How my father helped free Soviet prisoners

Last month in Massachusetts, my father, Jerry Kopel, received the Soviet Jewry Freedom Award from the Russian Jewish Community Foundation. He was honored along with his fellow former legislator, Tilman Bishop. (Bishop is now an elected Regent of the University of Colorado. He is a conservative Republican from Grand Junction; my father is a liberal Denver Democrat.) In 1979, my father and Bishop created the Committee to Free the Leningrad Three; these were Jewish and Christian refuseniks who had attempted to flee the Soviet Union in 1970. They were part of a group of 10 which bought all the seats on a small charter plane, and planned to overpower the pilot and escape to Scandanavia. Their plot was thwarted at the airport, before they ever boarded the plane. The group was known as the “samoletchiks”–airplane guys. By 1980, 7 of the 10 had been released due to international pressure. Five of them were part of a swap involving some captured Soviet spies; the other two had completed their prison terms. 

Thanks to the Committee to Free the Leningrand Three, the remaining three were all released by 1985.

In a recent column, my father explained some of the Committee’s unusual tactics. First, they did not adopt the standard legislative approach of merely getting a resolution adopted. A resolution is a one-time thing, but the Committee aimed for continuing pressure. Colorado legislators were invited to join the Committee, which eventually comprised 95 of Colorado’s 100 state representatives and senators. Every member was required to write personal letters, not form letters, to the Soviet authorities, and to the prisoners. Bishop (who started in the House, and then went on to a long tenure in the Senate)  made sure the Committee members kept up the writing.

More information about the samoletchiks and the campaign to free them can be found in recent articles in the Boston Globe  and in the Intermountain Jewish News.

State and local officials who want to support international human rights often have a difficult time finding ways to act effictively without running into conflicts with the federal government’s primary role in foreign relations. The Committee to Free the Leningrad Three provides a good model for constructive local action with global consequences. Today, there are many prisoners of conscience around the world who could be saved by state and local American government activism.


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