Oct. 10, 2009
By Jerry Kopel
subject of this column is the failed hijacking of a 12 seat airplane
from Leningrad Airport in Soviet Russia in June of 1970. Ten
refuseniks were involved. A refusenik is a Russian who wanted the
freedom to practice his or her religion or the freedom of political
life provided in a Democracy. Many were of Jewish faith but there
were also Christians. They wanted the right to emigrate. Their
attempt to fly to Finland was thwarted by the Soviet police who were
previously alerted. The refuseniks had actually purchased tickets
for the flight.
The ten were sentenced to prison in late 1970 except for two
sentenced to death. One was Mark Dymshits, a former military pilot.
The other was Eduard Kuznetsov whom I met in Denver. He had come to
the capitol building for a press conference seeking help for the
other refuseniks being denied the right to leave Russia. Their death
sentence was reduced under pressure to many years in prison. Both
were part of a 1979 trade of five refuseniks for two Soviet agents
held by the United States.
At the Kuznetsov press conference, I announced the formation of a
Committee to Free the Leningrad Three, co-sponsored by Sen. Tilman
Bishop, R-Grand Junction. In 1980 the number of prisoners from the
Leningrad escape attempt was down to three, Iosif Mendelevich, Yuri
Federov, and Alexei Murzhenko. The last two were of Christian faith.
All other prisoners had completed their prison terms.
Why did this particular committee work for a five year period.
Because we humanized it. How?
You keep the committee composed of legislators but not use the
legislative process. You need a source for information relating to
the events up to date.
All members of the committee are listed on the stationery. As
members they were required to write letters to reach officials who
will certainly read but not release letters. You ban "form letters."
Each letter would be an expression of the committee member's feeling
regarding the issues.
And if your approach is unique compared to legislators in other
states, that makes your committee even more interesting.
By zeroing on the three prisoners, they became symbols of all other
dissidents who were denied the right to leave Russia. To be a member
of the Leningrad Committee was to agree to write letters to the
prisoners, as well as to the Soviet leaders. We know the prisoners
would never get the letters, but every one of the letters would be
read by the Soviet leaders.
We did not use legislative stationery. The Colorado Commission on
International Jewish Affairs (CIJA) provided the stationery and each
of us paid the 40 cent cost for each stamped letter to Soviet
Russia. CIJA was our source for new information about the prisoners
which we could show to the Soviets reading the mail.
We started with 80 legislators on the committee and we included
almost all the senators in office. Over a six year period (1980-85)
as new legislators were elected we added them to the committee. On
our final stationery in 1985 I believe we had 95 in-office
legislators, in great part because of the presence of Sen. Bishop as
our co-sponsor. If he asked "if you had written a new letter," the
answer had to be "yes".
Iosif Mendelevich was released in 1981, the Russians assumed the
release of the remaining member of Jewish faith would lead to the
Jewish pressure group now ignoring the Christian prisoners. One of
the first thing Mendelevich did on reaching Israel was to tell
everyone to keep up the pressure for releasing Federov and Murzhenko.
And we did.
Murzhenko was released in 1984, found guilty of violating his
parole, re-incarcerated and under world-wide major pressure, let go
by the Soviet authorities. Federov was released in 1985 and allowed
to come to the United States in 1988.
Bishop and I will meet Federov at an awards ceremony in Randolph,
Mass. on Oct. 18th. Bishop and Kopel will each receive the Russian
Jewish Community Foundation Soviet Jewry Freedom Award before 500
guests (according to our nomination letter) "representing the
leadership of the Russian and American Jewish communities from
across the country." The letter indicated this is only the fifth
year the award as been given.
I don't believe any committee of legislators in other states did
what we did in Colorado. The file on the Leningrad Three Committee
can be found in
25 of the Jerry Kopel archives collection in the
Western History section of the Denver central library.
Federov received the Champion of Freedom Award for 2008 from the
American Jewish Committee. He focused his remarks by thanking the
dissidents live or deceased who broke the Soviet hold.
Bishop and Kopel consider the real winners of their award are the
Colorado legislators who kept up the pressure on the Soviets. So
this column is for their work which began 29 years ago, and Bishop
and Kopel thank them for their service.
Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House. Tilman Bishop
served 28 years in the House and Senate.