Late one summer night 40 years ago this month, Yosef Mendelevich, a young Soviet Jew, camped with a group of friends outside the Smolny airport near Leningrad. The next morning, they planned to commandeer a 12-seat airplane, fly it to Sweden and, once there, declare their purpose: to move to Israel, a dream they had long been denied.
Most in the group were pessimistic about their chances — but none more than Mr. Mendelevich. He felt sure they would get caught, but to his mind, a group suicide was preferable to a life of waiting for an exit visa that would never arrive. Even a botched attempt, he figured, would at least attract the eyes of the world.
Early the next day, as the plotters walked onto the tarmac, they were, indeed, caught. The K.G.B. had known of their plan for months. And the two leaders were later sentenced to death.
But Mr. Mendelevich was also right that their desperate act would make their demand for free emigration impossible to ignore. Now largely forgotten, this planned hijacking, and the Soviet government’s overreaction to it, opened the first significant rip in the Iron Curtain, one through which hundreds of thousands would eventually flee. With great drama, it undermined Communist orthodoxy. After all, if the Bolsheviks had built the perfect society, why would any well-adjusted citizens want to leave, let alone risk their lives to do so?
The essential weakness of the Soviet Union was exposed: to survive, the regime had to imprison its own population. This would be the beginning of the end.
Jews were understandably at the forefront of the emigration battle. Even as they were forbidden to exercise any kind of Jewish identity, they also had no option to assimilate in Soviet society. Their internal passports were stamped “Jew,” a word that three generations after the 1917 revolution signified little more than their status as outsiders. Many had come to feel that their existence inside the Soviet Union was untenable, that the only way to escape this paradox was to move away. But the doors were firmly shut; those who requested permission to leave were refused and then ostracized.
The push to emigrate, which had begun in the early 1960s as an underground movement, had grown by 1970 into an open campaign. Letters to the United Nations were signed by hundreds of Soviet Jews. Only a few months before the hijacking attempt, the Kremlin had called for a public relations counteroffensive that would paint Zionism as “a vanguard of imperialism.” A large press conference was arranged with “acceptable” Jews, including the prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya and the comedian Arkady Raikin, vowing loyalty to the Soviet Union and denouncing Zionism as expressing “the chauvinistic views and racist ravings of the Jewish bourgeoisie.”
This was only the opening act. On the morning of June 15, 1970, K.G.B. agents tackled the would-be hijackers on the tarmac in Leningrad and threw them in jail. Afterward, dozens of Jewish activists unconnected to the plot were arrested. The government saw an opportunity to present Zionists as nothing more than subversive hooligans. But six months later, at their trial, the hijacking plotters offered the more compelling narrative: their story of unrequited longing for a homeland.
In her closing statement, Sylva Zalmanson, the only female defendant, recited from Psalm 137, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand wither.” While she was trying to repeat the words in Hebrew, the judge shouted at her to use a language recognized by the court. In the end, Mark Dymshits and Eduard Kuznetsov, the two leaders, were sentenced to face a firing squad.
Worldwide reaction to the news was immediate. Overnight, the small cause of Soviet Jewry — until then supported only by impassioned students and isolated activists — became a mass movement. Italian longshoremen in Genoa refused to unload Soviet ships. Students in Stockholm marched with torches through the streets. Even Salvador Allende, Chile’s Marxist president, called for clemency. In Israel, air-raid sirens blasted through the cities and 100,000 people gathered in front of the Western Wall. In Washington, Richard Nixon held an emergency meeting with leaders of Jewish groups.
More was at stake than just the fate of the two men. As The Times editorialized, “The real defendants in the court were not the handful of accused, but the tens of thousands of Soviet Jews who have courageously demanded the right to emigrate to Israel.”
On New Year’s Eve, less than a week after the trial, Eduard Kuznetsov was taken from his cell, certain he was going to be shot. But the prison warden told him, “A humanitarian gesture has been made on your behalf.” His sentence was commuted to 15 years. All the hijackers had their time reduced, though they still spent years at hard labor camps in the Urals. Only in 1979 were Mr. Dymshits and Mr. Kuznetsov released in a spy exchange. Yosef Mendelevich was freed in 1981.
By overturning the death sentences, the Soviet government tacitly accepted that the hijackers’ cause was one the world found to be just — and demonstrated that it was not deaf to outside opinion. Apparently, the leaders realized a hammer alone could not solve their Jewish problem. Yet neither could they simply meet the Jews’ demands to allow unfettered emigration. As Anatoly Dobrynin, the longtime Soviet ambassador to the United States, would later admit in his memoirs, the Kremlin feared that emigration would “offer a degree of liberalization that might destabilize the domestic situation.”
Still, within a month of the trial, more exit visas were being granted to Jews. By the end of 1971, 13,000 had been issued — more than in the previous 10 years combined. The following year, 32,000 people got permission to leave.
The bravery of the hijacking plotters also ignited a movement in the United States that would lead Congress, a few years later, to pass the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which withheld preferred trading status from the Soviet Union until it allowed tens of thousands of Jews to emigrate. The American action so exasperated Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader, that he demanded that his Politburo find more creative answers to the “Jewish question.” “Zionism,” he told them, “is making us stupid.”
Emigration was now linked to the Soviet-American relationship. In 1979, when the Soviets were hoping to buy more American grain and wanted to make sure a new arms limitation treaty would be signed and ratified, an unprecedented 50,000 Jews were allowed out. Just as quickly, a year later, after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the spigot was turned off.
Ronald Reagan saw in the Soviet Jews the perfect poster children for his view of the Soviet Union as an evil empire. Unlike Richard Nixon, President Reagan was publicly sympathetic to the emigration movement, and unlike Jimmy Carter, he wielded human rights as a strategic weapon rather than just touting it as a moral cause. Only a few months after Yosef Mendelevich was let out of prison, he was invited to the White House.
George Shultz, the secretary of state in the Reagan administration, made it clear time and again that not only trade but even arms control talks would depend on the emigration issue. By 1985, well before glasnost and perestroika, Anatoly Chernyaev, a foreign policy aide to Mikhail Gorbachev, would write in his diary, “We have to solve the Jewish question, the most burning of human rights problems.”
But the true solution was no less mortal a threat to the Soviets in the late 1980s than it had been in 1970. If they let the Jews leave, what would keep everyone else from doing the same?
When Soviet Jews finally emigrated en masse — nearly 1.5 million by the end of the 1990s — it looked like just another happy side effect of the Soviet Union’s collapse, another wall crumbling. Forgotten were the decades of pushing from the inside. The Soviet Union might have gone the way of China and had an economic liberalization that ignored human rights. But this option was not open, because the Soviet Jews made it clear that any change would need to include open borders.
As a result, not only were hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews able to build new lives, but forces were set in motion that would bring down the Berlin Wall and, eventually, an empire — a world-shaking transformation born from the hopes once placed on a small airplane that never even left the ground.
Gal Beckerman, a staff writer at The Forward and the author of the forthcoming When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry.