The article has been automatically translated into English by Google Translate from Russian and has not been edited.

He refused to return: what happened to the fate of the youngest defector from the USSR to the USA


Source: Radio Liberty

A 12-year-old Soviet boy refused to return to the USSR against the will of his parents, and US authorities sided with him. Vladimir Polovchak told his story to the publication Radio Liberty.

Chicago. Photo: Shutterstock

In the 1980s, almost all major world media spoke about Vladimir Polovchak, and these publications can still be found on the Internet: a 12-year-old Soviet boy refused to return to the USSR against the will of his parents, and the US authorities took his side. The American press called him “the youngest Soviet defector,” while the Soviet accused Washington of being “being held hostage”. The fate of Vladimir Polovchak was decided in court for several years - until his majority. Radio Liberty's Ukrainian service tracked down the matured defector nearly 38 years after his arrival in the United States.

In 1980, as a little boy, Vladimir Polovchak immigrated to the United States with his family - parents, older sister and younger brother. They came from the city of Sambir in the Lviv region and settled in Chicago, where their relatives lived, but soon his father decided to return to the USSR. Vladimir and his sister Natalia did not want to return. Natalia was then 17 years old. Until adulthood, when she could independently decide where to live, a year remained. But for the fate of Vladimir a real struggle unfolded. The trial, which fell on a new round of the Cold War, got a political tint: not only lawyers fought for the fate of the Soviet boy, but the USA and the USSR.

The family of Vladimir. Screenshot: Archin5000 / YouTube

Vladimir himself insisted that he wanted to stay in America. His lawyers in court argued that the boy was in danger in the Soviet Union. The lawyers for the parents claimed that Vladimir and Natalia were actually kidnapped. This thesis was also disseminated by the Soviet press.

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Ultimately, the court decided to grant Vladimir Polovchak temporary asylum until his majority. In 1985, when Vladimir turned 18, he became a US citizen, and in 1988 his book "Child of Freedom: The Story of a Brave Teenager about Escape from Parents and the Soviet Union to America" ​​was published.

The Radio Liberty archive contains a report on the opening of the Immigration Museum on Ellis Island in New York in November 1990, which was attended by Vladimir Polovchak. At that time, the youngest Soviet defector turned 22 years old, he received higher education and maintained contacts with his sister Natalia, who by that time had married and moved to another city. Both Natalia and Vladimir regularly corresponded with relatives who returned to the Soviet Union. This was then said in an interview by a lawyer of young people, they managed to personally communicate with Vladimir Polovchak only now. Walter Polovchak continues to live in Chicago, now he is 50 years old. He finally told how and why, being a very young boy, he dared to disobey his parents:

“We came to America in 1980. We lived for 4–5 months, but then dad wanted to return to the USSR himself. The Soviet government did not let him back himself: they say, you took out the whole family, so come back with everyone. Then he convinced my mother that she had to go with him and tried to pick us up. My sister Natalia was 17 at the time, and I was a little over 12. Discussions began about getting ready to go home. I tried to convince my dad, saying: “Give this country an opportunity, let's see how everything will work out here”, because we already knew how it was in Ukraine, in the Soviet Union. He retorted: "I'm going to come back and you will come with me." I said that I do not want to return, that I want to be here and give this country a chance, ”Vladimir Polovchak begins his story.

- Did you like it in America then?

“We came here to live, not to rest.” For 4 months it is difficult to understand whether you like it or not: you don’t understand the language, but the country is interesting. Everything was different: we quietly went to church, lived and spoke freely. In the USSR, in Soviet Ukraine, at that time there was no such freedom. I understood this because in Ukraine I had already become a pioneer and went to school there. Dad was very unhappy that I did not want to return. He told me that he would call the police, pay her $ 100, they would tie me up and throw me on a plane. I did not know how the police relate to people in the United States, but I knew that this was entirely possible in Ukraine and the Soviet Union. I got scared and ran away from home.

Vladimir Polovchak and his sister. Photo from an American newspaper. Archin5000 / YouTube

- Why did your father decide to return to the USSR?

- It was a very unusual decision, but we never understood why he decided to return. He didn’t like it here. He was a simple man, worked as a bus driver, could not get used to the local life. It was hard for him, because he did not speak English, it was necessary to start life anew. We had a wonderful family here: aunts, uncles, cousin. They helped us, parents found a job. But at the same time, Dad did not like it at all, he could not stand it. Almost from the first days he said that the USA is not his place to live.

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- Why, from your point of view, did the US authorities decide to help you? You did not think at the time that at the peak of the Cold War you could use both sides?

- Yes, then there was a cold war, but I did not understand this and did not think about it. Just wanted to stay here. By that time I had lived in the Soviet Union for 12 years and understood what life awaited me, what opportunities I had there. Here I saw that you can go to church, and no one is persecuting you for this, as it was in Ukraine at that time. Do you want to move from one place to another? No permission from the state is needed. If it is even easier to explain, then we went to the store, and everything could be bought there. I have never seen such a thing in my life! In Ukraine, people stood in line for two hours for bread! At that time there was nothing in the stores.

And then I realized: if I leave, I will never return here. And I ran away from home. The police arrested me two weeks later at my cousin's house. I didn’t understand anything then, I didn’t know where I was going to, that they would take me to the police station. The police understood the situation as follows: I ran away from home, and I must be given to my parents. I began to explain to them. Nobody spoke Ukrainian, they found some kind of Polish translator. She told me all the time: "You must return to your parents."

I tried to explain to her that if I did this, they would take me away from the country, that I did not want to live with my parents, because I did not want to go back. I stayed at the police station for eight hours, they wanted me to sign some documents, but I decided that I would not sign anything, because I was afraid that they would pick me up. During this time, someone called on television. The police then realized that the point was not that I did not want to live with my parents, but that I did not want them to take me away from the country.

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- You said that you did not know English then. How did you live after your parents left and you were left alone with your sister?

- Very worried. We first lived with a cousin. In the Soviet Union, they started saying that I was allegedly stolen by almost Baptists, that they deceived me, lured me with a rover and Jell-O (moped and sweets. - RS) That is, propaganda has begun. It was very scary because it had never happened before that a 12-year-old child wanted to be left without parents. My sister and I gradually began to understand what happened to us. At that time I had protection from the state, my sister and I were afraid that the KGB would kidnap me and take me out because my business began to take on a political coloring. There were very, very scary times. I am still surprised that everything happened so that I stayed here.

Screenshot: USSR demanded to extradite Vladimir. Archin5000 / YouTube

“Who besides your relatives supported you and your sister in Chicago?” Did the Chicago Ukrainian diaspora help?

- Yes, we had support from the Ukrainian community, the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, and the Baptist. We were helped by our two uncles, a cousin, supported financially, bought food, clothes.

Vladimir Polovchak, 2018. Screenshot: Archin5000 / YouTube

- How do you live now? Have you lived in Chicago all these years? Do you have a family?

- Yes, in a couple of days there will be 38 years, as I am in Chicago, in America. He settled down, learned English fast enough. For some time I did not speak Ukrainian and forgot a little language, but my brother came eight years ago, and we started talking again in Ukrainian.

“How was your sister's life?”

- She got married, she has two daughters, 24 years old and 26 years old. Sister lives in Champaign, also in Illinois, a little over 200 kilometers from Chicago.

- Did you communicate with your parents after you parted with them? Maybe you went to visit them?

- About eight months after it all started, the parents were moved to Washington and from there they flew to Moscow. During the trial, it was very difficult to communicate with them, with the Soviet Union. And eight to ten years - quite a long time - nothing in this sense has changed. Not only because it was expensive to call or because the letter lasted a whole month, the relationship did not bring pleasure. The first time I arrived, when the Soviet Union collapsed and Ukraine became independent, it was in 1993. He began to communicate with his parents. And since then I come to Ukraine about once every two years.

“I read that your parents are already dead.”

“Yes, but my younger sister lives in Ukraine.”

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