The Riga Trial of the Four, 24-27 May 1971 (20.2)

<<No 20 : 2 July 1971>>

On 24-27 May the case of A.A. Shpilberg (aged 33), an engineer, B.M. Maftser (aged 24), an engineer, M.Z. Shepshelovich (aged 28), a mechanic, and Ruta I. Alexandrovich (aged 23), a nurse, was heard in the Latvian SSR Supreme Court [note 1].


Presiding: L. I. Lotko, member of the Latvian Supreme Court; people’s assessors, [V. P.] Yefremov and [K. A.] Polis; state prosecutor, Senior Legal Counsellor D, F. Chibisov, Assistant Procurator of the Latvian SSR.

Counsel for the defence: for Shpilberg, A. M. Rozhansky; for Maftser, I. Ya. Brigis [who defended L. A. Doronina (see CCE  17.12, item 5)]; for Shepshelovich, M. I. Zharova; and for Alexandrovich, I. M. Otlyagova.


The court sat in an outlying suburb of Riga. Although the trial was regarded as open, only seven relatives of the defendants were able to attend the sessions. The remaining seats were occupied by persons who had been given special passes at their places of work, Alexander [also called Isai] Averbukh, Ruta Alexandrovich’s fiancé, who also had some claim to be present in the court-room, was seized in the street not long before the beginning of the trial and imprisoned for fifteen days for “resisting the authorities”. [note 2]

All the accused were charged under Article 65 [more precisely 65-1, according to TASS] of the Latvian Criminal Code (= Article 70 of the Russian Code): anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda. Shpilberg and Maftser were also charged under Article 67 of the Latvian Code ( = Article 72 of the Russian Code): organisational activity directed towards the committing of especially dangerous state crimes, and equally membership of an anti-Soviet organisation.

The indictment reads in part:

“… the investigation has established that the above-mentioned persons, by virtue of their commonly-held anti-Soviet convictions, entered into a criminal conspiracy and engaged in the preparation and circulation of slanderous writings derogating the Soviet social and political system. Shpilberg and Maftser also engaged in organisational activity, arranging the mass preparation and circulation of slanderous materials derogatory about the nationalities policy of the Soviet State.”

The “slanderous writings” mentioned in the indictment were “The biography and poetry of a Soviet Jew”, the booklets “For the return of the Jewish people to their home” and “Homewards” [note 3], the leaflet “Our Native Tongue” [note 4] and Iton (of which two issues had appeared), which contained material on the Jewish people and its history.

Maftser pleaded guilty. When questioned he said, inter alia:

“In May 1969 J. Mendelevich (sentenced to ten years at the Leningrad trial of the “hijackers” [December 1970], see CCE 17.6) invited me to take part in the collection of material on the situation of Jews in the Soviet Union. The aim was that this material should embody only facts which could be interpreted as manifestations of discrimination.

“I took issue with Mendelevich, as I considered that no such facts existed in reality. But he was none the less able to persuade me of the need to collect this material…. In my opinion Zionism is at odds with the Soviet nationalities policy. Marxist-Leninist ideology and the political line of the party and government…. The literature circulated by us dealt with the situation in the Middle East in a one-sided manner, and was defamatory of the nationalities policy of the Soviet state. That literature was in essence anti-Soviet; it propagated false views, and was capable of being used for purposes of premeditated slander…. In answer to a question put by the Judge, Maftser said: Yes, I engaged in Zionist, anti-Soviet activity and am guilty for doing so. “

Ruta Alexandrovich pleaded guilty in part. When questioned she said:

“… I am basically in agreement with the facts of the case. That is what I meant when I replied that I pleaded guilty ‘in part’. But the indictment states that I acted with ‘the aim of undermining and weakening the Soviet regime’. I deny this part of the indictment, for I never had any such aim.

“I wished to emigrate to Israel, and when this was refused I longed to acquire knowledge of Jewish culture and of Israel. It was in the acquisition and dissemination of this knowledge that the aim of my actions lay. The literature I circulated expressed a point of view different from that which officially exists in the Soviet Union. It may be that one or two things were incorrectly put. But there was nothing in that literature containing the idea of undermining or weakening the Soviet regime…”

R. Alexandrovich said that certain assertions made about her by Maftser were factually incorrect.

Shepshelovich, in answer to the question “Do you plead guilty or not guilty?”, said: “I confirm the facts. But I plead not guilty.” When questioned, Shepshelovich stated that he did not hold and had never held anti-Soviet convictions.

“On social matters my views are socialist, on national matters – Zionist… My sole aim and the sole motivation for my actions was the desire to study the history and cultural heritage of the Jewish people…

I maintain that the literature, in the preparation of which I took part, contains nothing slanderous…. The sole purpose of our publications was to provide information for Jews wishing to know the truth about Israel, and that is not criminal.”

Shpilberg pleaded not guilty. He said that his opinions had never been anti-Soviet.

“I could not engage in anti-Soviet activity, if only by virtue of my national aspirations and interests. That sort of activity by no means follows from my national aspirations, and would merely distract me from the realisation of my hopes…. I did not engage in the circulation of the journal Iton.

“The entire case against me is based on the testimony of Maftser alone… Maftser is making slanderous allegations with the object of earning himself a testimonial as a compliant defendant. He’d like to show that in the whole affair he was somebody s cat’s-paw…. He is pursuing a quite definite objective… earning himself a favourable testimonial by his obsequiousness… When my home was searched the works of Bialik and Sholom-Aleikhem, picture-postcards with views of Israel, and Hebrew dictionaries and text-books were confiscated. Such a choice in the confiscation of literature, and the very nature of the search, could of course not inspire me with confidence in the investigation.”

Witnesses called at the trial included Silva Zalmanson, I. Zalmanson, Altman, Bodnya, and Khnokh (convicted at the first Leningrad trial, see CCE 17.6); Mogilyover, Dreizner, L. Korenblit, and Boguslavsky (convicted at the trial connected with the “aeroplane affair”, see this issue, CCE 20.1); and colleagues and friends of the accused.

Petitions by the defendants for the calling of additional witnesses were rejected.

In his address Procurator Chibisov said:

“… In determining the degree of punishment the prosecution bases itself on humane principles, having regard to the age of the defendants and to the personality of each of them.

“Maftser, who has sincerely confessed his guilt and shown remorse, is deserving of mercy. Alexandrovich’s state of health must be considered in determining her degree of punishment. Shpilberg and Shepshelovich have committed a grave crime, but they have shown no remorse and have not condemned their actions…”

The Procurator demanded the following sentences:

  • Shpilberg – four years of strict-regime camps,
  • Shepshelovich — two years,
  • Alexandrovich and Maftser — one year.

Counsel for Maftser, Alexandrovich and Shepshelovich asked the court to apply Article 183-1 of the Latvian Criminal Code ( = Article 190-1 of the Russian Code) to the actions of their clients instead of Article 65. I. M. Odyagova, counsel for R. Alexandrovich, asked the court to limit her sentence to the term she has already served (Ruta was arrested in October 1970), while M. I. Zharova, counsel for Shepshelovich, asked the court to limit itself to a minimal sentence.

Rozhansky, counsel for Shpilberg, said:

“… This is the first time I have heard of the degree of punishment depending not on the crime committed but on the conduct of the defendant during investigation and in court. This approach is quite unacceptable. This is not just my point of view it is the point of view of the law, the point of view of legal theory…. With four items in the charge against Shpilberg and seven in that against Maftser, the Procurator demands that Shpilberg should be punished four times as severely as Maftser.”

Analysing one item after another, Rozhansky came to the conclusion that not one of the items in the charge against Shpilberg had been proven, and asked for his client to be acquitted.


Maftser pleaded guilty on all counts. He stated: “I shall never return to past mistakes and take the criminal road…”

Alexandrovich: “I acknowledge the facts contained in the indictment to be correct, but I have never pursued the aim of undermining and weakening the Soviet regime… The spirit of socialist ideas is dear to me and I see here no contradiction with my desire to emigrate to Israel. “

Shepshelovich: “I ask the court to have regard to the following: first, I acted from Zionist convictions, which cannot be identified with anti-Sovietism. I hold no anti-Soviet views. Secondly, I acted consciously, but I never pursued the aim of undermining or weakening the Soviet regime. I had but one aim – to rouse the national consciousness of my people. And in any case, can one seriously discuss the idea of a few privately-produced publications of an informative and educative character undermining the might of a State like the USSR? Thirdly, I do not regard the literature which I prepared as illegal or slanderous – I regard it as in some degree critical, and I find nothing criminal in that. My aim is to emigrate to Israel. I had no other aims or purposes. “

Shpilberg: “I trust in the victory of justice in the deciding of my fate and that of my two daughters, the younger of whom I have not yet seen.”

The court sentenced A.A. Shpilberg to three years of strict-regime camps, M.Z. Shepshelovich to two years, R.I. Alexandrovich and B.M. Maftser to one year.


RIGA. On 2 May about two thousand Jews gathered for a rally at the Jewish cemetery. They demanded the release of the accused. The rally lasted about one-and-a-half hours. Those present at the rally were surrounded by police, who did not interfere with them but merely asked them that there should be no leaflets.

On 23 May, the day before the trial of the four Jews in Riga, a group of people wishing to emigrate to Israel appealed to all people of good will to raise their voices in defence of justice.

On 29 May the newspaper Soviet Latvia printed an article by V. Strokolev, “The fall of the pretenders”, which presented tendentiously materials of the investigation and trial.



[1] For other accounts of this trial see the Tass, Reuter and UPI dispatches of 24-27 May, also Komsomolskaya pravda, 28 May 1971.

[2] The arrest on 16 May of Alexander (Isai) Averbukh, Ruta Alexandrovich’s fiance, provoked a protest concerning its transparent aim by 33 Riga Jews to USSR Procurator-General Rudenko.

See also Averbukh’s letter in defence of his fiancée, his letter with eight other friends and relatives, and also his fiancée’s letter prior to her arrest, in Jews in Eastern Europe (London), Vol. IV, No. 6, April 1971.

[3] Domoi [Homewards], is a small brochure of Zionist materials, published in Israel.

[4] “Our Native Tongue” is a samizdat article suggesting that Jews should give Hebrew as their first language in the 1969 census. Later, testimony would be given about the authorship of this work, disputing its citation in the indictment during the “aeroplane affair” trial (CCE 27.9).