The Leningrad Trial of the “Hijackers”, 15-24 December 1970 (17.6)

«No 17 : 31 December 1970»

On 15-24 December 1970, the trial of

  • Sylva I. ZALMANSON
  • B.S. PENSON and
  • M. A. BODNYA

was held in the Leningrad City Court

The court consisted of: N. A. Yermakov, chairman of the Leningrad City Court (presiding); S.E. Solovyov, Procurator of Leningrad, and N. Katukova (prosecutors); and Matanogov, a civil aviation pilot (citizen prosecutor).

The defendants were accused of committing crimes which come under the following articles of the RSFSR Criminal Code:

  1. Article 64-a — Betrayal of the Motherland, i.e. actions deliberately committed by a citizen of the USSR to the detriment of its national independence, territorial integrity and military might…
  2. Article 15 — Responsibility for the preparation of a crime and for attempting one.
  3. Article 70 — Anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda, i.e. agitation and propaganda carried out with the aim of undermining or weakening Soviet authority, or the commission of especially dangerous state crimes…
  4. Article 93-1 — Theft of State or public property on an especially large scale.

The trial took place in a room accommodating 300 people. Of these only 20 to 30 were relatives of the defendants, who were admitted in accordance with a list. The remainder entered with special passes. Outside the court-house there were many policemen, who moved on persons wishing to get in to the trial. The mood of the people in the court-room was hostile towards the defendants. During the recess the opinion was expressed that “they should all be hanged”. In the issue of Leningradskaya pravda which appeared on the day after the beginning of the trial the defendants were already called criminals.

According to the charges the accused wished to use a twelve-seater AN-2 type passenger plane, on a regular [domestic] route Leningrad-Priozyorsk, to fly to Sweden [CCE 14.11, item 3].

  • Defendants M.Yu. Dymshits, Sylva I. Zalmanson, I.I. Zalmanson, B.S. Penson and M.A. Bodnya pleaded guilty;
  • Defendants J.M. Mendelevich, E.S. Kuznetsov, A.A. Altman, A.G. Murzhenko and L.G. Khnokh pleaded guilty only in part;
  • Defendant Yu.P. Fyodorov, in answer to the question “Do you plead guilty or not guilty?” replied: “Not to these charges.”
leningrad trial (nine).jpg

Eight of the 11 defendants:

top row (left to right): Dymshits, Kuznetsov, Mendelevich and Fyoderov; bottom row (left to right): Murzhenko, Knokh, Altman and Penson

Of the eleven defendants, nine (all except Murzhenko and Fyodorov) testified that the sole purpose of their intended seizure of the aeroplane was to get to Israel. Sylva I. Zalmanson and her husband E.S. Kuznetsov, J.M. Mendelevich, A.A. Altman, B.S. Penson and M.A. Bodnya had repeatedly tried through official channels to emigrate to Israel, but either this was refused by OVIR [Department of Visas and Registrations] or they were refused testimonials at work, without which OVIR does not accept applications.

The following facts emerged from the questioning of the defendants:

Mark Dymshits (b. 1927) — was a member of the Communist Party until his arrest, after which he was expelled. After graduating from flying school he served in the Air Force. He was demobilised in 1960. Unable to find work in his speciality in Leningrad, where his family lived, he went to Bukhara in Uzbekistan, where he served in civil aviation for two years. On returning to Leningrad he entered the Agricultural Institute. After graduating he worked as an engineer. Mark Dymshits stated that he could not give his children a Jewish upbringing in the USSR.


Silva Zalmanson (b. 1943) — lived in Riga and worked as an engineer. In January 1970 she married E. S. Kuznetsov. She confirmed that she had re-typed the first issue of the [samizdat] journal Iton.

Silva Zalmanson (1977 photo)

Eduard Samoilovich KUZNETSOV (b. 1939) — In 1960 he passed the entrance examination for the Philosophy Faculty of Moscow University with flying colours. He was arrested when in the second year of his studies, and in 1961 he was sentenced to seven years under Article 70.

In a camp for political prisoners in Mordovia Kuznetsov was put on trial again by the camp administration and spent half his term in a cell in Vladimir Prison, together with Igor Ogurtsov [a young Leningrad Orientalist, CCE 1.6]. After his release in 1968 he lived under open surveillance in Strunino in the Vladimir Region. Following his marriage to Sylva Zalmanson he moved to Riga, where he worked in a hospital.


Izrail Zalmanson (b. 1949), brother of Silva Zalmanson — He was the youngest of the defendants. A student of the Riga Polytechnic Institute, he passed all the fourth-year examinations in June 1970.


Joseph Mendelevich is 23 — He was a student at the Riga Polytechnic Institute, but left during his third year, regarding it as not quite moral to study on Soviet money when he had set himself the aim of getting to Israel. After leaving the Institute he worked as a watchman.

J. Mendelevich taught himself Yiddish and Modern Hebrew and studied Jewish history and religion. He and his family repeatedly applied to emigrate to Israel, but they were invariably refused. He sent petitions to the first secretary of the Latvian communist Party, to the USSR Minister of Internal Affairs and to Brezhnev. Kaiya, head of the Riga OVIR, told him in one of their Conversations: “You’ll never be allowed to emigrate, you’ll rot here, now get out!” When asked by the Procurator how he could exchange a socialist system for a capitalist one, Joseph replied that he was indifferent to social structure, as he was to his material circumstances. Mendelevich admitted taking part in the publication of the historical and literary journal Iton. He did not consider his literary activities to be criminal. When asked by the Procurator whether he regarded himself as a “Zionist” or as a “person of Jewish origin”, J. Mendelevich replied: “I’m not a person of Jewish origin, I’m a Jew.”


Alexei Murzhenko (b. 1942) — lived and worked in Lozovaya [in Ukraine’s Kharkov Region] and had been studying for an external degree. As a reason for his participation [in the hi-jack plan] Murzhenko put forward the unsatisfactory state of his personal life (he had failed to get into an institute and had an unhappy family life).


Yury Fyodorov (b. 1943), a Muscovite — He worked as a general labourer. As motives for his participation [in the hijack plan] his defence counsel Toropova indicated the deeply psychopathological state of his personality and his persecution complex. An out-patient psychiatric examination had given the following diagnosis of Yu.P. Fyodorov’s state of health: “He is of sound mind, but has a psychopathic personality and a persecution complex; however the illness has not reached a sufficient stage to render him of unsound mind.” Fyodorov and Murzhenko had previously been convicted (in 1962) under Articles 70 and 72 of the Russian Criminal Code.


Anatoly Altman, aged 29 — was born in Chernovtsy [West Ukraine]. As a child he used to go to the synagogue and the Jewish theatre with his parents. He was interested in philosophy, Jewish history and Judaism. He studied geography, but left [before completing the course]. He worked as a joiner. He submitted his documents to OVIR with a request for permission to emigrate to Israel, but this was refused.

Altman admitted typing the first and second issues of the journal Iton. He considered the content of these journals to be aimed purely at national cultural enlightenment, but they were not at all anti-Soviet.


Ara (Leib) Khnokh (b. 1944) — A manual worker. The family in which A. Khnokh was brought up spoke Hebrew and observed all [Jewish] traditions and feasts. He considered that the future of the Jews as a nation lay only in Israel. He submitted an application to OVIR, but this was refused. One of the OVIR officials told him that he was too young and would not be allowed to emigrate.

He considered that refusal to allow Jews to emigrate to Israel was a violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He was the co-author of letters to Kosygin, the secretaries of [foreign] Communist Parties and U Thant, but was certain that these letters contained nothing slanderous or anti-Soviet. His only work was “Our Native Tongue”, which was written with the aim of showing the Soviet government that the number of Jews in the USSR had not diminished, and that it was time to recognise this fact and open Jewish schools and theatres.

At this point the Procurator retorted in a jeering voice: “He thought schools and theatres would be opened for them.” Khnokh stated that during the investigation his evidence had been distorted by the investigator, and that to uphold his evidence had required great strength. He had finally been unable to endure this and had signed a record of evidence which he had not given. He had not been permitted to write his evidence himself. Evidence given by the others had only been shown to him selectively. Khnokh stated that he regarded Israel as his Motherland, while in the USSR he had only the rights of a prisoner, since he was deprived of the right of a free man to choose his place of residence for himself. Khnokh did not reply to questions unconnected with the trial (e.g. about Ruta Alexandrovich [CCE 16.10, item 12]). Defence counsel reminded the court of the regulation giving Khnokh this right (Article 46 of the Russian Code of Criminal Procedure), but the Procurator insistently demanded answers to all his questions.


Boris Penson (b. 1947) — He has close relatives in Israel. He is an artist. He has one previous conviction (for being present at a multiple rape).


Mendel Bodnya (b. 1937) — He lost contact with his mother and brother in the war, but learned during the fifties that they were in Israel. He was a metal-worker, but on becoming disabled he received a pension.


As the judicial investigation showed, the originator of the plan to hijack an aeroplane was M.Yu. Dymshits. In 1967 or 1968 Dymshits decided to leave the Soviet Union clandestinely and began to seek others similarly inclined.

In March 1970 he was joined by [wife and husband] Sylva I. Zalmanson and E.S. Kuznetsov. At the beginning of April, at his wife [Sylva]’s request, Kuznetsov talked to her younger brother Izrail, who also agreed to escape. In May Sylva discussed the plan with another brother, Lieutenant Vulf Zalmanson, who had arrived from his military unit; he also agreed. In Moscow, in the middle of April, Kuznetsov invited Yu.P. Fyodorov to join them, and Fyodorov invited A.G. Murzhenko. In Leningrad and Riga several alternative plans for hi-jacking an aeroplane were discussed.

In the course of these discussions Izrail’s views were sought. Izrail categorically opposed the hi-jacking of an aeroplane. Dymshits‘ friends began to try to talk him out of his plans. He continued to devise various alternative methods.


On 5 June 1970, Dymshits produced a plan for hi-jacking an AN-2 twelve-seater passenger aeroplane, flying from Leningrad to Priozyorsk, to Sweden. It was intended to pick up part of the group in Priozyorsk and leave the crew there tied up. The group awaiting the aeroplane in Priozyorsk took sleeping-bags for the crew; they were also to prepare awnings, under which the bound crew-men would have been placed. On 8 June, Dymshits, Kuznetsov and Fyodorov flew along the selected route.

The weapons which the accused had with them consisted of one pistol and sixteen truncheons. The pistol was incapable of firing, as was shown by an expert examination. Dymshits, too, knew of this. During the flight on 8 June 1970, he told Fyodorov. Fyodorov had brought the pistol with him only to frighten the crew.

At the trial all the accused, without hesitation, related all the circumstances and all the factual aspects of the case, They resolutely denied that they had intended to inflict harm on the USSR, and thus regarded the charge under Article 64 as unjust. In addition all the accused categorically rejected the very idea that they wished to steal the aeroplane. They had intended to use it solely as a means of transport. Thus they regarded the charge under Article 93-1 as entirely unjustified.

23 witnesses were called at the trial, including Gilel Butman, Mikhail Korenblit and Lev Korenblit (both accused in the second [forthcoming Jewish] Leningrad trial), Boris Maftser and Aron Shpilberg (both accused in the Riga trial now in preparation) and the pilot of the aeroplane, who said that in fact the aeroplane was worth 35,000 roubles, and not 64,000 as the prosecution had alleged.

Witness Butman stated that he and Dymshits had wished to direct the attention of world public opinion to the fact that many of the Jews in the USSR wished to emigrate to Israel, and that the Jews who spoke at the press-conference in Moscow on 4 March [1970] did not express the opinions of all Jews (at this point the Procurator cut the witness short).


In his address the prosecutor devoted much attention to the “machinations of international Zionism”, and said that in the USSR there was no Jewish problem and could never be one.

“There are those who say that this trial is against the Jews, but that is untrue. This trial is not about Jews. It is a criminal trial in which the majority of the criminals are Jews. But I do not consider Kuznetsov to be a Jew. I consider that Kuznetsov is a Russian. I consider that this is a trial of a group, and that the court must base its decision not on the charges brought against each person individually, but on their totality.”

Procurator Solovyov indicated that the defendant Bodnya had shown genuine remorse. In his opinion Bodnya, unlike the other defendants, had no anti-Soviet beliefs. In conclusion the prosecutor said:

“I regard the motives for the actions of all the accused except Bodnya as anti-Soviet. I ask that all the accused except Bodnya be found guilty under Articles 64 via 15, 93-1 via 15, 70 and 72. As for Bodnya – taking into consideration his honest remorse, his sincerity and frankness, and also his personal motives for the crime, I ask that he be found guilty under Article 83 (illegally crossing the frontier) and 93-1.1 request the court to apply Article 43 of the Russian Criminal Code (fixing a more lenient penalty than is prescribed by law) in Bodnya’s case.”

Procurator Solovyov demanded that Kuznetsov, Fyodorov and Murzhenko be judged to be especially dangerous recidivists; that Kuznetsov and Dymshits be sentenced to the supreme penalty – death; that Fyodorov be sentenced to fifteen years of special-regime [camps], Murzhenko to fourteen years of special-regime; Mendelevich to fifteen years of strict-regime, Khnokh to thirteen years of strict-regime, I. Zalmanson, Altman and Penson to twelve years of strict-regime, Silva Zalmanson to ten years of strict-regime; and Bodnya to five years of hard-regime.

All the defence counsels stated that Article 93-1 was completely inapplicable to the actions of their clients, since the accused had clearly not intended to steal the aeroplane. Drozdov, S. Zalmanson’s defence counsel, asked that the charge under Article 93-1 be deleted, while all the other defence counsels asked that Article 93-1 be changed to Article 91 (a raid aimed at the seizure of State or public property).

Defence counsels [S.L.] Ariya, Ilyna, Lesko, Toropova, Sarri and Svistunov (defending Mendelevich, I. Zalmanson, Altman, Fyodorov, Murzhenko, Khnokh and Bodnya [respectively]) pointed out that their clients had had no direct intention of undermining the might of the Soviet Union or damaging its external security, and that without such direct intention there could be no question of applying Article 64. Mendelevich’s defence counsel Ariya said: “Since 1968 my client has had the clear-cut desire to emigrate to Israel, which he mistakenly regards as his Motherland … And if Mendelevich had escaped to Israel to pray to his God, and possibly even to revile the USSR, that could not have damaged our external security.”

Defence counsels for S. Zalmanson, Mendelevich, I. Zalmanson, Altman and Khnokh considered that the actions of their clients, for which they had been charged under Article 70, had been incorrectly assessed. Defence counsel Sarri, for Khnokh, said: “It is absurd to think that the Soviet political system could be weakened by the circulation of such documents as ‘Nehama has arrived‘[1], and ‘Our native tongue’, and even less so by their possession.” The motives leading Altman to take part in the publication of the journal Iton (the journal was about life in Israel and its history – only two issues appeared) were not regarded by his defence counsel Lesko as anti-Soviet. For all these reasons defence counsels for S. Zalmanson, Mendelevich, I. Zalmanson, Altman and Khnokh asked that Article 70 in the charge be changed to Article 190-1. Murzhenko’s defence counsel Ilyna drew the attention of the court to the fact that the prosecution had not given any evidence that her client held anti-Soviet beliefs, apart from his previous conviction. Fyodorov’s defence counsel Toropova said the same thing.

Defence counsels asked that extenuating circumstances be taken into consideration.

Defence counsel Luri, for Kuznetsov, drew the attention of the Court to the words spoken by his client to Bodnya: they must try to avoid violence, not a hair of the crew’s heads must be harmed. “Therefore,” stated Luri, “the charge that they intended to jeopardize the lives of the crew must be deleted.” On the subject of the exceptional penalty demanded by the prosecutor, Luri said: “Is it necessary to impose this penalty if the crime has not been committed, if thanks to the organs of state security the aeroplane is still here and the crew in good health? I think that such an exceptional penalty cannot be imposed.”

The defendants then delivered their Final Words: …

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