Sylva Zalmanson and Edward Kuznetsov were once household names in the Jewish world. In 1970, along with 14 other refuseniks, they planned to steal a plane in Leningrad and, under the guise of a wedding trip, escape across the Soviet border to freedom. They were arrested at the airport and charged with high treason. Co-leaders Kuznetsov and Mark Dymshits received death sentences, while the rest were sent to Soviet prisons. Zalmanson—then 25 and the only woman involved—received a 10-year sentence.
Had the mission succeeded, or, had the Soviets not had the hubris to publicly claim terrorism (the plotters were the only passengers) the “criminals” would have been quietly dispatched with in the time-honored Soviet manner and the entire episode forgotten. Instead, their trial galvanized the burbling Soviet-Jewry movement, leading to worldwide outrage. Kuznetsov and Dymshits’s executions were commuted, Zalmanson was released after four years, and the fight for Soviet-Jewish freedom, both inside and outside the USSR, was never the same.
Nearly 50 years later, the Leningrad hijacking has faded from public memory. Operation Wedding, a new documentary directed by Zalmanson and Kuznetsov’s daughter, Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov, sets out to reclaim this watershed moment into collective Jewish history. Three years in the making, and set in Russian, English, and Hebrew (with subtitles), the film premiered in Tel Aviv in July 2016 and is currently making the rounds in Israel, Russia, Canada, and the U.S.
It is safe to say that Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov has created the definitive tale of the Leningrad hijacking, and in the process, humanized the larger-than-life characters behind it. “I wanted to show my parents like I see them,” she said. “No one else can show them like that.” It’s hard not to pepper descriptions of the film with superlatives like heroic and courageous. It’s equally hard to stay dry-eyed throughout.
Operation Wedding incorporates archival footage, interviews with Kuznetsov, Zalmanson, and others; cuts from a 2009 Russian documentary; and interviews with former members of the KGB. Deeply personal family moments thread the narrative together. There is the mother-daughter duo at the Smolny airport discussing how small propeller planes are, and in Riga, Zalmanson matter-of-factly looks about the cell where she was kept in solitary confinement: “Well, it’s no Champs-Elysée,” she announces, with characteristic Soviet dry humor, while her daughter turns from the camera, sobbing. In another scene, Kuznetsov details how he smuggled out work from prison, scrawling 125 characters at a time onto contraband strips of paper, which he attached to a string and swallowed during searches. Soviet émigrés will sympathize with Zalmanson’s refusal to cross a St. Petersburg street beside a group of Russian soldiers and her pain in visiting gravestones of funerals she missed. Little-known historical details are revealed, like Golda Meir’s hushed-up role in Kuznetsov and Dymshits’ (who died in 2015) releases.
In an unexpected twist, the film engages with the contemporary Russian perspective, revealing that the battles over Soviet-Jewish immigration are still raw. The Russian documentary is full of falsities, leaning heavily on the terrorist angle, as if still following a KGB playbook. (A 2010 Ukrainian version never broadcast—it was overly sympathetic to the refuseniks.) The leading KGB officer in the arrest is interviewed, still insisting that there was no desire among Soviet Jews to emigrate (spoiler alert: Some 300,000 people left in the decade after the trial). Kuznetsov’s words early in the film seem to echo in the background—“as if they stole the whole world from you and you’re doomed to live only in the Soviet Union.” There is a disturbing sense that one must prove all over again that their actions were justified and that the threat to Soviet-Jewish existence was real. Speaking in Toronto in early May, Zalmanson-Kuznetsov wryly noted that she’d shortened the KGB interview because audiences found it too believable. Propaganda sticks.
So it’s not entirely surprising that she is keen on getting the movie in front of younger audiences, and ensuring the story takes its rightful place in Jewish history. Most importantly, she says, “I really want the film to leave you with an uplifting feeling of strength, not tragedy, because that’s my parents.” Indeed it is.
Operation Wedding has already won several awards and is screening in Canada and the U.S., wrapping up in Brooklyn on June 11. Another U.S. tour is planned for November 2017. Fundraising efforts for further distribution are ongoing.
Lea Zeltserman is a Toronto-based writer who focuses on Soviet Jewish immigration. She is the publisher of the Soviet Samovar, a monthly roundup of Russian Jewish news, culture and events. Her Twitter feed is @zeltserman.