He behaves "somewhat flippantly," said a U.S. Navy doctor. He is "rather immature," reported a U.S. Air Force psychiatrist. "He took delight in being the center of attention. He was grabbing for the glitter and gusto."
Such belittling descriptions would not seem appropriate for a man who had triggered an untimely presummit squabble between the superpowers and a clash of wills between the Executive and Legislative branches of the U.S. Government. Soviet Merchant Seaman Miroslav Medvid, 25, had inadvertently created this political uproar on Oct. 24 by leaping 40 feet from the Soviet freighter Marshal Konev into the Mississippi River near New Orleans. When the ship, laden with corn, finally pulled away from its dock last Saturday afternoon with Medvid aboard, a sad personal and political saga that had lasted for more than two weeks apparently drifted off to an unhappy ending.
The easily avoidable fiasco began with the inexplicable decision by two Border Patrol officers that Medvid had not been seeking asylum and should be returned to his ship. The agents did not speak Ukrainian, so they telephoned a translator in New York, who interviewed the nervous sailor while one agent listened. The interpreter, Irene Padoch, insisted that Medvid had made it clear that he was seeking asylum "to live in an honest country" and that she told this to the agents. Nonetheless, they signed an order that Medvid be returned to his ship.
The would-be defector was quietly returning to the Marshal Konev until an officer of the ship talked to him at the gangplank. Then Medvid suddenly jumped into the water once again and swam back to shore. There he was caught by the pursuing Soviet officer and handcuffed while struggling violently. He even began beating his head against rocks. He was carried aboard the Konev, still kicking and screaming. On the ship, he slashed his left wrist in a possible suicide attempt.
When the State Department belatedly learned of the incident 13 hours afterward, it persuaded Soviet officials to let Medvid be interviewed. He was examined and questioned by State Department representatives as well as by the Navy doctor and Air Force psychiatrist, both of whom concluded that he was not under the influence of drugs and was competent to decide what he wanted to do. While his ship's skipper, its doctor and two Soviet diplomats watched, Medvid insisted that he had merely fallen overboard and had no intention of deserting.
The psychiatrist, however, said the evidence showed that Medvid had jumped "purposefully from his ship" and that when he was returned to it, he "probably felt very afraid of the consequences and very much trapped in a corner." The Soviets apparently threatened to retaliate against the sailor's family at home, and he became "rather guilty at having jeopardized their safety," the psychiatrist theorized. The State Department ruled that he could not be held against his expressed wishes and let him return to the Konev.