J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Where Have You Gone Simas Kudirka?

Should we learn from past wars or bury our heads in the sand? Collectively, many in the West are choosing the latter option as many watershed events of the Cold War have fallen through the memory hole. An example would be the attempted defection of Lithuanian sailor Simas Kudirka, scandalously returned to the Soviets on the orders of clueless senior Coast Guard Officers. Anyone looking to raise their blood pressure is invited to read Tom Dunlop’s detailed account of the affair in Martha’s Vineyard Magazine (the incident occurred off their coast).

The event was actually dramatized in an award winning television film, which frustratingly has never been available on home video. (Yes, this is another reissue fishing post, and any DVD lines out there are invited to bite.) For a TV movie, The Defection of Simas Kudirka boasted a more than respectable cast, including Donald Pleasance, Richard Jordan, and Alan Arkin as Kudirka. Veteran television director David Lowell Rich won an Emmy for Defection, as did the editor John Martinelli. Pleasance was also nominated, as were soundtrack composer David Shire and writer Bruce Feldman.

I have never seen Defection—see above—but it sounds like a strong production. Why has there been no home video life? One Cape Cod blogger argues the 1978 tele-pic was a contributing factor in the rise of President Reagan and his peace-through-strength foreign policy. That seems to bestow exaggerated significance on the film, but would certainly explain Hollywood’s lack of reissue enthusiasm for Defection. The post also makes interesting reading for the credit it gives Pres. Ford for arranging Kudirka’s release.

Thanks to that high level intervention, Kudirka was finally allowed to immigrate to America. According to Dunlop he was far from a cooperative prisoner, participating in: “a series of protests, hunger strikes, work stoppages, and attempts to alert the West to conditions in Soviet prisons.” They were probably happy to be well rid of him. While living in America, he would write his memoirs with screenwriter Feldman, but eventually returned to Lithuania after the collapse of Communism.

These stories are important to study. They are not distant skirmishes from the War of 1812, but critical events of the defining conflict of most of our lifetimes. Their implications are not simply academic either, as Russia seems to be spoiling for a rematch. It is important to know the nature of the neo-Soviets and the Soviets before them.

That the Coast Guard’s district commander, Admiral William B. Ellis, could force a defector seeking freedom back into Soviet hands is deeply troubling years after the fact. That he could seriously state in justification of his decisions: “I didn’t, and I still don’t, feel there [are] any facts that the Russians go around killing people,” is beyond belief, particularly in light of the published testimony of dissidents like Solzhenitsyn and Bukovsky that were then coming to light, not to mention Kruschev’s revelations of Stalin’s Great Terror. That is why the lessons of the Cold War must be studied, and a little reissue love for Simas Kudirka would be a welcome start.

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