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For defectors, life can be lonely

By Timothy AeppelStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 5, 1986


VASILY Matuzok drops a cassette of his favorite Russian rock group into the stereo unit on the floor. Music jars the cluttered study -- where textbooks compete for space alongside icons of 1980s-style prosperity: a home computer and a telephone answering machine.

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Vasily finally feels at home.

But it wasn't easy. Mr. Matuzok (who now uses another name) is the young Russian who attained fleeting notoriety in November 1984 when he defected to the West by dashing across the border at the Panmunjom truce village between North and South Korea -- under a hail of bullets that left four soldiers dead. Like many other defectors, he arrived in the United States without friends and with only a vague notion of how to function in his adopted land.

At first, says Matuzok, he felt ``isolated and alone'' in the US. Unlike 'emigr'es, who move to the West with the (sometimes grudging) approval of their government, defectors leave their country without telling authorities. Often, they do not even risk telling their immediate families about their plans.

Once they are in the West, there is seldom a community to which defectors can easily attach themselves, says Matuzok. Many immigrants, ``even Soviet Jewish 'emigr'es, find whole neighborhoods of fellow countrymen in place when they arrive -- that must help them.''

Soviet defectors do not necessarily assist one another. Many assume new identities and drop from sight, while others actively avoid contact with fellow defectors. There is a degree of mistrust among the group, explains Matuzok, because some of them might be what he calls ``false defectors'' -- those who defect for the purpose of becoming Soviet agents in the West.

The result: Many defectors arrive in the West unprepared for the challenges they will face.

``There was so much to learn, even how to buy groceries,'' says Matuzok, breaking into a broad smile. ``But I was fortunate, because I could speak the language.''

He was also determined and hardworking -- other qualities that helped him succeed. Matuzok now has a good job, studies part-time, and says he feels at peace.

For many defectors from the East bloc, the transition is not a smooth one. Experts say some find it difficult to adjust to the fast pace of Western society. Many are daunted by the array of choices that must be made -- such as the selection of housing and jobs -- choices that are made by central authorities in many East-bloc countries. ``It's a nice feeling to suddenly realize you can do what you want, but at first it's very confusing,'' says Matuzok.

In some cases, talented diplomats and intelligence agents find themselves unable to transfer their skills to their adopted land.

``If you're the No. 2 man at the Czech embassy, what do you do here?'' asks William Geimer, director of the nonprofit Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C., which seeks out and assists defectors who are intellectually gifted but may be having difficulties adjusting. He has studied the plight of defectors and helped many of them make a new start in the US.

Mr. Geimer says that unlike professional dancers or athletes -- who find it easy to transfer their skills across the ideological barrier -- defectors who formerly held positions in government or the armed forces find it virtually impossible to continue working in the same field once in the West.

Academics also sometimes have difficulty, he says, especially when they are not fluent in English.

The redefection last year of Vitaly Yurchenko, a top KGB official, followed by the abortive attempt of a young Soviet sailor to jump ship in New Orleans, has raised nettling questions about how the US deals with defectors.