Update: Gal Beckerman talks to the Forward about the Leningrad hijacking in this week’s Reporters’ Roundtable podcast: “Remembering a Milestone the Soviet Jewry Movement.” The interview begins at about the four minute mark. Beckerman also talks about where the hijackers live today and how they view their contribution to the Soviet Jewry movement: “They really feel like they’ve been forgotten. They feel that they were soldiers in a way, for this cause, and they’ve been forgotten.”
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.
The plane never got off the ground—the hijackers had been infiltrated by the KGB and were arrested at the airport. Several were sentenced to death, but an international outcry convinced the Soviets to commute their sentences to imprisonment.
The hijacking was a turning point for the struggle to free Soviet Jewry, which had been a minor grassroots movements up to then; after the attempted hijacking and trial, it became an international cause. Beckerman concludes that it not only changed the fate of Soviet Jews, but that of the entire country.
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.