Ten years after the Leningrad Trial : Part 2 the Plot is Foiled
Shortly after the Six-Day War, in. the groundswell of pro-Zionist activity among Russian Jews, Mark Dymshitz, a former pilot, hit on the idea of taking an aircraft and, with other Jewish activists, escaping from the USSR. H enlisted the help of Hillel Butman, a leader of the Leningrad group of activists, and of Edward Kuznetsov and his wife, Silva Zalmanson. Other members of the group, notably Lev Korenblit, David Chernoglaz and Lassa! Kaminsky, believed, however, that the plan would endanger the mainstream movement.
AT THE BEGINNING of April, 1970, a showdown occurred at a meeting of the Leningrad group. Angry exchanges took place and Butman was forced to give way to the majority. In addition, the. majority was determined to seek the advice of Israel. A coded message was sent to Asher Blank, who had recently emigrated to Israel from Leningrad through a visiting tourist. The tourist was stopped at the customs. The letter was taken away, photographed, then returned. The letter to Blank in Jerusalem posed three questions:
A few days after receiving the letter, Asher Blank telephoned Vladimir Mogilever in Leningrad and told him: ‘The professor said that you must not take the medicine. It is very dangerous particularly to the health.” Butman, in acknowledgement, commented: “We understood the answers arid will do what the professor said.”
Dymshits was very angry at being thwarted. Butman met him a number of times in May 1970, to convince him to drop the idea and to Come out into the open as an “aleph” activist. Dymshitz continually stalled. Effectively, he played for time to preserve his anonymity so that he could work on the second plan to take an aircraft. Moreover, he was successful in convincing Butman and the Leningrad group that he had given up the aeroplane plan. At the very same time, however, together with Kuznetsov and Silva, they were surveilling Leningrad’s Smolney airport to find ways of breaking in at night.
A third plan to take an aircraft was discussed by Dymshitz and Kuznetsov on June 5. Dymshitz accepted the impossibility of seizing a twelve-seater aircraft at Leningrad. Instead, he accepted that the plane should be filled with twelve trusted activists who would take over the flight when it landed at Priozersk, near the Finnish border. The two men, together with a friend from Kuznetsov’s camp days, the non-Jew, Yuri Fedorov, flew the route on June 8 and decided to put the plan into action one week hence, on June 15 1970.
The “trusted activists” included members of the Zalmanson family, losif Mendelevich and his brother-in-law, Leib Knokh. Some, like Anatoly Altman, who helped Mendelevich in the production of the second issue of “Iton,” joined only on June 9. The plan was vague, the preparations were rushed and the security was lax. The women would go to Priozersk with Penson and Knokh and would be picked up by the others in the plane. The two pilots would be pulled out of the plane and tied up in their sleeping bags.
In small groups, the Riga participants left for Leningrad at staggered, unorganised intervals. All understood that the chances of success were practically nil. Even so, they felt that they had broken through that impenetrable barrier of frustration. They were translating words into action. Everyone tried to put on a brave face, to think of the bright future in Israel. Yet at the back of it, they knew with certainty that the KGB was casting its long shadow over them.
Before leaving, Mendelevich wrote a final testament addressed to world Jewry which clearly outlined the reasons for their action. It was a determined, defiant appeal. Above all, it symbolised Mendelevich’s belief that his place on the morning of June 15 was on the tarmac of Smolney airport and not at the “lion” meeting in Leningrad.
The KGB, however, knew everything. They had even informed the Smolney airport staff that the 8.35 morning flight to Priozersk was cancelled. The second pilot was asked not to report for work that day. Just before 8.30 a.m. the pilot started the aircraft engines and gently taxied the plane along the runway. The twelve walked out on to the tarmac and lined up outside the plane. Suddenly, a phalanx of KGB men rushed at them. A fight ensued — not because of the Jews’ resistance, but because of a deep seated rivalry between the Moscow and Leningrad sections of the KGB.
Moscow, which had apparently been the centre of the operation, had not co-ordinated its actions with Leningrad. As there had been so many changes in plan and personnel, the Moscow KGB decided to take no chances and to arrest everyone in sight. Naturally enough, the Leningrad KGB were not amused when they found themselves being apprehended as “Zionist provocateurs.” Tempers shortened, battle .commenced and medical attention was promptly required. The twelve were escorted to the airport building and the interrogations began immediately.
Within thirty minutes of the arrests, the KGB machine moved into top gear to carry out its long-planned campaign to eliminate the Jewish movement in the USSR. members of the Leningrad group who had opposed the attempt were arrested. Searches took place in cities as far apart as Sukhumi in Georgia and Kharkov in the Ukraine. In the months that followed, arrests of leading activists in Kishinev, Riga and Leningrad were made. One of these included Victor Boguslavsky, who earned his imprisonment by writing a defiant letter, entitled “Free my comrades,” which effectively alerted the West.
Three hours after the arrests at Smolney, Lev Eliashevich handed an envelope to Ezra Ruzinek in Riga as he had been requested to do by his friend, Iosif Mendelevich. The envelope contained two letters. One was the testament and the other contained specific details of their plans and who knew of them. Ruzinek destroyed the note, but returned the testament to Eliashevich after photographing the document.
On June 16, Eliashevich was interrogated by the KGB and asked about the letters given to him by -Mendelevich. The following day, the KGB organised a confrontation between Eliashevich and Mendelevich, who had been brought from Leningrad. Mendelevich asked Eliashevich to hand over the testament, presumably in the belief that its sincerity and its statement that the act held danger only for themselves and for no one else would counteract the KGB charge of treason and criminality. Ruzinek kept in touch with Eliashevich throughout this period and advised him on his every move. Eliashevich returned the testament to the KGB, who warned him that if he so much as breathed a word about its existence then he, too, would be placed on trial.
Ruzinek still had the negative of the testament and could have sent it abroad. The image in the West of the aeroplane affair was one of black and white. Jewish opinion postulated that Jews would not have participated in a plan to take an aircraft and termed the act a “KGB provocation.” It was hoped that the propaganda value would secure the release of the arrested Jews. Moreover, to defend “hijackers” in view of the recent spate of Palestinian adventures would prove difficult for world Jewry to support and for world public opinion to digest. So the central complex details of the aeroplane affair were ignored.
Such an approach, whether deliberate or through lack of information, was noted by pragmatic Riga activists such as Ezra Ruzinek. The flaw in such a polarised approach was that all the eggs were put in one basket. In not differentiating between those who participated in the attempt and the mainstream movement, the KGB’s task was made easier in convicting activists such as Butman, who was not involved. Even the very nature of the actual attempt in all its amateurism was ignored. The release of the testament would have clarified the nature of the attempt. Ruzinek, weighing up all these factors, decided to withhold it in view of the considerable danger to Eliashevich and the growing protest abroad.
When more people were arrested in Riga in early August, younger activists argued that the publication of the testament would in fact protect both these prisoners and the participants in the actual affair- against any KGB distortion of their motives and intentions. It was suggested that the black and white approach appealed to the lowest common denominator in thinking and did not credit Jews and intellectuals abroad with any common sense. They also felt that withholding the whole truth, even though it was for a just cause, somehow debased the moral raison d’etre of the Jewish movement.
On December 15 1970, the trial opened in Leningrad. All eleven defendants were charged with treason, which carried the death penalty. The prosecution decided to link the aeroplane affair with the preparation and distribution of “lion” and other material. In this way, they hoped to connect the attempt to take the aircraft to the mainstream movement.
The defendants were shocked by the charge of treason; they had thought that they would be tried under “illegal departure abroad,” which carried a three-year sentence. The testament, which testified that they wished to leave for basically personal reasons and not political ones and that the attempt would have presented no danger except for themselves, was thus an embarrassment to the prosecution. Although Its existence was not denied in court, it could not be produced because it would have destroyed distortions and refuted important arguments in the prosecution’s case. The prosecutor simply dismissed the testament as a “slanderous anti-Soviet document” without referring to its contents.
The defence challenged the official version of the case. For example, how legally could the defendants have hijacked a cancelled flight? Were they stealing a plane to keep it or borrowing it to return it later? Quite obviously, the authorities paid little attention to the legal subtleties. Their main concern was the impression the trial would make inside the USSR and particularly on its Jewish population. For outside consumption they paradoxically tried to dilute the Jewish aspect of the case and to concentrate instead on its “criminal” nature.
Death sentences were passed on Kuznetsov and Dymshitz. Mendelevich, Fedorov and Muzhenko received fifteen years. Knokh thirteen, and Altman twelve. Silva Zalmanson was sentenced to ten years in the camps, as was Boris Penson. Her brother, Israel, got eight years. Only Mendel Bodnya escaped with the relatively light sentence of four years.
On hearing the death sentences, those in the audience who had been selected to attend by the KGB began to clap. Stunned relatives, angered by these sounds, shouted at them. “Why applaud death?” The answer came back: “Serves them right.”
The relatives of the accused then began to shout their pleas of reassurance to the accused. Penson’s mother called out “Children. well be waiting for you – we shall all be in Israel.” Mendelevich’s father shouted, “Israel is with you! Our people are with your This soon developed into a cacophony of impassioned cries and defiant slogans “Am Yisrael chai – the Jewish people lives – together we shall build our homeland.” Then someone began to recite the Shema. Other relatives joined in, then the prisoners, too.
The demonstration lasted seven minutes. Room number 58 of the Leningrad city court was emptied. The first Leningrad trial was over.
Pressure inside and outside the USSR forced the reprieve of the death sentences and a slight reduction of the savage terms meted out.
Throughout the long years of suffering in the strict regime labour camps at Potma and Perm and in Vladimir prison, the Leningrad prisoners did not forget Zion. Watered-down cabbage soup, prison hospital and anti-Semitic guards became their lifestyle. A letter from relatives and friends with news of Israel was their delight. Petitions, hunger strikes and solitary confinement formed their existence.
Last year, the long-term prisoners were unexpectedly released to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives and to be suddenly greeted as heroes of the Jewish people. Iosif Mendelevich, perhaps as the price for his uncompromising Orthodoxy in the most difficult of conditions, was not released. Mendelevich, Fedorov and Muzhenko are the last of the Leningrad prisoners.
In 1970, on the eve of .the attempt, Mendelevich espoused sentiments which are as true today as they were then:
Jews of the world! It is your holy duty to struggle for the freedom of your brothers in the Soviet Union. You should understand that the destiny of the Russian Jews depends on you: whether they will continue to survive or to perish. We are strongly envious of your freedom and all the privileges of a free life which have become commonplace for you. We call on you to use it to the full so that you can protect our rights as well. And until, we are free, you have to rebuild our Jewish homeland and replace us in the country where we all strongly wish to be.
Jewish Chronicle 12 December 1980