50th Anniversary of the Leningrad “Hijackers’” Case: Film Screening and Discussion
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On June 15, 1970, a group of young refuseniks—mostly Soviet Jews denied permission to emigrate—set out to commandeer an empty plane outside of Leningrad and use it to escape the USSR. Known variously as the Leningrad “hijacking” case, Operation Wedding, and the Dymshits-Kuznetsov affair, the event drew international attention to human rights violations in the Soviet Union and spurred a powerful activist movement in the U.S. and elsewhere on behalf of Soviet Jewry that affected the course of the Cold War. Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov, Glenn Richter, Zvi Gitelman and Jonathan Dekel-Chen discussed the events and their lessons.
The award-winningdocumentary “Operation Wedding," directed by Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov, describes the events fromthe personal point of view of her parents, who were leaders of the group. (Israel, Latvia, 2016; 62 minutes; in English, Russian, and Hebrew with English subtitles).
If you missed the opportunity to watch Operation Wedding, you can view options to download and screen the film HERE. You can also sign up HERE to receive information about the future screenings in your area.
I was lucky enough to be born free, to be born in Israel, and I always appreciated the freedom because my parents had to risk their lives for the simple basic human right to leave their country, because the USSR didn't let anyone out... and in the USSR you had to apply for a visa, and if you apply for a visa you'll probably be refused and when you are refused, you're titled as a traitor, you'll probably lose your job, so you're stuck in limbo and as a Jew you’re probably not welcome in the country because anti-Semitism was very high in the Soviet Union, although of course the Soviet leaders would announce that everybody is equal but this was a lie, like other lies said by the Soviets.
Now it's easy to look back and see how it should have been, if they would have succeeded, they might have been free, but other Jews in the Soviet Union might have continued to be locked behind those walls so in that sense, in the history sense, it might have been better that they were caught. And the KGB, their mistake was also that they wanted to catch them in the airport, to show the world, “Look at those bullies who fight for Zionism, they hijacked the plane,” but what really happened was, the world heard about it and they thought, wait a minute, why don't you let people out and why are people so desperate to leave. And this trial kickstarted the whole Soviet Jewry movement which had already started but then it became bigger.
The word only came later when foreign correspondents, perusing Leningradskaya Pravda in a Moscow library, saw a back page item about the arrests. But for us in the Soviet Jewry movement, this little aircraft turned a prop plane into a turbo-charged jet.
In the USSR, Jews were, as Elie Wiesel wrote, the Jews of silence, suffering mass discrimination and virulent government antisemitism, but they found their voices in the wake of the 1967 Six Day War, when little Israel defeated surrounding Russian supplied Arab armies. A few brave individual Jewish voices emerged for the Soviet darkness and groups all demanding the human right to go to the ancestral home of Israel. Now our movement had heroes we could name.
The situation of Soviet Jewry since 1948 had become dismal. After that date, no Jewish institutions had existed for nearly three million Jews. No schools, no newspapers, no theaters, no academic institutions, synagogues largely closed and were rarely attended. Moreover, Jews were barred from hierarchies in the Soviet system, wherein they had once been quite prominent. Jews were not accepted into military academies, they were barred from government posts, high party positions, and so on, and many fields of endeavor became closed to Soviet Jews. This is why so many of them seemed to have become engineers and technicians, because these were the non-ideological, non-sensitive areas, and so when you couldn't be a journalist, you couldn't be a lawyer, you couldn't work for the government, you turn to something that was ideologically non-sensitive and where Jews, more or less depending on the place and time, could be accepted.
Officially, Jews were regarded as Jews; culturally, they were not Jewish. How does one resolve such attention? This was very difficult and some Jews in the early 1960s began to think about the revival either of Judaism or of Yiddish secular culture in the Soviet Union. They took a cue from the ethnic and national demands of Ukrainians, Baltic people, Crimean Tatars, and even Russians, which had begun to emerge in the relatively relaxed regime of Khrushchev and his successors.
From my conversation with many former refuseniks living in Israel, most are split regarding their moments of awakening. Some indeed say the Six Day War, while others say it was the hijacking. By contrast, the older generation insist that there had always been a Zionist movement in the Soviet Union. For them, these youngsters of the 1960s and 1970s got outsized credit for creating a movement that had in fact existed since the late 19th century. So let's accept as a given the difficulty of coming to a consensus among former refuseniks.
Reflecting on the hijacking as a pivotal moment points to a wider analytical lens. Based on my research on the global movement, the episode accelerated the widespread entry of women into organized advocacy in the Jewish world... Judging from the results in Israel, this gendered aspect of the global campaign had less impact there in Israel. Why is that? At this time, Israel was still a relatively conservative society in which the women's equality movement hadn't yet really taken hold. Within Israel, as Anat's film suggests, the trials brought a significant uptick in popular mobilization in the late 1970s.
Professor Emeritus, Department of Political Science, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
Rabbi Edward Sandrow Chair in Soviet and East European Jewry, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange. Read more
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