Wife, two kids, house in the suburbs of Chicago, job as an office manager for the last 20 years. The life of Volodymyr, or Walter, Polovchak sounds like a completely ordinary existence of a Midwestern American.
But rewind nearly 40 years and Mr. Polovchak was at the center of a Cold War row after he refused at the age of 12 to return to his home in Soviet Ukraine, won over by the freedoms and opportunities he discovered during a family trip to the United States.
To Washington at the time, he was the “youngest Soviet defector.” To the Kremlin, he was a “hostage” along with his older sister, Natalia, who also balked at returning to the Soviet Union. Mr. Polovchak was soon caught up in a media frenzy, an accidental pawn in the struggle between Washington and Moscow.
“Yes, there was the Cold War then, but I didn’t understand that or care about it. I wanted to stay here. I had lived in the Soviet Union for 12 years and I saw what life was like there and the opportunities it offered,” says Mr. Polovchak in an interview with RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service from his home in Chicago.
“Here I saw that you can go to church and no one will persecute you for that, like in Ukraine,” Mr. Polovchak, now nearly 50, says of his first impressions of 1980s America. “If you want to move from one place to another, there’s no need for any state permission.”
Dazzled by choice
Like others who escaped from behind the Iron Curtain, he was also dazzled by the cornucopia of consumer goods in the West.
“We went to the store, and you could buy everything. I had never seen anything like that in my life,” he recalls. “In Ukraine I saw how people waited in line for bread for two hours! There was nothing.”
Mr. Polovchak moved to the United States in 1980 along with his parents, older sister, and younger brother. Originally from Sambir, near Lviv, they settled in Chicago, where relatives lived.
However, U.S. life didn’t sit well with his father, who soon decided he wanted to return home alone to the USSR.
The Kremlin didn’t think that added up.
“They said, ‘You brought your family over, you will return with your family,’” explains Mr. Polovchak.
While Volodymyr’s mother was resigned to the idea, he and his sister, Natalia, who was 17 at the time, didn’t want to budge.
“I tried to talk to my dad: ‘Give the country a chance. Let’s see how it all works out. We already knew what awaited us in Ukraine, the Soviet Union,” Mr. Polovchak explains.
But it was no use, Mr. Polovchak’s father couldn’t be convinced.
“We never understood why he wanted to go back. He didn’t like it here. He was a simple man, worked as a bus driver, and was unable to get used to life here. It was difficult in the sense that he did not speak English, had to start from the very beginning,” explains Mr. Polovchak.
So, one night, he and Natalia just quietly slipped out of the house and stayed with a nearby cousin.
Police soon tracked them down and took them in. At the police precinct, officers scrambled to locate a translator to break the communications barrier, eventually settling on a Polish-speaker.
“I tried to explain to her that if I go back to my parents, they will take me out of the country,” Mr. Polovchak recalls.
He says that during the six to eight hours there, officers tried to get him to sign documents but he refused, fearing it would lead to his deportation.
Local TV were tipped off that a would-be defector was being held there, and sent down a reporting team, sparking what would become a media circus not only in the United States, but in the USSR as well.
“In the Soviet Union, they were already saying that I had been abducted, that I had been enticed with “a bicycle and Jell-O,” explains Mr. Polovchak, referring to an American gelatin treat.
The matter soon moved to the courts, with Volodymyr essentially suing his parents.
His lawyers argued that his life would be in danger back in the Soviet Union. The parents claimed that Volodymyr and Natalia had been kidnapped, the version of events spun by the Soviets, including TASS.
In the end, a U.S. court granted Volodymyr temporary refuge as a juvenile. In 1985, when he turned 18, Volodymyr was sworn in as a U.S. citizen, following in the footsteps of his sister Natalia, who given her age had ended her court ordeal much earlier.
In 1988, he told his story in an autobiographical book, “Freedom’s Child,” co-written with Kevin Klose, a former Washington Post Moscow bureau chief as well as a former president of RFE/RL.
For years he was estranged from his parents and cut off from his homeland until the Soviet Union collapsed and Ukraine gained its independence.
“I came [to Ukraine] for the first time in 1993. I started speaking again with my parents. And since then I have traveled to Ukraine nearly every two years,” he says. “I knew that my mother always regretted that she went back. Dad, just before he died, also admitted he had made a mistake.”
Mr. Polovchak still closely monitors events in Ukraine, devouring all the information he can find in print or on TV. “I want Ukraine to be independent so that the people have the freedom and opportunities such as we have in America.”
And for those Ukrainians frustrated by the slow pace of change, Mr. Polovchak has a message of hope.
“Since I began to travel to Ukraine in 1993, I’ve seen big changes,” he says. “Life there has become better for the people. People living in Ukraine may not agree with this; of course, everyone wants a lot more. But to have a better life, a lot of time is needed. But I believe that Ukraine is now heading in the right direction.”
Written by Tony Wesolowsky based on reporting by RFE/RL Ukrainian Service correspondent Olena Removska.
Copyright 2018, RFE/RL Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington DC 20036; www.rferl.org (see https://www.rferl.org/a/ukraine-polovchak-youngest-soviet-defector-/28961417.html).