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Better death than life in the USSR: 43 years ago, a waitress escaped from a Soviet cruise ship and sailed for 40 minutes to Australia

In January 1979, a citizen of the USSR Liliana Gasinskaya, being a waitress on the Soviet cruise ship Leonid Sobinov, while the ship was parked in the port of Sydney, in one red bikini, climbed into the porthole, jumped into the water and swam for 40 minutes to the Australian coast, reports Sibreal.

Photo: Shutterstock

She was 18 years old, 14 of which she dreamed of escaping from the USSR.

Escape from the USSR was a dangerous undertaking that few dared. Even if they successfully crossed the border, the fugitives had no guarantees that the authorities of another country would provide them with asylum, and would not return them to their homeland, where a criminal term or forced “treatment” in a psychiatric hospital is provided for such an act.

Along the entire perimeter of its land borders, the Soviet Union was separated from the rest of the world by an intimidating wall of barbed wire, the appearance of which forced the expression “socialist camp” to be rethought in a new way.

In addition to the land border, there was also a sea border, sometimes frozen, as, for example, in the Baltic Sea, and allowing you to cross it on ice. Every Soviet schoolboy knew that it was in this way that Lenin once managed to get into Finland. An example, although inspiring, did not work well in Soviet times, because there was an agreement between Finland and the USSR on the extradition of defectors. Consequently, when trying to escape by sea, it was worth thinking about countries that were more distant and warmer.

The most famous swimmer for freedom was Stanislav (Slava) Kurilov, who jumped in 1974 from a cruise ship that was on the route Vladivostok - Equator - Vladivostok without calling at foreign ports.

“... I looked at my watch: there was very little time left. It was so good to sit among friends and not think about anything. “Time to go,” I told myself. Liner at the northern tip of the island. You have half an hour. I got up from the table. – Where are you! Sit with us! I didn't want to come up with some kind of lie at such an important moment for myself. “I won’t be back soon,” I said quietly but distinctly and went to the exit without waiting for further questions.

In half an hour, when the liner passes near the island of Siargao, I will step over the side, across the border of the state.

I climbed to the upper bridge and peered at the horizon to the west. No lights. There is no moon. There are no stars. And I don't have a compass.

“Does it matter now! I thought. “The die is cast.”

From Slava Kurilov's book "Alone in the Ocean"

“Any other person would have thought: maybe it's better to postpone the jump. But Slava, on the contrary, calculated that the huge ocean waves give him an additional chance not to break when he hits the water. From the upper deck to the water was 14 meters. A storm wave could add or subtract 6 meters in height. If we get lucky. It was not clear whether it would be plus 6 meters or minus 6. But this did not frighten Slava, but pleased her. It was in his power to calculate the jump, - said Elena Gendeleva-Kurilova. - On Lake Baikal, on the island of Olkhon, Slava practiced yoga for 12 hours a day. I gave her all my free time. If it was necessary to be distracted by work, then I did as much as I could, but at least 4 hours a day. And in 1973, shortly before the escape, Slava had just very intensive practices. He discovered new levels in yoga. Completely immersed in it. This is one of the reasons why he was an incredibly physically strong and hardy person.”

For three days Kurilov sailed alone in the ocean and, having overcome a hundred kilometers, he safely reached the Philippine island of Siargao.

Kurilov's outstanding sporting achievement was perhaps not the most desperate attempt to break out of the USSR. In June 1962, professional swimmer Pyotr Patrushev (1942–2016) managed to escape from the USSR and gain freedom by swimming across the Black Sea stretch from the border resort town of Batumi to Turkey without any special equipment. The story of his escape from the USSR was included in the secret textbooks of many intelligence agencies in the world. The authorities of the Soviet Union sentenced Patrushev to death in absentia. The memoirs of Pyotr Patrushev are called “Sentenced to be shot”​.

“I just turned twenty years old. I was a brash, stubborn, independent and rather well-read young man; wanted to travel, learn languages, read literature that was closed to us; was fond of history, philosophy, psychology, medicine; was engaged in yoga, hypnosis and psychotechnics; tried to write. I was not satisfied with the hopelessness in which we all then lived; I wasn’t tempted by the prospect of being crippled in the army… It seemed, perhaps, that I grew up in Siberia and got used to choosing my own path…

The first spotlight came on. It whipped the sea like the tentacle of a giant octopus. I dived deep, feeling the pressure build up in my ears. All my training, testing on the beach seemed to have evaporated. Now I was left alone with the danger, without any safety net. He floated to the surface panting. If you react like this to every spotlight, you won't get far. I reminded myself to just lay flat just under the surface of the water like a jellyfish, to conserve my strength and not be discovered.

Almost immediately, the spotlight passed over me again. I dived, this time not so deep. “Medusa,” he repeated to himself, “a jellyfish.” In between dives, I swam quickly, alternating between freestyle and backstroke…”

From the memoirs of Pyotr Patrushev "Sentenced to death"

In 1970, 25-year-old Daina Palena from Riga, who worked as a waitress on a Soviet herring trawler in the Atlantic Ocean, was poisoned by sleeping pills to get to the United States. When the ship was 150 kilometers from New York, the woman took a life-threatening dose of pills and fell into a coma, forcing the captain to issue a distress signal. In critical condition, Daina was taken by helicopter to an American hospital, and, barely recovering herself in a hospital bed, announced that she was asking for political asylum. Her willingness to risk her life for freedom made a strong impression on the representatives of the immigration service. Three weeks after being discharged, Dina received a US residence permit. What happened to her next, no one knows. Briefly attracting the attention of the press, she disappeared into obscurity, leading an unremarkable life somewhere in New Jersey.

On the subject: Russian-speaking swindler in the USA and a savior from all diseases: the most famous scammers of our time

A much more vivid story happened in the life of another refugee from the Soviet ship, Ukrainian Liliana Gasinskaya.

Naked truth from the USSR

It was a hot summer in the Southern Hemisphere. Late in the evening of January 14, 1979, an 18-year-old girl, undressed and dressed in a red bikini, opened the porthole of her cabin on the ship "Leonid Sobinov", moored in Sydney Harbor, resolutely jumped into the water and swam to the Australian coast. All her belongings, documents, money remained in the cabin. On the table lay a branded notebook of the Black Sea Shipping Company with several English words written by Liliana's hand:

refuge - refuge, shelter (shelter)


ask - ask

The disappearance of Gasinskaya on the Sobinov was discovered only in the morning, when Liliana did not come on shift. The girl was not a tourist, she worked as a waitress, according to other sources, as an elevator operator, on a cruise ship that carried wealthy western passengers around the islands of Polynesia, calling at the ports of Australia and New Zealand. The Soviet ship, along with the crew and attendants, was leased to a British travel agency that organizes exotic recreational travel. Thus, the Black Sea Shipping Company, to which the ship was assigned, earned currency for the USSR.

Before setting off on a long voyage, all crew members (including waitresses) underwent a thorough check by the KGB. Any dubious fact of the biography, such as the presence of relatives abroad, was considered the basis for refusing to obtain an exit visa. Liliana Gasinskaya was lucky with her biography - there was nothing remarkable in it. The girl was born in a small town in the Luhansk region, graduated from the Odessa vocational school of maritime tourist service, and was not noticed in anything suspicious, except for the usual girlish frivolity.

However, already during the cruise on the southern seas, “signals” began to come to Sobinov’s political officer: Gasinskaya behaves immodestly, flirts with foreigners and even tried to retire with a young English tourist in his cabin. Mutual denunciations of team members were encouraged by representatives of the "authorities" who accompanied Soviet citizens in "abroad" and monitored their moral character and political reliability.

It seems that the graduate of the Odessa vocational school lacked neither one nor the other. When the Sobinov first moored to the Australian coast and the crew was released on leave after a long voyage, Liliana made an attempt to quietly break away from the group. But vigilant teammates, warned in advance by the political officer, took the girl “in tow” and returned it on board against her will. After this incident, it was decided, out of harm's way, to quickly send the troubled waitress back to her homeland with the very first Soviet ship that would meet on the way of the Leonid Sobinov.

The solution is ideologically correct and the only possible one in a situation threatening a political scandal. But Liliana herself resolutely did not want to return home. After waiting for the night and taking advantage of the fact that all the crew members gathered for a party in the wardroom, she jumped overboard in her red swimsuit ... and went down in history. Until now, any search query girl in red bikini leads to Liliana Gasinskaya, the heroine of the sexiest escape from the USSR.

At a press conference held in Sydney a couple of days later, Liliana told reporters about how she swam to the shore for 40 minutes, how she was afraid to go to the bottom or become a victim of a shark, but the fear of returning to the USSR and the prospect of becoming “not allowed to travel abroad” for the rest of her life ” were even stronger, because she hates communism with all her heart and dreams of living in the West. And she was preparing to escape from the age of 14, for this she went to the school of marine service. “I will kill myself if they try to send me home!” – resolutely declared Liliana. The passionate speech of the young beauty touched the whole of Australia. The Australian government simply had no choice but to grant Gasinskaya asylum.

In the absence of any documents whatsoever, the red bikini became for the girl a pass to the free world.
Meanwhile, a Komsomol meeting was taking place on board the Leonid Sobinov, closed to the press, but no less emotional than the press conference of a runaway waitress.

“It is bitter and unfortunate that such a person as Gasinskaya was born in a Soviet country, for which Soviet people shed their blood and gave their lives in the name of a bright and beautiful life, for a happy and wonderful childhood for all of us, and Gasinskaya in particular. For peace on Earth, our parents shed their blood, gave their lives. The treacherous act of Gasinskaya struck me, struck everyone who is on a labor watch here far from their homeland, from relatives, ”reported the secretary of the Komsomol organization Comrade. Y. Mykolaichuk.

Having uttered all the ritual phrases required in this situation, the meeting participants unanimously decided to expel L. Gasinskaya from the ranks of the Komsomol as having stained herself with an anti-Soviet act. Expulsion from the Komsomol was a serious punishment and usually put an end to the career of a Soviet person, closing all social elevators for him, not to mention such bonuses as trips abroad. But the situation of Liliana Gasinskaya, convicted in absentia, was not at all usual. She had already irretrievably crossed the border, and while her former comrades hurled their curses at her, she was preparing for a completely different career, which Komsomol members behind the Iron Curtain could only dream of.

In 1979, the first issue of the Australian "Penthouse" was released. To launch an erotic magazine in a new region, a model was needed - not just beautiful, but evoking emotions among the local audience. The story of Liliana was heard by the whole country, so the girl was ideally suited for the role of the star of the first issue. And she did not disappoint the subscribers - for the sake of a photo shoot she threw away the Soviet complexes along with a red bikini. This naked truth from the USSR turned out to be more seductive than any dissident revelations. At least if you compare runs.

Even then, evil tongues said that the escape of Liliana Gasinskaya most of all played into the hands of the editors of the Australian Penthouse. And there is still no shortage of conspiracy theories about what happened in the harbor of Sydney that January night. The very first person who accidentally discovered a Soviet fugitive on the shore turned out to be a journalist very opportunely. And a forty-minute swim through a shark-infested bay might well have been Liliana's fantasy.

According to some information, “Leonid Sobinov” did not stand in the sea on the roadstead opposite Sydney that night, but was moored at the berth in the port. So it was or not, now it’s hard to say for sure, but the “debriefing” continues, and not so long ago in “LiveJournal” one “former sailor” wrote a post “Bastard in a red bikini” dedicated to Gasinskaya’s escape:

“What does it mean to “stand on the road” does everyone understand? The ship anchors far from the shore and passengers are taken ashore by boats. Only a suicide would dare to sail through a busy night bay, where boats, yachts, boats, etc. dart. But you don’t have to be afraid of sharks in the port, they are scared away by noise. And why swim if she was on the shore on vacation that day?

The fact is that I was familiar with Seleznev, the senior assistant to the captain of the ill-fated Sobinov, we worked together on another ship a year after Gasinskaya's escape. He told me about this escape, some of the details I remember.

Her escape was well prepared with the help of newspapermen. Apparently, on one of the previous visits to Sydney, either she herself applied somewhere, or her newspapermen purposefully caught her somewhere in a bar. They needed "roast duck" to boost the newspaper's circulation. In any case, her cabin mates took notice of some of her strange remarks and reported to Pompolit…. Pompolit ordered to lock her in the cabin. But he did not take into account that the porthole of her cabin goes directly to the pier, and not to the water, and it is not high there. The ship did not stand on any roadstead! So the tearful story about the swim across the bay is nonsense.

The newspapermen with whom she was supposed to meet did not wait for Lily in the city at the agreed place and arrived by car at the port. She saw them and climbed out onto the pier in one bathing suit, because she could not crawl through in her clothes, the windows were not designed for this. The sailor on duty on the ladder saw this, began to whistle, calling the authorities, but she jumped into the car, and they took her away.

Just like the “old sailor”, the KGB Directorate for the Odessa region suspected that everything was not so simple in this matter and that someone had to help the girl escape from the ship. In search of Gasinskaya's accomplices, investigators questioned every member of the crew, from the captain to the waitresses who shared the cabin with Liliana. All interrogated people said about the same thing, they say, the girl was undisciplined, allowed herself liberties in communicating with foreigners, and, as we now understand, she was “not ours”, not a Soviet person.

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However, by that time, after the photo shoot in the Penthouse, no one was going to deal with the moral character of Gasinskaya. The investigation was more interested in compromising evidence. However, none of those who went on the Sobinov on that flight could be filed in the criminal case of fleeing abroad.

Nevertheless, the team was subjected to administrative repression. The crew was disbanded, officers and sailors were transferred down to ships that did not go beyond the Black Sea. Romania and Bulgaria after Australia and Oceania - such was their punishment for losing their vigilance. A terrible punishment for those times.

Liliana Gasinskaya, having quite happily spent more than two decades in Australia and having been married twice (both times successfully), moved to England, where she currently lives avoiding communication with the press. Once upon a time, journalists played an important role in the fate of Liliana, but now she no longer needs their services.

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