The Leningrad Hijacking Plot and Trial
"The sight of dozens of men and women and children who had just risked their lives to emigrate to Israel would convey a great deal to foreign journalists about the intensity of the desire of Soviet Jews to emigrate. The impact on world opinion would be enormous and immediate." - Hillel Butman, hijacking plotter, in From Leningrad to Jerusalem: The Gulag Way
News report by Walter Cronkite in the trailer for Next Year in Jerusalem
Monday, June 15, 1970, a group of twelve unarmed Russians were arrested on the tarmac of a Leningrad airport before attempting to hijack a plane and fly to Sweden. Their plan: fly from Leningrad as a group under the guise of a wedding trip, throw out the pilot and co-pilot after landing while at the same time joining a group of four other escapees. They would then fly under Soviet radar into Sweden. In their practically certain failure and arrest, they would capture the eyes of the world.
"According to the “dissident sources” quoted by the Times correspondent, the Leningrad arrests and the searches were authorized by Article 64-A of the Russian Federation Criminal Code or its Ukrainian and Latvian equivalents. Article 64-A deals with treason and lists among treasonous crimes, “flight abroad.” Punishment under the article ranges from 10 years’ confinement to death, Mr. Gwertzman reported." - The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, "8 Leningrad Jews Arrested, 50 Homes of Jews Raided in ‘plot’ to Hijack Soviet Plane" 23 June, 1970
Photos of eleven of the attempted hijackers put on trial. Click to see their names and original sentences.
"We, nine Jews living in the Soviet Union, are attempting to leave the territory of this state without requesting the permission of the authorities.... Jews of the world! It is you holy duty to struggle for the freedom of your brothers in the USSR." - Unreleased testament of the Leningrad attempted hijackers
Protest and hunger strike by Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry. Sitting on the right: Lynn Singer and Jacob Birnbaum
Demonstrations against the verdicts swept Europe and the United States. On December 23, two days after Eduard Kuznetsov and Mark Dymshits were sentenced to death, six Basque terrorists responsible for the death of several policemen were serendipitously given sentences of capital punishment too. As a result of international pressure, Generalissimo Franco commuted their sentences, and the Soviets had the choice of doing so with Kuznetsov's and Dymshit's sentences, or appearing less humane than the fascists.
Due to foreign outcry, protest and pressure over the court verdicts, the Soviet government commuted the death sentences and reduced the prison terms. Although the hijacking became an excuse for a Soviet crackdown on Jewish activities, it demonstrated that even Soviet internal affairs were susceptible to public opinion and foreign influence, and the extent to which Soviet Jews would sacrifice for freedom.
Yosef Mendelevich, attempted Leningrad hijacker. Interview by Mark Golub on Shalom TV.
"The fact that Kuznetsov and Dymshits had escaped death seemed concrete proof that the loud tactics so long decried by the Jewish establishment actually worked. It put to rest the question of whether to pressure. The battle now was over how much." - When They Come for Us We'll be Gone by Gal Beckerman