Israeli filmmaker Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov grew up knowing that her parents were heroes. But in her new documentary “Operation Wedding,” she asks her father, “Were you terrorists, dad?”
“Certainly we were terrorists,” he replies, laughing. “But I told you, we were good terrorists.”
In 1970, newlyweds Sylva Zalmanson and Edward Kuznetsov were among 16 would-be hijackers. The plan? To board a small plane, tie up the pilots, and abandon them on the runway in a bid to escape the Soviet Union for Israel.
Kuznetsov, the leader of the group, was found guilty in Soviet court and sentenced to death by firing squad. At her trial, Zalmanson’s only statement was “Next year in Jerusalem.” She was sentenced to 10 years.
Now Zalmanson-Kuznetsov is chronicling her parents’ ordeal in a film that took home a prize at the Hollywood International Independent Documentary Awards. It is the first feature-length film about the incident made outside of Russia.
The documentary will be screened at the Washington Jewish Film Festival on Saturday, May 20.
The film bears the same name the hijackers gave their operation, which hinged on a wedding they would ostensibly attend. Their true goal was to illegally fly over international borders and land in Israel. The group had been denied exit visas and saw the hijacking as their only means of escape. However, the KGB discovered the plot and arrested everyone on the runway before the plan could be carried out.
Zalmanson-Kuznetsov doesn’t want to think of her parents as “bad people.” In the film, she looks up the word “terrorist” in the dictionary and reads it aloud. It says that a terrorist is a person “who acts violently, mostly against civilians, in order to achieve sociopolitical goals by creating fear and panic among the public.”
“So you weren’t terrorists,” she tells her father.
The 16 hijackers themselves were the only passengers on board — they purchased all the seats on the plane. They had procured sleeping bags and a tent for the pilots so they wouldn’t suffer from the cold before they were found. They had also planned to give them tetanus shots and a bottle of vodka.
But from the point of view of the Soviet authorities, of course, the hijackers were criminals.
“Regardless of the motivation of the hijackers, it’s a criminal act,” former KGB agent Oleg Kalugin told The Times of Israel by phone this week. “Innocent people could have been killed. Such actions are dangerous for hundreds or thousands of people who have nothing to do with it.”
Kalugin, 82, who now lives in the United States due to disagreements with Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin, was interviewed by Zalmanson-Kuznetsov for the film and has been invited to attend the screening on Saturday.
“He hasn’t seen the film before. I’m very nervous about how he will respond,” Zalmanson-Kuznetsov said.
Zalmanson-Kuznetsov also interviewed Philipp Bobkov, who, as deputy chairman of the KGB, was in charge of her parents’ arrest. In the movie, he says that it is the agency’s responsibility to prevent hijackings like the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
The filmmaker said Bobkov’s spin on the story was so cunning she felt compelled to cut his interviews short in the film, lest viewers believe everything he said.
“He was just lying all the time. He is very convincing, it’s hard to resist,” Zalmanson-Kuznetsov said.
For Zalmanson-Kuznetsov, the most disturbing part of the story relates to the miserable conditions during the years that her parents spent in prison. The bread the Soviets fed them was wet to the point of being almost inedible. Her mother was kept in solitary confinement, in a room without a window that was so cold, she tried wrapping herself in newspaper. (For a long time after she was freed, she dreamed that she was still in solitary.)
Her father asked for years to be given a mattress to sleep on. He swallowed pieces of rolled paper to hide the book that he was writing from prison guards. In 1973, his work, “Prison Diary,” was published abroad.
In the film, Zalmanson-Kuznetsov’s mother returns to a prison in Riga where she served part of her time. The prison is now the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia.
In what was once the prison yard, Zalmanson dances a waltz by herself as she used to as a prisoner, without music, to remember how it felt to be free. The guards would watch her from above.
Thanks to a stunning display of international diplomacy, the hijackers were eventually saved. In one surprising maneuver, Israeli prime minister Golda Meir sent a message to Fascist Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, convincing him to have mercy on six Basque terrorists who were sentenced to death.
Meir hoped that “Brezhnev the Communist would try to prove that he is more humane than Franco the Fascist,” Zalmanson-Kuznetsov explains in the movie.
It worked. The death sentences of the two hijackers, including the filmmaker’s father, were commuted to 15 years in prison. Zalmanson-Kuznetsov’s parents were eventually exchanged for Soviet spies and released. Her mother had served four years, her father nine.
Two years after her release, Zalmanson launched a 16-day hunger strike to get her husband out of prison, or at least be given a chance to visit him. The fast ended up putting her in the hospital, and while it received media attention, it did not garner any results from the Soviets. Ironically, when her husband was finally released, the pair divorced just months after they were reunited. They family did, however, fulfill their dream of moving to Israel.
The other hijackers were also eventually released. The two non-Jewish men in the group served the longest sentences, 14 and 15 years. Even after being freed, they were not permitted to leave the country until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now they live in New York.
“I think for the Soviets, the fact that they were not Jewish was even more of a betrayal in Soviet eyes,” Zalmanson-Kuznetsov said.
For Zalmanson-Kuznetsov, making the film was so all-consuming that when she finally finished it, she realized that four years had gone by. Still, she is now planning to make a feature film about the hijacking to portray her parents’ memories more vividly than she was able to do in the documentary. She already has a vision for one such scene.
“My mother was released in her prison clothes on a Friday night. She was penniless, and all she had was a train ticket to Moscow the next day. She just wandered the streets in her prison clothes,” Zalmanson-Kuznetsov says.
The next day, she went to a clothing shop still wearing her prison clothes, and came out in a red dress.
“Operation Wedding” is filmed in Hebrew, Russian and English. Following its premiere at the Washington Jewish Film Festival in Washington, DC, on May 18, it will be screened again on May 20. Further screenings will take place at the Harrisburg Jewish Film Festival in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on May 24; at the Brooklyn Shorefront Y in New York on June 11; and at the St. Louis Jewish Film Festival in St. Louis, Missouri, on August 20.