Colorado legislators played key part in release of The Leningrad Three
Author: - October 10, 2009 - Updated: October 10, 2009
The subject of this column was 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 10 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 who were 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 members’ 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 that 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 things 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 worldwide 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. 18. I, along with Bishop, 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 has 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 Box 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 living or deceased who broke the Soviet hold.
Bishop and myself consider the real winners of our award the Colorado legislators who kept up the pressure on the Soviets. So this column is for their work that began 29 years ago, and Bishop and myself thank them for their service.
Jerry Kopel, a Democrat from Denver, served 22 years in the Colorado House. Tilman Bishop, a Republican from Grand Junction, served 28 years in the House and Senate.