'You could never go back': Cold War-era refugees recall defecting to N.L.

·11 min read
The invasion of Warsaw Pact troops in Czechoslovakia in 1968 led Veronika Martenova Charles to defect.  (Jan Novotny - image credit)
The invasion of Warsaw Pact troops in Czechoslovakia in 1968 led Veronika Martenova Charles to defect. (Jan Novotny - image credit)
Jan Novotny
Jan Novotny

As the provincial government offers support for Ukrainian refugees who may want to move to Newfoundland and Labrador, some Eastern European refugees recall their experiences decades before in Gander as they fled Soviet-ruled countries and found refuge in Canada.

Veronika Martenova Charles, who defected from Czechoslovakia in 1970, said her experience was different from that of fleeing Ukrainians — but there are some similarities.

"The situation is totally different," said Charles. "There were some casualties, but it was peaceful. We didn't have destruction like what's happening now. But the effect on the people who are leaving is the same."

Before 1968, Charles enjoyed her life in her home country as a member of a pop band. Everything changed after four countries from the Warsaw Pact — the Soviet Union, Poland, Bulgaria and Hungary — invaded to suppress a reformist movement.

"There was this absolute disbelief and shock by the whole population and their lives were upended within hours. People lost their careers," Charles said. Her life wasn't directly affected at the time, but many of her friends chose to leave the country.

"I knew at the time that I would never be able to see them again because you were not allowed to travel to the West.… It's just like they were dead in a way, because you will never see them again."

As time passed, Charles began to see more of an impact on her life.

"When we would be going for concerts, we would be driving by a lot of convoys of soldiers and you knew then it will never be the same. Like, you couldn't go into the woods and pick mushrooms because you could encounter the soldiers."

But she held onto hope that Czechoslovakia would return to being the country she knew and loved.

That changed after Charles went on tour with her band to Cuba in May 1970, and the new environment — "seeing blue sky, being on the other side of the world, the ocean and pure air" — inspired her to rethink her decision to stay in her country.

Submitted by Veronika Martenova Charles
Submitted by Veronika Martenova Charles

Her band's next tour stop was in the Soviet Union. She didn't want to go but she knew leaving would have stark consequences.

"I knew if I do this, I can never go back because if I did return, or even if I was flying somewhere else in Europe and I was intercepted [at] some different airport, I was getting put in prison," she said. "Leaving at the time was considered treason. Once you left, that's it. You could never go back."

When her band boarded the plane in Havana, Charles wasn't sure if it would stop to refuel en route to the Soviet Union. As fate would have it, it did stop — in Newfoundland, a place she'd never heard of before.

"When it stopped in Gander, I decided, 'I'm just going to stay.'"

Charles didn't tell anybody her plan to defect, because she knew they would try to force her to stay with the plane. But passengers were allowed to wait inside the Gander airport while the plane refueled, and she saw her chance to escape.

"My group was sitting there, having tea. I just walked away and I saw there was a door and it said 'Immigration.' I stepped in and I expressed that I don't want to go back on the plane."

There was initially some communication difficulties with the immigration officials.

"I knew English because I was listening to the English pop songs," Charles said. "So, I knew how it sounded."

But she noted Gander airport employees didn't speak the same way that Elvis sang.

"It didn't sound anything like the songs I was listening to. I was kind of thinking, 'Well, where am I?'"

Nonetheless, the immigration officials let Charles stay in their office, and they asked the Cuban pilots to release her luggage. The pilots refused, and Charles was left with just her purse and the sun dress she was wearing.

Gar Lunney/Library and Archives Canada/National Film Board
Gar Lunney/Library and Archives Canada/National Film Board

Charles ended up spending only one night in Gander. An airport official drove her to a hotel to stay for the night, and the following day, she flew to Halifax, where she stayed at the Pier 21 immigration facility for four months.

"I puzzled everybody because I was young. I was female. I had no relatives in Canada, and yet in my passport I had all these stamps because we travelled to Germany and to other places, and [the immigration officials] couldn't understand how come I had these stamps."

She said confusion over the stamps prompted the RCMP to interview her several times, asking if she was a spy. The police provided her with a interpreter — but a Polish one.

"I have no idea how the translation really went," she said.

Eventually Charles was granted a temporary residence permit and was allowed to leave Pier 21. She used an English dictionary to teach herself the language and got a job as a lab assistant at the University of Toronto.

She saved up money and eventually studied design at Ryerson University, then became an interior designer and went on to write and illustrate children's books. Charles later obtained a master's degree and a doctorate in education at York University in Toronto.

In a tragic twist, Charles said, defecting to Canada indirectly saved her life.

"About a year or so after I left, my bandmates were coming home from some other tour. And as they were landing in Prague's airport, the plane caught on fire and the whole group perished."

In the years since the Berlin Wall fell, Charles has returned to what is now the Czech Republic twice — but it's not the country she remembers from her childhood.

"It changed," she said. "It was interesting to walk through the streets I walked as a kid. It was nice, but it's a different place now.

"The Charles Bridge with those statues became a major tourist place, but when I was there, I would just sit there with my friends on the side of those statues and we would talk at night and nobody else was there."

David Cerny/Reuters
David Cerny/Reuters

Charles said she wrote about her own experiences as a refugee in a children's book called The Land Beyond the Wall. "I tried to express what it feels like to come to a place where you don't know the language and you don't know anybody."

What's happening now with Ukrainian refugees reminds her of how everything changed for her in 1968, she said.

"All of these people, it marks them for life," she said. "It brings me back when the tanks arrived in Prague and the absolute shock of everybody. I can feel that.

"I'm really ill and heartbroken.… All these mothers with children who leave their husbands behind, not knowing if they will ever see them again. Even if they could go back, what are they going to come back to? Just devastated land. It's just incomprehensible."

Heather Barrett/CBC
Heather Barrett/CBC

In February 1990, Luben Boykov defected from Bulgaria to Gander with his wife, Elena Popova, and their two-year old daughter. Bulgaria at that time was similar to what Russia is now, he said.

"It was still under the Soviet rule, the communist, totalitarian, authoritarian regime. Very limited human rights, civil liberties, basically a classic communist country. So that's what we decided to run away from."

Boykov and his family saw their chance in 1989 when they were allowed to apply for passports. Under communist rule, he said, Bulgarians were not allowed to have passports and were not permitted to travel out of country. Once they received their passports, they began to make plans to leave the country.

But the only places they could go outside Bulgaria were other communist countries, but they heard that some flights going to Cuba had to land in North America to refuel.

"We decided to take a chance and buy tickets to Havana, pretend we were going on holiday."

They boarded a Soviet airline flight from Moscow to Havana. Boykov said the flight crew was secretive about refuelling details.

"They had the clearance to be flight attendants, which meant that they were politically loyal to the regime. And they knew very well at the time that all the passengers were potential defectors. So they didn't tell us anything."

As the plane began to land, Boykov looked out the window and although he didn't know where they were, he knew it wasn't Havana.

"When the plane started descending and got closer to the surface, we noticed there was snow on the ground, so we knew we were not in Cuba."

Pretty much all we knew about Newfoundland was the fact that it was an island, it was part of Canada — and also we knew of the Newfoundland dog. - Luben Boykov

As the plane touched down, they had no idea where they were.

"Then we saw a Canadian flag unfurled in the background on top of the terminal building and we knew we were in Canada. Then when the plane got closer, we saw Gander, so we knew we were in Newfoundland."

Before landing in Newfoundland, he said, he didn't know much about the place.

"Pretty much all we knew about Newfoundland was the fact that it was an island, it was part of Canada — and also we knew of the Newfoundland dog."

While it felt good to know they had landed in Canada, he said, there was still a battle ahead of them to get off the plane.

"They didn't permit us to to disembark. So we had to do it by force in our case."

Brawl aboard the plane

The flight attendants and some other passengers tried to stop him and his wife from leaving the plane, he said, but the Boykovs weren't the only people on the plane trying to defect — around 30 to 40 other passengers were also hoping to leave the plane. Tensions quickly grew high aboard the grounded plane.

"A brawl ensued, and we had to beat them down to the ground," Boykov said.

Adding to the tension was the presence of Boykov's infant daughter.

"When we tried to leave the aircraft, some of the Soviet Russian crew tried to pull the baby away from my wife," he said. "They wanted to keep her on board and prevent us from leaving."

Boykov's wife wouldn't allow them to take her child away from her and the Boykovs eventually escaped the plane through an emergency exit.

"We found an exit under the belly of the plane with a ladder that was used by both the pilots, and we managed to get to this and get out of the plane."

Submitted by Dave Lough
Submitted by Dave Lough

Once the Boykovs left the plane, the RCMP were waiting on the tarmac to greet them and direct them to the airport to present themselves to Immigration. It was the beginning of a lengthy process of being accepted into Canada, he said, but that first night in Gander exceeded their expectations of what it would be like to be a refugee in a foreign land.

"It was a bit like a fairy tale."

After several hours of filling out paperwork, he said, they were brought to a hotel, where they were housed and fed for about a week.

"All the hotels in Gander were full of refugees who were given a really comfortable and pleasant welcome to the country. We didn't expect that because we had no idea whether we would get any support from the Canadian public or the government."

While most defectors who came through Gander moved on to bigger cities, he said, he and his wife quickly made friends in Newfoundland and eventually they decided to stay in the province.

"We felt very comfortable and started really developing feelings for the place. And after a year and a half, we said we're not moving away."

Thirty years later, the province feels like home, said Boykov.

"The place has given us a new life, a new perspective, new opportunities, not only in terms of developing ourselves as professionals, but also as human beings."

Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/Getty Images
Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/Getty Images

Boykov and his wife worked in the province as artists, crafting statues, paintings and other artworks. He said their art is a way of giving back to a province that has meant so much to them.

"It's always a two-way street and it's always an exchange, otherwise it wouldn't be fair. So we took an awful lot and we try to reciprocate."

Now Boykov and his wife, having left Newfoundland in 2020, divide their time between Toronto and Bulgaria, which he said has changed a lot over the years.

Boykov said a lot of what he sees on the news about the conflict in Ukraine reminds him of Bulgaria before he defected. He said too many people are looking at the larger political implications of the conflict and not thinking about the human suffering, both in Ukraine and in other countries at war.

"I cannot but be absolutely appalled by the suffering that is being inflicted upon these people, not forgetting that this is not a novelty. There are a dozen wars going on in the world at any given moment, and this is not something that is foreign to human beings."

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