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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Soviet Elian Gonzalez Finds Peace With God

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STENYATIN, Ukraine — Fifteen years ago, Myroslav Medvid inspired demonstrations, captured headlines and provoked angry stand-offs between U.S. lawmakers, human rights groups and the White House.

Today, wearing a white priest’s collar, Medvid picks apples in a churchyard in western Ukraine. He inspires a parish of about 200 believers.

The Elian Gonzalez of Soviet times is at the center of a political dispute no longer.

In October 1985, Medvid, then a 25-year-old sailor on a Soviet freight ship, jumped overboard into the Mississippi River, seeking freedom in the United States.

Instead, he was sent back to the Soviet Union in a political gamble very similar to the Elian Gonzalez feud that played out this year when the shipwrecked 6-year-old Cuban boy was sent home.

"I was used as a political prop just like little Elian," says Medvid, now 40.

Had Medvid timed his jump a year earlier, he says, the United States would have granted him political asylum without giving it a second thought.

But in 1985, the White House had hoped for negotiations with new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and accepting a defector like Medvid would have "scrambled the budding U.S.-Soviet relations," Medvid says.

So nine days after his jump, the sailor was shipped back to the Soviet Union.

Today, Medvid is a parish priest at a Greek Catholic church in Stenyatin, a western Ukrainian village near the Polish border.

"Thanks to what happened to me in America, I went to serve the Lord, and I am content," says Medvid, a large, balding man with crow’s feet around constantly smiling eyes.

Medvid says he made up his mind to seek asylum in the United States when he was still a child. His entire life before the once-famed and now all-but-forgotten jump was of constant preparation, he says.

"It was a grand scheme, and I worked on it for years and years," he says.

He refuses, however, to discuss the steps he took to end up on board the Marshal Konev, a Soviet freighter sent to New Orleans for a cargo of American grain.

On the evening of Oct. 24, 1985, Medvid jumped off the vessel, hoping, he says, to "take revenge on the [Soviet] regime."

"I conscientiously hated the Soviet rule," he says.

But once he swam onshore in New Orleans, his plans fell to pieces.

The New Orleans police took Medvid to the Border Patrol of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The INS, in turn, put him on a boat back to the Marshal Konev.

Medvid immediately jumped off the boat again, and this time beat his head on shoreline rocks until he lost consciousness. He was, nevertheless, picked up by INS officers, handcuffed, and returned to the Soviet freighter.

Once on board the Marshal Konev, Medvid says, he was doped with Thorazine, a strong mind-altering drug, and forced to sign a paper saying that he wanted to go back to the Soviet Union.

The U.S. government examined the case and ruled that Medvid would not be granted asylum. On Nov. 9, the Marshal Konev set sail with the would-be defector on board.

The government’s decision stirred up the wrath of many Americans, including Ukrainian ?migr?s, human rights groups like the Helsinki Commission and lawmakers. Then-New York Senator Fred Eckert declared that the Marshal Konev carried the sailor "to hell."

The Soviet Union lashed back at the United States, saying through the state-run TASS news agency that Medvid’s attempted defection had been a setup. TASS later said the sailor had accidentally fallen overboard. Twice.

Medvid said he had anticipated being exiled to Siberia for a prison term or, possibly, death on his return. But, he says, through "an act of God" nothing happened.

Medvid said that when he was handcuffed and dragged aboard Marshal Konev the second time he saw a vision of Virgin Mary — an experience that changed his life.

Coincidentally, earlier this year, the U.S. press reported that an image of Mary appeared near little Elian’s Miami home and that the boy’s relatives saw another image of the mother of Christ in a mirror.

Shortly after returning to the Soviet Union, Medvid joined a seminary in Odessa and became a priest.

On a recent afternoon, Medvid walked across the Stenyatin churchyard, carelessly stepping in goat excrement as he picked apples.

He had just returned from a trip to the Vatican, and plans to go to the United States — for the first time since 1985 — later this year.

He has no intention of staying there this time around, he says.