The term “defector” appeared in the Soviet Union during the Cold War and came into use as a sarcastic stigma for people who have left the country of the socialism for the sake of life in capitalism. In those days, this word was akin to anathema, and the relatives of the “defectors” who remained in a happy socialist society were also persecuted. The reasons that pushed people to break through the “Iron Curtain” were different, and their fates also developed in different ways.
In 1974, the most daring and famous escape from the USSR took place. Ocean scientist Stanislav Kurilov jumped overboard from a passenger liner in the Pacific Ocean and swam over a hundred kilometres to the Philippine Island of Siargao. Without food or water, the future “Soviet defector” spent three nights and two days in the ocean. His story is often called one of the most striking adventures of the 20-th century.
Stanislav Kurilov, known to his friends as Slava Kurilov, was born in Vladikavkaz (Ordzhonikidze) USSR in 1936. He had an older sister and a younger brother and spent his childhood in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan. From the very beginning, Kurilov’s relationship with the sea was mystical. Kurilov literally raved about the oceans since he was a kid. According to the recollections of relatives, even his first word was “water”. Despite his mother’s disapproval of his swimming hobby, he had never parted with his dream. He secretly learned to swim and at the age of ten, he managed to swim across one of the big rivers in Asia, the Irtysh. After school, he tried to get a job in the Baltic Fleet as a cabin boy. He wanted to become sailor and tried to enrol into a seamen college, but his eyesight let him down. Hence, he had to settle for Leningrad Meteorological Institute. During his studies, he mastered scuba diving. Having received the specialty “oceanography”, he worked at the Institute of Oceanology of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, participated in the creation of the underwater research laboratory “Chernomor”, also worked as an instructor at the Institute of Marine Biology in Vladivostok.
As a student, Kurilov began to actively participate in yoga behind closed door as yoga was frowned upon in the USSR. He practiced asceticism and engaged in a special breathing exercise. With many years of practice, he finally achieved the highest levels of consciousness and come up with extraordinary physical abilities.
Stanislav Kurilov was planning to become a world expert as an oceanographer when Jacques Yves Cousteau himself showed interest in the scientific research of Soviet scientists. The famous French sea explorer wanted to invite Kurilov and his colleagues on a joint expedition across the Pacific to Tunisia. To leave the country, Kurilov needed to get an internal exit visa from the USSR. It was a positive description of oneself, signed by all the party bosses, from the secretaries of the party committees to the district committee of the Communist Party. If the commission decided that the person intends to emigrate, they would be banned from a specific trip at best or would be barred from leaving the country at worst. However, Kurilov’s hope for an exit visa got a refusal as well as a permanent non-departure mark in his personal file for life. The reason for the rejection was because he had relatives abroad and Soviet officials feared that Kurilov might not return to the country. His older sister, Angela, married an Indian years ago and moved to Canada. All Kurilov potential future expeditions outside of the USSR were banned till his death.
Having lost all hope of legal immigration, Stanislav Kurilov decided to run. He bought a tour following an ad in a Soviet newspaper, advertising a sea cruise called “From winter to summer.” The cruise ship “Soviet Union” left on December 8 while picking up its passengers in Vladivostok, Far East and carried them to the equator. Kurilov would not need any visas or even passport as the ship only sailed to equator and back and did not make any calls to ports.
On the ship, Kurilov studied a map of the ship’s route with dates and coordinates before realizing that he would have the chance to escape when the ship would pass by the Philippine Island of Siargao. He also learned about the constellations of the southern hemisphere, along which he could navigate. At Sea, in stormy weather, deep in the night of December 13, 1974, Kurilov jumped from a height of 14 meters of the stern of the ship into the water completely unnoticed. There, in the gap between the hydrofoils and the propeller, was the only gap that he could have survived. He later wrote on his autobiography that even if he ended in death, he would still be the winner.
Once in the water, Kurilov put on Flippers, gloves, and a snorkel before swam away from the liner. Most of all, he feared that the liner would return, and he would be taken aboard. In fact, in the morning the ship did return, they searched for Kurilov, but could not find him. Surviving rain, storm, prolonged dehydration, and the strong currents, Kurilov swam in shark-infested waters in the Philippine Sea until he did not feel his legs, periodically lost consciousness, and saw hallucinations. By the evening of the second day, he noticed the land in front of him, but could not reach it: he was carried away by a strong current to the south. Fortunately, the same current carried him to the reef on the southern coast of the island. With the waves of the surf, he overcame the reef in the dark, swam in the lagoon for another hour, and on December 15, 1974, he reached the coast of Siargao Island in the Philippines.
Kurilov was picked up by local fishermen who reported him to the authorities. He was then arrested for illegally crossing the border and spent almost a year in a local prison but enjoyed great freedom. Unlike other prisoners, the head of the prison let him go for walks around the city, and sometimes he himself invited Kurilov to one of the nearby bars. During this time his sister hired good lawyers and managed to obtain official refugee status for him. Almost immediately after that, Kurilov left the Philippines and went to Canada. There he first worked in a pizzeria, and then in organizations engaged in marine research. He searched for minerals from the Hawaiians, worked in the Arctic, and studied the ocean at the equator. During the rest of his life, he made several expeditions and published several scientific studies about the oceans. Meanwhile in the USSR, in relation to Stanislav Kurilov, some correspondence was organized a trial, as a result he was sentenced to ten years in prison for treason, but Kurilov did not care.
In 1986 he married and moved to Israel with his wife. Kurilov died on January 29, 1998, while diving to the bottom of Lake Tiverdiad in Israel. Freeing the equipment installed at the bottom together with his partner from the fishing nets, Kurilov got entangled in the nets. According to various versions, he suffocated after using all the air in the cylinders, or his heart simply could not stand it. Kurilov was buried in a small cemetery on the outskirts of Jerusalem. He was 62 years old.
His autobiography “Alone in the Ocean” has been translated into many languages. The book talks about his adventures on finding ways to external and internal freedom on extreme physical and spiritual conditions. The whole world learned about Kurilov as a hero, except for his homeland.