From The Daily Telegraph 3 November. This should be read in conjunction with the obituary of Frank Bessac, which was posted here a couple of years ago.
Vasili Zvansov, who has died aged 89, fled from Stalinist Russia and, while struggling to reach freedom in the West, became embroiled in an epic and ill-fated trip led by the CIA in the early days of the Cold War which took him from the borders of Mongolia to the Tibetan capital Lhasa.
Vasili Ivan Zvansov was born on May 9 1923 into a family of Russian “kulaks” – wealthy peasants – who lived in a grand log-house in the village of Neynaye Nelovka, Soviet Kazakhstan, where his father had moved as a fur trader after the Russian Revolution. During the “dekulakisation” of the early 1930s the family lost everything. Vasili’s father was jailed as a “class enemy” and the rest of the family was thrown out, in the middle of winter, on to the streets.
In 1940, at the age of 17, Vasili was conscripted into the Red Army, but a few months later, after Hitler declared war on the Soviet Union, he and a friend, Nicolai Kibardin, deserted: “I thought to hell with it, I’m not going to die for this system,” Zvansov recalled. With little more than their uniforms, bread, matches and salt they returned to their families in Khazakhstan — a journey of 750 miles, travelling at night and hiding in bushes during the day, stealing food wherever they could find it.
Back home, Zvansov learned that his father had escaped jail and fled over the border into the Chinese province of Sinkiang, an area with valuable uranium mines which was then the focus of a power struggle between a Soviet-backed warlord and the forces of the Chinese Nationalist government. He decided to follow his father and, in September 1941, he and Kibardin set off again, eventually crossing the border through the lightly-guarded Altai Mountains. Reaching the nearest town, desperate for food, they were arrested by Nationalist Chinese Army soldiers, but released after questioning. Soon afterwards Zvansov was reunited with his father.
Zvansov was enrolled as quartermaster into the Eskadrone (“the Squadron”) — a military unit of 150 “white” Russians established under the command of Chinese Nationalist General Omar Ma. But in 1944 the Soviets succeeded in chasing the Chinese out of the northern part of Sinkiang and declared a puppet state, the Eastern Turkestan Republic. After a series of advances and military reverses, by 1947 the Eskadrone had been chased to Ku-chöng near Urumqi, the seat of the Nationalist provincial government. There Zvansov was warned by General Ma that the Chinese communists would soon overrun the province. To save his life, Ma advised, Zvansov should seek work at the American consulate.
Arriving in Urumqi, Zvansov met Douglas Mackiernan, whose status as US vice-consul concealed his true role as a CIA case officer. Employed ostensibly as a caretaker and groom to a rich Russian businessman, Zvansov was soon engaged in undercover work, helping Mackiernan observe Russian activities in the area.
On one occasion he helped Mackiernan drive a Jeep loaded with seismographs and Geiger counters through the desert to near the Russian border. The equipment was used to detect the first Soviet atom bomb test, which was eventually staged across the border from Urumqi at Semipalatinsk on August 29 1949.
When Mao Tse-tung’s communists overran Urumqi, Mackiernan (who had now been joined in the consulate by another American, Frank Bessac), decided to leave. “On the night of 27th September 1949, we escaped, 'Mac’ having recruited two more Russian refugees, Stephan Yanuishkin and Leonid Shutov,” Zvansov recalled. “The two Americans drove a Jeep out of a guarded city gate. We, having no papers, jumped over the city’s great walls and met them miles out of town.”
The group decided to try to make it to India via Tibet, a journey of 1,200 miles that would have to be carried out by animal transport or on foot and involved crossing areas frequented by Khazakh bandits.
The party set off to Barkol, north of Hami . A month later, with 21 horses and local guides, they set off across the Black Gobi. Passing Dunhuang, they then crossed the vast Takla Makan desert, passing through a canyon in which they found dozens of dead horses and people. “In the dry desert air they were perfectly intact as though they had died yesterday,” Zvansov recalled. “Yet, we discovered later, it had been 13 years since. They had been massacred from the air when these Kazakhs had fought the Chinese.”
On November 29 they reached Timerlik Bulak, near Lake Gas Kol, where they were forced to overwinter, but were fed and tented by a local tribal leader .They set off again in late March 1950, when the high passes of the Arka Tagh mountains became passable, and were able to reach the Chang Tang Plateau. The party depended on Zvansov’s hunting skills to provide fresh meat for them and their animals .
Eleven days into their journey, they left behind their Khazakh guides, who feared being robbed, and continued their journey armed with a compass, maps covered in blanks and only the vaguest of instructions: “There was no path, the wind whistles at 60mph incessantly 10am to 10pm and blows all tracks away. We were told to follow grave mounds, each several days apart, on high passes 'Kalibek’, 'Kasbek’, 'Abul Kasim’ – probably the names of bandit raiders,” Zvansov recalled. “We spent 40 days constantly above 16,000ft. The air so thin that when sleeping you would suddenly wake up gasping for breath.”
About a month after setting out, however, they had a fatal encounter. Arriving in Tibet’s vast northern borderlands, Zvansov spotted a border post consisting of some yak-hair Tibetan tents. Fearing that the Tibetans might mistake them for Khazak bandits (whom the border guards had orders to shoot on sight), he suggested the party set up camp unseen but was overruled by Mackiernan who insisted they put up tents next to the Tibetans. While Bessac went over to the border post with gifts, six guards on horseback approached the camp. Bessac heard shots and saw his four companions with arms raised. Mackiernan and the two other Russians were killed instantly, while Zvansov was shot in the leg.
The two men were taken prisoner and the Tibetans, once they were convinced they were not bandits, treated them kindly. They set off for Lhasa and, after three days, Zvansov made the macabre discovery, while searching saddlebags for rope, of the severed heads of their dead companions being taken to the authorities. It subsequently transpired that Mackiernan had radioed Washington to arrange a safe crossing with the Tibetan authorities, but the messengers conveying the safe conduct had arrived five days too late.
On May 5 the party ran into a local district governor, who berated the guards and as Zvansov recalled, was, “ready to execute them with my Soviet Tupalov pistol, but Bessac said no.”
On June 12 1950 Zvansov and Bessac arrived in Lhasa — the last foreigners to enter the city before the Chinese annexation of Tibet later that year. After about a week, they paid a formal visit to the Dalai Lama, then aged 14, in his summer palace and were subsequently lobbied by the Tibetan Foreign Affairs Bureau, which wanted American military aid to help them repel the communists whom they expected to launch an invasion the following year. While Bessac engaged in unofficial discussions about the possibility of Tibet establishing relations with the United States, Zvansov was more concerned about how to escape the clutches of the People’s Liberation Army.
At the end of July the travellers left for India, and after floating down the Kyi-chu and Tsangpo rivers in a coracle for 80 miles to the ancient monastery of Samye, crossed the high Himalayan passes into Sikkim. By the time Bessac handed the Tibetans’ request to Secretary of State Dean Acheson in Washington the Chinese had invaded.