In politics, a defector is a person who gives up allegiance to one state in exchange for allegiance to another, changing sides in a way which is considered illegitimate by the first state.[1] More broadly, defection involves abandoning a person, cause, or doctrine to which one is bound by some tie, as of allegiance or duty.[2][3]

A Soviet Lavochkin La-7 fighter aircraft, that crash-landed in Sweden after being flown there by a defecting pilot, May 1949

This term is also applied, often pejoratively, to anyone who switches loyalty to another religion, sports team, political party, or other rival faction. In that sense, the defector is often considered a traitor by their original side.[4][5]

International politics

A memorial to those who died trying to cross the Berlin Wall stood for ten months in 2004 and 2005 near Checkpoint Charlie.

The physical act of defection is usually in a manner which violates the laws of the nation or political entity from which the person is seeking to depart. By contrast, mere changes in citizenship, or working with allied militia, usually do not violate any law(s).

For example, in the 1950s, East Germans were increasingly prohibited from traveling to the western Federal Republic of Germany where they were automatically regarded as citizens according to Exclusive mandate. The Berlin Wall (1961) and fortifications along the Inner German border (1952 onward) were erected by the Communist German Democratic Republic to enforce the policy. When people tried to "defect" from the GDR they were to be shot on sight. Several hundred people were killed along that border in their Republikflucht attempt. Official crossings did exist, but permissions to leave temporarily or permanently were seldom granted. On the other hand, the GDR citizenship of some "inconvenient" East Germans was revoked, and they had to leave their home on short notice against their will. Others, like singer Wolf Biermann, were prohibited from returning to the GDR.

East German border guard Konrad Schumann jumping the border in 1961

During the Cold War, the many people illegally emigrating from the Soviet Union or Eastern Bloc to the West were called defectors. Westerners defected to the Eastern Bloc as well, often to avoid prosecution as spies. Some of the more famous cases were British spy Kim Philby, who defected to the USSR to avoid exposure as a KGB mole, and 22 Allied POWs (one Briton and twenty-one Americans) who declined repatriation after the Korean War, electing to remain in China.

When the individual leaves his country and provides information to a foreign intelligence service, they are a HUMINT source defector. In some cases, defectors remain in the country or with the political entity they were against, functioning as a defector in place. Intelligence services are always concerned when debriefing defectors with the possibility of a fake defection.

Entire militaries can defect and choose not to follow orders from a state's leaders. During the Arab Spring protests, militaries in Egypt and Tunisia refused orders to fire upon protesters or use other methods to disperse them.[6][7] The decision to defect can be driven by the desire to prevent insubordination: if a military leader judges that lower officers will disobey orders to fire upon protesters, they could be more likely to defect.[6]

Notable defectors





  • Guy Burgess, British diplomat and member of the Cambridge Five, defected to the Soviet Union in 1951.
  • Donald Maclean, British diplomat and member of the Cambridge Five, defected to the Soviet Union in 1951.
  • Kim Philby, British intelligence officer and member of the Cambridge Five, defected to the Soviet Union in 1963.
  • Viktor Suvorov (born 1947), Russian writer and former Soviet military intelligence officer who defected to the United Kingdom in 1978.
  • Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat for Britain. At an unknown date Thae defected from North Korea for his family, because he "didn't want his children, who were used to life of freedom, to suffer life of oppression". Being one of North Korea's elite, for the nation he was the highest profile defection since No Kum-sok (above) in 1953. He was elected to the South Korean National Assembly in 2020 for the United Future Party, representing the Gangnam A district of Seoul.
  • Vladimir Petrov - Soviet diplomat who defected to Australia in 1954.[15][16][17]


  • Viktor Korchnoi, Russian chess Grandmaster, defected in Amsterdam in 1976.
  • Walter Polovchak, minor, defected to the United States in 1980 at 12. He and his parents moved to the United States from Soviet Ukraine in 1980 but later that year his parents decided to move back to Ukraine. He did not wish to return with them and was the subject of a five-year struggle to stay permanently. He won the right to permanent sanctuary in 1985 upon turning 18.
  • The crew of oil tanker Tuapse, held hostage in 1954 by the government of Taiwan during the White Terror. An unusual case of forced defection, where the crew were forced to defect to the United States to secure their release. Those who refused were subjected to various forms of torture, while those who subsequently retracted their defection and returned to the Soviet Union were sentenced for treason but later pardoned. All surviving crew were released in 1988.
  • Vaas Feniks Nokard, in order to defect from Russia in 2021, swam from Kunashir Island to Hokkaido, a distance of about 20 kilometers, in 23 hours.[18]

See also


  1. "Definition of DEFECTOR". Archived from the original on 2015-02-26.
  2. "Defection | Define Defection at". Archived from the original on 2011-04-03. Retrieved 2011-03-22. "de·fec·tion [dih-fek-shuhn] noun (1.) desertion from allegiance, loyalty, duty, or the like; apostasy: His defection to East Germany was regarded as treasonable. (2.) failure; lack; loss: He was overcome by a sudden defection of courage." Retrieved 22MARCH2011.
  3. "Defector | Define Defector at". Archived from the original on 2011-04-05. Retrieved 2011-03-22. "de·fec·tor [dih-fek-ter] –noun a person who defects from a cause, country, alliance, etc. Origin: 1655–65; < Latin dēfector renegade, rebel, equivalent to dēfec- (variant stem of dēficere to become disaffected, revolt, literally, to fail; see defect) + -tor -tor" Retrieved 22MARCH2011.
  4. "defector", The Free Dictionary, retrieved 2023-01-18
  5. "defector 1660s, agent noun in Latin form from defect, or else from L. defector "revolter," agent noun from deficere (see deficient)." Retrieved 22MARCH2011. Archived 2011-07-28 at the Wayback Machine
  6. Brooks, Risa A. (2019-05-11). "Integrating the Civil–Military Relations Subfield". Annual Review of Political Science. 22 (1): 379–398. doi:10.1146/annurev-polisci-060518-025407. ISSN 1094-2939.
  7. Grewal, Sharan (2019-06-01). "Military Defection During Localized Protests: The Case of Tataouine". International Studies Quarterly. 63 (2): 259–269. doi:10.1093/isq/sqz003. ISSN 0020-8833.
  8. "1974: Mikhail Baryshnikov defects from the Soviet Union - CBC Archives". Archived from the original on 2015-09-23.
  9. Bridcut, John (16 September 2007). "The KGB's long war against Rudolf Nureyev". Archived from the original on 2016-03-22. Retrieved 2016-03-03.
  10. "The plight of Krystsina Tsimanouskaya shows what a pariah Belarus now is | Mary Dejevsky". 2 August 2021.
  11. Dowling, Stephen The Pilot Who Stole A Secret Soviet Fighter Jet September 5, 2016 Archived February 18, 2017, at the Wayback Machine BBC Retrieved August 24, 2017
  12. "Factsheets: Story of the MiG-15 Archived 2013-09-22 at the Wayback Machine." National Museum of the United States Air Force.
  13. "Pakistan Army".
  14. Professor Ben Kiernan (2008). The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia Under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79. ISBN 978-0-300-14434-5.
  15. "Mrs Petrov's death brings bizarre affair to end". 27 July 2002.
  16. "Obituary: Evdokia Petrov". 27 July 2002.
  17. "Spies who loved us". 27 July 2002.
  18. 【テレビ初告白】なぜ彼は国後島から泳いできたのか 脱出のきっかけ「不愉快な出来事」とは… すべてを語る, retrieved 2022-11-03

Further reading

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