How far would you go for freedom? Would you betray your own countrymen? Risk life and limb? Bake a cake?
Although it’s going to be hard to believe, a Soviet fighter pilot checked “all of the above” on his list of things to do before defecting to the United States- and the tale is so bizarre, it couldn’t be made up.
Born in 1961, Captain Alexander Mikhailovich Zuyev was a man with a lot of weight on his shoulders in the final years of the Soviet Union. Between a strained relationship with his wife (who was the daughter of the Air Division Chief-of-staff), a rejection letter from test pilot school and personal doubts about the Soviet Union’s communist system, he felt trapped and yearned to seek freer skies.
Zuyev had grown up a communist, raised by the system to be the model example of where a Soviet could go in life. Married to a high-profile woman and a top pilot in the MiG-29 Fulcrum, life was good- at least until he started to better understand the system itself.
In 1983, the Soviet Union shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007, killing all 269 passengers aboard, including U.S. Congressman Larry McDonald. The Soviets not only initially denied shooting down the aircraft, and even sent trawler ships to scatter the wreckage in the Sea of Japan before sending divers. Later, the Soviets would claim the aircraft was misidentified as a U.S. surveillance plane.
Two years after the incident, Zuyev was informed by his friend -a radar technician- that Arctic gales had knocked out the radar on the Kamchatka Peninsula, and that local officials had lied to Moscow, claiming the radar was fixed.
“Some people lied to Moscow, trying to save their ass,” Zuyev would later say of the incident.
Zuyev also learned that the public evacuation of children from the towns affected by the Chernobyl reactor meltdown incident was delayed two weeks, while prominent party members and their families were allowed to flee within 48 hours.
“How would you feel?” he later said. “Would you feel like this is a fair system? Would you feel like you would be happy to defend this system?”
The final straw for Captain Zuyev, however, came with the Tbilisi Massacre, when 21 civilians in Soviet Georgia were killed by Soviet troops after they had staged an anti-Soviet protest.
“They were peaceful demonstrators,” he said. “I was shocked to the depths of my soul, by the brutal slaughter that the army inflicted on the defenseless people.”
When Zuyev was told he and his fellow pilots may be used against future demonstrations, he knew he didn’t have much time- he decided to embark on a very difficult, if not impossible, flight to defect to the United States through Turkey.
“I didn’t want to kill my people,” he said. “I was trained to defend them, but not to kill.”
Zuyev knew that if he tried to escape, his fellow pilots would probably try to shoot him down. To combat this, he baked a strawberry cake laced with tranquilizers and made up a story about his wife being pregnant to give them an excuse to celebrate.
“I decided to use a strawberry cake,” he said.
With all eighteen of his fellow pilots heavily sedated (so much so that they all had to be hospitalized afterward), Zuyev cut the telephone lines and made his way to the hangar, where he would take down a guard and take off with one of the stored MiG-29s.
However, he met his match at the hangar, in the form of a guard- a mechanic that Zuyev told he would relieve due to his “relief being late.”
The guard returned after finding the others asleep and confronted Zuyev.
“When I was in school, I was a wrestler,” he said. “Once, I won the championship. I was pretty confident that it would be so easy to tie him up. You won’t believe it but he was a wrestler too. He was pretty good.”
The two fought on the ground for some time before exchanging shots, with Zuyev hitting the guard several times and getting shot in the shoulder in the process.
Zuyev scrambled to the jet and attempted to start it, but nothing happened. At this moment, he was afraid that he would be shot for trying to desert.
“I thought, ‘This is it, this is really the end of my life,’” he later said.
Telling himself to “chill out,” he slowly began the start-up process once more and managed to take off.
Now airborne, Zuyev weaved low and fast between forests, hills, friendly airbases and an extensive air defense network before flying around 150 miles across the Black Sea.
As Turkish territories closed in on him, he landed the plane in Trabzon. When he stopped the aircraft on the tarmac, he waited for some time before a lone guard came out to see what was going on.
Zuyev’s first words were “Finally, I- an American!” In later interviews, he said those were the only words he knew how to say.
Fortunately, the guard spoke English and smiled with relief.
Zuyev was handed over to the United States, while his aircraft was returned to the Soviet Union. Naturally, the US wasn’t too happy about this, but the Turkish government wanted no trouble with its neighbors across the Black Sea.
Zuyev began working for the CIA and Department of Defense, and later revealed to the world the truth about KAL Flight 007.
Eventually, Zuyev settled down in San Diego, California. He was killed in a plane crash in 2001.
This article by Andy Wolf originally appeared at War is Boring in 2019.