The gesture of recognition came very late in the day, but when a major American Jewish organization last week honored Yuri Fedorov — a non-Jewish human rights activist who served 15 years in Soviet prison camps for his contribution to the cause of freeing Soviet Jews — late certainly felt better than never.
The American Jewish Committee used the occasion of a Jan. 9 commemoration of the 40th Anniversary of the Soviet Jewry movement to honor Fedorov, one of only two non-Jews among 13 participants in the so-called Leningrad airplane plot; the plot was a doomed attempt by a group of activists to reach Israel in 1970 by hijacking a small plane out of the Soviet Union. At the same event, the AJC also presented awards to two American political leaders who took lead roles in the international campaign to free Soviet Jews, former New York Mayor Ed Koch and Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.)
A tall ascetic-looking man of 64 with a long, white beard, Fedorov was first arrested by the KGB as a student in the early 1960s for circulating leaflets denouncing the Soviet regime. Released from a prison camp after serving three years, Fedorov soon became involved in the hijacking plot. Members of the plot arranged to charter a small commercial plane in Leningrad for a flight to a town near the Finnish border; there, they would supposedly be attending a wedding. Instead, the plotters planned to evict the pilot from the plane, which one of the plotters, Mark Dymshits, an ex-Soviet air force pilot, would then fly to Sweden.
The KGB learned of the plot in advance and arrested all of the participants as they arrived at the Leningrad Airport. Two of the ringleaders, Dymshits and Eduard Kuznetsov, were sentenced to death, while the other participants including Iosif Mendelevitch, Sylva Zalmanson, Fedorov and another non-Jewish dissident, Alexei Murzhenko, received long prison sentences.
The draconian sentences triggered mass protests by Jews worldwide, causing the Soviet government to commute the two death sentences to 15 years of hard labor and eventually to allow all the Jewish participants to leave the country within 10 years. Only Fedorov and Murzhenko were compelled to serve their full sentences; in Fedorov’s case, 15 years (Murzhenko, who became ill during his time in the gulag, died in 1999).
Federov was allowed to leave the Soviet Union in 1988 and today lives modestly with his wife Victoria Szerko in a small house in the Catskills, from which the couple operates the Gratitude Fund, a foundation dedicated to providing financial support to former dissidents and refuseniks living in difficult conditions in the former Soviet Union, Israel and the West.
In accepting the award, Fedorov, a devout Russian Orthodox Christian, said “I share it with the living and departed who fought the Soviet regime and heralded the victory of Israel in the Six-Day War.”
Stating that the struggle to win the right of Soviet citizens to emigrate “was a joint effort of Jewish activists and dissidents and Christian communities,” Fedorov said, “Those who believed in the International Charter of Human Rights caused the Iron Curtain to develop a hole and later to collapse, burying the Soviet regime under its weight. Yet many of these people — some who are well known and others who are not — live today in abject poverty. We would welcome [contributions] to allow us to assist more of them.” (People interested in assisting can find the necessary information on the foundation’s Web site: www.thegratitudefund.org.)
Offering tribute to Fedorov, after he was presented with the AJC’s Champion of Freedom Award, AJC Executive Director David Harris called the honoree “one of the few true heroes.” Harris noted that in his remarks, Fedorov “never used the word ‘I’, but instead spoke about what we all should do to help former dissidents who are living in poverty. That was a true expression of menschlikeit and compassion.”
Yuri Yarim-Agaev, a non-Jewish former dissident who attended the event, told the Jewish Week; “It is good that a Jewish organization finally honored Yuri Fedorov, but it should have happened many years ago. The Jewish community didn’t fight for him, despite what he did for oppressed Jewry. Fedorov and Murzhenko should have been made honorary citizens of Israel and heroes of Zion while they were in prison, but they were not.”
Sam Kliger, a former refusenik and director of Russian Jewish Affairs at the AJC, said, “It is true that there was less pressure to release Fedorov and Murzhenko than the Jewish members of the Leningrad plot. It is also true that Yuri is under-recognized today because he is humble and never promotes himself.”
Asked whether he felt neglected by world Jewry during his imprisonment or in more recent years, Fedorov replied, “Absolutely not. I feel gratitude to Jews who fought for me while I was in prison, and to those who honor me today. It is wonderful feeling. The reason I was held in captivity for so long was exclusively due to the KGB, who considered me an even greater traitor than the Jews who took part in the airplane plot.
“They said to me, ‘It is understandable that Jews would do something like this to try to get to their homeland, Israel, but how could you, an ethnic Russian, get involved? You are an even greater traitor than they are.”
Fedorov said that he and other members of the airplane plot were aware that the KGB had likely learned of their plot in advance but decided to put the plan into motion anyway because, “We decided there was no other way out. As Kuznetsov said at the time, ‘Maybe our failure will be more useful for the Jewish movement than would be a success.’ For my part, I felt I had to do it. It was a kind of sacrifice we decided to make.”
Fedorov said he decided to start the Gratitude Fund after visiting Moscow in 1998 and seeing “the terrible conditions in which so many of my former friends from prison camp were living. These are people who sacrificed so much for the dream of freedom and democracy and now, in their later years, they cannot meet the cost of food and medication.”
Asked if he regrets having sacrificed so much of his own life for that cause, Fedorov replied, “No, I never feel that I lost 18 years [in prison camps], but rather that I fulfilled my life’s work. I did something that was worth doing. While I was in prison, I dreamed of the demise of the Soviet Union, but I never imagined that I would live long enough to witness it.”