Ken Hall still remembers the time two mysterious men came looking for his homeroom teacher.
Bundled in great black coats and fur hats, the strangers with thick foreign accents entered the principal’s office at Yellowknife Public School brusquely asking for Boris Dotsenko.
Red flags went up.
That fall morning in 1968, Hall’s Grade 7 class was told Dr. Dotsenko wouldn’t be in for the day. “That was it,” he says. Later, Hall learned school staff—convinced the KGB had landed in Yellowknife—had stolen his teacher away to a safe place.
That safe place happened to be Grade 8 student Peter Jenkins’s house. “Word got to Boris before they got to him and he wound up hiding out in our basement for two days,” says Jenkins, whose father Bob was the school’s industrial arts teacher. “I went home from school and there he is. Dad said, ‘He’s going to stay with us for a couple of days.’”
Staff weren’t overreacting. Dotsenko, a leading nuclear scientist in the Soviet Union, had recently—and very publicly—defected from the U.S.S.R., renouncing his citizenship and Communist Party membership to seek asylum in Canada. (“Soviet Nuclear Scientist Seeks To Stay in Canada Permanently,” reads a New York Times front-page headline on October 7, 1967.) Moscow was less than pleased with Dotsenko.
Back then, newcomers like these two men stood out in Yellowknife. Television had only just arrived in the close-knit town of roughly 6,000. Dotsenko didn’t take any chances. “He knew what he knew,” says Jenkins. “And he knew [the KGB] play hardball.”
Holed up in the basement, Dotsenko tried to remain calm. Jenkins’s mom, Olga, cooked him meals. He stayed up chatting and drinking vodka with Bob through the night.
Meanwhile, the school’s principal assessed the suspicious men. Eventually, he confirmed they weren’t threats. A New York Times story recounts the ordeal: two Ukrainian-Canadian businessmen from Edmonton “impulsively stopped at the Yellowknife Public School to introduce themselves to the fellow Ukrainian they had read about in the newspapers. Not bothering to explain who they were, they asked for Dr. Dotsenko in a gruff way and with heavily accented speech. Everyone feared they were Soviet agents. A brief panic ensued.”
“I just remember that high drama in junior high,” says Hall. “These bad guys are in town looking for my teacher.”
But why was a top Soviet nuclear scientist, hounded by the KGB, teaching at Yellowknife Public School?
Boris Dotsenko was born October 15, 1926 in Kyiv and his early years were a struggle. Dotsenko’s family was relocated to Siberia, where food was scarce. As a teenager, Dotsenko was put to work building boilers for power plants. The factory was so poorly ventilated he could barely see ten steps in front of him through the thick coal dust. During World War II, at 16, he was conscripted into artillery service with the Red Army. Without any money following his discharge from the army, he nearly froze to death trying to get home, after hanging onto a moving train in the dead of winter.
But Dotsenko had always showed an aptitude for mathematics. After the war, he earned multiple degrees in science, including a doctorate from Moscow State University in 1954. Focusing on intercontinental and space rocket research, he rose through the ranks, becoming head of the nuclear laboratory at Kyiv’s Institute of Physics.
Yet every promotion brought increased scrutiny from the Soviet security apparatus, the KGB. Dotsenko bristled at the attention: he was more concerned with his research than pleasing Communist party bosses. Officials took credit for his work, barred him from enrolling Jewish post-graduate students and denied him promising assignments because, he suspected, they questioned his devotion to the party.
The system turned families against each other, he would later say, alleging his father and wife were reporting his movements and political views to the KGB. (Dotsenko believed his wife worked for the KGB, claiming she had an affair—and child—with an agent.) Finding it harder and harder to live under constant surveillance and exhausted from the pressure, the scientist tried to kill himself by taking too many sleeping pills in 1964.
Around this time, a high-ranking party official approached Dotsenko about participating in an academic exchange to Canada. The official encouraged Dotsenko to become friendly with scientists there so he would be invited back. Then, he would be expected to share plans and information, essentially acting as a spy. The official promised Dotsenko it would be worth his time, suggesting the Soviets could influence the Nobel Prize process and help him secure the award.
Dotsenko agreed to participate in the exchange. Though he was outwardly loyal, near the end of his ten-month program at Edmonton’s University of Alberta, he sought asylum in Canada. This set off a media circus. Dotsenko’s face was plastered all over Canadian and American newspapers as a prominent defector who, in his own words, was in “complete disagreement with…the ideology, principles, methods and practices of the system, state and Communist party of the USSR.”
Dotsenko’s feelings from this time are preserved in the archive of Peter Worthington, then a globe-trotting Toronto Telegram journalist. Worthington had recently returned to Canada after setting up a bureau for the Telegram in Moscow. For two years, he’d written about the Soviet Union’s “paranoia-driven system” that could imprison or even disappear any person suspected of criticizing the state.
Worthington took an interest in Dotsenko and the two struck up a letter correspondence. The newspaperman kept Dotsenko in the headlines, hoping to shame Canadian politicians and academics whom he saw as cowardly for their failures to cut off all ties with the Soviets.
But even in Edmonton, Dotsenko could not escape Moscow’s influence. When the Soviet Union suspended its exchange program with the University of Alberta following Dotsenko’s defection, it irked some Canadian academics. Although he had secured a research grant there for a few months, no university would hire him, which he saw as retaliation for jeopardizing the exchange. (Dotsenko told Worthington that Canada sent students over on the exchange, but most Soviet scientists involved were spies.)
Dotsenko had become a man without country. Needing work to improve his case for permanent residency in Canada, he took the only position he could find—a posting in Yellowknife to teach junior high science.
Donning a white lab coat, his brow furrowed behind distinctive glasses, Dr. Dotsenko was an imposing figure at the front of the classroom. He took his classes at Yellowknife Public School seriously, even if most of his students did not.
“He was way out of his league,” says Hall, a student in Dotsenko’s homeroom and science classes. “He did studies and research on intercontinental missiles and space rockets and nuclear physics. This guy was up in the Nobel reaches and here he was trying to teach some Grade 7 a thing or two about the world.
“What were we thinking about? Girls and goofing around.”
Dotsenko took great pains to explain scientific concepts to his classes, Hall says. But he struggled. “Talking to a PhD candidate versus a Grade 7 student—you’re speaking a different language.”
That was clear right away in Dotsenko’s Grade 8 science class. “The first day he sends us home with an assignment: How many newtons in a dyne?” Peter Jenkins says. “He was testing what we knew. Well, we didn’t know squat.” (Jenkins still doesn’t know the answer.)
At first, Jenkins says he could barely understand his teacher due to his accent. This language barrier became the source of some confusion. Rob Taggart, a classmate of Hall’s, remembers Dotsenko once asked why he was late for class after lunch. Taggart said he had been playing hockey. “You play hooky!?” Dotsenko responded, sending him to the principal’s office to receive the strap.
But Murray Glick, another student in that Grade 7 class, says academic apathy clearly bothered Dotsenko. “It just didn’t compute and, from that side, he was quite a disciplinarian.”
This observation is echoed in one of Dotsenko’s teaching assessments, preserved in Worthington’s archive. “Dr. Dotsenko is unable and unwilling to deal with pupils who have little interest in learning,” writes Norm (N.J.) MacPherson, superintendent of education.
Still, some students made the most of their teacher’s expertise. “For pupils who wish to learn, Dr. Dotsenko offers a wealth of scientific knowledge, far beyond the requirements of the courses,”
Glick was one of these pupils. “There was a small core of people that really were interested in learning and kind of recognized the figure—the power of the mind—that was in the room,” he says.
Growing up, Glick and his friends were always starting clubs. (As detectives, they went around Yellowknife with bicycles and walkie-talkies to “turn in people who were shoplifting in the candy stores and in the Bay,” he says.) Later, they formed CARDA—the Cosmic Aeroscience Research & Development Administration. Initially, they were interested in tracking down recordings of people who had seen UFOs, but quickly they turned to rocketry, at the height of the Space Race. “We wanted to build real rockets, not model rockets out of paper,” says Glick.
The group of young teens tinkered with designs and experimented with engines in the basement of the Kentucky Fried Chicken, owned by CARDA-member Len Jason’s parents. But soon that space wasn’t big enough and Glick was asking his rocket-scientist teacher to help procure land for a blast site.
CARDA basically wanted to launch a missile—a five-foot-long cylinder that used solid fuels. (According to Glick, their blueprints came from a Canadian Army handbook.) The site, Glick told Dotsenko, obviously couldn’t be too close to the airport or town for safety reasons. And they’d also need to build a dyke to contain the blast.
Diplomatically, Dotsenko doused CARDA’s fuse. “He had quite a little twinkle in his eye and a smile, but he slowly talked us down and said maybe it’s a little optimistic,” says Glick.
Dotsenko encouraged the group to build model rockets instead, providing time and tutelage in his science class. At the end of the year, they held a launch at Tommy Forrest Ballpark, where Glick sent the entire school running for cover after one rocket came screaming down from the sky—only to land harmlessly at his feet.
Glick, now a realtor in Edmonton, still finds it hard to believe he learned rocketry from an actual rocket scientist. “Here was a top mind in nuclear physics and he’s teaching a bunch of kids,” he says. “It was mind-boggling. Absolutely mind-boggling.”
Throughout their letter correspondence, Worthington laments the scientist’s professional exile to “the North country.” But Dotsenko seemed to enjoy his new home, noting in one hastily handwritten letter how teaching and his social life kept him busy: “Quite often there are social meetings with very interesting people—Yellowknife is a place very active in social inner life.” (“Inner,” he jokes, because it was so cold outside.)
And it’s evident Dotsenko liked to have fun. In another letter to Worthington on June 21, 1969, he describes how he celebrated the longest day of the year with “probably the largest amount of beer absorbed by me (in good company, of course) at any time in my life.”
Dotsenko also had an appreciation for nature. He often went hiking alone, or sometimes went fishing with fellow staff and friends. In a postcard dated December 14, 1968, he tells Worthington about his attempt to find a meteorite rumoured to have fallen not far from town. “Alas! Didn’t do it. But it was an interesting hike anyway.”
Peter Jenkins joined his father and Dotsenko on that trip, popping into his teacher’s basement apartment before they snowmobiled across Yellowknife Bay in search of the debris from outer space. Jenkins remembers Dotsenko had a chin-up bar and a crossbow—items a teenager would obviously notice—as well as some fascinating books. “They were handwritten books on nuclear physics theories,” he says. “There were only maybe two or three copies in existence in the world.
“Probably the Russians didn’t want him to have them.”
Despite the Cold War paranoia of the late-1960s, Yellowknife greeted Dotsenko with open arms. “Everybody thought he was great,” says Jenkins, who owns an aviation maintenance business in Edmonton today. “There were no secrets about him. We knew he was a nuclear physicist. We were enthralled—here’s a guy who knows how to make a nuclear bomb, you know?”
“We all knew he was running and hiding,” says Glick. “I never heard of anyone thinking of him as a spy or an asset or something.”
But the community that protected him when strange men came looking also knew he wasn’t going to stick around forever. To Dotsenko, Yellowknife was an ideal place to lay low and hide from the KGB while working toward permanent residency and finding more suitable employment in academia. “It was just a way of cooling off, I think,” says Glick.
And really, Dotsenko was never cut out to be a junior high school teacher. From MacPherson’s assessment: “Dr. Dotsenko could make a far greater contribution to Canadian life in a position that utilizes to a great degree his intelligence, his scientific education and his special training.”
Two years after landing in Yellowknife, Dotsenko left for Edmonton in August 1970. He soon took a researching role at the University of Toronto and then an assistant professor position at Waterloo Lutheran University (now Laurier) in the mathematics department. Dotsenko was last quoted in a Canadian newspaper in 1974.
Curiously, he shows up in Scientists Who Believe, a compilation of accounts from scientists explaining their personal relationships with God. (According to that book, he belonged to the Mennonite Brethren Church.)
At that point, Boris Dotsenko disappears. But it’s not the end of his story.
One Saturday morning in 1976 or 1977, during sabbath service at Beth Shalom Synagogue in Edmonton, Murray Glick heard a familiar voice. “It can’t be,” he said to his father, Harold. Turning around, six pews back, he was stunned to find Dotsenko. But his teacher wasn’t Jewish, was he?
The Glicks and Dotsenko shared lunch after the service. Dotsenko had recently returned to Edmonton, working as a consultant with the Alberta Research Council. “We were so happy to see each other and discover our mutual faith,” says Glick, who remembered his teacher always walking around Yellowknife with a bible under his arm. “He was trying to hide his true identity.”
Dotsenko’s Jewish faith isn’t so shocking in hindsight. In letters to Worthington, he often touches on Jewish oppression in the Soviet Union, including insights pulled from personal experiences. Dotsenko believed the Soviets encouraged antisemitism because Jews kept their own customs and traditions, instead of assimilating to Russian culture.
But this wasn’t his only revelation. Dotsenko now went by a new name—Avi Deston.
“He was worried about the KGB always—always—to his dying day,” says Glick. “He’d obviously seen what they were capable of and it haunted him.”
Ed Fitch, a retired major-general with the Canadian Armed Forces, would become a close friend of Deston’s in the last two decades of the scientist’s life. He confirmed Deston’s lifelong fear of the KGB: “But as the old story goes, if someone really is out to get you, then that is not paranoia, is it?”
(Deston left his papers with Fitch before he died. “I have no doubt that Dr. Boris Dotsenko and Avi Deston are one and the same person,” Fitch notes.)
Deston didn’t stay in Edmonton for long. In 1977, he travelled to Israel, where he met his future wife, Suzi. They were married the following year and settled in South Africa, where Deston taught physics at the University of Transkei. When he retired in 1992, the couple moved to Victoria, B.C.
Glick’s family kept in touch with Deston and visited him in Victoria. There, they reminisced about Yellowknife and Glick heard harrowing stories of his former teacher’s experiences in the Red Army. “It’s amazing all that he went through and what little we know of it,” says Glick. “Yet he never seemed bitter about anything. That’s just the way it was and the way it went.”
Avi Deston—Boris Dotsenko—died in Victoria on July 25, 2011.
Although he called Yellowknife home for less than two years, Dotsenko left a lasting impression on his many students. Hall, a semi-retired environmental scientist in Yellowknife with an interest in local history, thinks of him from time to time.
“He didn’t talk about his past in the Soviet Union,” Hall says. That includes the sacrifices he made to escape. Dotsenko reportedly left a ten-year-old daughter in the U.S.S.R. when he defected. Some Yellowknifers speculated the KGB was holding her hostage to force him to return. (To Worthington, Dotsenko expressed a desire to reunite with his daughter.)
Now when Hall remembers the excitement surrounding the surprise visit from the strange men back in Grade 7, he also thinks about the stress his teacher must have been under while ducking the KGB.
Certainly, Yellowknife represented a time of personal turmoil and professional frustration for Dotsenko. But it was also the first place where he must have felt free to express his views without arousing suspicions, to go out and explore nature whenever he wanted, and to start reasserting control over his life.
“I’ve been treated most kindly here, and love the North and its people,” Dotsenko told Worthington. “I feel Yellowknife was a tremendous experience to have gone through and I never will regret it.”