Edward Kuznetsov, who has the soul of a prizefighter, understood all this from the beginning. It is almost axiomatic, at least to most heavyweight champions, that boxing matches are won, or lost, before anyone even steps in the ring. It’s a mind game, in other words.
Kuznetsov speaks to this point in the film, confessing that he knew the flight to freedom was “doomed” and he’d actually packed for prison. He refers to the group as “idiots like us” who decided to go up against an entire state with all its combined weaponry devoted to crushing dissent. What chance did the average person have in such a situation?
Kuznetsov authored a book, “Prison Diaries,” during his first four years in prison; it was smuggled to the West and has been published in several languages since 1974. His method: writing on paper smaller than a credit card. He would then roll up each note and attach it with thread to his back tooth. If danger presented itself, he would simply bite the string and swallow that day’s “chapter.” If not, he’d smuggle it out.
Perhaps his determination to document everything he saw and experienced was what kept him sane. Think of it: He and Sylva were newlyweds when arrested, very young, very much in love. She’d been sentenced to 10 years, some of it in solitary confinement. Her new husband was aware that after four years Sylva had been exchanged for a Soviet spy and flown to Israel. She admitted feeling guilty because her husband, two of her brothers, and her friends were still in Soviet jails and camps.
It was Sylvia who went back to Russia with Anat to film the inside of a typical cell. “When I was your age, I was already in prison,” Sylva kidded Anat. But 45 years later, visiting the KGB cells, she looks nervous and fearful and cannot bear to be near Russian soldiers. It was only her deep love for her daughter and deep commitment to help see the project through that enabled her to endure a trip back to the former Soviet Union.
They visited the graves of Sylvia’s parents, placing stones on them. They toured Smolny Airport, where the group was caught. The last stop was the former KGB headquarters.
A particularly poignant scene has Anat filming inside the cell – there is barely enough space for a bed and Sylva points to the only opening in the room: a slot in the door just wide enough to slide a food tray through. Anat asks, “Mommy, where are the windows? There are no windows in here.” When Sylva remains silent, Anat turns her face to the wall and sobs uncontrollably.
In a walled-in solitary outdoor “exercise” area, Sylva demonstrates how she kept her sanity – listening to music in her mind and waltzing in circles. Anat is deathly quiet, clearly shaken to her core.
In a voiceover, Anat whispers, “I wish I could go back in time and whisper in my parents’ ears, ‘Don’t worry, it’s going to be okay.’ I wish I could tell them the exact date and time they would separately be freed.”
The truth is, she did go back in time, back to the unchanged, hard-faced former Soviet Union, choosing to film the reality instead of using a stage set. Audience members wiped their eyes and bit their lips watching mother and daughter walking through a nightmare, with Sylva whispering to Anat, “Be strong.”
Yosef Mendelevich, now a rabbi in Jerusalem, describes in the film what happened when it was Sylva’s turn to give her “statement” at the Leningrad Trial. She stood up and said, speaking in Hebrew: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand lose its cunning.” She then translated and repeated the statement of Jewish faith in Russian. This was not well received by the judges. But her words, reported back to the free world, inspired protests in the streets and reached the sympathetic ear of the prime minister of Israel and the heart of the president of the United States.
Edward Kuznetsov’s strategy worked better than he ever could have imagined. The escape attempt failed, but the noise it triggered was deafening and circled the globe, pushing Jews and non-Jews to take action.
Watching this film, seeing a world of people committed to saving Soviet Jews, gives us the sense of looking through a magical, miraculous window on a time the likes of which we may never see again. We can, however, experience it through Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov’s powerful, emotional, exhilarating film and come away filled with both satisfaction and hope.
(Editor’s Note: Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov will be touring the U.S. with “Operation Wedding” beginning this month. Visit the website to watch the trailer and for a list of upcoming screenings: www.operation-wedding-documentary.com.)