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Fears Forcing Soviet MIAs to Stay Missing

Times Staff Writer

Igor Hovidko hung his thumbs over his belt and struck a jaunty pose for that last photograph, frayed now from being handled so often. In his last letter he sounded like a young man on a great adventure and revealed only a shade of homesickness at the end: “I send you firm kisses.”

It has been five years since Pvt. Hovidko, then an 18-year-old tank gunner, jotted the note to his family and posed in uniform for the snapshot. In mid-January, 1984, Hovidko left his company’s base near the Afghan city of Jalalabad to gather wood for a fire. He never returned.

Hovidko’s name is on the missing-in-action list, along with those of more than 300 other young Soviet men. He might be dead. He might be in the hands of Afghan rebels.

Then again, he might be living in the West, as is at least one in four of the Soviet MIAs believed to be alive. Many of the MIAs are unwilling or afraid to return home because of their country’s historical policy toward captured soldiers.

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These former soldiers living abroad are the subject of an unprecedented debate between Soviet military men and their government. It is a debate that goes to the roots of efforts to shake off the policies of the past, and by all accounts, the MIAs living abroad are following it closely.

The controversy is reminiscent of the one in the 1970s in the United States over whether to pardon young Americans who fled to Canada and Europe rather than fight in Vietnam.

The question here does not deal with conscientious objectors, and few in this country seem to doubt that anti-war demonstrators should be imprisoned. At issue are Soviet soldiers who went to Afghanistan and then either deserted or were captured.

Under dictator Josef Stalin, captured soldiers who returned to the Soviet Union were executed or imprisoned on the theory that they should have fought to the death, and if they had survived time in captivity they must have given up Soviet secrets. The numbers are appalling: half a million imprisoned and tens of thousands executed, according to Western historians.

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Soviet policy has changed sharply under President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. His government has rejected the past and is revealing the horrors of the Stalin years.

Gorbachev’s government made a point of promising publicly to welcome back all Soviet soldiers, even those who fled their units and took refuge in the West. Soviet officials argue that deserters should be given a second chance and that the country should do everything in its power to put the war behind it.

Soldier Pardoned in 1988

In a highly publicized case meant as a signal to Soviet MIAs living abroad, the Kremlin in 1988 pardoned Pvt. Nikolai Ryzhkov, who in 1986 had been sentenced to 12 years in prison for deserting his unit in Afghanistan. He had fled to the United States but returned to the Soviet Union because he was homesick.

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Army officers are watching this swing of the pendulum with concern. Many feel that the Communist Party under Gorbachev may have gone overboard in its effort to reject the past. Deserters are, after all, still deserters, they say.

Some officers have gone public, a sign of the strength of their misgivings. Military men in the Soviet Union, as almost everywhere else, generally pride themselves on zealously carrying out the orders of their government in silence.

Col. Alexander V. Rutskoy is one such officer. Rutskoy, a fighter pilot, looks older than his 41 years, and with reason. He was shot down twice in the Afghan war, first in 1985, when he broke his spine, and again last August, when he bailed out seconds before his plane exploded near Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan.

Severely burned, suffering from a slight concussion and temporarily deaf, Rutskoy evaded capture for four days before some villagers found him. They tortured him and, he says, would have killed him if Pakistani soldiers had not intervened. He was held for two weeks in Pakistan and then released in a prisoner exchange.

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His Pakistani captors, he said, interrogated him around the clock and offered him freedom in Canada if he would reveal the locations of Afghan government ammunition depots, the personal habits of top commanders and the path and timetable of the planned Soviet troop withdrawal.

“Any military secret belongs to the Soviet Union and is not mine to give,” he said forcefully in an interview at a Soviet military academy in Moscow. “Besides, those who would betray their country would betray their own mother.”

After returning home, Rutskoy was proclaimed a Hero of the Soviet Union and decorated with the gold-star medal that goes with the highest honor the country can award a military man. A 23-year veteran, Rutskoy said he could not have received such an award under any leader before Gorbachev.

“This is a sign of the current restructuring of our society, and it is welcome,” he said, “but the fact is, to be quite frank, we should not have a blanket approach to this. We should not award every captured soldier and welcome him back as a hero.

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“Those who managed to get to the West were not allowed to go there because of the color of their eyes. I know from personal experience. They had to exchange something for their freedom.

“Our government has chosen to forgive even the person who deliberately deserted, to welcome him back and, considering his young age, to give him a second chance. I, on the other hand, would never forgive such a person.”

Rutskoy’s words carry weight in the Soviet Union because he is a war hero. They also reverberate in the West and fuel the fears of former Soviet soldiers living there, according to Soviet artist Mihail Chemiakin, who was exiled from his country in 1971 and was recently allowed to return for an exhibition of his works.

Active in Helping Veterans

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Chemiakin, who has been active in trying to help Afghan war veterans, said he has had personal contact with 15 former Soviet soldiers living in the United States.

“Many of them are afraid to return,” Chemiakin said in an interview here, “even though they have been promised amnesty. In the past, promises that were made in the Soviet Union were not necessarily kept.”

In addition to the former soldiers in the United States, about 30 others live in Canada and half a dozen are in Europe, according to a citizens’ committee in Moscow that is trying to track down MIAs. These figures account for more than 25% of the 175 MIAs who are thought to be alive.

Committee members have tried to locate and contact the soldiers living abroad, but their names are hard to obtain and those who know them guard them closely.

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“We are not trying to make things difficult for the MIAs who live abroad,” committee member Alexei Gorobov said. “We don’t want to force them to come back, but we want to be able to talk with them and to persuade them to at least let their parents know where they are. Military officers who argue that these soldiers should be jailed--or worse--hurt our efforts.”

Holding on to Hope

Hovidko’s mother, Anna, knows her son may be among those in the West, and as distasteful as that possibility is to her, she would rather hold on to that hope than learn he is dead.

“Each year I celebrate his birthday by lighting a candle near his photograph,” she said in an interview, her voice breaking. “I congratulate him just as if he were here.”

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As she spoke, she ran her hand over his last letter from Jalalabad, in which he wrote: “Your great soldier sends his regards. My health is excellent, mood also.”

“He loves his motherland greatly,” she said. “I think he would come home if he could.”

She asked if his picture could be published in the West.

“Perhaps--it is possible--that he is afraid of what they will do to him,” she explained haltingly. “If so, I want him to know that I wait for him.”

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