Jerry Kopel


Sen. Tilman Bishop, R-Grand Junction, certainly deserved the praise he received in the state's newspapers as he ends his 28-year career in the Colorado legislature. But none of the articles talked about one crusade in which Tillie Bishop played a large role during the early 1980s.

Back in 1980, I had become increasingly concerned about the fate of Jews and Christians who were being denied religious freedom and the right to emigrate from Soviet Russia. The Colorado Commission on International Jewish Affairs (CIJA) and I jointly proposed forming an organization to highlight the issue by focusing on three "prisoners of conscience"; one an Orthodox Jew and two Christians.

The three were Iosif Mendelevich, of Jewish faith and Yuri Federov and Aleksie Murzhenko, of Christian faith. They had been imprisoned since 1970 as three of ten men and one woman captured while attempting to commander an empty plane in Leningrad in order to flee the country. Tried in Leningrad, they were all sentenced to prison. Two, Eduard Kuznetsov and Mark Dymshitz, were condemned to die.

In 1978, the woman, Mrs. Kuznetsov was released. Eduard Kuznetsov and Mark Dymshitz were freed in 1979 and allowed to leave Russia in exchange for two Soviet spies held in the United States. Five others were pardoned that year as part of a "public relations" deal coinciding with a visit to Russia by a delegation of U.S. Congressmen.

That left three, who were being kept in prison. Why? For defying the Soviets by continuing to attempt to practice their religions.

Mendelevich refused in prison to eat non-Kosher foods. Subsisting on a diet of bread and water, his weight dropped from 176 to 121 pounds. He received additional punishments for "violation of the form of camp dress" which was his insistence on wearing his yarmulke. Federov is a practicing Orthodox who was continuously punished for insisting on wearing a cross.

But the Soviets were not totally stupid. They didn't want dead martyrs and made sure the three received medical treatment when it was absolutely needed.

The KGB told Federov and Murzhenko because they were the only two Christians among the original eleven who were arrested and convicted, "It will be worse for you" for trying to help Jews escape the Soviet Union.

I named the new organization "The Committee to Free the Leningrad Three." The idea was to get legislators and other elected officials to join and send letters of support to the three prisoners. We knew the three would NEVER be allowed to see the letters. But the letters would be intercepted and read by the Soviet authorities and hopefully pressure them to release the men.

I chose Sen. Bishop as my co-chairman. He was quite enthusiastic about the project and obtained 29 of the other 34 senators to join the committee. In the House, even with Sen. Bishop's help, we were only able to persuade 41 of the other 64 House members to sign on.

Other elected officials joining us were Gov. Dick Lamm, Denver Mayor Bill McNichols, State Treasurer Roy Romer, Attorney General J.D. MacFarlane and Congressman Ken Kramer. Congressman Tim Wirth sent us copies of letter he had already written about the dissidents. Many other influential Coloradans joined the effort.

All that we did was extra-curricular. The CIJA staff provided us with stationery, mailing addresses and news releases containing information about the prisoners. 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.

When Eduard Kuznetsov visited Denver as part of a national visit to publicize the plight of Russian dissidents, Tillie and I introduced him at a Denver press conference highlighting the three remaining prisoners.

In February of 1981, Mendelevich was suddenly and unexpectedly released from prison and flown to Israel to join his family. Upon his arrival in Israel he urged continuance of the campaign to free Federov and Murzhenko. "The fact that both are non-Jewish is the worst example of Soviet discrimination and must not pass without protest".

So Sen. Bishop and I continued to write letters, suggest forms of letters to legislators, provide addresses of Soviet authorities and essentially kept up the pressure. After Mendelevich's release, our House sponsors totaled 62, and Senate sponsors, 33. We changed our letterhead to "Committee to Free the Leningrad Three (Two More to Go)."

On June 15, 1984, Aleksei Murzenko was released after serving 14 years in prison, only to be rearrested for "parole violation". We now had 35 Senate and 59 House sponsors. At once, our legislators wrote letters protesting the rearrest. He was later released. In June of 1985, Yuri Federov was released after serving 15 years, but denied an exit visa to leave the country.

There were others campaigns with Tillie. I will mention just one.

In 1979, Sen. Bishop introduced SB 202 dealing with enhanced penalties for robbery of the elderly (aged 60 or older) and the handicapped. There were language problems and in House Judiciary I made a number of amendments and added more on the House floor which were accepted by the House and Senate.

In 1980, I persuaded Gov. Lamm to put theft from the elderly on the call to the legislature. He did, but unfortunately House Judiciary Chairman Ron Strahle refused to put my bill (even with Sen. Bishop as co-sponsor) up for a vote. In 1981, being a wiser Democrat in a Republican legislature, I asked Tillie to be chief sponsor of the bill to enhance the penalty for theft from the elderly (when the theft is committed in the presence of the elderly person aged 60 or older).

Sen. Bishop agreed, was chief sponsor of the successful SB 72 and I carried the measure in the House. Both new laws carried a Class 3 felony penalty (for theft it was when the value was $200 or more).

Several years later, the home of my elderly mother-in-law and father-in-law in Park Hill was entered through a window by a thief at night. He demanded and received my mother-in-law's wedding ring off her finger. Being a rather stupid criminal with a prior arrest record, he left his prints on the dusty window sill and was soon captured. He was sentenced to a Class 3 felony under either SB 202 of 1979 or SB 72 of 1981.


Jerry Kopel writes a column for the Statesman based on 22 years past experience as a state legislator.

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