An International Incident
By 1970, Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov’s parents had already tried to leave Leningrad several times but were always refused the right to do so. Now out of legal options, they decided to flee. They and some of their friends dreamed up “Operation Wedding” by which they’d fill a plane full of people supposedly on their way to a wedding, and once in the air, they’d have the pilot change course. However, they did not have the 200 conspirators necessary for this plan so they set their sights on a smaller plane, and their group of 16 bought up all the tickets. They planned to leave the regular pilots behind on the tarmac and would use their own pilot to cross the border which was just 15 minutes away. The only people on the plane were to be those wishing to escape and the plane would be empty save for those wishing to escape. However, Anat’s parents never made it onto the plane. They were caught by the KGB just a few steps from boarding. Her mother was sentenced to 10 years in the Gulag. Her father received a life sentence. “Operation Wedding” is their story.
Still today, Russia remembers the Zalmanson-Kuznetsovs as terrorists. They simply wanted to leave the USSR and they knew the risk they were taking and were prepared to pay the price if caught and, in fact, preferred death to punishment.. In court, they openly declared their wish to leave but refused to beg for mercy. Two of the sixteen were sentenced to be executed by shooting, the first time the death sentence was used in a hijacking case.
Israel held protests: the entire state stood still for those who may be put to death for a crime they didn’t even commit in the end. Jewish organizations in other countries joined in. Hunger strikes were held. And behind the scenes, Golda Meir was secretly pulling strings. The documentary uses archival footage and primary-source interviews, but it is Anat’s family connection that really brings the whole affair to life. When she visits the gulag cell where her mother did time, it is so overwhelming that it is impossible to watch without tearing up.
I the film we see that by the late 1960s trapped Russian Jews had reached a tipping point by which they were willing to risk death rather than continue living in a totalitarian state where they were forbidden to live Jewish lives openly. What is so interesting is that many of the Russian Jews had no idea about the most basic tenets of the faith they were forbidden to study yet willing to die for. I was living in Israel during the great influx of Jewish Russians into the country and was amazed that most of them had no idea about Judaism or even about the state of Israel which they were to call home. Because they had been deprived of any Jewish education, they sought out ways to teach themselves at least the basics, despite fear of being discovered by KGB investigators. From Leon Uris’ “Exodus”, the refuseniks learned about the founding of Israel and this which ignited sparks of Jewish pride and inspired masses of Soviet Jews to try to escape to freedom.)
This film is the first full-length historically accurate English language documentary account of what came to be called “the Dymshits-Kuznetsov Hijacking Affair.” It was the doomed escape attempt by fourteen refuseniks and two non-Jewish dissidents who bought every seat on a small plane, pretending they were traveling to a wedding inside Russia. The original plan was for the group to take control of the plane during a stopover at an airstrip near the Soviet-Finnish border, fly fifteen minutes to cross that boundary, which would put them out of danger, and then another ninety minutes or so to finally land in Sweden. Upon disembarking, they hoped to call a press conference and appeal to the conscience of the free world.
Ion the film, we get personal family accounts and Russian Jewish history juxtaposed as the film moves back and forth from black and white newsreels, film clips, and archival footage of the 1970s to present-day interviews with aging survivors, who recall the past in great detail.
Anat, the Jewish daughter who was born in freedom, revisits the past with her family by always returning to that one fateful day when they tried to escape but ended up imprisoned. We see how the KGB caught and arrested the would-be escapees before they even boarded the plane. Branded “criminals” by the Russians and hailed as “heroes” by the western press, the group included the late Major Mark Dymshits, a former Red Army pilot who was going to fly the plane. Among the passengers were Mark’s wife, Ella and his teenage daughters, Yulia and Liza; the group’s leader, Edward Kuznetsov and Edward’s wife, Sylva; Sylva’s brothers, Wolf and Israel; Yosef Mendelevich; and seven others.
After a trial in Leningrad in 1970, Kuznetsov and Dymshits were condemned to death by firing squad. The others received lengthy prison sentences in the Soviet Gulag. The film dramatically documents the outcry in Europe, the United States, and Israel, with twenty-four governments and the Vatican intervening on behalf of the defendants, demanding their freedom.
Because of the international protests, the Soviets modified the sentences, commuting the death sentences of Kuznetsov and Dymshits to 15 years in prison and reducing the incarceration time of several other defendants.
Zalmanson-Kuznetsov gives us a moving, deeply human telling of her parents’ story. Even though there were three non-Jews in the original group, this is a Jewish human rights story. It is uplifting and unlike any film on Russian Jewry that you have seen before.