For defectors, life can be lonely
Boston — 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.
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.
As a result of the Yurchenko debacle, the Reagan administration ordered a complete review of the way defectors are handled by the Central Intelligence Agency. Three congressional investigations are also under way -- two in the Senate and one in the House -- as well as an internal CIA inquiry.
But many defectors, such as Matuzok, have only limited usefulness as intelligence sources and don't fall under the care of the CIA once they are in this country. Matuzok was a college intern assigned to the Soviet Embassy in North Korea when he defected.
Matuzok's main concern now is his career. He has taken on a new, somewhat-WASPy name and dresses well above the borderline-Bohemian style popular in Boston intellectual circles.
The Jamestown Foundation's Geimer says most defectors are apprehensive about their new identities -- ``some much more so than others.'' In Matuzok's case, he says, it probably wasn't necessary for him to change his name. When asked about this, Matuzok -- who asked that his new name not be used in this article -- simply replies that he prefers to make it as difficult as possible for Soviet authorities to keep track of him.
Matuzok says the idea to defect grew slowly over several years. He describes himself as a ``very patriotic'' youth, and he was an active member of Komsomol (a Communist Party youth league). But he began to question Soviet policy after the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan and was later ruffled by the sudden about-face in Soviet propaganda that followed the Carter administration boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games.
``We were always told that the Olympics were a stage on which the superiority of our system over the West was to be demonstrated. Then came the boycott, and suddenly we were told sport had nothing to do with politics.'' The Carter administration boycotted the 1980 games to protest the Soviet invasion.
Matuzok is still not comfortable talking about the events of Nov. 23, 1984. That was the day he joined a tour to the truce village inside the no-man's-land separating the Korean Peninsula. The uninhabited village, where hundreds of military and government meetings have taken place over the years, is patrolled by North Koreans and by US and South Korean forces.
Matuzok's dash to freedom sparked a serious international incident, in which North Korean officials accused South Korean and American troops of ``kidnapping'' the young student.
He was given a short debriefing in Seoul, then turned over to the UN High Commissioner on Refugees, which made arrangements for him to be resettled in the US under the sponsorship of the International Rescue Committee, an organization that helps to resettle refugees in Western countries.
Soviet officials repeatedly sent messages to Matuzok through the US State Department during his first months in the US. Each time, he says, they tried different lures to pull him into meeting with them: a cassette from his mother and sister had ``just arrived from home''; they could help him reclaim the possessions he left behind in North Korea when he defected. Each time, he refused.
He moved to Boston to enroll in an English-as-a-second-language program. At the end of this -- with his English greatly improved -- he took a job in the maintenance department of a large Boston hotel ``fixing vacuum cleaners, painting things, everything.'' At the same time, he began studying in a technical school. Today he is a special student at a Boston-area university, where he is taking courses on US military policy and China.
He smiles broadly when asked what made him choose this country to make his new home. Sitting forward in his chair, he says simply, ``After all, this is still America.''