1970 Hijackers’ trial (concluded)

FINAL WORDS

M. Yu. Dymshits: “Obviously any criminal will regard his punishment as too severe. Yet I still wish to express my opinion about the penalty which is being proposed. I consider the Procurator’s demands to be excessively cruel. The Procurator has often used the word ‘if’. He has, I think, exhausted his entire stock of the most frightful hypotheses.

If we had landed in Finland and been handed over [back to the USSR], what then? … If there had been passengers? I am not a liberal, and I well understand the meaning of the word ‘struggle’. You need such severe penalties as a deterrent, I myself put forward the first plan, but we ourselves rejected it. The citizen prosecutor spoke on behalf of the crew. It is unfortunate that he was not accompanied by the people from the personnel department to whom I unsuccessfully applied for work. They could have stopped me – until the autumn of 1969, but after that only the KGB could have stopped me.

We, the defendants, are people with differing characters. Many of us made each other’s acquaintance only in the last days. It is gratifying that even here we have not lost our humanity and started to eat each other like spiders in a jam-jar. I thank the [security] organs for the humanity they have shown towards my wife and daughter. I ask the court to treat me justly and humanely.”

Silva Zalmanson: “I cannot seem to come to my senses … I am stunned by the sentences demanded for us by the Procurator. He has just proposed execution for a crime that has not been committed. If the court agrees, then two such remarkable people as Dymshits and Kuznetsov will die.

I consider that Soviet law should not regard someone’s intention to live in another country as treason, and I am convinced that it is those who unlawfully trample on our right to live where we wish who should have been put on trial. Let the court at least take account of the fact that if we had been allowed to emigrate, there would never have been this ‘criminal conspiracy’, which has brought such agony to us. . . and even more to our relatives. Israel is a country with which we, the Jews, are linked spiritually and historically.

“I hope the government of the USSR will soon resolve this question in a positive way. We shall never lose the dream of joining our ancient motherland. Several of us did not believe our enterprise would succeed, or hardly believed it. We noticed we were being followed at the Finland Station [the Leningrad railway station from which they left for the airport], but we could no longer turn back. We could not return to the past, to the waiting, to living out of suitcases. Our fear of the suffering which might be inflicted on us was nothing in comparison with our dream of living in Israel. We were doing no-one any harm by leaving. I wanted to live there as a family and to work. I would not have indulged in politics. My interest in politics extends only as far as my desire to emigrate. Even now I do not doubt for a minute that one day I shall live in Israel. This dream, sanctified by two thousand years of hope, will never leave me. Next year in Jerusalem! Even now I repeat:

‘If I forget thee, Jerusalem, Let my right hand wither!’ [Psalm 137] (She repeats these words in Hebrew. The Procurator cuts her off.)

I have nothing more to say.”

Joseph Mendelevich: “I should like to tell you that I regard my actions, aimed at seizing an aeroplane and violating the state frontier, as criminal. But I am also guilty of allowing myself to be indiscriminate in selecting a method of realising my dream. These last six months have taught me that the emotions must be subordinated to reason. I understand that I must be punished, and I urge the court to be magnanimous towards my comrades.”

Eduard Kuznetsov: “The state prosecutor assumes from the outset that once abroad I would have engaged in activities hostile to the Soviet Union. He bases this on what he claims to be my anti-Soviet beliefs, which I have never in fact expressed. I had no intention of harming the Soviet Union. I wished only to live in Israel. I did not regard a possible request for political asylum as a hostile political act. Incorrect statements are made about this in the charge. I have not expressed the wish to speak at any press-conference, neither have I discussed this question with anyone. Without going into the various reasons why I had no such intentions, I shall say only that my ironical cast of mind has insured me against political speeches of any kind. I sincerely regret that I agreed to take part in this business, and consider myself only partially guilty under Article 64-a (via 15) and Article 72 of the Russian Criminal Code. I ask the court to be lenient towards my wife Silva Zalmanson. I also ask for justice for myself. After all, you only live once.”

Izrail Zalmanson: “The only thing that led me to do this was the desire to live and work in the state of Israel – my spiritual motherland. This desire had become my main aim in life. During the investigation I have understood the mistakenness of my act. I wish to assure you that in future nothing will make me break the law.”

Alexei Murzhenko: ‘”Before talking of myself, I ask the court to be lenient towards Kuznetsov and Dymshits. I am in complete agreement with my defence counsel. The Procurator claims that I am anti-Soviet, and that this is why I took part in this act. But that is untrue. My first conviction caused my life to be utterly ruined.

“The fact that I took part in this enterprise was the result of my lack of experience of life. My life has been eight years at the Suvorov [military] Academy [note 1], six years in camps for political prisoners, and only two years’ freedom. Living in a remote area I had no opportunity of applying my knowledge, and I had to bury it. You are deciding my fate, my life. The fourteen years’ imprisonment demanded by the prosecutor mean that I am regarded as incorrigible, that it has been decided to write me off. I have never pursued criminal ends. I ask the court to set a term of imprisonment which would leave me the hope of happiness, a hope for my future and that of my family.”

Yury Fyodorov: “Reflecting on what we have done, I have become convinced that we had only one purpose – to leave the USSR. None of us wished to harm the USSR. I consider that we took all precautions to protect the lives of the crew. I plead guilty only to an attempt to violate the state frontier and I am ready to answer for that, but my conscience does not make me feel guilty – I actually did nothing.

The prosecutor has not been stingy imposing sentences of imprisonment, but does he know what even three years in a camp mean . . . ? [see note 1] The public prosecutor’s address was directed against the seizure of the aeroplane, and one can agree with that. As for the revolver, it was taken in case we had to use the Finland plan. I parted company with my anti-Soviet views when I was in the camp … In planning to seize the aeroplane we did not suspect that some of us were more guilty and some less. Each one did what he could. Suddenly it turns out that Dymshits and Kuznetsov are guiltiest of all of the act. At least Dymshits was going to pilot the aeroplane, but I cannot understand why Kuznetsov suddenly turns out to be more guilty than the rest of us. As for the possible consequences, I can say that if the act was not carried out, then it is futile to surmise about the course it would have taken. I ask the court to show mercy towards Kuznetsov and Dymshits. I wish to emphasise that I myself insisted on taking part, while Murzhenko was drawn into it by me even against Kuznetsov’s wishes.”

Anatoly Altman: “Citizen Judges, I appeal to you to spare the lives of Kuznetsov and Dymshits and to assign the minimum penalty for the only woman among us – Silva Zalmanson. I express deep regret, I am sincerely sorry that I and my comrades are here in the dock. I hope the court will find it possible not to punish us too severely.

It is impossible for me to avoid my punishment for taking part in a crime, but there is one circumstance I find hard to understand. In 1969 I submitted an application to emigrate to Israel, i.e. I wanted to betray the Motherland. On that occasion my desire brought nothing more than contempt upon me, but on this occasion I am being tried. This is not idle bewilderment, as confinement, imprisonment and the agony of our near ones are involved. I was born in Soviet times and have spent all my life in the Soviet land. I have not had time to make a thorough study of the class-basis of Zionism, but I well know that peoples and nations pass at various times through various political states, for which they are none the worse and none the better. Today, when my fate is being decided, I feel both exalted and down-cast. I express the hope that Israel will be visited by peace. Today, my country, I send you greetings for this. Sholom-Aleikhem! Peace be with you, o land of Israel! “

Leib Khnokh: “Citizen Judges, I ask you to show mercy to our two comrades and leniency to the only woman among us. I can only say again that our actions were not directed against the security of the USSR. My sole aim was to live in the state of Israel, which I have long since regarded as my native country, the country where my people once arose as a nation, where the Jewish state and Jewish culture have always been and are now developing, where my native tongue is spoken, where my relatives and near ones live. I have absolutely no anti-Soviet views. Two witnesses have incorrectly interpreted my views. Clearly they live in those areas of the USSR where Jews do not apply to OVTR. Both of them told the court that I had not perceived the essence of the socialist system. My only aim was to live in Israel – the true home of the Jews.”

Boris Penson: “Throughout the pre-trial investigation I gave evidence of my intentions, and it is useless for the Procurator to claim that I changed it – that is not so. It is just that during the first few days I gave no evidence at all, but once I had given it I did not change it. All the time I doubted whether we would succeed and whether it was worth doing at all. But the desire to bring happiness to my family was great, and although I did not appreciate the extent of the risk I still went ahead.

Once in the wood, however, I decided to withdraw, but before I could do so we were arrested. I ask the court to take into consideration my remorse for my actions – I should have tried to emigrate legally, although the organisation dealing with this leaves no hope of emigrating to Israel. I am ready to answer for a crime I did not commit. I ask the court to take into account the fact that I have aged parents. I ask the court for leniency towards Silva Zalmanson and mercy for Kuznetsov and Dymshits.”

Mendel Bodnya: “I ask the court for mercy and leniency. I only wanted to see my mother. I ask the court to take into account the fact that I have promised never to break the law again.”

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SENTENCE

The judicial board of the Leningrad City Court delivered the following sentences:

M.Yu. Dymshits — the supreme penalty, death; with confiscation of property.

E.S. Kuznetsov — the supreme penalty, death (without confiscation of property owing to lack of the same). Judged to be an especially dangerous recidivist.

J.M. Mendelevich — fifteen years of strict-regime [camps] (without confiscation of property owing to lack of the same).

Yu.P. Fyodorov — fifteen years of special-regime (without confiscation of property owing to lack of the same). Judged to be an especially dangerous recidivist.

A.G. Murzhenko — fourteen years of special-regime (without confiscation of property owing to lack of the same). Judged to be an especially dangerous recidivist.

L.G. Khnokh — thirteen years of strict-regime (without confiscation of property owing to lack of the same).

A.A. Altman — twelve years of strict-regime (without confiscation of property owing to lack of the same).

S.I. Zalmanson — ten years of strict-regime (without confiscation of property owing to lack of the same).

B.S. Penson — ten years of strict-regime with confiscation of property (at the very beginning of the pre-trial investigation all his pictures, studies and drawings were confiscated as part of his personal property [see CCE 53.1]).

I.I. Zalmanson — eight years of strict-regime (without confiscation of property owing to lack of the same).

M.A. Bodnya — four years of hard-regime (without confiscation of property owing to lack of the same).

After the sentences had been delivered the “public” applauded, while the relatives of the accused cried out: “Fascists! How dare you applaud death sentences! “, “Well done! “, “Keep it up!”, “We’re with you!”, “We’ll wait for you!”, “We’ll make it to Israel!” after which the applause ceased.

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PUBLIC STATEMENTS AFTER THE TRIAL

On December 27 V.N. Chalidze, A.S. Volpin, A.N. Tverdokhlebov, B.I. Tsukerman and L.G. Rigerman sent a letter to the President of the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet N.V. Podgorny. They asked him not to allow the murder of Kuznetsov and Dymshits; to allow all those wishing to emigrate to do so; to recognise the right of Jews to repatriation.

On 28 December Academician A.D. Sakharov sent a letter to R. Nixon, President of the United States, and to N.V. Podgorny, President of the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet, in defence of Angela Davis and of Dymshits and Kuznetsov, convicted in Leningrad.

On 30 December 1970 a group of citizens of the USSR appealed to General Franco and to Podgorny, President of the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet; they were “deeply perturbed and shocked by the wave of cruelty manifested by the death sentences imposed in Burgos and in Leningrad”. They urge that the lives of those sentenced should be spared.

APPEALS

THE HEARING OF THE APPEALS of the defendants and their defence counsels was unexpectedly fixed for 30 December, in violation of Article 328 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. Since copies of the sentence had been handed to the defendants on 26 December, the appeal hearing should have begun no earlier than 5 January, according to Articles 328 and 103 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.

About twenty “members of the public” gathered in the small courtroom, among them the few relatives of the accused who had managed to come to Moscow. The session on 30 December lasted until 2.30 pm. It was then unexpectedly interrupted for an hour and a half. After the recess the session lasted another twenty minutes. It was then adjourned until the following day. (It must be remembered that on that day, 30 December, General Franco set aside the death sentences imposed at Burgos.) The sessions on 30 December included the presentation of the case and the defence counsels’ addresses.

On 31 December the session lasted only half an hour. Procurator Pokhlebin (of the Procuracy of the USSR) spoke in favour of reducing the sentences. The appeal board then withdrew for an hour-long deliberation. At about 11 a.m. the judicial board for criminal affairs of the Russian Supreme Court, consisting of L.N. Smirnov (chairman of the Russian Supreme Court), M.A. Gavrilin and V.M. Timofeyev (members of the Supreme Court), delivered the following verdict:

“Considering that the criminal activity of Dymshits and Kuznetsov was interrupted before it had reached the stage of execution, and that the death penalty is an exceptional punishment, the board of the Supreme Court regards it as possible not to apply the death penalty to Dymshits and Kuznetsov.”

The board of the Supreme Court pronounced the following sentences [note 2]:

  • M.Yu. Dymshits — Fifteen years of strict-regime with confiscation of property.
  • E.S. Kuznetsov — Fifteen years of special-regime (without confiscation of property owing to lack of the same). Judged to be an especially dangerous recidivist.

In addition the board pronounced the following sentences:

  • J.M. Mendelevich — Twelve years of strict-regime (without confiscation of property owing to lack of the same).
  • L.G. Khnokh — Ten years of strict-regime (without confiscation of property owing to lack of the same).
  • A.A. Altman — Ten years of strict-regime (without confiscation of property owing to lack of the same).

The sentences imposed by the court of first instance on the remainder of the accused were left unaltered. However, in a telegram from the Russian Supreme Court to the Leningrad City Court I.I. Zalmanson‘s sentence was given as seven years of strict-regime (instead of eight).

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NOTES

Subsequently, this case was referred to euphemistically as “the aeroplane” case.

Eight years later, four prominent Soviet signatories (Bonner, Meiman, Slepak and Nudel) addressed a plea to Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin to press the USSR to release of the 10 convicted men and one woman and reproached Amnesty International for not adopting them as “prisoners of conscience” (CCE 49.19, item 17).

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[1] From the age of 10, Murzhenko attended the Suvorov military academy in Kiev. In 1962 he, Yury Fyodorov and two others were arrested in Moscow and convicted under Article 70 of being members of an underground Marxist group, “The Union of Liberty and Reason”, and were sentenced to 6 and 5 years of strict-regime imprisonment.

[2] For the later release of most of the “aeroplane men”, see “Political Releases” (CCE 53.1, August 1979).