Ten years ago, on a chilly November day in the swells off Martha's Vineyard, seaman Simas Kudirka, seeking political asylum, leaped from a Soviet fishing vessel and onto the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Vigilant.
After the United States rejected his pleas for freedom, Kudirka was returned to the Soviet Union, where he was sentenced to 10 years in desolate prison camps.
Now, a decade later, the 41-year-old Lithuanian whose forcible return to Soviet jurisdiction caused a national furor is about to go on trial again -- this time in a D.C. Superior Courtroom thousands of miles from home, on charges that he violated afederal law prohibiting political demonstrations within 500 feet of a foreign embassy. In this case, it was the Soviet Embassy on 16th Street NW.
Compared to the notorious Vladimir prison near Moscow, the crumbling Vilnius jail in Lithuania or the special "reeducation center" hidden in the Ural Mountains at Perm, the prospect of spending time at the D.C. jail after his arrest in July seemed relatively sanguine. Yet, the intrepid, dark-haired Kudirka was left shaken.
"At least in the Soviet Union," he said afterward, "the prisoners were political like myself. Here, there was a woman who actually had stabbed somebody!"
The trial that led Kudirka from the company of Soviet political prisoners to that of Washington cellmates began with his fateful leap into prominence 10 years ago. Kudirka, a radio operator aboard the fishing trawler Sovietskaya Litva, hated the Russians, who occupied his native Lithuania when he was an infant. When the opportunity arose, he threw himself onto the deck of the Vigilant, moored several feet away, begging for asylum.
Fearing that Kudirka's defection would endanger U.S.-Soviet fishing treaty talks, the Vigilant's captain, acting on instructions radioed from his superiors, allowed four Soviet seamen to board and drag the kicking, screaming Kudirka back to their vessel. He was eventually tried before a high Sovieet Court, and sentenced to a prison camp.
Afters Kudirka had served nearly half of his sentence, some American sympathizers discovered that Kudirka was in fact entitled to American citizenship because his mother had been born in Brooklyn. He was subsequently released.
American officials called the Kudirka episode -- which set off a national furor -- a "tragic mistake" caused by a bureaucratic bungle. After a government investigation, three senior Coast Guard officers were suspended, and President Nixon issued new guidelines on treatment of persons seeking asylum.
That did little for Kudirka. Figuring all was lost when he was taken before a Soviet court in 1971, Kudirka made a strong political statement against the Soviet Union. When he was offered the services of a court-appointed attorney, he refused.
"Who needs two prosecutors?" he recalls saying. "One is quite sufficient. The prosecutor, the attorney, the judge -- they are all stones on your grave."
Kudirka's first prison cell in Vilnius was a dank, smoke-filled chamber, where KGB officials interrogated him for hours.
"The Americans don't want you," he q uoted one official as saying. "You have no secrets. You have no money. You are not an inventor. You are as valuable to the Americans as last year's snow. You would clean toilets there."
"I'll clean toilets in America," Kudirka said he responded. "I saw the facilities on the Vigilant and they didn't smell as bad as the office of the KGB."
Kudirka's journey through Soviet prison camps from 1970 to 1974 brought him in contact with other political prisoners, some not so political as he.
While he was imprisoned in Vilnius, Kudrika shared a cell with a man named Zubavicius, a fellow Lithuanian who had been jailed virtually his entire life for petty offenses, then finally imprisoned for a crime Zubavicius said he did not commit. Kudrika said he convinced his cellmate that he, too, was a political prisoner.
Zubavicius drew an unflattering carton of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. He tattooed the words "Death to the Judge" on his own cheeks, and wrote "I am a slave of the Soviet Union" on his forehead, Kudirka said.
A Soviet prison doctor cut the tattooes from his flesh without using anesthesia, and Zubavicius was put on trial for his insolence. When during that trial Zubavicius railed against the Soviet justice system, a Soviet psychiatrist stood up on the spot and declared: "This man is insane."
Zubavicius was subsequently transported to the Serbsky Psychiatric Institute in Moscow. He sent Kudirka a note saying: "Thank you for the soap, the little piece of meat and the orange. Now I've had my feast and I'm going to the hospital."
He never heard from Zubavicius again.
In another prison camp -- a special "reeducation" and work camp at Perm for the most resistant political prisoners -- Kudirka and many of the other inmates worked in a prison factory producing heating elements for electric irons.
One day, Kudirka said, the guards beat a prisoner for a minor infraction, and he led 25 inmates on a protest strike. The Soviets demanded to know the names of the strike leaders. "Tell us, and we will talk with them," the prison officials said, according to Kudirka. Realizing that leading a Soviet prison strike was a capital offense, Kudirka and all the others had the same response: "We are all the leaders," they said.
At a prison camp south of Moscow in 1972, Kudirka said, he and his fellow prisoners learned that Nixon was visiting the Soviet Union. He secretly made a cloth replica of the United Nations flag. Before dawn on the day Nixon arrived, Kudirka scaled a flagpole on the prison grounds and attached the flag to a wire at the top. The flag remained up for two hours before enraged prison authorities tore it down.
Kudirka was released by the Soviets after a baptismal certificate belonging to his mother was discovered in a Brooklyn church. He went to live in New York City, where he now works for a pro-Lithuanian rights organization. nLast July he participated in an anti-Soviet demonstration in Washington protesting the opening of the Moscow Olympics.
Kudirka and 17 fellow Lituanian Americans swooped down on the Soviet Embassy, stopped traffic and attempted to handcuff themselves to the embassy gates.
D.C. police reacted quickly. They approached the crowd, asking the demonstrators innocently: "Who are your leaders? Tell us who your leaders are so we can talk to them," Kudirka recalled. Like his colleagues in the Russian prison camp, the demonstrators replied, "We are all the leaders."
All 18 were arrested. Kurdirka waited anxiously for the police paddy wagon, recalling distinctly that in the Soviet Union, the paddy wagons were black and known as "juodoji varna" for the black crows that haunt Soviet cemeteries and carry premonitions of bad events. But instead, a white police wagon arrived, and the relieved demonstrators sang Lithuanian folk hymns on their way to the police station.
Kudirka spent one day in D.C. jail before his release on bond.
"The jail was not so bad," Kudirka aid. "I expected a little brutality from the police -- a little kicking, for example -- but it never happened."
Instead, jail guards recognized his name and offered cigarettes and congratulations. He obliged them with stories, but there was a more immediate concern -- the jail's intense heat.
"It was a hot summer day we picked. It was not Siberia."
In several weeks, Kudirka will appear before a D.C. Superior Court judge on a charge that could result in 60 days in jail and a $100 fine. Kudirka says he won't make excuses. He was demonstrating for something he believes in, and he willing, he says, to take his chances with the District of Columbia courts. "In the Soviet Union, you just assume the judge is the executioner. Here there are no army people behind him."
Kudirka suspects his erstwhile Soviet captors would gloat at the scene of him in an American courtroom. "They are rubbing their hands and they are saying, 'Is good, is good. We told him not to trust the captalists.'"