Political Releases, April 1979 (53.1)

<<No 53 : 1 August 1979>>


On 15 June 1970, a group of people who were planning to hijack an aeroplane and escape abroad in it were arrested in Leningrad. In December of the same year, they were sentenced to various terms of imprisonment, and on two of them, Mark Dymshits and Eduard Kuznetsov, the death sentence was passed; it was then commuted, at an appeal hearing, to 15 years imprisonment (CCE 17.6).

In mid-1971, in Leningrad, Riga and Kishinev, people who were found to be involved, to a greater or lesser extent, in the “aeroplane people’s” plans were brought to trial — the so-called trials of the “aeroplane people’s circle” (CCE 20). The majority of the sentenced “aeroplane people” and their “circle” were Jews who had been trying, without success, to obtain permission to emigrate to Israel.

The severe sentences provoked a mass campaign of protests and focused the attention of the world community on the problem of emigration from the USSR. The protests were apparently one of the reasons why the Soviet authorities felt obliged to increase the opportunities for emigration to Israel, thus laying the foundations for mass emigration from the Soviet Union.


Attention to the “aeroplane case” did not grow weaker with time. In 1974 Silva Zalmanson, who had been sentenced to ten years, was pardoned and left for Israel (CCE 33). On completion of their terms the people sentenced in these trials always received permission to emigrate. By April 1979 only nine “aeroplane people” and one of their “circle” remained in captivity.

On 20 April 1979, “aeroplane men” Anatoly Altman (Perm Camp 35), Vulf Zalmanson (Perm Camp 36), Boris Penson (Mordovian Camp 19) and Arie (Leib) Khnokh (Mordovian Camp 19), and also, from the “circle”, Gilel Butman (Chistopol Prison), were released. All five had one year, one month and 25 days left to serve.

None of them knew of their imminent release. On 15 April they were taken for transit, but not even told where they were going. They were taken in ordinary carriage compartments (with a special escort). Butman was taken to Leningrad, the others to Riga. In prison, on 20 April, a Decree of Pardon was read to each of them. The Decrees were dated 16 April and signed by Brezhnev. They were also told to present themselves at OVIR by 12 o’clock for visas to emigrate to Israel.

The visas were valid until 30 April. The visa fee and the tax for “renunciation of citizenship” which is normally levied on people leaving for Israel were not taken from them. Furthermore, they were handed train tickets for the route Riga-Brest-Vienna for 27 April.

The “Riga men” said that they needed time to attend to their personal affairs. Zalmanson wanted to meet his brother (who was serving a sentence for an “economic crime” case in a camp near Riga) [Note 1] and his sister’s husband Eduard Kuznetsov (Mordovian Camp 1). The KGB officials who were present told him that he could see his brother but not Kuznetsov. Khnokh said that he wanted to go and see his daughter (from his first marriage) in Kaliningrad. Altman wanted to visit his mother’s grave in Chernovtsy — she had died while he was in the camp. These requests were not formally refused, but permission was not given for the visas to be extended. Penson asked permission to take his paintings with him: when his mother left (CCE 39), she had not been allowed to take them with her. He was promised that permission would be given.

On the 22nd all five arrived in Moscow. A press conference was organized in the flat of A.Ya. Lerner, at which the released men talked about the conditions of a prisoner’s life and answered the correspondents” numerous questions.

The following day Altman was approached in the street by a man whom he recognized as a KGB agent who had participated in the release procedure in Riga. The agent said: “Leave at once, or you’ll be in trouble’. Altman replied that if he was being threatened with camp, then he was ready for it. The “aeroplane people” telephoned the KGB, protested against the threat and demanded an official explanation of their position. They were invited to the USSR KGB reception office (24 Kuznetsky St). There they were told that they would not be obliged to leave earlier than the date specified on tine visas, but that it was in their interests to use the tickets prepared for them. It would be hard for them to buy tickets themselves. Their request to be allowed to travel by plane to attend to private matters was refused. (Not possessing internal passports, they could not buy plane tickets.) Zalmanson was again refused a meeting with Kuznetsov.

Altman tried to go to Chernovtsy — he was taken off the train. Zalmanson was granted a two-hour meeting with his brother. Penson was not a Mowed to take his pictures with him.

On 27 April 1979, all five departed from Riga for Brest and left the USSR.


It is known that the fate of the “aeroplane people” was discussed during the visit of a group of American senators to the USSR in April this year [Note 2].

An Exchange.

During the night of 27-28 April, at New York’s Kennedy Airport, Soviet officials effected an exchange of five Soviet political prisoners for the Soviet citizens Chernyaev and Enger, former UN employees, who had been given heavy sentences in the USA on charges of espionage. The following were subject to exchange:

  • Alexander Ginzburg, administrator of the Aid Fund for Political! Prisoners and one of the founders of the Moscow Helsinki Group (for his trial, see CCE 50.3);
  • Georgy Vins, Secretary of the Council of Evangelical Christian-Baptist Churches (for his trial, see CCE 35.3);
  • Valentyn Moroz, a Ukrainian historian and publicist (for his trial, see CCE 17.2);
  • “aeroplane men” Mark Dymshits and Eduard Kuznetsov.

On 1 June, the prison and camp part of Moroz’s sentence was due to end (six years in prison and three years in special-regime camp). He still had five years to serve in exile. Vins’s five years’ deprivation of freedom had finished on 31 March, and he also had five years of exile to come. Dymshits’s 15 years’ strict-regime and Kuznetsov’s 15 years’ special-regime would have ended on 15 June 1985. Ginzburg was arrested on 3 February 1977 and sentenced to eight years’ in the camps. Ginzburg, Moroz and Kuznetsov were serving their sentences in Mordovian Camp 1 (special regime); Dymshits in Perm 35.

Pastor Georgy Vins, 1928-1998


(Three “aeroplane men” are still serving sentences: Alexei Murzhenko and Yury Fyodorov in Mordovian Camp 1, and Josif Mendelevich in Chistopol Prison. Mendelevich’s term finishes on 15 June 1982, Murzhenko’s on 15 June 1984 and Fyodorov’s on 15 June 1985. At a press conference soon after his arrival in the USA, Kuznetsov drew the public’s attention to the fate of Murzhenko and Fyodorov — the only non-Jews among the “aeroplane men”.)

Not one of the five men knew about the exchange in advance; their agreement was not asked for, and the action took the form of depriving them of Soviet citizenship and expelling them from the country. A decree to this effect was read to each of them in Lefortovo Prison in Moscow.


On 3 June, 58 Baptists from Rostov-on-Don sent a protest to the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet against the forced deprivation of citizenship and expulsion from the USSR of G.P. Vins. They demanded that his Soviet citizenship be restored and that he be allowed to return to his motherland. Baptists from Yelabuga sent at similar statement.

There was not a word in the Soviet press about the exchange. The Western press reported that according to an agreement between the USSR and the USA, the families of those exchanged could {also leave the USSR.

E. Kuznetsov’s mother and V. Moroz’s wife left the USSR with no trouble. G. P. Vins’s family, including Pyotr Vins, left only on 13 June. In May their house was made inaccessible to visitors. For a while they were not given permission to take Georgy Vins’s niece with them; then permission was granted.

On the Departure of Ginzburg’s Family.

Ginzburg’s family has not yet left the USSR since the Soviet authorities are not allowing the family’s ward, Sergei Shibayev (see CCE 51.19) to leave. It is known that, before the exchange, each of the men was asked to list his family members and Ginzburg included Shibayev.

On 7 May 1979 Shibayev sent a letter to Ginzburg’s wife Irina Zholkovskaya from Yakutia where he is doing his military service: “I confirm I wish to leave for permanent settlement in the USA together with Ginzburg’s family. I was born on 11 March 1980 …”

From Shibayev’s letter [to Zholkovskaya] dated 15 May:

“They’ve all had talks with me, beginning with the company political officer, and including the deputy commanding officer for supplies. They tried to persuade me to renounce all my friends and publish a statement. After that, they say, I’ll be a full, equal and respected citizen. I refused, and the next day I sent you an express telegram, giving my agreement and personal data. Did it arrive?

“The company political officer said to my face that he’d put me in prison. He told me that from now on they’d throw the book at me: for the slightest misdemeanour, even an undone button, I’d be punished immediately. He said, ‘You won’t be able to bear it long – we’ll drive you from pillar to post, and back again.’

“Then I said I wanted to re-join my family. And he answered, ‘Scum, traitor!’“

From Shibayev’s letter dated 17 May:

”They’re laying charges against me, just orally as yet, for divulging a military secret.”

On 2 June Zholkovskaya sent a statement to Brezhnev:

“Sergei Shibayev, born in 1960, has lived with our family since he was 14 years old. His father, Victor Shibayev, left his family when the boy was a few months old. His mother, Antonina Ivanovna, soon remarried and paid scant attention to her son. The family situation was tense.

“In 1975, after finishing his eighth year at school, Sergei left his family, came to study in Moscow at a vocational technical college and moved in with our family. Until Ginzburg’s arrest in February 1977, neither Shibayev’s father nor his mother objected to this or showed any interest in their son’s fate …

“My husband and I consider ourselves to be responsible for the young man’s future, since from the age of 14 he has been brought up by us. Therefore, I cannot leave the USSR without him …”

On 8 June Zholkovskaya sent the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet some extracts from the Russian Code on Marriage and the Family, from which it is clear that the Law treats de facto wards as members of the family.

From Shibayev’s letter dated 4 July:

“I’m being transferred to another unit: Tiksi, I’m told [in the Arctic Circle] … The transfer order came from someone high up, I don’t know who. They told me on the side that they’re transferring me so that I’m nearer to the Political Department …”

Zholkovskaya’s telegram to the unit commander asking for information on Shibayev’s state of health received the answer:

“You are not one of Shibayev’s relatives. Kindly do not divert the command from dealing with its official duties. Darchiev.”

On 9 July Zholkovskaya was invited to Moscow OVIR. There a man calling himself “representative of the USSR OVIR Gerasimov” informed her:

“I am authorized to inform you that the USSR OVIR, the KGB and the USSR Ministry of Foreign Affairs have reached a decision: Sergei Shibayev will not be leaving — either now, or after his military service, or ever. We give you two weeks. By the 25th you must decide and inform us. If you do not do this, your case will be closed, and you’ll have to leave the usual way, via Israel.”

It is known that the American administration considers the detention of Shibayev to be a violation of the conditions of the exchange.

On 10 July, the Moscow Helsinki Group published a statement in which it expressed the hope that “International public attention … will help bring the Ginzburg family together again.”

On 12 July Zholkovskaya sent a statement to the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet:

“I wish to repeat once again that the extent of our moral responsibility for the fate of those close to us is not determined solely by blood ties. Both Ginzburg and I myself consider ourselves responsible for the fate of a child who has lived in our family since he was 14.” [Note 3]



[1] Samuil Zalmanson, sentenced in June 1976 in Riga to 10 years in the camps ‘for bribery’. See Reuters dispatch from Moscow, 13 June 1976.

[2] In fact the group consisted of one Senator and 17 Congressmen. The visit was from 13 to 22 April 1979.

[3] Zholkovskaya eventually left the USSR with her children, but without Shibayev, on 1 February 1980.