Operation Wedding: A conversation with Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov

Operation Wedding escape plan graphic, designed by Armands Blumbergs.


A while ago I interviewed Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov for an article about her award-winning documentary, Operation Wedding, still one of just a tiny handful of docs on the Soviet-Jewish immigration. It’s the story of her parents’ attempt to escape the USSR in 1970, by hijacking an empty plane and flying it across the border to Sweden. It sounds daring and romantic — the outcome was anything but. They, along with their co-conspirators were betrayed to the KGB and arrested at the airport. Her mother was imprisoned, while her father and the co-pilot were sentenced to death. That sentence was commuted thanks to public outcry, and the Soviet-Jewry movement leapt forward into public conscience as a result.

I wrote about the documentary for Tablet Magazine when it first came out. Much of our conversation didn’t make it into the article — I didn’t want it to be lost completely, so I’m sharing a brief Q+A of some of the outtakes below. This has been condensed somewhat for clarity.

The movie continues to make rounds on the film festival circuit, sweeping up awards along the way. Check out the schedule to find it in your town, or arrange a local screening. Or buy your own copy of the DVD by making a donation.

When did you first start thinking about doing a movie about this? This is a story you’ve known all your life — what was the spark to finally make it into a movie?
I always wanted to make a motion picture. As a filmmaker, I was never too interested in documentary, to be honest. I thought there were already many documentaries about my parents’ story because I remember growing up people would come [see us] — not only journalists but people with cameras. So I assumed there are many documentaries. But what I found out when I started researching is there are a lot of 10-minute stories about them [for the news]. I was surprised to realize that there is no full movie. You think everybody knows, and then years pass by and no one remembers because it was so known. It’s ironic. The only full length film was made in Russia in 2009.

There were snippets of it in the documentary, right?
Yes, when I’m showing it to my father. He never saw it before. It’s called “How to Escape the USSR.”

And from what I gather that you said about it in your documentary, the Soviets — sorry, the Russians — have their own perspective on the whole thing.
Well, the Russians have their own perspective on everything. I mean you can say it’s very nice to see their perspective. They’re actually just lying. First of all, “terrorist” is obviously the wrong word, because it’s only terrorist if you’re threatening people. But if you’re trying to escape — not hurting anyone, not taking people — then you’re not a terrorist. That’s one.

Second. They invented things that did not even needed to be invented. There is a whole scene about how they how they went and bought a wedding dress and the salesman was suspicious. And then they go and they hijack the plane. She’s wearing a wedding dress. Of course, none of it happened. They never wore — and they never bought — a wedding dress. And then they also are wrong with names, with dates.

However, the last sentence in the Russian film made it very clear what the director thinks about it because the last sentence is “all those people live today in Israel and they still don’t think of themselves as criminals.”

Wow. It’s like they’re still trying to prove something. That’s amazing.
You know how I found the film? My producer — who is also from the Soviet Union — he found it in the FSB [the former KGB] on their website. After my film was released and I said we found it on the KGB website, they remove the link. It’s not there anymore.

Operation Wedding still of Sylva Zalmanson and Edward Kuznetsov at the BBC. Photo credit Sergei Freedman-Courte.

Operation Wedding still of Sylva Zalmanson and Edward Kuznetsov at the BBC. Photo credit Sergei Freedman-Courte.

How did your parents react? Were they keen to work with you or did it take convincing?
Well, my dad’s very supportive of the fact that I’m a filmmaker. They both believe in me and they support me completely. So any film I would do, they support. But they didn’t want to be interviewed. For them it’s very difficult. And they were interviewed so many times in the past. It’s boring to recreate the same story again and again. My mother, I interviewed her for six hours. It’s a lot. And my dad, after two hours he said, “Ok, it’s enough.” I nagged them. Because in a documentary you have to film a lot. You don’t know what will be good at the end. What you see in the film is maybe 10% of what I filmed. And then I took my mom to Russia, and my father didn’t want to join.

Did your mother want to go?
Oh no, I had to convince her. I was really worried about my mom. I was worried I’m doing too much. I didn’t want to hurt my mom in the name of art. It’s not a good reason. There is no good reason ever to hurt my parents. Before we went my mom was saying “Why do we need to go. I think it’s going to be really boring.” But when we were there, she said “Ok, I was wrong. You’re right. It’s different.” Especially when we went to the prison — she realized how powerful it was when it was over.

With my father, I said “Dad, I want to come, with cameras again. I want to show you and I want to see you exercising.” And he’s like, “Oh, why do you need to film so much… I already talked about it, it’s enough, it’s enough.” But when he saw it… he’s very very proud of me now and when he saw the film… because I think, everybody was expecting talking heads. Talking heads and archives. This is what has been done so far. Not only with my parents, but in general on the subject of Soviet Jewry.

I wanted to show my parents like I see them. No one else can show them like that but me. My dad — in the film you saw that he’s very lovable. But in real life, do you know that people are scared of him? People, they call me, and they say ‘Oh, your dad is so scary.”

Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov and Edward Kuznetsov share a drink in this Operation Wedding still. Credit David Stragmeister, courtesy of Ego Medi.

Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov and Edward Kuznetsov share a drink in this Operation Wedding still. Credit David Stragmeister, courtesy of Ego Medi.

I can see it. I can see him being a very gruff person.
Because he’s not scared. He’s just very sarcastic and people are scared of him because of his image. But, I wanted to show how I see him. And I think I did that. He is actually nothing to be scared of.

They were both very human in the film. It’s an awe-inspiring story because when you think about it, how many people would do something like that? So, it’s amazing to see that they’re very human, but they did this thing that is very — it’s very up there.
I don’t know how. I mean, I get the hijacking. I would do it, too. I understand also the trial, and how they were brave in the trial. I can understand that kind of courage, I think. I also have it. But the time in prison — to be honest I don’t know if I could handle it. I don’t think I actually would. And them not breaking. They were offered — they were told “If you ask, if you say you’re sick, you can be free.” And they refused. They knew that other people are looking to them and they couldn’t. If they looked weak, then everybody else would be weak too. They had to be strong for everybody.

Operation Wedding still of Sylva Zalmanson dancing in the prison yard, in Riga, Lithuania. Credit Andrejs Verhoustin-Co.

Operation Wedding still of Sylva Zalmanson dancing in the prison yard, in Riga, Lithuania. Credit Andrejs Verhoustin-Co.

But the time in prison — it’s boring! And that’s the worst. It’s boring and you’re hungry. Years and years and years of it. It’s horrible. It’s a nightmare. I don’t know how they did that. This is the truth. This is the real heroism for me. Not the other stuff. The other stuff too, of course, but this is the real thing.

My parents are tough, yeah?

I feel like Soviet Jews, in general, of that era, are different. They’re tough in a way that we’re not.
Well, you never know. Maybe. Maybe we were lucky just not to be in this position.

I don’t think necessarily that’s a terrible thing for us, that we didn’t go through these things. And my grandparents’ generation, as well — they just keep going. They get up in the morning, they’re barely holding themselves together but they just keep going. Meanwhile, I’m just like,“Oh my head hurts a little, I need to rest.”
We’re very lucky. We are a very privileged generation and I hope it will continue like this. But I think the problem with this generation is that they forget. They’re naive and they think it can never happen to them. But it totally can. It’s important to know history and to understand. History is not in the past. It’s also today.

Did this process change your perspective at all? This is a story that you’ve known all your life. Sure, it’s history but it’s also your personal life. So did it change how you see your life?
No, I just grew up like this. It just made it stronger. But I do agree about what you said… As a child I always appreciated the fact that I’m free. But when I was researching the film I started thinking as well about other options. Like, what would happen if they gave them only two years in prison? Then, you know, the world would not have reacted like it did. What would happen if they succeeded? Of course, they wouldn’t have, there was no chance. But if they succeeded, then, also nothing would have happened. So if I look at it in a very cynical way, it’s actually good that they were caught and it’s good that they got a death sentence because that’s what caused the reaction.

In that sense maybe it changed my perspective. Because often something seems really bad that’s happening to us. But then, when we look back, we realize, thanks to that really bad thing that happened, now everything is better. And sometimes there is no other choice. You have to suffer for something good to happen. If they would have escaped — of course I’m happy for them, it’s my parents. I want them to have a happy life. I don’t want them to be in prison. But — 300,000 Jews. Who knows what would have happened? You don’t know. The Soviet Union could have stayed for many more years. Everybody that was struggling for Soviet Jewry — they thought in their lifetime they would not see them freed.

Was there any news about in the USSR at the time?
I searched for archives for a really long time and all I could find was one. It was a big paper and it was a sports page. And on the bottom — very, very small — it says “Yesterday 16 criminals were arrested. They try to hijack a plane. KGB arrested them. The investigation is now happening.” That’s all. People in Leningrad, they knew more about it because there were 50 arrests in Leningrad because of this trial. In St. Petersburg. I still call it Leningrad, it’s amazing.

Oh, I know. I still sometimes say I was born in Leningrad. And then I correct myself. But Leningrad is actually easier to say.
St. Petersburg is long. It’s too complicated.

Leningrad just rolls off the tongue. So, do you find that your audiences generally already know this story? I noticed at the Toronto festival, the people who were asking questions were largely people who already had some minor connection — they may not have known the whole story but they had some idea of it.
Yes, most of my audience that comes to the cinema already know about this story. That’s why they come. Luckily for me, a lot of people know about it so it’s ok. It’s very hard to bring a young audience. Although we’ve shown it to a few groups of young people. The thing is about young people, you need to show them in groups. They’re not going to come to the cinema to see a serious film. But actually, they love it. I just got an email from a teacher — she took eighth graders — and when they saw it, they asked to see it again. I showed it in Philadelphia, with JNF, for people between 20 and 40. They didn’t know about the story at all. They were very emotional when I got into the room. Everybody was crying.

Showing it to teenagers is my higher, primary goal. They respond very strongly. But it’s hard to bring them. It needs to be organized and that’s what I’m doing. But when it’s in the cinema, usually it’s an older crowd and people will remember that story.

You know what’s funny though? The original group [on the plane] was supposed to be 64 people.

What? Wow. That’s huge! That’s a lot of people. Yes, of course they were caught. It’s a huge group. I thought 16 was a lot.
The original plan from Leningrad was supposed to be with 64 people. They could only find 50 people. So they went to Riga to speak to my mother and she brought an extra 10. Then the group in Leningrad decided not to do it.

Too many people knew about it. If 50 people agreed to do it, then 100 people knew about it.

Operation Wedding still of Sylva Zalmanson on a hunger strike in New York.

Operation Wedding still of Sylva Zalmanson on a hunger strike in New York.

So what do you want people to take away from the film? What do you want them to walk out with?
I really wanted the film to leave you with an uplifting feeling. Of strength and not of tragedy. Because that’s how my parents felt, even though they suffered. The main message of the film is to remind us that an individual can change history. We have the power to change. We’re not just a cog in the system.

And another very important message of the group, and for me, is that —and it’s also in the film and I’m quoting my dad again — “There is no ideology worth chopping up heads for.”

It’s just one sentence. But it was a very important sentence for me. And also the scene where I’m explaining the difference between terrorist and not terrorist. I was worried that some people may get the wrong idea from the film, and be inspired to do bad things. So I really focused on the fact that they never hurt anyone. You can make a change without being violent. And also about solidarity. The power of solidarity. It’s amazing.

They tried to hijack a plane & fly out of the USSR in 1970. Now, their daughter has made an award-winning, inspiring doc on the daring plan that changed the Soviet-Jewry movement forever. A Q+A with director Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov.

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