This Day in Jewish History / Refuseniks Try to Hijack Plane in Attempt to Flee U.S.S.R.

Eduard Kuznetsov spent almost a decade in Soviet jail for his outrageous escape plan, along with pilot Mark Dymshits.

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On this day, June 15, 1970, a group of nine “refusenik” Jews unsuccessfully tried to escape from Soviet Russia by hijacking an airplane.

It may seem bizarre to today’s youngsters, who think constraints on foreign travel involve mainly budgets and visas, but Russians living under the Soviet regime were not free to leave the country at will. Would-be emigrants denied permission to leave came to be called “refuseniks.”

Among the not-small community of refuseniks were a large number of Jews, some for purely Zionistic reasons and many not least because ingrained anti-Semitism and suspicion as to their loyalties denied them opportunities in the government sector.

In fact, even applying for permission to leave the U.S.S.R. was grounds for suspicion on part of the authorities, and could bear a heavy social and economic cost, not least through loss of work.

One such refusenik was Eduard Kuznetsov, born 1939, who was first arrested in 1961 for dissident activities – including in the form of politicized poetry readings. He did seven years for that offense, which did not deter him from organizing the ill-fated hijacking attempt.

The plot, which involved no less than 16 conspirators, began with buying all the tickets on a 12-seater Antonov plane, which was to make a local flight from Leningrad – a city conveniently located in Russia’s northwest and just a hop, skip and illegal jump to Sweden – to Priozersk, under the guise of a group flight to celebrate a wedding. From Sweden, the plotters intended to fly to Israel.

The plotters thought to discard the pilot during a stop en route and have one of their members, Mark Dymshits, fly the plane to Sweden. However, all were arrested at Smolnoye Airport even before embarking on the plane and accused of high treason, a crime punishable by death.

Though indeed sentenced to capital punishment, following an international outcry Kuznetsov and his coleader, Dymshits, were given 15 years’ hard labor. The others received varying sentences, from four to 14 years.

While their means were arguable, there is no question that the desperate plot shook the Soviet establishment and spurred a wave of international indignation at Russian policies, chiefly the plight of Jews in the U.S.S.R.

Until then, the essential captivity of Russia’s Jews had been of interest chiefly to Jewish groups. From the arrest of the would-be hijackers, the issue went global, triggering protests around the world – including a mass gathering of, reportedly, some 100,000 people at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

As the international furor seethed, Russia began to allow its Jews to leave. Following perestroika – the economic and social restructuring engineered by Mikhail Gorbachev and his successor Boris Yeltsin – starting in the early 1990s a vast wave of Jews did depart the Soviet states, with roughly a million making Israel their new home.

Among them was Kuznetsov, whose freedom Washington obtained in 1979, exchanging two incarcerated Russian spies for him and four other dissidents. Kuznetsov moved to Israel, where he went onto a career in media, becoming a voluble human-rights activist.

From 1983 to 1990, he served as head of the news desk for Radio Free Europe (also known as Radio Liberty), a U.S.-funded broadcaster that aimed to provide news to Eastern Europe and other areas where freedom of speech was constrained.

In 1999, Kuznetsov cofounded Vesti, a Russian-language newspaper published in Israel. He also wrote a number of novels and now lives in Jerusalem.

Dymshits, born 1927, had flown for the Soviet air Force for no less than 11 years. He too emigrated to Israel after his release, where he has exhibited his naïve paintings of the conditions in the Soviet prison system in Leningrad.

The last of the would-be hijackers to be released from jail was Aleksey Murzhenk, on April 11, 1988.