About the Refuseniks
On June 15, 1970, twelve citizens of the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics purchased every ticket on a flight from Leningrad to Priozersk. Claiming that they were traveling to a wedding, they prepared to board the ten-seater Antonov An-2. Their true objective was to hijack the plane, fly to Sweden and leave their homeland.
Before they boarded the place at Leningrad’s Smolny airfield, government authorities arrested them.
During the next eighteen years, many lobbied the Soviet government for their release, including advocates from Colorado.
Accused and convicted of treason by a Soviet judicial system that handed down the following sentences:
- Eduard Kuznetsov – death, later commuted to 15 years in prison for organizing the attempted hijacking.
- Mark Dymshits – death, later commuted to 15 years in prison. A former Soviet pilot, he had offered to fly the plane to Sweden.
- Yosef Mendelevich – 15 years
- Yuri Fedorov – 15 years
- Aleksey Murzhenko – 14 years
- Arieh-Leib Khanokh – 13 years
- Anatoli Altmann – 12 years
- Boris Penson – 10 years
- Israel Zalmanson – 8 years
- Wolf Zalmanson – 10 years
- Mendel Bodnya – 4 years
- Silva Zalmanson (Kuznetsov’s spouse, and Israel and Wolf Zalmanson’s sister) – 10 years
Since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the USSR had hoped to gain favor with Arab governments by prohibiting Soviet Jews from immigrating to Israel. For Kuznetsov, Dymshits, Mendelevich, Khanokh, Altmann, Penson, Bodnya and the Zalmanson siblings, anti-semitism also played heavily into their decision to leave. Fedorov and Murzhenko, Russian Orthodox Christians, likewise experienced discrimination for their religious beliefs and, so, joined with the other refuseniks at Smolny airfield.
Throughout the 1960s, Soviet authorities arrested Jewish and other dissidents for promoting religious studies, including the teaching of Hebrew. After the incident at Smolny airfield, police arrested many more refuseniks who likewise received harsh sentences for their beliefs.
Worldwide, many protested against the harsh sentences. Jewish communities organized campaigns to free the refuseniks, including organizations in the United States. Their outcries forced the Soviet government to commute the death sentences for Dymshits and Kuznetsov to fifteen years. The government also lifted its ban on emigration from the USSR. By the end of the decade, an estimated 250,000 Jews emigrated. Kuznetsov and Dymshits were part of a 1979 prisoner exchange between the two primary Cold War adversaries – the United States and the Soviet Union.
By 1980, only Mendelevich, Fedorov and Murzhenko remained prisoners. The rest of the world came to know them as the Leningrad Three.
Colorado Joins the Protest
After his release, Eduard Kuznetsov traveled extensively to campaign for the release of the Leningrad Three. At a press conference in Denver, Kuznetsov met Colorado legislators Jerry Kopel and Tilman Bishop. Moved by Kuznetsov’s plea for his fellow refuseniks, the legislators formed the Committee to Free the Leningrad Three.
Rep. Kopel, a Democrat from Denver, and Sen. Bishop, a Republican from Grand Junction, recruited their fellow legislators onto the Committee. By keeping the Committee outside of the legislative process as well as bipartisan, they created a powerful voice on behalf of the Soviet prisoners.
The Leningrad Three
Yosef Mendelevich (1947 - ) Born in Riga, Estonia, Mendelevich was twenty-three when the Soviet judicial system incarcerated him for his involvement in the attempted hijacking in June 1970. While imprisoned in the Gulag, he became acquainted with other Jewish dissidents including Natan Sharansky.
Upon his release in 1981, Mendelevich immigrated to Israel. In addition to his rabbinical responsibilities, he continued to advocate for the release of his fellow refuseniks and assisted Sharansky with the Zionist Forum.
Alexei Murzhenko (1942-1999) Arrested at age 18 for participating in “anti-Soviet youth organization,” Murzhenko spent five years in prison before he met up with the other refuseniks at Smolny airfield. One of two Russian Orthodox Christians to join this group of refuseniks, he was released on the fifteenth anniversary of the hijacking, June 15, 1984. After his release, police charged him with “parole violations” and again imprisoned him. The international community including Colorado’s Committee to Free the Leningrad Three successfully petitioned for his freedom. He spent the remainder of his life in Russia where he died in 1999 from injuries incurred during his incarceration.
Yuri Fedorov (1943- ) Born in Moscow, Fedorov had previously protested against the oppression of religious groups. For that and his role in the attempted hijacking, he served eighteen years in the Gulag prison system and was the last member of the Leningrad Three to be released. In 1988 he and his wife moved to the United States and took up residence in New York. After visiting with former prisoners in Moscow in 1998, he established the Gratitude Fund to help provide assistance to the many in his former homeland who dedicated their lives for human rights and suffered imprisonment.
“Dear Premier Brezhnev”
The Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics existed from 1917 until 1991. Comprised of remnants of the Russian Empire, the USSR had the elements of a twentieth-century government: a constitution, elected leaders, and a legislature. Its one-party political system created a carefully guarded, closed governing authority.
From 1964 until his death, Leonid Brezhnev (1902-1982) was Premier of the Soviet Union. Like other Soviet leaders who preceded him, Brezhnev was the Chairman of the Communist Party. The Party and the Soviet government operated as an interlocking directorate as Party leaders were also the directors of governmental agencies.
From 1980 to 1982, the Colorado legislators addressed their letters to Premier Brezhnev. After his death, it seemed as though each year brought forward a new Premier. Yuri Andropov (1914 -1984), former head of the secret police known as the KGB, became Premier and the recipient of Colorado legislators’ letters. Konstantin Chernenko (1911-1985) replaced him. Fifteen months later, Chernenko passed away and Mikhail Gorbachev (1931- ) became the head of state. His reforms led to disillusionment of the USSR in 1991. He also oversaw the release of the two remaining members of the Leningrad Three.
In agreeing to participate on the Committee, each legislator promised to compose an original letter addressed to the Soviet leadership on behalf of the imprisoned refuseniks and a second letter to the prisoner. The legislators mailed their letters using Committee stationary. As newly elected legislators arrived, Kopel and Bishop recruited them and added their names to the stationary head. They invited others to join the Committee, including the Governor and Federal as well as State officials.
By personalizing each letter, the Committee humanized their request to the Soviet leadership and kept the imprisoned in the forefront of their efforts.