On Dec. 24, 1970, the Leningrad municipal court issued verdicts in the cases of 11 defendants in a case that would transform the Jewish world, the State of Israel, and the Soviet Union itself. The court sentenced two defendants, Mark Dymshits, age 43, a former military pilot, and Eduard Kuznetsov, age 30, a dissident who had already done seven years in the gulag, to death by firing squad. Seven defendants, ages 21 to 30, were sentenced to 10 to 15 years in labor camps, with two receiving shorter sentences. Their crime: attempting to hijack a Soviet airplane in order to escape to Israel. With two exceptions, all the defendants were Jews.
The story of the Leningrad hijacking plot is one of the most powerful stories of Jewish courage and commitment in the last half century of diaspora history. It turns the narrative about passive, silent Soviet Jews on its head, shining a spotlight on the true heroes of the struggle for Soviet Jewry—Soviet Jewish activists themselves. Most important, it offers profound lessons about the meaning and value of Jewish identity, and the need to struggle for it, at a time when such lessons are needed more than ever.
Today, it is American Jews who are being conditioned, in ways subtle and overt, to give up slices of their identity. It is American Jews who are facing an onslaught of anti-Semitic attitudes in their political and cultural homes and workplaces. It is American Jews who are being asked to reject their connection to Israel and proclaim themselves to be “privileged” and “white”—and many are meekly or reluctantly falling into line. The story of these Soviet Jews who responded to anti-Semitic attitudes, assimilationist pressures, and vicious anti-Israel and “anti-Zionist” propaganda not by retreating or keeping quiet but by flinging their windows wide open and screaming for all the world to hear is no longer simply part of history, but also a beacon.
The Leningrad plot was as brazen as it was hopeless. Few of its participants believed they would ever get off the ground, let alone fly across the Soviet border. Most viewed their chief objective not as reaching their preliminary destination—the Swedish town of Boden—but in drawing the world’s attention to the virtual prison that the Soviet Jews found themselves in. Their desperate action and defiant words touched the hearts of millions, moving world leaders to act on their behalf and propelling the nascent movement for Soviet Jewry into high gear.
The world’s reaction took the Soviets by surprise. The KGB had viewed the case as a surefire opportunity. They planned to label these Jewish activists as terrorists, thereby putting an end to the West’s endless nagging about Soviet state-sponsored anti-Semitism. Western governments, they knew, could never condone a terrorist act just when the entire world was at its wits’ ends trying to figure out how to stop airplane hijackings. Simultaneously, they imagined that the verdicts would crush the embryonic domestic Jewish national movement, whose petitions to the U.N., sit-ins, and hunger strikes were becoming an annoyance for Soviet authorities.
But the terrorist label did not stick. The conspirators had gone out of their way to ensure that no innocent bystanders could be hurt in the operation. In their parting declaration, penned by Yosef Mendelevich, they stated that when the airplane took off and turned west, only they would be onboard. The fact that they were arrested before they even stepped foot on the airplane also worked against the KGB. To Western public opinion, death by firing squad was a jarringly harsh sentence for a crime that had been contemplated and planned—but not actually committed.
The international backlash was such that by New Year’s Eve, the Soviets had commuted the two death sentences to 15 years in prison camps and shortened other defendants’ terms. But the would-be hijackers’ biggest victory came shortly after the trial: Soviet authorities began to issue permissions for Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel. Over the next few years, some 150,000 Soviet Jews would leave the country.
The idea of hijacking a plane to fly to Israel was born in Leningrad. It belonged to Mark Dymshits, a Leningrader and former military pilot, who had long understood that as a Jew, he had no future in the Soviet Union. Another Leningrader, Hillel Butman, one of the leaders of the Leningrad underground Zionist organization and Dymshits’ Hebrew teacher, helped concretize Dymshits’ early vision. But in many ways, it was actually the Riga plan: Out of the final group of 11 active conspirators, 10 were from Riga.
For those who understood the geography of the Soviet Jewish national movement, this was hardly a surprise. In the words of Arie Hanoch, one of the participants in the plot, until early 1970s Riga was “the Zionist capital of the Soviet Union.” Latvia hadn’t become part of the USSR until 1940, which meant that Latvian Jews had spent considerably less time in the Soviet assimilationist pressure cooker than the Jews of Russia. In the interwar period, Riga had boasted a rich Jewish life that included Zionist youth movements of all shades. It was in Riga that Ze’ev Zabotinsky founded Betar. Shimon Dubnow, the celebrated Jewish historian, chose Riga as his home when he fled the Nazis from Berlin in 1933.
When the Nazis reached Riga in 1941, they buried 24,000 of its Jews in the pits in the Rumbuli forest outside the city, just a couple of months after doing the same to 34,000 Kyiv Jews at Babi Yar. Those who survived the war—either as refugees or, as was often the case with members of prewar Zionist movements, as gulag prisoners in Siberia—came back to find the city’s Jews and Jewish life wiped out. Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaigns followed. But as Khrushchev’s thaw arrived, the possibility of quiet rebuilding opened up. Those who remembered, and were not afraid, began to pass on what they knew to the next generation.
One place where they did so was the abandoned and desecrated graves of Rumbuli. Onetime members of prewar Zionist youth movements began to bring Riga’s youth to the killing pits with rakes and shovels to clean up the site and build commemorative markers. Eliahu Valk, one of the young people who joined in the gatherings and became a leader of Riga’s budding Jewish national movement, told me about piling into bus number 30, which took the young Zionists to Rumbuli from Riga’s central market. It was a half-hour ride, and they whiled away the time singing songs in Yiddish and Hebrew. “There was a very chalutzi atmosphere there,” recalled Israel Zalmanson, one of the hijackers, referring to the Jewish pioneer movement in pre-state Palestine.
One of the first young people to join the Rumbuli gatherings was the 17-year-old Yosef Mendelevich, a future hijacker and one of the most prominent Soviet Jewish prisoners. Once he saw those graves, he knew he would not leave, he told me when we met recently at his apartment in Jerusalem’s religious neighborhood of Kiryat Moshe that was buzzing with excitement at the imminent arrival of his next grandchild. He viewed what was happening at Rumbuli as a miracle, and he would speak about it two years later, in 1966, in the most important speech of his young life.
“We had come here to help the dead,” he recalled telling hundreds of people who had gathered at the graves to commemorate the anniversary of the massacre. “Instead, the dead helped us and gave us a purpose.” But that was not all. “Hear!” he told those gathered around him: “The dead are whispering to us from their graves: ‘Do not stay in this cursed country. You have your own motherland.’” Later that day, inspired by that moment, he agreed with his friends to establish an underground Zionist group in Riga to educate their fellow Jews and fight for aliyah.
Sylva Zalmanson, who would play a critical role in the hijacking and become one of the most enduring symbols of the movement for Soviet Jewry, chuckled at the phrase “Zionist underground.” “One might think we were making bombs or something,” she told me recently. “It was all so vegetarian.” They translated, typed up, and disseminated copies of Leon Uris’ Exodus, that perennial hit of Soviet Jewish samizdat; Jabotinsky’s Feuilletons (his early articles about assimilation were particularly popular); and a beginner’s Hebrew textbook, Elef milim (A Thousand Words)—a classic that gave generations of Soviet Jews basic Hebrew language skills. They then shipped this Jewish samizdat to other parts of the Soviet Union.
The boundary between Zionist and Jewish was blurry in any case in the eyes of the authorities. Anything that was “too Jewish”—for example, a Jewish choir—was bound to arouse suspicions. Hanoch told me that in the wake of the Six-Day War, the authorities shut down the Jewish ensemble that he and his brother had set up in the city of Daugavpils. Evidently, Jews dancing and singing together to entertain other Jews was too provocative under the circumstances.
Most of the Riga Jews who joined in the hijacking were born just a few years after Latvia got annexed to the USSR. They grew up in traditional Jewish families. Almost all had relatives who had left for Palestine in the 1930s, and almost all had relatives lying in those wartime mass graves that the Soviet authorities refused to recognize as evidence of genocide—a background that proved a powerful foundation for their sense of selves as Jews.
Anti-Semitism cemented it further. Sylva Zalmanson recalled being beaten up as a child and how it shaped her as an adult. “At some point, when you went outside, this counter would turn on: This one is a Jew, this one isn’t. This one is an anti-Semite, this one isn’t. You’re constantly ready to be attacked,” she told me.
Soviet anti-Zionist propaganda proved to be a force multiplier. The more “unhinged and vicious” it got, in the words of Sylva’s older brother Wolf who at the time served as an officer in the Soviet army, the more alienating Soviet reality felt to them—and the more pull Israel exerted on them. “For us, Israel wasn’t an empty sound. ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ had a literal meaning for us,” Sylva Zalmanson recalled. They increasingly felt that they lived in a wrong country.
They began to apply for exit visas and to receive refusals: categorical, with no right of appeal. Sylva applied twice—once by herself and once with her new husband, Eduard Kuznetsov, a recently released political prisoner who had served seven brutal years in the camps for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” (editing a dissident publication). She was denied both times.
Boris Penson, an aspiring artist, got kicked out of Riga’s art academy during his freshman year after he applied to emigrate to Israel and was refused. A talented artist with an interest in and gift for modern art, he saw no future for himself in the socialist realism-dominated USSR. Getting kicked out of the academy while being refused permission to emigrate meant the end of all dreams.
Facing a wall of refusal, they borrowed a page from other Soviet dissidents and began to write petitions and letters to the United Nations, Israel, and other international and Soviet bodies calling attention to their desire to live in a country they considered their homeland—an effort that swung into high gear after Golda Meir publicized the letter of the Georgian Jews in the fall of 1969. “Some of these letters gathered hundreds of signatures all across the country—from Riga to Kishinev to Kyiv to Odessa,” said Hanoch, who led this effort in Riga. But it brought no results for them.
Trying to figure out how to actually leave the Soviet Union left the Jewish dissidents at wits’ end. “I was desperate, completely desperate,” Penson told me. In these young people’s suffocating Soviet reality, time stood still, while somewhere on the other side of the planet, they knew, the Jewish people were building their future, which they desperately wanted to be part of. And so some of them began to rethink things. “I came to the conclusion that teaching was futile,” Mendelevich told me, recalling his thought process at the time. “If the goal is to stop assimilation, how many people could we educate? One thousand? Two thousand? But there are millions [of Jews in the Soviet Union]!” He felt that something dramatic needed to happen.
Another person who thought this way was Kuznetsov. As a dissident who had already served time, he had a problem of his own: He felt that he was on the verge of being arrested. The KGB always kept a watchful eye on former political prisoners and did not need a reason to lock one up once again. He wanted to do something worthy of the prison term that was coming his way anyway.
It was against this background that Butman showed up in Riga in the spring of 1970 and asked Sylva—a trusted contact who frequently delivered Jewish samizdat to Leningrad—what she thought about the possibility of leaving the USSR illegally on a hijacked airplane. She thought the plan fantastical and entirely unrealistic, but she said yes, “just in case.” Very soon they had a group.
The plan the group settled on was to take over a 12-seater propeller plane, an An-2, that flew from Leningrad’s Smolny airport to Sortavala on the Finnish border with a stopover in Priozersk, a small town on the western shores of Lake Ladoga. To prevent any harm to innocent passengers, they would buy tickets for all 12 seats on the plane.
The crucial point would come at the stopover in Priozersk: There they would wrestle the pilots, tie them up, and leave them outside in sleeping bags (it was early summer and the weather was warm). Dymshits, the pilot, would then take control over the plane, and they would fly it across Finland to the Swedish town of Boden on the Gulf of Bothnia, where they would give a press conference. (Finland was closer but they heard that it handed Soviet fugitives back to Moscow.) To avoid detection over Finland, they would fly below the radar. If they ran out of fuel, they would land and walk toward the Swedish border.
While the Jewish dissidents realized that they might get arrested in Sweden for crossing the border illegally, they did not mind. “So we’d spend five, six, maybe seven years in prison. But then we’d go to Israel!” recalled Mendelevich.
Dymshits figured that the distance from Priozersk to the Finnish border was too short for the Soviet air force to scramble the jets. In the event that they did encounter Soviet military planes, they agreed that they would refuse to land, even if that meant getting shot.
The plan that the group arrived at was a slimmer, more manageable version of a plan that Dymshits and Butman had originally conceived. The original plan, which came to be known by its code name, “Operation Wedding,” called for bringing several dozen Jews on board a much larger Tu-104 plane under the pretense that they were traveling to a wedding in Murmansk. The co-conspirators had even picked out the fake bride and groom. They gave up the plan because it was too cumbersome and, most important, risked the lives of the other passengers. The last thing they wanted was parallels with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. With a smaller plane, they could avoid that problem.
Since the An-2 had only 12 passenger seats, and the group had a total of 16 members, they split into two. The main group, which would fill the plane’s 12 seats at Smolny and fly to Priozersk, included Dymshits, Kuznetsov, Mendelevich, Sylva Zalmanson’s brothers Wolf and Israel, Anatoly Altman, Mendel Bodnya, Dymshits’ wife Alevtina and their two teenage daughters, and two non-Jewish friends of Kuznetsov’s from prison camps, Alexei Murzhenko and Yuri Fedorov.
The remaining four—Sylva, Penson, Hanoch, and Hanoch’s young pregnant wife and Mendelevich’s sister Meri—formed the second group. (Butman dropped out after other leaders of the Leningrad Zionist organization, who came to view the plan, with reason, as reckless and bound to destroy the budding Soviet Jewish national movement, put pressure on him.) This group would reach Priozersk by taking a local elektrichka train, a journey of some two and a half hours, the day before. They would spend the night in a forest next to the landing strip waiting for the plane to arrive. Once the pilots had been tied up and laid outside in sleeping bags, Dymshits and another person would take up positions in the cockpit, two more conspirators would occupy two folding crew seats, and voilà—the whole gang would be on its way to Sweden. They set the date of the operation for June 15, 1970.
Few of the conspirators had any illusions about the operation’s potential success—least of all the most experienced among them, Kuznetsov. He had been appalled when he heard that Butman and Dymshits had talked to dozens, if not hundreds, of people as they sought to recruit participants for the earlier, larger version of the plot.
“In the Soviet Union, when two people talk with one another, one of the two runs to the KGB to report the conversation,” he told me. He did not think they would get to Sweden, but for him, that was not the point. “I was looking to create an international scandal,” he said. His greatest fear was that they would get arrested, and the KGB would keep the incident under wraps. For him, that would be the biggest failure he could imagine.
Kuznetsov and his prison camp friends had no trouble recognizing that they were being followed when they reached Leningrad’s Finland Station, where they gathered for a final coordinating meeting before the operation. Some among the group, who had arrived in Leningrad earlier and had left their bags in the lockers, came back to find their belongings had been rummaged through. They stood at the station in small groups, trying to figure out what to do and eventually agreed that they had nowhere to go but forward. If the KGB was after them, they would be arrested anyway. And as Kuznetsov always told his friends from his own experience, it is much easier to serve time when you have done something you can be proud of.
The group that took the train to Priozersk knew definitively that the plan was doomed. Their tails did not even try to hide as they watched them across the car. Passing by two men in the car who were looking outside, Hanoch overheard a snippet of their conversation that told him their KGB minders already knew the entire plan.
In an attempt to lose their unwanted companions, the four jumped off the train at an earlier stop right before the train began moving and took the next train but they knew they were only delaying the inevitable. They were arrested in the middle of the night in the forest as they took turns napping and watching the fire.
The main group got arrested the next morning at the airport (the KGB brought an overwhelming force against them, including armed soldiers with dogs) as it stood in line to board the flight. Soon they were inside the Leningrad KGB prison, where they would spend the next six months in pretrial investigation.
In the early days and weeks after the arrest, it surely seemed to some of the conspirators that they were living the worst-case scenario prophesied by those who had declined to participate. Not only had they failed, but scores of their friends were being searched and arrested all across the country. Their “weapons”—typewriters and mimeograph machines—were seized, their samizdat literature destroyed. The agents confiscated everything they could lay their hands on, including personal letters from Israel and records of Israeli songs. Butman was arrested as well, along with other leaders of the Leningrad Zionist organization who had correctly warned that the plot would lead to just such a result. For a while it seemed that their worst predictions were coming true: The complete destruction of the Jewish national movement in the Soviet Union was imminent.
What no one could have foreseen was the international reaction to the trial. The written declaration, which Mendelevich had left in safe hands before the operation (also known as “the last will”) proved crucial in communicating their intentions. The activists used the hearing to communicate the messages they had hoped to convey once they landed in Sweden, and while there were no foreign journalists in the room, their relatives were there and shared the information with others.
Under tremendous pressure, facing death sentences and 10-15 years in labor camps, the conspirators behaved with dignity, pleading to commute the death sentences for their friends and to reduce the term for Sylva, the only woman among the group who was put on trial. They stated that they had had no intention of harming the Soviet Union: They simply wanted to be with their people, in Israel.
It was Sylva who spoke the words that left the most lasting impression. Had they been allowed to leave, she recalled saying, this trial would have never taken place: They simply would have bought the tickets and left. And now here she was at this trial, and all she could do was repeat the words that Jews before her had transmitted from generation to generation: Im eshkachech Yerushalayim, tishkach yemini—If I forget thee, oh Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I remember thee not, if I set not Jerusalem above my utmost joy.
She spoke these ancient lines first in Hebrew, then in Russian, and when she finished, “a hush fell over the hall,” recalled Anatoly Altman in an interview with Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov, the daughter of Sylva and Eduard and director of the film Operation Wedding. It was as if these words had some otherworldly energy to them. “Suddenly everything fell into place,” he said: “We are Jews whose Judaism has been stolen from us. And now we are saying that we are going home.”
Within a week, facing tremendous international pressure, the Soviet regime commuted the death sentences for Dymshits and Kuznetsov and reduced others’ sentences. By the time Wolf Zalmanson’s military tribunal took place in early January of 1970—as an active-duty officer in the Soviet army he was tried on charges of desertion and treason—the court commuted the planned 15-year sentence on the spot. It was an unprecedented occurrence, Wolf gathered from the surprised guards who took him back to the detention facility.
A few days later, Wolf was allowed a meeting with his brother Samuel, the only Zalmanson sibling who did not take part in the operation. With the guards watching closely, Samuel whispered to Wolf that some families had already received permissions to emigrate. “And that is when I knew that we didn’t lose but rather, we had won,” Wolf told me.
In the years that followed, the recognition that their action had jump-started the aliyah helped the would-be hijackers make it through the years of privations of the camps and prisons. Kuznetsov’s promise to them—that it would be much easier to serve when you have something real to serve for—proved true: In prisons and in camps, they could hold their heads high. Every Dec. 24, Israel Zalmanson and his Jewish camp mates staged a hunger strike as a protest against their trial. Their action had powerful long-term consequences for the Jews inside the country, as well as members of other ethnic groups who were also fighting for the right to emigrate.
In the following months, the KGB put more Jewish activists on trials that were staged all around the country. But the international spotlight prevented them from crushing the movement completely. Almost all of the hijackers were released early in secret spy swaps and prisoner exchanges: Sylva was released in 1974; Penson, Hanoch, Altman, Wolf Zalmanson, Kuznetsov and Dymshits in 1979.
Among his fellow Jews, Mendelevich served the longest—11 years out of the 12 ordered by the court. But it was the two non-Jewish participants, Fedorov and Murzhenko, who served the longest terms. In Kuznetsov’s view, this was KGB’s payback for crossing ethnic lines and joining the Jews. After their release, the two emigrated to the United States.
Sylva Zalmanson spent many years after her release fighting for the release of her husband, brothers, and friends. She became an accomplished painter. Mendelevich earned a rabbinical title and today teaches Talmud and Jewish philosophy. Kuznetsov wrote five books (two of them, secretly, in the camps), worked at Radio Liberty in Germany, and served as editor-in-chief of several widely read Russian-language newspapers in Israel. Penson realized himself as a professional artist and has exhibited all over the world. Having fallen in love as a child with the Baltic Sea, he spends his Saturdays boating on the Mediterranean. Hanoch worked to help settle and employ Soviet immigrants who arrived with the Big Aliyah as a senior figure in a human resources firm. Israel Zalmanson has lived the last 32 years of his life in New Jersey, working as an industrial engineer and eventually retiring there. His son, who came to the United States at age 3, has returned to Israel. Wolf Zalmanson had a long and successful career in Israel’s aerospace industry. Mark Dymshits, Anatoly Altman, and Meri Hanoch have died.
Izabella Tabarovsky is a Tablet contributor and a researcher with Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, where she focuses on the politics of historical memory in the former Soviet Union. Follow her on Twitter @IzaTabaro.