Refuseniks Arrested Before Flight Soviet Refusniks pictured in 1970s Moscow. Photo: Remember and Save

June 15, 1970

A dozen Soviet dissidents are arrested at Leningrad’s Smolnoye Airport just before boarding a 12-seat Antonov AN-2 aircraft for an attempt to fly to freedom. Also arrested are four conspirators in the small border town of Priozersk, where the plane is supposed to stop and pick them up before traveling on to Sweden. All but two of the 16 are Jewish refuseniks, having been denied the opportunity to emigrate and move to Israel.

The escape plan is called Operation Wedding because the plotters’ cover story for buying all the seats on the plane is that they are traveling to a wedding together. One of the conspirators, Mark Dymshits, is a pilot and can fly the plane after the crew members are removed.

The Jewish dissenters intend to continue to Israel after reaching Sweden. They send word to Israel of their intentions, but Israeli authorities urge them not to go through with the plan, for fear it will cost them their lives. In addition, because the refuseniks initially hoped to bring more than 100 people on a larger plane, the details of the plot have reached the Soviet authorities. The conspirators know their odds of success are low but decide to proceed in the belief that the publicity for the plight of Soviet Jews will be worth the cost.

The charges against the group, including high treason, do bring international attention and outrage to what is known as the First Leningrad Trial of 11 of the conspirators in December 1970, as well as subsequent trials of refuseniks. The two leaders of Operation Wedding, Dymshits and Edward Kuznetsov, are sentenced to death, while the others receive prison terms of four to 15 years. Under international pressure, the sentences for Kuznetsov and Dymshits are reduced to 15 years of hard labor.

The Jewish participants in the plot are released by 1981 and allowed to emigrate. The two non-Jewish conspirators are the last to be freed: Aleksei Murzhenko in 1984, although he is immediately rearrested for a parole violation and held until 1988; and Yuri Fedorov in 1985.

Although Operation Wedding is foiled, it succeeds in bringing enduring attention to the oppression of Soviet Jews and elevating their emigration efforts to a place in international diplomacy. The movement to free Soviet Jewry gains strength in the United States, and the Soviet Union loosens emigration restrictions.