Triumph Over Tyranny: The Heroic Campaigns that Saved 2,000,000 Jews

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Unsung Hero of the Month

December 2008

Each month, we will identify an “Unsung Hero” - someone who, while living, made significant contributions to the Soviet Jewry Movement. This is my attempt to recognize and celebrate their efforts even though they are no longer with us.

Alexsey Murzhenko

On December 31, 1999 Alexsey Murzhenko, one of the two Christians among the eleven convicted in the 1970 Leningrad hijacking trial, passed away. His story is chronicled in Chapter 8, “The Foiled Hijacking that Launched an International Movement”.

During the first three months of 1970 Hillel Butman discussed the plan with forty of his closest associates and hid the list of their names. Butman flew to Riga to see Sylva Zalmanson, who had been helping Butman publish samizdat. Sylva was one of the signers of the 1969 letter to U Thant. Her application for an exit visa was refused because the moped factory where she worked would not provide a character reference. She told Butman that she had just married Edik Kuznetsov, from Moscow, who had served seven years in prison for anti-Soviet propaganda and that he was now working as an English translator in a psychiatric hospital in Riga. As they walked together Butman disclosed the hijack plan. She was excited about it but questioned whether it was feasible. She assured Butman that he could trust her husband and that she was determined to reach Israel by any means, however impossible they might seem.

The next day Butman and Kuznetsov went to the Rumbala memorial site and talked about the plot. Butman observed that for Sylva Zalmanson the operative word was Israel; while for Kuznetsov it was freedom. Kuznetsov emphasized the importance of having trustworthy people involved in the operation and recommended two non-Jewish dissidents who had served prison time with him and were completely reliable – Yuri Fedorov and Alexsey Murzhenko. As a student in Moscow, Fedorov had participated in “Freedom for Intellect”, a human rights group that distributed denunciations of the Soviet regime. At nineteen he had been arrested by the KGB and sentenced to five years in prison. Murzhenko, a Ukrainian human rights activist, was also nineteen when he was arrested for anti-Soviet propaganda. He served six years in prison and, like Fedorov and Kuznetsov, had a deep yearning for freedom.

There were enough potential passengers to fill a TU-124 airliner, but Butman feared that so many Jews flying on the same plane from Leningrad to Murmansk would arouse suspicion and a possible KGB investigation. So he suggested that everyone involved pretend that they were going to a wedding in Murmansk. The operation then took the code name “Wedding”. May 2, 1970, was set as the wedding date. May Day was a major holiday in the Soviet Union so the participants would be off work and radar operators who had been partying might be less vigilant the following day.

A new downsized version of Operation Wedding was agreed upon to involve 12 conspirators buying tickets for all the seats on a flight from Smolny to Priozersk. Upon landing they would overpower the pilot and co-pilot, tie them up and leave them in a nearby forest. Then other conspirators who were waiting in Priozersk would board the plane and Dymshitz, in the pilot’s seat, would immediately take off for Sweden. The scaled-down wedding was set for June 15.

On the evening of June 14 Leib and Meri Khnokh, Sylva Zalmanson and a new recruit, Boris Penson, boarded a train from Leningrad to a station close to Priozersk. They walked to the forest near Priozersk Airport and camped there for the night to await the arrival of the plane from Leningrad. The next morning at Smolny Airport there were twelve passengers bearing wedding gifts at the gate for the Priozersk-bound plane. In this group were Dymshitz and his wife and daughters, plus Kuznetsov, Mendelevich, Fedorov, Murzhenko, Israel and Wulf Zalmanson (Sylva’s brothers) and new recruits Anatoly Altman and Mendel Bodnya. At 8 a.m. the group of twelve at Smolny Airport who were ready to board the flight to Priozersk with their wedding gifts were arrested and roughed up by KGB officers from Moscow and Leningrad. Other Leningrad activists including Butman were arrested at their homes or workplaces.

After over four months of investigations a trial was set to begin on December 15 in Leningrad City Court. All of the defendants except Fedorov and Murzhenko entered guilty pleas and stated that their goal was to emigrate to Israel After a week of testimony and cross-examination the prosecutor, S. Y. Solovyiev, delivered his summation, which included a harangue about the “intrigues of international Zionism” and then stated his request for penalties: death by firing squad for Dymshitz and Kuznetsov, fifteen years for Fedorov and Mendelevich, fourteen for Murzhenko, thirteen for Khnokh, twelve for Altman, Penson and Israel Zalmanson, ten for Sylva Zalmanson and five for Bodnya. On Christmas Eve the court announced the sentences. They were exactly what Solovyiev requested except for ten years for Penson, eight for Israel Zalmanson and four for Bodnya.

By April 1979, after some of the prisoners for Soviet spies caught in Israel and the United States, of the original desperate dozen only Fedorov, Mendelevich and Murzhenko remained in prison Merndelevich was released in 1981 and immediately left for Israel. Once in Israel Mendelevich launched a campaign for the release of the last two Leningrad hijack prisoners, Yuri Fedorov and Aleksei Murchenko. Because they were not Jewish the KGB had particularly resented their participation in the plot to help Jews escape from Russia and at the trial they were told, “It will be worse for you.” No pleas or pressure could get them released early, especially during the early 1980s when the top Kremlin leadership was going through the succession of Brezhnev to Andropov to Chernenko and there was little interest in détente with the West. Murzhenko was finally released in 1984 but rearrested briefly in 1985 for a parole violation. He died on December 31, 1999.