There is growing disquiet among Moscow activists over the fate of Edward Kuznetsov. He was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment in the first Leningrad trial, the sixth anniversary of which will be marked next week, but no one now knows for cerrtain where he is.
A letter sent to him at the strict regime Potma camp at the beginning of last month was returned to the sender -eleven days later with the word “left” written on the envelope. Dr. Andrei Sakharov’s wife Yelena, who tried to visit him a few weeks ago, was turned away. And Kuznetsov himself is known to have been transferred from a relatively comfortable job in the camp library to harder work in the factory. There are also fears that he might have been moved from Potma altogether, possibly to the notorious Vladimir prison.
SINCE THE APPEARANCE in the west of his prison diaries, Kuznetsov has been warned several times by camp officials that they intended to take revenge at a suitable opportunity.
Nine Jews and two non-Jews were involved in the Leningrad “hijack” affairs, when they attempted to steal a small aircraft and escape from Russia in December, 1970. The first trial and the death sentences meted out to Mark Dymshits and Kuznetsov served as a catalyst to ignite the national consciousness of Jews throughout the world.
The trial propelled the Riga activists to capitalise on the growing support of Jewish communities in the west and stage their famous sit-in at the Ministry of the Interior in March, 1971. Mass protests such as these had not been seen in Moscow since the 1920s.
Embryonic groups found the courage to write their first open letter in protest against the severity of the sentences. The first signature on the letter of the Sverdlovsk group happened to be that of Valery Kukui. The KGB utilised this arbitrary fact a few months later when they arrested Kukui in an attempt to intimidate the entire Sverdlovsk exodus movement.
In the west, too, Jews suddenly became aware that there was a Jewish problem in the Soviet Union. In Britain until then a few student activists had by and large organised the campaign. For established communal organisations, an occasional conference or protest letter seemed to suffice. The first Leningrad trial changed all that.
Although the students again led the immediate struggle to have the death sentences commuted, the Board of Deputies and the Association of Jewish Women’s Organisations brought the community out in massive protests. Within months, the first communal ginger group, the now-famous Women’s 35s, was formed to campaign for the 35-year-old imprisoned Jewess from Odessa, Raisa Palatnik. From that point on, other groups flourished and Anglo-Jewry was involved in a real sense for the first time.
And what of the prisoners? So far, only two have been released. Mendel Bodnya, who was really only on the periphery of the affair, received the smallest sentence — four years — which he served. He is now in Israel. Silva Zalmanson was released just over two years ago as a result of world pressure and diplomatic intervention at a high level. She, too, lives in Israel.
Israel Zalmanson, Silva’s youngest brother, is due for release in 1978. He was a 21-year-old student in 1970 when he received his eight-year sentence. News reached London last week that he has been deprived of visits for an indefinite period. His father was told in September that his scheduled visit in January had been postponed for six months.
Some of the Leningrad prisoners have insisted on maintaining religious traditions in the camp. Iosif Mendelvich, who received twelve years, was born into an Orthodox Riga family and has suffered more than once for his convictions.
Anatoly Altman, serving ten years, has become observant in the camps. He was sentenced to three months in a punishment cell recently for his refusal to eat non-kosher food and his insistence on wearing a skull-cap.
The saga continues—without any significant changes for the future. Their action in 1970, naive as it was, broke through the psychological barrier of inhibition for both Soviet Jews and their brethren in the free world. They are now serving the remainder of their sentences in pitiful and frustrating conditions. Their plight must not be forgotten.
Jewish Observer 10 December 1976