran off with a Red Army officer. For the next three years, Oleg was raised by his father, a naval mechanic, on a succession of military bases. Eventually, they wound up in the spartan reaches of Chukotka.

It was a lonely existence. Oleg didn’t have friends with whom he could play fox and geese—a game of chase—out in the snow. His father, Oleg later said, was “like a shadow. He was there, and then he wasn’t.” At 35, Valeri was erratic. He’d been traumatized, certainly, and was possibly mentally ill. When he went out at night to drink in bars, he left Oleg alone in the barracks where they lived. Valeri often got into fistfights while drunk. He was a muscular slice of a man—six-foot-one and 164 pounds—and Oleg was in awe of his physical prowess. Once, when a car jack wasn’t working, Valeri lifted the vehicle up by the bumper, slid the jack underneath, and continued his labors. Valeri’s strength, however, was tightly coiled. He was anxious, a chain smoker. He paced. He habitually clenched his jaw, grinding his teeth, and at times he raged at Oleg. When the boy caused a stir in a military dining hall by catapulting a spoonful of borscht into the face of a high-ranking officer, Valeri beat him.

But while Valeri was far from a model father, he and Oleg were a team out on the tundra. Oleg’s favorite moment each week came when his father got paid—Valeri would entrust the boy with a few kopecks and send him out on an errand. In a blacksmith’s forge where Valeri sometimes worked, he had Oleg work the bellows to keep the fire going. If father and son were outside and the wind got strong, Oleg would clench Valeri’s hand and curl in toward his dad’s long sealskin coat, lest he “get blown away to nowhere.”

Now Oleg sat in a 14-foot-long homemade kayak as his father prepared to row it into the Bering Strait, one of the earth’s most dangerous sea passages. The strait’s shallow floor, just 150 feet or so beneath the surface of the Bering Sea, is prone to kicking up monstrous waves. When the strait freezes, usually in October, it becomes a heaving jumble of ice floes that groan in the cold and crash into one another with immense force. The ice begins melting in June, which is why Valeri chose that month for their crossing.

Valeri began oaring away from the beach, hewing to the ice shelves along the cliff-lined shore. He kept the engine off. Valeri headed north, toward a group of islands where naval officers liked to hunt. If it came to it, he could always claim that he was taking his son out to shoot ducks.

Once they were far enough away from their launch point and hidden behind high blocks of ice, Valeri pulled the starter cord on the engine. It didn’t turn over. Valeri panicked. For three minutes he kept pulling. Then Oleg pointed out that the spark plug wasn’t connected. Valeri fixed it. The engine rumbled.

“Where are we going?” Oleg asked.

“America,” Valeri said.

Oleg had never heard of the place, so he said nothing. He sat in the front of the kayak, watching his papa guide the rudder. A cigarette hung loose between Valeri’s lips, and smoke plumed around his stubbled chin. America, Oleg figured, was probably far away. He laid his head on the side of the kayak and gathered a tarp around his torso for warmth. Then he drifted off to sleep.

When the strait freezes, usually in October, it becomes a heaving jumble of ice floes that groan in the cold and crash into one another with immense force.

Oleg was a sweet and susceptible child. When he was four, he became enchanted with a bombastic tune that was played on the radio every morning. It was a paean to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin that reveled, “He gave us happiness and freedom, the great wise leader of the people.” Oleg liked to hum along. In time, he decided that he wanted to be a paratrooper in Stalin’s military.

It was a dream he carried through his rough childhood. He was hungry much of the time; at one base where he and Valeri lived, Oleg snuck into a Red Cross tent and stole Velveeta cheese and powdered cocoa. Valeri worked long days, leaving Oleg to fend for himself. One day, Oleg wandered across a frozen lake and broke through the ice up to his shins. He found his way to a stranger’s cabin, several miles from home, and shivered by the fire until somehow his father arrived to retrieve him. There were times, though, when Valeri wasn’t there for Oleg, because he was away on ships or stationed in distant parts of the Soviet Union building diesel power plants. During those periods, Oleg was parked at an orphanage.

At one of those orphanages, Oleg learned that Stalin himself was coming for a visit. The staff spent several days painstakingly sewing Oleg a little wool paratrooper’s uniform, then brought Oleg, dressed in the suit, to Stalin. “I can see Stalin sitting back in a big easy chair, smiling,” Oleg later recalled, “and me climbing up onto his knee, then jumping off like a paratrooper.”

Much of Oleg’s life was less festive. He was surrounded by brutality. Near the base on Cape Chaplino, gulag labor crews were constructing a new city, Provideniya. Once while out walking, Oleg crested a hill and looked down into a valley where scores of Soviet prisoners were moving dirt in buckets as guards armed with pistols watched over them.

Valeri feared becoming one of those prisoners, or worse. He had arrived in Chukotka tortured by history. He was born in 1909, in a small Ukrainian farming village called Orlianske. His father, Tihon, fought in World War I and was captured by the Germans. Tihon escaped, but upon returning home he suffered from shell shock, or what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder. In 1918, after the Bolshevik Revolution, Tihon and his family faced a new threat. That year, Vladimir Lenin stressed that he viewed Ukraine as a pantry for the entire Soviet Union. In a missive to Bolshevik leaders in Ukraine, he called for “grain, grain, grain,” demanding that it be shipped out daily to less agrarian sectors of his domain.

The policy amounted to an attack on Valeri’s parents. The Minakovs owned about 110 acres, planted with grapes and wheat, and Lenin was intent on seizing their crops—indeed, the crops of all well-off, landowning peasants, or kulaks. Throughout Ukraine’s agrarian steppes, kulaks protested wildly. They got nowhere, though, and the Soviet requisition policy remained in place. It would prove fatal for many people. In 1921 and 1922, when Valeri turned 12, Ukraine suffered a drought and then a famine that devastated the Zaporizhia Oblast, the Vermont-size province where the Minakovs lived. When Norwegian diplomat Vidkun Quisling toured Zaporizhia in February 1922, on behalf of the League of Nations, he wrote, “The situation is terrible. Local official statistics show that of the province’s 1,288,000 inhabitants, 900,000 are without food. Sixty percent of the famished are children.”

As Stalin rose to power, he proved worse than Lenin. He launched a campaign to collectivize all kulak land, promised the “liquidation of the kulaks as a class,” and ultimately killed off 30,000 of them. In the fall of 1929, the Bolsheviks moved to confiscate the Minakovs’ property, and the family was forced to hide in a neighboring village.

In 1932, Valeri was drafted into the Soviet military. He hated Stalin but had no choice except to serve. He became a ship’s mechanic. Aboard one boat, Valeri watched as 50 political prisoners—all fellow kulaks—were pushed off the deck to their deaths, with weights tied around their necks.

When the Nazis occupied Ukraine in 1941, they seized grain even more zealously than Stalin had. By the time they were chased out in 1944, the population of Orlianske had plummeted from 2,000 to 78, according to one report. Valeri’s parents survived to see the Soviets return, but the effects of war and deprivation took their toll: In the summer of 1944, they both died of starvation.

The same year, thousands of miles away in Chukotka, Valeri was caught writing an anti-Stalin inscription in a library book. “I was surrounded by agents and spies,” he would later relate. Paranoia crept into his life. He came to believe that his superiors were plotting to have one of his eyes surgically removed, to use his cornea in a transplant intended to restore a general’s lost vision. Valeri may have imagined the threat, but it wasn’t unfathomable. Stalin was well on his way to killing off as many as 20 million political opponents over the course of his rule. If the Soviets wanted Valeri’s cornea, they would get it.

By 1945, Valeri’s parents were dead. His wife was gone. There was nothing left for him or for Oleg in the Soviet Union. Just past the horizon, America beckoned.

In early May 1945, Valeri began squirreling away wood to build the skeleton of a kayak. He found a bicycle frame that could be used as a bracket for an outboard rudder. He took a broken down single-cylinder, water-cooled engine, once used to generate power at a radio station, and rebuilt it. He bought walrus skins from Chukchi Natives, who used the hides to cover their hunting boats. While a wooden craft might splinter on rocks or ice, “the native skin boat is semi-rigid and warps with the motion of the water,” a Jesuit missionary told The New York Times, after traveling 700 miles along the Alaskan coast in 1938.

Valeri kept his project secret from Oleg, and he was canny about the boat’s construction. He rigged the steering system so it seemed broken—the boat went left when the rudder was pulled right, and vice versa. He lashed inner tubes to either side of the hull. These aided flotation, and also enhanced the boat’s salvage-heap appearance. Valeri wanted it to seem incapable of withstanding the Bering Sea’s heaving waves; he wanted it to look like a death trap. That way, if anyone questioned him about it, he could say it was just for puttering around Cape Chaplino.

When the boat was finished, Valeri took Oleg out for a test run. They went duck hunting. “My job,” Oleg said, “was to sit in the bow and be very quiet until we got right near the ducks. Then I’d yell so the ducks would fly up and he could shoot them. If I made noise too early, my papa got mad.” Oleg frequently flubbed the timing.

At one point Valeri let Oleg steer, and the boy ran the stern of the boat into an ice floe, bending the engine’s propeller. Back home, Valeri fixed the damage. Then he began packing up their belongings. More than 20,000 Soviets would attempt to defect to the United States in the aftermath of World War II. Valeri and Oleg were about to become the first—and only—Soviet defectors to seek freedom in the West by crossing the Bering Strait.

The strait is the only place where Russia and the United States share a border. At its narrowest, the passage is 53 miles across. Once called the “Ice Curtain” by a spokesman for Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev, the Bering Strait has special political relevance today. As the polar ice cap melts and the northern seas become more navigable, it’s expected that the shipping industry will route ever more cargo carriers through the strait rather than the Panama Canal. Russian president Vladimir Putin is intent on shoring up control of the region. Since 2015, Russia has opened or reopened about 50 military bases in the Arctic as NATO has stepped up military exercises and troop deployments in the Norwegian Arctic.

In the spring of 1945, as the Minakovs set out in their kayak, the Bering Strait was already shot through with a certain political chill. During World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union were technically allies. Indeed, Washington gave the Soviets $11.3 billion—$180 billion in today’s dollars—and shipped them a total of 14,000 aircraft, usually via the strait. But the alliance was far from friendly. In 1940, Franklin Roosevelt called Stalin’s government a “dictatorship as absolute as any other dictatorship in the world.” Later, he likened his liaison with the Soviet leader to holding hands with the devil. For his part, Stalin was already playing hardball on the Bering Strait. When Father Tom Cunningham, a Jesuit missionary in Alaska, had ventured across the frozen strait into Soviet territory to hunt walrus in the late 1930s, soldiers seized him at gunpoint.

Valeri hoped to evade capture by threading the needle of Arctic weather. June was still cold enough that most military planes were grounded at ice-encrusted airports. The melting strait was a tangle of seawater and ice floes that made it all but impossible for the pilots of seaplanes to find a surface to land. The myriad boats moored in Soviet harbors were hemmed in by ice, incapable of getting out to sea quickly. The only craft the military could use to chase Valeri and Oleg were six small whaleboats. Valeri knew about the fleet because of his job in the navy; in the days leading up to his escape, he’d disabled the engine on each boat.

Still, once he and Oleg were out on the water, Valeri kept his guard up. About five miles into their journey, the Minakovs saw two Chukchi out on the ice, hunting seals. The men called to Valeri, and he responded by firing two gunshots, exactly as he would have if he too were hunting. From there Valeri navigated the shallow waters over the Banka Bruks reef and turned due east. Valeri didn’t know much about America, but he knew where he wanted to land. Nome was a bad idea; Russian military personnel abounded there. But to the south of Nome, near the mouth of the Yukon River, he’d heard that there was a community of Russian families who’d immigrated to mainland Alaska from the Aleutian Islands. His hope was that they’d welcome him and his son.

At about 11 a.m. on the Minakovs’ first morning at sea, a Soviet sailing ship, a ketch, suddenly appeared behind the kayak. It was following them, and closing in. The ship wasn’t near enough for Oleg to see the men on deck, but he figured that he and his father might be shot at. Valeri decided that their best hopes lay in deception. He turned off the kayak’s engine and held up his hands, feigning surrender. As the ship neared the Minakovs, Valeri reached for some twine that he’d knotted around a stick of dynamite, which is waterproof. He lit the fuse, dropped the dynamite into the sea, and surreptitiously paid the twine out behind the boat until the explosive was positioned somewhere between the Minakovs and their would-be captors.

The dynamite blew up when the ketch was about 100 yards from the kayak. The explosion was loud, and the Minakovs’ pursuers paused. Maybe, Oleg thought, the men feared that they’d encountered an ocean minefield. Even at six, he knew about underwater bombs.

Valeri cut south, into the wind, hoping that the Soviet sailboat would be incapable of following. Waves crashed against the kayak. Valeri and Oleg could see the ketch’s sails—the Soviets were giving chase. Valeri needed speed, so he opened the engine’s throttle and did what he could to lighten the kayak’s load. He threw overboard a pump for draining seawater. He also tossed the jug of drinking water. It was an outrageous move. Surely he knew that he and Oleg could die out on the ocean without any fresh water. But Valeri’s fear of being caught was greater than his fear of fatal dehydration.

Soon the Minakovs had the advantage: The sea became thick with floating spires of ice, and the nimble kayak was able to navigate the obstacle course far better than the ketch. Then came more luck. The wind subsided and a thick fog rolled in, shrouding the ocean and mercifully affording the Minakovs cover. Still, the fog obliged them to slow down lest they slam into an ice floe. In the middle of the sea, another bent propeller could seal their fate. Oleg crouched in the bow, afraid each time the boat came close to a chunk of ice.

Given the circumstances, Valeri adjusted his plan; instead of aiming for the mouth of the Yukon River, he resolved to land in the middle of the strait, on Saint Lawrence Island. Ninety miles long, the island sits on the Alaskan side of the Ice Curtain. At the time, it was home to about 600 people, nearly all of them Native Yupiks.

Before alighting on Saint Lawrence, Valeri stopped at a small, rocky isle nearby. He took out a green tin teapot and filled it with seagull eggs that he found in the crevices between rocks. He would give them as a gift when he and Oleg reached the Yupik settlement. Across the water on Saint Lawrence, four islanders were watching Valeri and Oleg closely. A pair of pale-skinned strangers washing up onshore was a suspect occurrence. The islanders may have feared that the Minakovs were agents of what the U.S. had increasingly come to view as an evil empire. That spring, in the wake of Germany’s surrender, America’s tenuous pact with the Soviet Union had begun unraveling. In June, The New York Times’ military editor, Hanson W. Baldwin, described Soviet foreign policy as “brusque, hard, aggressive, and ruthless.” The Minakovs had steered toward Saint Lawrence at a moment of heightened border security. The United States was also fearful that the Japanese, who had yet to lay down their arms, would invade Alaska to plunder its abundant deposits of platinum, a metal used to make explosives. In more than 100 communities along mainland and island coastlines, volunteer defense squads, many of them Native, stood at the ready, trained and armed by the U.S. military.

The Territorial Guard on Saint Lawrence was almost entirely Yupik. Their base was in the village of Savoonga, and that’s where the Minakovs landed near midnight, some 20 hours after embarking on their journey. Valeri presented his seagull eggs to the guardsmen and managed to pantomime his hatred for Stalin. He also made it clear that if they tried to send him back to Chukotka, he would shoot Oleg and then kill himself.

A schoolteacher named Frank Daugherty was at home in Saint Lawrence’s biggest village, Gambell, on duty as a dispatcher for the Territorial Guard, when news of the Minakovs’ landing crackled over his shortwave radio. Daugherty quickly sent a boat to escort them to Gambell. The journey to Savoonga was 60 miles, over rough seas, and by the time the boat arrived, Oleg was already winning hearts and minds. “The boy wore boots, a winter hat and a sheepskin-lined coat,” Daugherty later wrote in a story for Alaska magazine. “[He] had adjusted quickly and was leading Savoonga youngsters in play.”

Remembering Valeri’s threat, though, the guardsmen exercised caution, separating father and son for the journey back to Gambell. Valeri navigated his own kayak, and Oleg traveled with Dave Evanson, a 24-year-old National Weather Service forecaster from North Dakota who moved to Alaska in 1940, grew his hair out, and spent his off hours making anthropological films of the area. After a full day at sea, some 12 miles shy of Gambell, Evanson beached at a place known as Lester’s Camp for supplies. As he tried shoving the boat back into the water, a large wave upturned it, and Evanson was thrown into the sea. “I dragged him out of the water and pulled him onto the shore,” Oleg later said.

Evanson was capable enough—as a kid, he’d made balsa-wood planes that he flew out of the hayloft in his family’s barn. Now, though, the boat’s engine was drenched, possibly ruined. It couldn’t make the rest of the trip to Gambell. Oleg and Evanson had no way of telling anyone where they were.

There was a shack on the beach where Evanson tried to persuade Oleg to keep warm beneath the reindeer-skin blankets. Oleg refused. Evanson offered the boy sardines. Oleg refused those too, but eventually ate some crackers. For several days and nights, the pair slept on sacks of flour and subsisted on canned food. “We didn’t communicate very much,” Oleg recalled. “I was pretty much on my own.”

Still, Oleg wasn’t scared. He’d been in difficult situations before. “I knew that my papa would eventually come rescue me,” he said. While he waited, Oleg walked on the beach for hours alone.

Sometimes the hum of a U.S. Navy seaplane reached the shack. “We thought someone was looking for us, but we couldn’t see them,” Oleg said. “Every day it was foggy.” One pilot spotted Evanson’s boat, but he couldn’t land—the seas were too rough.

In Gambell, residents were so worried about the fate of Evanson and Oleg that the local Presbyterian church hosted a prayer circle. Valeri had made it to the village, where he was staying with Frank Daugherty. He didn’t know if his son was alive or dead, and he was stressed about his own fate. When Daugherty offered to help return the Minakovs to Chukotka, Valeri responded by writing an imploring note. In the Soviet Union, he pointed out, Oleg would encounter trials worse than “the black forces of hell.” Valeri pleaded, “We could receive life from your hands. Do not turn us over to the state, but rather let us go all the four directions. You can do this.” Eventually, the ocean calmed enough that several Gambell residents were able to make it to Lester’s Camp in a skin kayak, a larger version of the one the Minakovs had made their escape in. They retrieved Evanson and Oleg, and brought the boy to his father. By then, Valeri’s plea for compassion had swayed Daughtery. He helped the Soviet defector apply to the U.S. State Department for asylum.

“We could receive life from your hands. Do not turn us over to the state, but rather let us go all the four directions.

On July 4, 1945, Oleg watched in awe as brave Yupik children marked Independence Day by jumping into the freezing ocean, swimming in the narrow channels of water churning between towers of ice. He went to a feast, took a bite of whale blubber, and vomited.

Valeri, too, exulted in the joys of living in a free and prosperous country. When he laid eyes upon the Daughertys’ porcelain bathtub, he exclaimed, “A-may-rika! A-may-rika!”

But then, on July 12, a ship appeared on the horizon, approaching Gambell, Daugherty wrote, “from the direction of the Russian naval base at Provideniya Bay.” Daugherty hid Valeri in a closet. Oleg was outside playing. Instinctively, he knew that he needed to hide. He ran behind an abandoned building and found a bin with a wooden lid. It was half full of coal. He climbed in, then piled coal atop his head.

The Soviet soldiers’ search was brief—their ship anchored for only a few minutes—but Oleg remained in the coal bin for hours. Several people lifted the lid, but Oleg stayed utterly quiet. At last, Daugherty burrowed down into the bin and found Oleg. He wrote, “Seeing that youngster’s face, I knew the real meaning of bone-chilling fear.”

Still, another threat faced the Minakovs. A week earlier, a U.S. military plane had landed on Saint Lawrence carrying three Army intelligence officers, a Russian interpreter, and an FBI agent. The team would spend three weeks investigating the Minakovs, with the principal mission of interrogating Valeri. They questioned him backward and forward to determine if he was a spy.

The FBI’s file on the Minakovs, which runs to more than 350 pages and is now declassified, reveals that as Valeri told the story of his Bering Strait crossing, his interlocutors decided he wasn’t being “cooperative.” They doubted that an experienced seaman who worked for the Soviet navy would be so rash as to throw his drinking water overboard. They told Valeri that they didn’t believe him. “He was permitted,” the FBI papers read, “to return to his room where for about an hour he walked the floor continuously and appeared to be worrying about something.”

On July 25, the Army plane carried the Minakovs to Anchorage, where the interrogations continued. From there they were flown to Seattle, and briefly detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Oleg recalled being kept in “a small room split in two by a chain-link fence that didn’t quite reach the ceiling. My papa was taken away each morning for questioning, and I’d climb over the gap in the fence, then across to a window well, and spend hours looking out onto the traffic below.

“I didn’t know why I was in jail,” Oleg continued, “and my papa, he’d just walk back and forth in the room gnashing his teeth and smoking cigarettes. He was in his own world.”

PART TWO

Ultimately, according to the FBI file, the “investigation revealed no indication that Subject is an espionage agent.” Not only had the Minakovs survived a perilous journey, they now had a new home: They were permanent residents of the United States.

From the start, Valeri felt like an outsider, especially as he mingled with Seattle’s sizable Russian community. In an August 16, 1945, letter to Frank Daugherty, Valeri said he hoped, working from a distance, that he could help to sink Stalin and his cronies. “I thought that there was a better chance outside the Russian borders,” Valeri wrote, “to work against this Beast which calls itself the Party.” But he was dismayed to find that other Russians in his midst weren’t as concerned with Stalin’s abuses. “The majority of Russians here have lost their identity,” he told Daugherty, referring to their pre-Soviet heritage. “They represent a very convenient material from the midst of which the Bolsheviks may enlist many agents for their dark deeds.”

There was one Russian in Seattle whom Valeri liked: Michael Danilchik, a middle-aged priest at a Russian Orthodox Church called St. Nicholas. Danilchik had overseen the construction of a magnificent cathedral crowned by five gilded domes, and he was a staunch anti-communist—a “rabid monarchist,” as Valeri put it in his letter to Daugherty. When St. Nicholas opened in 1937, Danilchik designated it, according to the church’s website, a “memorial to the martyred Tsar Nicholas II,” killed by Bolshevik revolutionaries in 1918, and to “his Royal Family and all the Russian soldiers and people who died defending their faith, tsar and country.”

Danilchik believed that Orthodox leaders in Russia had lost their way, consorting with godless Communists, and he was intent on sustaining a proud Orthodox community in Seattle. He helped many Russian newcomers settle in the city, including Valeri. “He is a kindly man,” Valeri wrote to Daugherty. “He took me to his house … and found me a job.” Valeri worked as a mechanic in a garage.

But Valeri was not destined to stay long at the $1.38-an-hour gig. Daugherty had a sister who lived 180 miles southeast of Seattle, in Washington’s dry, sparsely populated wheat country. Mabel Upton ran a Seventh Day Adventist nursing home out of her house in the tiny town of Mabton. She and her husband, William, invited the Minakovs to stay for a while. The seemingly endless fields around the Uptons’ place bore similarities to Valeri’s native Ukraine. So the Minakovs moved out there, and Valeri, who spoke almost no English, landed a succession of low-paying jobs—as a farmhand, for instance, and as a maintenance man pruning trees that obstructed electrical wires.

What Valeri couldn’t account for in deciding to move was how Danilchik, the priest, would react. Secretly, Danilchik was an FBI informant. In 1948, he advised the FBI to keep a close watch on Valeri—his basement apartment at the Uptons’ was close to the Hanford Site, home of the world’s first full-scale plutonium reactor.

The FBI was by now a large and powerful operation. Its roster of secret agents had quintupled between 1940 and 1945, and they were focused on disrupting a robust network of Soviet spies infiltrating the American military-industrial complex, where they could take notes on U.S. war plans, airplane manufacturing, and radar use. But “the number one objective of Soviet espionage,” according to a 1945 report by the FBI, was nuclear-bomb construction.

Was Valeri complicit in this covert effort? He’d moved out to Mabton “without any apparent good reason,” according to FBI records, and he was odd and nervous. Though the agency had no evidence that Valeri was engaged in espionage, paranoia was in the air. It was during the summer of 1948 that Alger Hiss, a government official, found himself sitting in the U.S. Capitol building, facing interrogation by the House Un-American Activities Committee, which had accused him of being a Soviet spy. 

On July 1, a telephone operator advised the FBI that someone in the Upton home had placed a call to a Russian man named “Civinsky” in Seattle. Adam Tsvinsky would soon become Valeri’s housemate. Quite possibly the two men had discussed how they might split the light bill, but the agency sensed a Bolshevik conspiracy. In mid-August, six federal agents descended on Mabton to track Valeri for four days. From the hayloft of a neighbor’s barn, they recorded his quotidian movements:

8/14/48, 7:05 pm. Subject drove into the yard; got out of car; talked to small boy, possibly his son; both entered house through basement door.

The surveillance log revealed the movements of a lonely man. One night Valeri drove to a movie theater and sat in the back alone, dressed in a dark blue sport coat, a white shirt, brown gabardine slacks, and maroon suede shoes. After the film he went to a bar. “Subject drank one glass of beer,” an agent noted in his report. “Subject was not observed talking to anyone in theater or tavern.”

Amid cresting anti-communist fervor, Valeri’s neighbors seemed more than happy to facilitate the FBI’s furtive sniffing. They offered the agents housing, supplied them with roosts for spying, and shared everything they knew about Valeri’s incoming mail. Even Frank Daugherty handed over to the bureau the heartfelt letters Valeri had written to him on Saint Lawrence.

It’s unlikely Valeri knew of these betrayals, but as the FBI trailed his 1938 Oldsmobile Tudor, he drove as though he was aware of—and perhaps haunted by—his observers. “On one occasion,” the report noted, he “pulled off to the side and parked his car ninety degrees to the highway and appeared to be observing the passing traffic.” He drove “erratically,” making “many unnecessary turns and changing directions for seemingly no cause.”

Valeri surely sensed the distrust swirling about him. He had survived Stalin’s Russia—he was a connoisseur of paranoia, a man who’d come stateside to escape dark suspicion and ominous innuendo. Now it was descending upon him again, and he could only bear so much.

Amid cresting anti-communist fervor, Valeri’s neighbors seemed more than happy to facilitate the FBI’s furtive sniffing.

In 1949, Valeri told a doctor that bearded men were “coming into his room and hypnotizing him,” according to one medical report. “He thought that people were poisoning his food and that there were tappings in his room all the time.” The Uptons reported that “he would often go outdoors and sit half a day just staring into space.” At times he would cry out, “Evil forces are working against me!”

To Oleg, Valeri described his persecutors as “men in black suits.” Whenever he sensed that they were closing in, he’d direct Oleg to sprint away from him and hide until Valeri felt that the threat was gone. Sometimes Oleg found himself crouched in a meadow or ditch for hours.

On other occasions, Valeri and Oleg went for walks in the Horse Heaven Hills outside Mabton. But they didn’t bond. In fact, father and son could scarcely communicate: Soon after Oleg’s arrival in America, he’d all but forgotten how to speak Russian. Oleg would play by himself in the high grass as Valeri sat a good distance away on a rock, smoking.

There were days when Valeri raved about wanting to return to the Soviet Union to kill Stalin, and others when he became convinced that Stalinist agents were in his orbit. On June 30, 1949, he showed up at the FBI’s Seattle office to insist that Michael Danilchik wasn’t the royalist Orthodox priest he claimed to be, but the leader of a vast conspiracy in which Seattle-based Russians obligingly spied for the Bolsheviks. In April 1950, Valeri visited his old housemate Adam Tsvinsky. He was there, ostensibly, to pick up a lamp and a record player, but he arrived, Tsvinsky wrote to a King County prosecuting attorney, “intending to kill me.” In his letter, which he copied to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, Tsvinsky explained, “In the moment when Minakov lifted his hand to strike me, I succeeded escaping to a neighbour.”

Two months later, Valeri’s search for employment brought him to far eastern Washington. In the town of Ritzville, his car broke down. He abandoned the vehicle and walked toward the nearest farmhouse, carrying “a pipe and a knife,” according to his FBI file. A farmer suspected Valeri was “prowling,” and when the police arrived Valeri insisted that his car had been stolen, though it was sitting nearby. On account of what the FBI called “peculiar behavior,” the police ushered Valeri to the Ritzville jail. There he tore his metal cot from its concrete mooring and rammed it against the cell door repeatedly. He threatened to kill his jailers, and “it took several attendants to subdue him,” according to a record of the incident. The attendants had to use teargas to do so.

Within hours, Valeri was transferred to the Washington State Mental Hospital at Medical Lake, where he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He would reside in the institution for the next 17 years.

There were days when Valeri raved about wanting to return to the Soviet Union to kill Stalin, and others when he became convinced Stalinist agents were in his orbit.

Like many other mental hospitals of that era, Medical Lake was founded on the belief in “moral treatment”—the idea that fresh air and graceful architecture could cure the mentally ill. The waters of the facility’s namesake lake were supposed to be salubrious, but there’s a reason Ken Kesey wrote his 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and why so many state hospitals closed soon after it was published: In the mid-20th century, these institutions became nightmarish places where extreme procedures like lobotomy trumped humane treatment, and where patients were usually presumed defective, degenerate, or dangerous.

When Valeri lived at Medical Lake, there were about 2,000 patients packed into a single overcrowded brick building. Concertina wire sat atop the fences separating residents from the outside world. The lake itself was off-limits, and Valeri’s doctors often refused to let him see visitors, fearing that social contact would be too much for his fragile nerves.

When Danilchik traveled to Medical Lake to see Valeri in 1953, the staff turned him away. And when Oleg accompanied Mabel Upton, by now his foster mother, to the hospital, he was obliged to wait in the car while she checked on Valeri. “I felt guilty that I couldn’t help him,” Oleg said. “I cried a lot.” In 1951, when he was 13, Oleg wrote a letter to Valeri’s doctors asking, “When do you think he’ll be better? Sure is bad you know when you just got one papa and no one else.” He also wrote to his father, but Mabel insisted on editing these letters, to ensure that they contained nothing that would upset Valeri. “This caused me to feel helpless,” Oleg said, “to the point that I did not know what to write.”

At school Oleg got called a “dirty commie.” But he considered himself an American now, and he saw the Cold War through an American lens. With his foster brother, Tommy Upton, he perfected the “Stalin salute,” which involved urinating such that the liquid traced a high arc through the air, a sarcastic homage to Stalin’s round belly.

Oleg grew up to be tall and dashing, with an easy grin. He could strip down and rebuild cars with ease, and would often wheel around in a stylish vehicle—like the 1949 Ford sedan he stole from outside a movie theater one evening. He was gentle and well-liked at school. Girls loved him.

Oleg put almost no effort into his studies. He dropped out of the 11th grade and got in several scrapes with the cops for drinking and joyriding. He was hardworking—whenever the Uptons asked him to help with the harvest or fix the hay baler, he did so eagerly—but he lacked direction and drive. It was as though he were still that kid out on the Bering Strait, bobbing along without any control over where he was headed.

At age 18, a local cop threatened Oleg with trouble unless he joined the Navy. He enlisted but routinely slept through his alarm and was late to muster. Oleg would eventually explain his waywardness by saying, “I wanted freedom, just like my papa.” Still, there was a vacant quality to his life. In his early twenties, Oleg worked in Seattle, making copies at an insurance agency, and hosted huge parties attended by the stylish young women earning their credentials at a local hairstyling school. He got stoned and watched Star Trek on eight TVs at once. Sometimes, when he did drugs, he wept as he thought about Valeri. “He missed his dad,” explained Noelle Barton, a former romantic partner of Oleg’s. “He would talk about his dad all the time. That’s why he became a pothead, I think—to numb that interiority.”

While Oleg drifted, Valeri suffered. “He does not talk very often,” one doctor wrote in 1955. “He is odd and mean and suspicious and from time to time irritable.” A 1956 medical report reads, “It is impossible to tell whether he is delusional.” Another, from 1966, states, “It is doubtful if he could ever qualify for release from the hospital.”

Oleg saw Valeri only once in his adult life. It was 1961, and Oleg found his father locked in a large cage at Medical Lake. Valeri’s manner was subdued, but during the brief visit he seethed at his son, the muscles in his jaws rippling. “Why haven’t you helped me?” Valeri asked. “Why have you done nothing to get me out of this place?” Afterward, the superintendent of the hospital, Harris F. Bunnell, joined a social worker in sending Oleg a letter that blamed him for Valeri’s cool contempt. “It is our feeling,” the two men wrote, “that such a reception was the result of the long time in which he had not heard from you.”

PART THREE

It’s October 2021, and I’m in San Rafael, California, where the weather has been dry for weeks. Parched leaves rustle across the pavement, and a warm breeze brushes the hotel patio where I’m sitting in the sun, finishing lunch. I’m waiting for Oleg Minakov.

In 1966, as the hippie era was blossoming, Oleg emigrated to San Francisco in a pink Lincoln convertible, accompanied by his new wife, a Swede. He has been in California ever since. His first job was as a bouncer at the Red Balloon, a nightclub in North Beach. Later, he procured weed for Carlos Santana, then became the equipment manager for the psychedelic rock band the Charlatans, whose members dressed in the dandyish, late-nineteenth-century style of Oscar Wilde. In time, after divorcing the Swede, he moved into a hippie commune called Olompali. The Grateful Dead visited frequently, and the community’s founder and financier, Don McCoy, once decided, while tripping on acid, that he was a Messiah destined to bring “peace, love, and understanding” to the Western world.

Oleg is 83 now, and over the past six months he and I have been talking over the phone about his Bering Strait crossing and the years that followed. It’s been a slow process. Oleg has Parkinson’s disease, which can affect speech and mobility. Sometimes while talking to me, he’ll halt for a second or two mid-sentence as his synapses steady. He’s forthcoming in our conversations, however, and neither self-aggrandizing nor excessively humble, inclined to answer questions both bluntly and thoughtfully.

“What do you know about your dad’s ancestry?” I asked him once.

“Nothing.”

“You survived Stalin. You survived the Bering Strait. How do you make sense of that?”

“If I were going to write a book about it, I’d call it A Flock of Angels. Because I wouldn’t have made it unless there were a flock of angels taking care of me.”

Today, Oleg is running late for our meeting. It’s a complicated weekend for him. Usually, he lives at the Veterans Home of California in Yountville, 75 minutes north of where I’m staying. But for the past two days he’s been in Marin County visiting a friend: Anna-lisa Smoker, a 58-year-old singer-songwriter with whom he enjoys a deep connection that is at once platonic and stormy. Smoker is busy tonight, so Oleg has booked a room at my hotel. He will be, in effect, under my watch. It’s a decidedly tenuous arrangement.

Oleg seems destined to an old age steeped in uncertainty. His whole life has been unstable. Before his diagnosis, he spent 35 years scraping by as a handyman, building stone walls and fixing cars. He still believes “peyote can make you one with God,” and in 1992 he got caught selling acid, which led to a six-month stay in prison. Julie Lanzarin, his romantic partner from the 1970s through the early nineties, remembers when DEA agents raided their home. “My eight-year-old son, Tahan, had to watch his dad have a gun put to his head,” she told me.

When Smoker finally arrives with Oleg at the hotel in her vintage red Mustang, he is lean and white haired and somewhat stooped. He’s holding his hands out in front of him, protectively, as those with Parkinson’s often do. He has brought a trash bag stuffed with clothes and a large watermelon. We proceed into the hotel, Oleg shuffling along in a pair of very worn moccasin slippers. When we enter his room—the Captain’s Room, it’s called—he rejoices over the skylight and the clawfoot bathtub. “This place is far out!” he exclaims.

It’s hard to convey how much I like Oleg in this moment. Despite his troubles, he speaks with joie de vivre, in the Haight-Ashbury vernacular circa 1967. His life, which has always been the stuff of novels, still seems governed by absurdity. Why, for instance, is he in possession of a watermelon? Why wouldn’t he be, it seems, is the real question. Oleg and I sit down to carve it.

Oleg tells me how, decades ago, as he battled something akin to dyslexia, he devised what he calls an “earth alphabet,” which integrates both Latin and Greek letters and runs to more than 200 characters. Oleg devised it phonetically, to facilitate easy reading, and around 1970 the alphabet afforded him a sliver of fame. Some member of the Grateful Dead—Oleg can’t remember which one—tacked a scroll with the earth alphabet on it to the wall of his home. In 1985, Oleg wrote in an unpublished memoir that he hoped it would “unify the different languages of the earth,” and thereby meet his father’s wish to “prove that there can be one good Russian … who could do something good to make the world a better place to live in.”

Soon, Oleg is singing the earth alphabet for me. He rolls into it by humming theatrically for a full ten seconds, breaking into a jazz scat, and then finally beginning: “Ay east west and go chest…”

When he’s finished, our conversation circles back to Valeri. Oleg zeroes in on the moment at the orphanage when he sat in Stalin’s lap. “In my subconscious awareness, my papa was in back of me that day, like a shadow, observing everything,” he says. “The shadow has always been there. As I’m talking to you, I can visualize him. He’s there, asking that I be a righteous person.”

Oleg regrets his failure to liberate his father from the state hospital. When he was living at the Olompali commune, he tells me, he wanted to bring Valeri there. It was an impractical idea. Olompali, named after a combination of Miwok terms meaning something like “southern village,” was chaotic and often unsafe. In February 1969, the primitive wiring in the commune’s main building caught fire, and the place burned to the ground. That June two preschool girls, unsupervised and riding tricycles at the edge of a swimming pool, fell in and drowned.

Still, as Oleg and I talk, he seems convinced that it would have worked, if only he’d called Medical Lake sooner. “I blame myself for not getting him out of there,” he tells me. “It still breaks my heart.”

At the end of the night, as I’m about to retire to my room, Oleg instructs me to turn on his TV. “I always sleep with it on,” he says. “When it’s off, I think about how I never got my papa out of prison.” There’s a six-inch step up to the bathroom in Oleg’s room, and all night I’m concerned he’ll trip on it. At around 3 a.m., I shamble downstairs to check on him. He’s sleeping soundly, snoring away. The TV is still on.

I’m not the only one charmed by Oleg. Julie Lanzarin remains in his life some three decades after they separated. On my second day in California, she picks me and Oleg up for a dinner outing.

Lanzarin is 63. She was once a high school basketball star; she scored 59 points in a single game. Now she works as a coach at a private school. She is a jaunty and practical person. It was Lanzarin who found Oleg refuge in the Veterans Home, Lanzarin who helped me secure Valeri’s psychiatric records. Valeri’s green teapot—the one in which he collected seagull eggs near Saint Lawrence in 1945—along with Oleg’s immigration papers, sit in Lanzarin’s storage closet.

Oleg and Lanzarin met when she came to Olompali at age ten. Six years later, in 1974, her parents went AWOL—her mother was lost to a religious group, her father to alcohol and a second family in New Mexico. Oleg, a longtime family friend, invited her to live with him. The ensuing romance wasn’t appropriate by any measure—nor was it legal—but what Lanzarin remembers is Oleg’s tender supportiveness. “He took care of me,” she says, “and when I talked about dropping out of school, he pushed me. I didn’t have anybody else.” They were together for more than 15 years.

When Oleg was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, Lanzarin knew that it was her turn to care for him. Now she’s the one who worries. “Look at where he’s ended up,” she says to me one afternoon—meaning, in a nursing home with no family around him.

Lanzarin never met Valeri, of course, but she knows his story, knows that there’s no record of any other little Soviet boy who defected to America via the Bering Strait. “Valeri risked his life to get Oleg to the U.S.,” she says, “and I think he was hoping that his son would become, I don’t know, an engineer. I don’t think that Oleg thinks of himself as that one good Russian.”

The next day, Lanzarin and I drive Oleg back to the Veterans Home in Yountville. Parkinson’s is laying him low. He’s sulky, unresponsive. “I already told you too much,” he says at one point.

As we drive north, Lanzarin is sweet with Oleg, reciting a list of the old cars he’d fixed up for her. “And then there was that Saab that couldn’t go in reverse,” she says.

When we reach Yountville, we make a quick stop so that Lanzarin can help Oleg buy some new moccasins. Oleg is monosyllabic during the process. But there is something charming, I decide, even about his orneriness. It’s skin-deep, and calls to mind a petulant child. Oleg’s ex Noelle Barton summed him up when she told me, “He is a kind, simple person. He’s stubborn, but he has no personal greed, no envy.”

As we drive through downtown Yountville, Oleg keeps brooding, so Lanzarin teases him in tender tones. “Oh Oleg,” she says, “your dad put you in a little kayak and took you to a different country and then disappeared. No wonder you are riddled with problems!”

On the lawn outside the Veterans Home, before Oleg goes inside, Lanzarin gives him a haircut. I watch as his white, wispy locks flutter over the grass in the wind.

When eventually we approach the back entrance to Oleg’s building, he insists on getting himself inside without help. The last time I see him, he is pushing a wheelchair loaded with all his stuff down a long linoleum-floored hallway. He’s weaving a bit, stumbling some in his new moccasins, but still moving forward.

In this manner, the voyage continues.


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