Bill Donahue | The Atavist Magazine | February 2022 | 7 minutes (2,029 words)

This is an excerpt from The Atavist‘s issue no. 124, “The Voyagers.”

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.

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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.