This week marks the seventh anniversary of the start of the first Leningrad trial which culminated in the death sentences for Mark Dymshits and Edward Kuznetsov and lengthy prison terms for the other defendants. After protests from the west, those death sentences were commuted to 15 years in strict regime labour camps.
The Leningrad prisoners were arrested on June 15 1970 and their sentences date from then. Dymshits and Kuznetsov have therefore only served half of their sentence and still have another seven and a half years to serve.
Their sufferings – and those of other Prisoners of Zion – were vividly brought to life in a new Israeli film, “Prisonland”. which had been smuggled out of the Soviet Union and was premiered in London last week under the joint auspices of the 35s Womens campaign for Soviet Jewry and Christian Support for the Persecuted. Thirteen well-known film producers including the Boulting brothers, Sir Richard Attenborough and Bryan forbes, gladly lent their names to sponsor the film.
The film opened with the most remarkable shots of a caravan of trucks, filled to the brim with prisoners, heavily-armed guards and dogs. the trucks were taking prisoners to and from camp CC/78 on the outskirts of Riga.
many former prisoners now in Israel gave testimony to the conditions in the camps, emphasising the pitiful situation of the Leningrad prisoners. Yuri Vudka spoke of the diet in Vladimir prison, to which prisoners are sent from the camps as a punishment. The first horrifying pictures of an emaciated Vladimir Bukovsky on his arrival in the west spoke volumes about the conditions in the prison.
Vudka spoke passionately too about the fate of Iosif Mendelevich, another of the Leningrad prisoners who was transferred to Vladimir for refusing to work on Shabbat in the camps. Vudka related that Mendelevich had been punished by removal to Vladimir for wearing a skullcap.
The film was masterminded by Avram Shifrin, a well-known activist who emigrated from Odessa seven years ago. Shifrin was himself sentenced to 25 years at the end of the Stalinist era. Lazar Lubarsky who was in Britain for Soviet Jewry Week, spoke at the end of the film about his own four years in a camp.
The film is available from the 35s and should be seen by anyone wishing to educate the public about the events of December 15 1970 and the suffering which followed it.
Jewish Observer 15 December 1977