During the same week that Israel, represented by Absorption Minister Eli Aflalo and National Insurance Institute Director General Esther Dominisini, officially honored the Prisoners of Zion, one of the most famous such prisoners, Edouard Kuznetsov, received a letter from that very same NII demanding that he repay NIS 437 to which, in the NII's unexplained opinion, he was not entitled. This letter was preceded by a demand that he return NIS 14,194 that he had received in disability payments last year, on account of disabilities that, so the letter stated, he does not have. In other words, the state, in whose name he was once declared a Prisoner of Zion, now sees him as a little thief who is swindling it.
The truth is that Kuznetsov, 69, is a big thief. In 1970, he was the leader of the Leningrad Group, which sought to hijack a Soviet plane in order to reach Israel. He knew the chances were slim, but believed that a scandal of that magnitude would arouse world public opinion to act against the Kremlin's emigration policy.
The group was caught at the airport by two KGB units that vied to take credit for the big accomplishment, even going so far as to strike each other in front of the shocked hijackers. Kuznetsov was sentenced to death in a lightning trial. He only discovered much later why he did not die.
Around 10 years ago, he said, Yitzhak Rager, a former mayor of Be'er Sheva and active participant in the struggle for Soviet Jewry, showed up at his Jerusalem home. This happened shortly before Rager's death. Rager told him the following story, which is being published here for the first time: In the days before Kuznetsov's scheduled execution, Generalissimo Francisco Franco was preparing to execute three Basque terrorists. The world was enraged. Then-prime minister Golda Meir summoned Rager to her office. "Go to Franco and tell him: 'We know that you come from a family of converts and that you already helped Spanish Jews by refusing to hand them over to Hitler; now, help the Jews again. Grant a pardon to the Basques in order to put pressure on [Soviet leader Leonid] Brezhnev."
And so it was. Brezhnev apparently would have been uncomfortable having the world view fascism as more humane than communism. Thus Kuznetsov's sentence was commuted to 15 years in jail.
To serve his sentence, he was brought back to the gulag where he had previously served a seven-year sentence as a political prisoner. "It was like going home," he laughs. Nine years later, he was released in exchange for two Soviet spies, and in 1979, he arrived in Israel.
In the meantime, the Kremlin's emigration policy had changed. Kuznetsov is convinced that his hijacking played a crucial role.
It is hard to say that he fell in love with the homeland he had yearned for, but he certainly has had an effect on it. He became the backbone of the Russian-language press that flourished following the massive wave of immigration in the 1990s, and has edited Vremya, Vesty and Mig News. After a few scandals that are stories in their own right, he started publishing an intellectual journal called Nota Bene, which was ranked one of the best of its kind in the world by a prestigious Russian journal. However, it closed due to lack of funds.
Since then he has hardly worked. He lives off his old age pension and the NIS 338 a month he receives as a former Prisoner of Zion. This situation leaves him a lot of time to think, some of which is dedicated to despairing critiques of the state's weakness and what he sees as its lack of pride.
Pride and stubbornness are important qualities for him. Sometimes they get him into trouble, but sometimes they save him. Coming out of a catheterization with bleeding fingers, caused by gripping the metal bars of the bed due to the intensity of the pain, rather than display weakness in front of the nurses is a bad idea. Stubbornly trying to save his leg from amputation turned out to be an excellent idea.
In 2001, a severe problem was discovered with the blood vessels in his legs, and the doctor recommended amputating one leg above the knee and the other at the ankle. Kuznetsov says he felt as if he had been sentenced to death a second time. He therefore went for alternative treatment to a Russian expert who made him cocktails and ordered him to walk daily. At first he walked just a few meters, with much pain, but eventually he reached five kilometers a day, in all weather. The walking was a fight for life.
The NII initially declared him 70 percent disabled and gave him a commensurate allowance. A year ago, he went back, as required, to the medical committee, which discovered that his legs had improved. However, he was not asked to do anything, and the allowance continued to arrive.
Then, a month ago, the demand arrived that he return the money, for reasons he was unable to understand. The insult was terrible. Kuznetsov says he is pained solely by the injustice, but his wife, Larissa Gerstein, a gifted singer and former Jerusalem city councilwoman, is not sure that is all there is to it. His pride has been hurt, she said; his honor has been trampled without explanation. She believes he actually deserves a medal for having once again evaded his sentence - and saved the state lots of money in the process, by not becoming a wheelchair-bound invalid. In any case, he is very offended.
Haaretz submitted a query to the NII, which responded with uncharacteristic speed. NII officials mumbled something about a mistake, a misunderstanding. Once again, Kuznetsov received a pardon: He will not have to repay the money.
"Tell me," an NII official then asked. "Kuznetsov? Isn't he the one from the [Russian] immigration?"
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now