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Reliving the glory days

Bishop TillmanNearly three decades after forming a committee to free three imprisoned Soviet refuseniks, two former Colorado legislators will be recognized for their original and effective efforts.

On Oct. 18 in Boston, the Russian Jewish Community Foundation (RJCF) will present its Freedom Award to Gerald Kopel and Tillman Bishop, founders of  the Committee to Free the Leningrad Three.

In its announcement, the RJCF said the Freedom Award was “established to honor those outstanding individuals who worked hard to save us, the Soviet Jews, from tyranny and anti-Semitism in the USSR.”

Previous recipients have included American Jewish Committee executive director David Harris and Prof. Alan Dershowitz.

Kopel and Bishop, Democrat and Republican respectively, founded the Committee to Free the Leningrad Three in 1980 in conjunction with the Commission on International Jewish Affairs, at the time one of the two Denver Jewish activist organizations working on behalf of Soviet Jewry.

The Committee to Free the Leningrad Three was formed to pressure the Soviets to release one Jewish prisoner of conscience, Iosif Mendelevitch, and two Christian prisoners, Yuri Federov and Aleksie Murzhenko.

The three were the last remaining imprisoned members of a group of Soviet dissidents, mostly Jewish, who in 1970 participated in an ill-fated attempt to hijack an empty plane in Leningrad to fly to Sweden.

Gerald KopelThe so-called “Leningrad Affair” became a cause celebre and rallying cry for the fledgling movement to allow Soviet Jews to leave the USSR.

The plot’s leaders, Eduard Kuznetsov and Mark Dymshitz, were sentenced to death for high treason. Those sentences were later commuted when Kuznetsov and Dymshitz were traded for accused Soviet spies in the US.

All but the final three prisoners were released under different circumstances.

The Denver-based Committee to Free the Leningrad Three became a national model. Its work is frequently cited as a pivotal factor in persuading the Soviet authorities eventually to free Mendelevich, Federov and Murzhenko.

KOPEL and Bishop designed the committee primarily as a letter-writing effort, persuading their fellow Colorado legislators to write personal letters to the imprisoned Soviet activists.

Although they realized that the Soviet prison authorities would almost certainly not forward the correspondence to the prisoners themselves, the idea was to inform the Soviet government that American politicians were paying close attention to the prisoners and were actively seeking their release.

At first glance, the two legislators seemed unlikely allies, but Kopel, a Jewish Democrat from Denver, and Bishop, a Christian Republican from Grand Junction, had already established a bipartisan partnership that had proved effective more than once in the Colorado Legislature.

They were also influential within their respective parties and legislative houses. After the release of Mendelevitch in 1981, the committee had 62 sponsors in the House of Representatives and 33 in the Colorado Senate.

Among the committee’s active supporters were Gov. Dick Lamm, Denver Mayor Bill McNichols, State Treasurer Roy Romer, Attorney General J.D. MacFarlane, and US Congressmen Ken Kramer and Tim Wirth.

After the release of Mendelevitch, the committee changed its name to the “Committee to Free the Leningrad Three (Two More to Go),” and continued to apply pressure.

“The CIJA staff provided us with stationery, mailing addresses and news releases containing information about the prisoners,” Kopel wrote in an article he wrote for the Colorado Statesman.

“Each of us paid our own mailing costs. It would have been easy to get House or Senate Joint Resolutions passed, but we decided to keep our work out of the legislative process.”

Murzhenko and Federov were released in 1984 and 1985 respectively.

KOPEL told the Intermountain Jewish News last week that he is “very honored” by the RJCF honor later this month. He feels the recognition is probably based on the uniqueness of the Colorado legislators’ approach and the widely held perception that it got results.

“I assume that no other state, if they did have an organization, did it the way we did it,” he said. “We didn’t just pass a resolution and then sit on our hands. We did our best to get everybody involved.”

He is glad to be sharing the honor with Bishop, Kopel said.

“Bishop provided the strong arm, the ability to talk to new legislators and get them to join,” Kopel told the IJN. “I also knew it was important to make this non-partisan.”

Kopel added that he’s not sure if any present-day human rights battles can be directly compared to the Soviet Jewry movement, but says that whatever human rights cause is being championed, the example set by the Committee to Free the Leningrad Three would likely prove valuable.

“I hadn’t even thought about comparing it with anything going on today,” he said, but added that his experience taught him that the most effective international activism is that which focuses on a small group of people, or an individual, rather than a broad concept or cause.

This approach personalizes and humanizes the situation and often leads to a larger raising of awareness on the entire issue.

“It becomes much easier to concentrate on it.” Kopel said.

Bishop served two terms in the Colorado House of Representatives and six terms in the Colorado Senate, totaling 28 years in the legislature. Retired from politics due to term limits in 1998, he currently serves on the CU Board of Regents.

Kopel served for a total of 22 years in the Colorado House of Representatives between 1965 and 1993. He is currently retired and resides in Denver.

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IJN Assistant Editor | [email protected]

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