On Christmas Day 1970, a few Jewish students and some British members of Menachem Begin’s Herut party, stood shivering in the snow outside the Soviet Embassy in London’s Bayswater Road. We had gathered at short notice to protest against death sentences meted out in Leningrad to two Soviet Jews, Mark Dymshits and Edward Kuznetsov, the day before.
Dymshits and Kuznetsov had been part of a group of people, mainly Jews from Riga in Latvia, who had attempted to hijack a 12-seater AN2 aircraft from Leningrad’s Smolny airport in June 1970 and fly across the border to Sweden — a journey of just 15 minutes. Apart from two non-Jewish dissidents, Muzhenko and Feodorov, all wanted to emigrate to Israel but had been repeatedly refused.
One was Sylva Zalmanson, the young wife of Kuznetsov, who became the human face of this doomed attempt to fly to freedom. Their daughter, Anat, a film-maker, has now made a remarkable documentary recalling this episode. It is entitled Operation Wedding because the original plan was to fill a TU-134 with 200 passengers — a fictitious wedding party — and coerce the pilot to change course.
It proved impossible to find 200 volunteers. Even to find the final 16, hundreds were informed of the plan — leading to it being leaked to the Soviet authorities.
The KGB knew about the attempt long before it was ever made. Moreover, the participants intuitively understood that the KGB knew. Their frustration, however, was so intense that, in their eyes, it was better to go forward to certain failure than to retreat to their former lives.
With the engines revving and the plane seemingly ready to leave, the KGB attacked and arrested the Soviet Jews. A fracas broke out on the tarmac — between the operatives of the Moscow KGB and their counterparts from Leningrad. Neither had informed the other that they would be present. They each believed that they were assaulting Jews who were trying to steal Soviet property to leave the country illegally.
The trial began on 15 December 1970 in the Leningrad municipal court on Fontanka Street. It concluded with heavy sentences and Sylva Zalmanson’s emotional, defiant rebuttal to the judge with the time-honoured verse from Psalm 137: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand wither.” The JC’s editorial commented that, “the aim of the Leningrad trial, insofar as it is susceptible to any rational explanation at all, was to cow the Jews into silent submission.”
The harsh verdict was also part of a KGB strategy to smash the blossoming emigration movement by evoking the spectre of a city-wide Zionist conspiracy.
Hundreds of Soviet Jews were subsequently interrogated and scores arrested. This first trial was followed by several others in 1971.
There was widespread revulsion internationally at the death sentences on Christmas Eve — a time supposedly of goodwill to all.
Figures such as the revered Soviet human-rights advocate, Andrei Sakharov called on President Nixon to intervene,
Seemingly unrelated to the Leningrad trial, Prime Minister Golda Meir appealed privately to the Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco, to commute the death sentences, passed on six Basques. For whatever reason — whether to curry western sympathy for his regime or because he was supposedly descended from Jewish conversos, Franco gave the order not to execute the Basques. How, then, could Leonid Brezhnev, the self-appointed heir of Lenin, sink lower than fascist Generalissimo Franco?
Kuznetsov was taken out of his death cell at 11pm on the night of 31 December. He thought that he was about to be executed. Instead, he was informed that his sentence had been commuted to 15 years in a strict regime labour camp.
Anat Zalmanson’s film focuses mainly on her parents’ stories and in particular Sylva’s harrowing return to Riga and Leningrad — to revisit painful memories and difficult locations.
The couple were exchanged for Soviet spies in the 1970s and settled in Israel, where they divorced after Anat’s birth.
Kuznetsov, who had already spent seven years in prison as a dissident in the 1960s, emerges in the film as a strong, principled man in the Russian Jewish tradition.
His book, Prison Diaries, written clandestinely during his nine-year sojourn in the camps, remains a testimony to the Jewish refusal to be broken by adversity. His motivation in providing leadership in “the aeroplane affair” was to create an international furore, despite being warned off by other Soviet refuseniks who also wished to leave.
Even the official face of Israel communicated privately that they were strongly opposed to this venture. Yet some 300,000 Jews were permitted to leave the USSR during the following decade.
In the 1960s, it was left to the Universities Committee for Soviet Jewry to be the standard-bearers for this cause in the UK. During the last week of December 1970, students made certain that the saga of the first Leningrad trial was never out of the public gaze.
A public meeting in Chelsea was organised — before the commuting of the death sentences was announced — at which Tina Brodetskaya and Yosef Yankelevich, two of the first Soviet refuseniks to have reached Israel, spoke to a packed audience in Russian and Yiddish. The trial awakened Jewish organisations and the community at large to the fate of Soviet Jewry and many activist groups emerged in 1971.
Edward Kuznetsov comments in the film that he always valued “the power that the individual can have over history… if you are in the right place at the right time, you can influence history dramatically.” This was instinctively understood by we student campaigners for Soviet Jewry in the late 1960s.
Anat Zalmanson’s raison d’être in making this film was not only to counter the “alternative facts” of this episode, emanating from Putin’s regime, but also to reclaim Jewish history for today’s generation. In her hour-long film, she has succeeded exceedingly well.
Colin Shindler was co-chairman of the Universities Committee for Soviet Jewry 1969 to 1971. He will be in conversation with Anat Zalmanson, following the showing of ‘Operation Wedding’, by UK Jewish Film at JW3 on February 5.