What was Peoples Temple’s plan to move to the Soviet Union?

On numerous occasions during Jonestown’s brief history, Jim Jones raised the possibility of uprooting the community and emigrating to the Soviet Union. Part of his motivation for this stemmed from his oft-stated – and seemingly firmly-held – belief that the USSR was the perfect society. He consistently described Lenin and Stalin as his two main heroes. More importantly throughout the Cold War – which lasted throughout Jones’ adult life – the USSR was the chief antagonist of the US and the only superpower to check what Temple political leaders characterized as “American aggression and imperialism.” Since Jones also considered himself an enemy of the US – and since, as the proverb has it, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” – he pledged allegiance to (and forgave more of the sins of) the Soviet Union.

To that stated end, Jonestown hosted a number of delegations from the Soviet Union, including representatives of the Tass News Agency and officials from the Soviet embassy in Georgetown. Community residents were also required to study the Russian language, and were periodically tested on it. Perhaps the most pervasive reminder of the plan was Jones’ daily reading of the news, which he took from Russian and Warsaw Pact news services.

Sometime in the late summer or early fall of 1978 – possibly in anticipation of the visit from the Soviet Embassy officials – the people of Jonestown signed a petition which expressed the “desire to emigrate to the Soviet Union.”

The plan was discussed by the Temple leadership as well, both in Jonestown and in Georgetown. Numerous documents recovered from Jonestown show the extent of contact with foreign embassies – especially the Soviet and Cuban embassies – and an informational packet about the Temple was prepared for several officials from these embassies in January 1978. A memo written to Jones, likely in October 1978, also raises the possibility of such a migration.

But how serious was the plan? According to Terri Buford, some of the Temple leadership in Guyana – other than Jones himself – wanted to go to the Soviet Union, and conversations over the radio between Georgetown and Jonestown often touched on the subject. Jones allowed his lieutenants to explore the idea, but he himself wasn’t serious about it, opting instead for a final stand in Jonestown.

Those sentiments are borne out in the Jonestown tapes. When discussing the possibility of emigration during several Jonestown meetings, Jones pointed out the problems and hurdles of any migration as much as he lauded their potential new home. Asking Cuba to take them in might be asking the country to break its own laws, he says in one tape. “Do you think that’d be too heavy burden to put on Cuba?” During a lengthier discussion in another tape, he says seeking asylum in Russia may require that he “agree not to be the leader,” that “we might be [considered] a threat in any country, “ that Russians “don’t really know how mean our White Nights can be…

“And that’s why I like Guyana,” Jones adds, “in the terms we can be our own independent government. For all matters and purposes, we are our own independent sovereign existence. That’s something you won’t have any place in the world, not likely that you’ll have that anyplace else in the world.”

In arguing against killing the children on the final day, Christine Miller asks, “Is it too late for Russia?” It is, Jones replies, because Ryan’s plane is going down in the jungle. Miller persists: “I say let’s make an airlift to Russia.” Jones asks how she proposes to do that. “I thought they said if we got in an emergency, that they gave you a code to let them know,” Miller says. The code, Jones says, can’t be used if it will “create an issue for them.”

Jones throws her a sop – “We can check with Russia to see if they’ll take us in immediately, otherwise we die… We will put [a call] to the Russians. And I can tell you the answer now, because I’m a prophet. Call the Russians and tell them, and see if they’ll take us” – but another comment by Jones reveals just how futile her plea is: “You think Russia’s gonna want us with all this stigma? We had some value, but now we don’t have any value.”

More more information on the places in the Soviet Union that the Temple considered as possibilites for resttlement, click here.