This week in Jewish history | 16 Jewish ‘refuseniks’ attempt to escape Soviet Union in Operation Wedding - World Jewish Congress

This week in Jewish history | 16 Jewish ‘refuseniks’ attempt to escape Soviet Union in Operation Wedding

This week in Jewish history | 16 Jewish ‘refuseniks’ attempt to escape Soviet Union in Operation Wedding


On 15 June 1970, a group of 16 Jewish ‘refuseniks’ led by Yosef Mendelevich, Mark Dymshits, Eduard Kuznetsov, and Sylva Zalmanson attempted to hijack a civilian aircraft, in a bid to escape the Soviet Union. While the operation, known as Operation Wedding, was unsuccessful and ended in the arrest of the initiators, the mission is credited with drawing international attention to the Soviet Union’s human rights violations and catalyzing a massive worldwide movement to free Soviet Jewry.

The name of the operation was derived from the original operation plan, which called for over a hundred people to board the plane to fly to a fictitious wedding. However, the plan was refined due to the fear that with so many people involved, the plans would likely be leaked to the KGB. 

The group planned to hijack a Soviet commercial airplane and fly the plane to Sweden, where they would be free from the Soviet regime. In order to ensure that innocent people would not be affected by hijacking, the group purchased all the seats on the small Soviet commercial airplane. 

Unfortunately, on the day of the operation, the group realized the KGB were likely aware of the planned operation. Nevertheless, the group decided to proceed with the mission, reasoning that their arrest would bring worldwide attention to the suffering of Soviet Jewry, who were often at the forefront of the Soviet Union’s human right abuses. The group suspicions were proven correct, as they were arrested even before they boarded the plane.

Even by Soviet standards, the sentences of those who participated in the operation were extremely harsh, as all participants were sentenced to multiple years in prison. Mendelevich and Zalmanson received fifteen and ten years in prison, and Dymshits and Kuznetsov were sentenced to death, although their sentences were eventually commuted. Fortunately, only two of Refuseniks' sentences were forced to serve out their full sentence, one of which passed away after becoming ill.

The trial triggered an international outcry from governments and institutions from around the world; in Israel, approximately 100,000 people gathered at the Western Wall to pray for those arrested, United States President Richard Nixon held an emergency meeting with leaders of Jewish groups, and students in Stockholm marched in solidarity of the injustice. The trial and operations are often credited with influencing the Cold War and eventually leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In November 2017, the WJC co-hosted a special screening of a documentary about the operation with several other prominent Jewish organizations. The documentary, which was directed by Zalmanson and Kuznetsov’s daughter, Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov was appropriately called “Operation Wedding.” WJC North America Executive Director Betty Ehrenberg opened the program with remarks about the dissidents’ impact on rallying American Jewry to the cause of Jews trapped in the Soviet Union