Escape by Sea

Neri Livneh
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Neri Livneh

Slava Kurilov's new life began when he dove to freedom from the deck of a 14-meter-high ship into the middle of a stormy ocean in pitch darkness. "I succeeded. I would have succeeded even had I died," he was to write later in his memoirs. There was a great risk that the jump would end in his death, but he felt he had to do it. "I don't have one iota of fear," he wrote about the last seconds before the jump. "It had disappeared a few months earlier, the last time I understood that my homeland was denying me any sense of hope."

Thus, after three consecutive days of swimming in the ocean, covering a distance of about 90 kilometers through waves that reached seven meters, without food or water, Kurilov became the only person to escape the Iron Curtain by swimming. A blue ship and blue waves are painted on Kurilov's white marble gravestone in the Templer cemetery in Jerusalem. The blossoming plants that decorate the grave are cared for by his widow, Lena Gendelev-Kurilov.

Kurilov's second life, which began on December 13, 1974 in the waters of the Pacific, ended on January 29, 1998 in another body of water, Lake Kinneret. It's no joke. The macabre irony was the product of life itself: Kurilov, an oceanographer and diver who worked at the institute for Oceanographic and Limnological Research, dived to a depth of 23 meters at Tabha on Lake Kinneret. Only 19 minutes after the start of the dive he signaled distress to his partner, Yona Bischoff, who pulled him out and into the boat. He arrived on the beach unconscious, and died shortly thereafter. He was 62 years old.

Kurilov's incredible life story fascinated many people, says Lena, and wherever he went people would ask him to tell about the jump and the swim in the ocean, and about the life he led after that. "They would always tell him he had to write that story, and Slava wanted to write it too, but he never really had time to sit and write, so he wrote part of the story, in a journal."

The moving passages from the journal, which skillfully describe Kurilov's physical and emotional journeys, are now being published in a book, "Levad Ba'okyanus" ("Escape in the Ocean")The editor, Gal Kostritza, added chapters of her own in which, ostensibly in Kurilov's language and in the form of a monologue addressed to Lena, there is a description of his last three days in his apartment in Haifa. In this manner, in a construct of memories, Kostritza managed to include details in the book from Kurilov's biography which the scientist did not have time to complete himself.

In spite of its unusual structure, the result, based only on biographical details, is captivating and unforgettable. It's hard to remain indifferent to a man who was like a dolphin. A prisoner in his homeland Kurilov, though a scientist, leaned toward mysticism and believed in ghosts and life after death. From childhood he trained himself to overcome his fears. Even before the age of 18, he managed to spend nights in the cemetery. He swam across a river at the risk of being torn to peaces by the propellers of a ship.

In the five years preceding his escape, he practiced fasting for long periods of time. One year he fasted for 120 days. Once he fasted for over 30 consecutive days, he says, and people in the street would flee from him in horror. He managed to survive for over a week without drinking, and at other times allowed himself one glass of water a day. He devoted many hours a day, sometimes up to eight hours, to yoga and meditation, even before the escape. "Once in the middle of meditation, after several consecutive hours, he suddenly discovered that he was stuck to the ceiling; that's what he told me," recalls Lena. "I asked him whether he didn't fall as soon as he discovered that, and he told me that he didn't, that he had landed slowly but surely."

These training exercises, which were apparently what saved his life in the ocean, were considered in the Soviet Union as further proof of the fact that Comrade Kurilov was not enough of a Soviet citizen to receive an exit visa. Not that there was a shortage of additional proof. "He spoke excellent English, he had a sister who had married an Indian and lived in Canada, and his father was in a German prison camp in World War II, which was also considered treason." Several times he asked for permission to embark on oceanographic research trips outside the Soviet Union, but was met with refusal. The last time, in the winter of 1974, it was written specifically in his file that he was endangering the security of the Soviet Union.

He understood, he wrote, that "my homeland had sentenced me to life imprisonment through no fault of my own. Until my death I will never see the free world." Another person's spirit might have been broken, but Kurilov felt a marvelous sense of release. He began to run amok. "Like a blind man, as long as I was still alive - I, who had lived my entire life in a country where everyone was always afraid of something - actually felt free now. I wanted to stand in the middle of the city square and do crazy things - break into a wild tribal dance and laugh hysterically in front of everyone. It's a dizzying feeling when the fear is suddenly gone and you feel free from patriotism without gratitude, free from your own boundaries."

Since her husband's death, the beautiful Gendelev-Kurilov has gathered every scrap of paper and notebook he left behind in order to get his book published (she has already published his journal in Russian). Their love story lasted only 11 years. They met by chance at a party and were married in Cyprus on December 13, 1986, the anniversary of Kurilov's jump. They wed only a few weeks after their second meeting, at the bus station in Jerusalem.

Gendelev-Kurilov works as a production assistant and translator for the Israel Broadcasting Authority. She translated her husband's writings into Hebrew and traveled to Russia several times to meet people who had known her husband and find out more about him. Among others, she met Anatoly Mayer, a famous Russian oceanographer with whom Kurilov began his serious diving training in the research group Mayer established at Leningrad State University. Mayer told her that after Kurilov's escape, the ship's captain was dismissed and put on trial for not preventing the desertion.

Kurilov's brother, who has since died, paid for the escape with his career. Kurilov himself was tried in absentia for betraying the homeland and sentenced to 10 years in prison. "That was one of the reasons why, after perestroika, when I asked Slava to travel to Russia with me, he refused. He said that his life in Russia and his past had ended the day he jumped."

Nor did he maintain any contact with his first wife and their son, who was a young child when he fled. He was born in Kazakhstan, in Semiplatinsk, a small town more than a week's drive from the sea. He was the second of three children. From an early age, under the influence of juvenile literature, he dreamed of a life of adventure at sea. His mother died when Kurilov was 15. His father was absent from the house and Kurilov stayed with his grandparents, fleeing to Leningrad in order to fulfill his dream of stowing away on a ship and becoming a deck boy.

But he was caught even before he managed to board the ship. Before he was returned home, he managed to jump into the sea, that blue marvel he was seeing for the first time, and only then, soaking wet, was he sent back to his father's house. Kurilov finished high school and served in the Russian army for over two years. During that period, he eventually revealed, experiments with gas were conducted on him and the other members of his unit. Shortly after his military service he traveled to Leningrad in order to study oceanography. The studies were only theoretical at first and disappointed him. He was already considering dropping out when he saw a notice about a diving group for research purposes being formed by Anatoly Mayer, and decided to join. With this group he traveled every summer to the Black Sea for diving projects.

"Slava thought it was paradise," says Lena. "They lived on the beach, they did yoga, spoke English, the authorities branded them un-Soviet, they looked like free people. The place was near a military base and Slava said that even what was allowed was forbidden." In spite of the praise for Mayer's experiments outside the Soviet Union, the suspicious country refused to allow Mayer and his group to participate in the research trips of the renowned French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. Kurilov, who as preparation for these trips had studied and received a diploma in long-distance navigation, was supposed to be sent to Monaco and afterward to the Pacific Ocean and the tropical islands.

But the authorities decided to break up Mayer's research group, "and we remained in the Soviet Union and read Around the World magazine," he writes. The final refusal was received when he asked for permission to leave the Soviet Union in order to visit his sister; that was when he decided to escape, and this time not as a stowaway. 'This wave will be the last' In late November 1974, Kurilov read a notice in the newspaper about a 21-day pleasure cruise of the ship Soviet Union, which would sail from Vladivostok to the equatorial region, without stopping at any foreign port, and therefore with no need for an exit permit.

Over 1,000 young people registered for the cruise, which was run at first like an army camp, with lists of names and organized groups, each one headed by a commissar. But in short order all this organization fell apart and the trip became "a trip of sleepwalkers, drunk on senses. Everywhere groups of young girls with soft, velvety eyes were floating," he writes. "There were many drunks and they could be seen in almost every corner, embracing freely with inanimate objects." The group of 13 people from Leningrad boarded on December 8. From the moment he boarded, Kurilov began to fast, because an empty stomach is essential to the success of a prolonged swim, he explained in his journal. He made do with only two liters of water a day and made sure to attend the social activities and joint meals, in order not to arouse suspicion. "He engaged in flirtations with three different girls, so that every time one didn't find him she thought he was with the other one," says Gendelev-Kurilov.

Kurilov was pressured. He felt "like a race horse placed on a stretcher." Within a short time he had to become familiar with the ship - which was considered the largest passenger ship in the Soviet Union and "a perfect prison" - in order to find a place from which he could jump into the sea. He also had to know the ship's location every day. According to the route given to the passengers only in general outline, the ship was supposed to cross the Sea of Japan and afterward sail southward to the Pacific Ocean, in the direction of the equator. But the details of the route to the equator were kept secret. He sneaked into the map room time after time, and one of his girlfriends on the ship, an astronomer, helped him decipher the travel route according to the stars. On the third day he succeeded in deciphering the sailing route, and understood that the ship was supposed to travel to the equator along the Philippine coastline. He decided to jump ship when it approached the area of Siargao Island near the southern part of Mindanao.

On December 13 at 7:52 P.M., dressed in shorts, a few pairs of socks and equipped with fins and a snorkel, only a few meters away from one of the crew members, the time had come to jump. "I jumped, it was important to me to do so. It was less important to me whether I would come out of it alive," he wrote. About the jump itself he wrote: "The infinite flight. I feel that I'm crossing a psychological threshold that I cannot explain now, but it's clear to me that the moment my body hits the water my life will no longer be the same." "December 13 was a stormy night," says Lena, "but Slava was happy because he knew there was no chance that a lifeboat would be sent out after him in the storm."

A day later, when his absence was discovered, the ship went back to search for him. He noticed its approaching lights and managed to elude it. The swim lasted for three nights and two days. He had 2,000 hours of diving behind him, countless hours of breathing exercises. "His lungs were huge, otherwise it's impossible to understand how he survived," says Lena. "And every time he spoke about those three days he said that they were the happiest days of his life. He said that every day was huge and every moment an eternity, it was only he and the ocean and God. And every year from the time we met we would have one big celebration of those three days." Apparently he jumped near the coast, but the currents dragged him far out to sea and he was forced to swim almost 90 kilometers. During the swim, the sea seemed to him like mountains, deserts and jungles, and he felt he was a dolphin. Several times he felt that his death was near. He was not afraid.

"Death is very tempting," he wrote, and when he recalled the moments of tension he added: "I'm leaving my life peacefully. This wave will be the last one." Fortunately, that wave brought him to the middle of a lagoon. "The ocean loves me. It carried me to the shore in the palm of its hand," he wrote. From there he swam toward an island with palm trees. From a distance he heard the strains of Spanish music. He collapsed onto the sand. "The last thing I remember was the sound of tearing string. I felt how I was separated from my body all at once, arose from it and sailed in a huge space. I floated among the stars like a cloud in the night sky, I looked up at the expanses of the ocean and at my island, I was the wind strumming on the tops of the palm trees."

The next day, as he tramped toward the inner part of the island, with his entire body glowing from the plankton that had stuck to him, after four days of supreme effort and without food or drink, he was found by a local family. The story soon found its way to the media in the Philippines and from there it was published in the West and came to the attention of his sister, and of course to the attention of the Soviet authorities. Kurilov was initially attached to the Filipino army and was the guest of a colonel. Afterward he was sent to a prison for refugees who had arrived in the Philippines without papers and were awaiting expulsion. He had a pleasant time during the months in prison, while the authorities contacted his sister and the Canadian authorities in order to transfer him to Canada. On May 2, 1975 he was sent to Canada, equipped with a permit that said, "the above was found by local fishermen on the General Luna coast on Siargao, the Surigao district, on December 16, 1974, after jumping from a Soviet ship on December 13,1974."

The strongest, the happiest In Canada, Kurilov began working for oceanographic companies, went on research trips to Hawaii and beyond the North Pole and studied the North Sea. He made a good living, but at the age of 48 decided to fulfill his dream of traveling in the jungle. After a two-year sojourn in South America, during which he lived in a hut in the middle of the jungle, he returned to Canada. During a work trip in the United States he met Nina and Alexander Voronel - Israeli writers of Russian origin who wanted to make a film about his life and invited him to come to Israel.

"He came here in 1985, and became very famous in the Russian community. Everyone wanted to meet him," says Lena. "One day in July 1985, I met him at a friend's party in Jaffa. I spoke to him quite a lot and was very impressed by him; he was so special, full of strength and happiness. But I had a boyfriend at the time and he had to return to Canada, so nothing happened." In Canada he missed the warmth and the friends he had met in Israel. A year later, "after all kinds of friends told me, 'You had the courage to jump into the ocean and you don't have the courage to make a change in your life and come here?' he decided to return to Israel," continues Lena who, like Slava, is not Jewish. "And exactly a year after our first meeting, here in the bus station opposite us, I met him entirely by chance and we began talking and that time we didn't stop."

Shortly afterward he found work at the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research institute in Haifa. Lena, who was the mother of an 8-year old daughter from her marriage to poet Misha Gendelev, and working for the Israel Broadcasting Authority, remained in Jerusalem. "And that was the start of our unique marriage, with Slava in Haifa all week and coming to Jerusalem only on the weekends." It all ended in January 1998. "We were very happy," says Lena, "until 11 years after we met, on the rainiest day in the winter, when Slava died. He died in the place most appropriate for him, because he believed that the Kinneret was God's eye. He died on January 29, and my birthday is on the 28th." His partner in the last dive, Bischoff, says that Kurilov's fins became entangled in a fishing net placed in the diving area in Tabha - apparently Kurilov wasn't feeling well, perhaps as the result of a stroke. Bischoff released the fins with a knife and brought Kurilov up to the boat, but by then he was already lifeless. Kurilov's death during a simple dive in the Kinneret of all places surprised his friends.

"He was like a dolphin, he had a very special talent for the sea," says Bischoff. "Sometimes you meet people who are very [in tune] to winds and to small things in nature; he was one of those people. Even the story of his jump from the ship - it's like committing suicide when you jump from a ship that size. The fact that the propellers didn't grind him up is a big miracle. And the fact that he managed to swim such a distance and for such a long time. I've never heard such a story."

Kurilov was a healthy man when he died. His widow, who thought he had mystical powers, believes that even in his death he remained healthy. "He was the healthiest, the strongest, the happiest, the youngest of them all, including me, although he was 17 years older than I. That's why I didn't consent to an autopsy, because I didn't have to know the cause of death. He didn't drown, it was impossible for a person like Slava, for whom the sea was his life and his air, to drown, and he didn't have a work accident. It's impossible that Slava was ill, it was simply death. He simply died of death."