Band of terrorists: the jazz family that hijacked a plane to escape USSR

1df0main Band of terrorists: the jazz family that hijacked a plane to escape USSR

On March 8, 1988, during a routine flight between Irkutsk andLeningrad, a man holding an instrument case containing a doublebass, a sawn-off shotgun and home-made explosive devices passed anote to the flight attendant, whom he would shoot at point blankrange an hour later. It read “Change course to London. Don’tdescend, or we will blow up the plane. You are now under ourcommand.”Next to him sat his accomplices, his nine year-old brotherSergey, eight other siblings, and the beloved mother of the family,who they would have to kill later that day.Surviving at all costsFrom the 1950s until the collapse of the USSR in 1991, hijackerstried to take control of more than sixty Soviet planes. Thecaptors’ demands were always the same: to re-direct the plane to acountry beyond the Iron Curtain.To escape the Soviet Union, the hijackers risked the lives ofothers, and almost always themselves. Few lived to lay their eyeson their desired destination: many were shot before without settingtheir foot off the plane ever again, others executed after a trial,and only a handful escaped.Among the hijackers were dissident intellectuals, disgruntledofficers and even doomed schoolboys. Yet none of them were asunusual as a matriarch and her eleven children, who rose fromabsolute poverty in Siberia to international fame, only to meetgruesome deaths in an escape plan that was as audacious as it wasnaive.Ninelle Ovechkina’s mother was accidentally shot when she wasfive, and she spent her childhood in an orphanage. She latermarried, but her husband was an alcoholic, who would fire upon hisown sons with a hunting rifle after his day-long binges.Although private commercial activity was officially prohibitedin the Soviet Union, small farm holds like the Ovechkins’ couldsurvive by selling produce at local markets.As her family grew, and her husband disappeared for weeks at atime, Ninelle became the farmer, and her children thefarmhands.An early documentary about the band shows her brood milking cowsand shovelling manure between band practices. All this under thewatchful eye of a stern but caring mother, who watches over them,giving precise instructions.Ninelle comes across as principled, but kind.“Evil begets evil. So, I try to never hurt my children,”she says at one point.Yet her authority in the family was absolute.“We could not say no to her. It’s not that we were scared, wecould not even think of defying her,” says Mikhail, who played thetrombone in the band, and was thirteen at the time of theescape.Dmitry, the father, died in 1984.“After the death of our father, she had to become bothparents in one person,” said one of the children, Tatyana, whowas fourteen during the hijacking attempt. “But whatever wasgoing on around us, we were good. We never smoked or drank, neverwent to discos.”Neighbors noted that the Ovechkins rarely spoke to outsiders,preferring their own company after school. When one needed a newpurchase or faced a major decision, the entire family would gatherfor counsel.Siberian DixielandThe family’s simple life on the outskirts of the industrial cityof Irkutsk was changed by a single encounter.Vladimir Romanenko, a jazz-loving music teacher, spotted themale siblings performing a folk song in an after-school musicgroup.A thought that seemed both outrageous and logical formed in hishead within seconds. These boys would become a family Dixielandgroup – from Siberia.Romanenko assigned the group instruments, and taught them toplay Louis Armstrong pieces and jazz interpretations of Russiantraditionals.And so “Seven Simeons” – named after a Russian fairytale – was born.Success was instant.As Gorbachev’s Perestroika made Western culture not onlyfashionable, but legitimate, a film crew was dispatched to documentthe phenomenon of the “peasant family jazz band” (asOvechkina scathingly referred to their portrayal).Whatever their objections, the family took to the lifestyle, andbegan to tour Soviet palaces of culture. Once filled with anendless parade of state-sanctioned ensembles, now these stuffyhalls framed by heavy velvet curtains, and adorned with Sovietinsignia rocked to sounds pioneered in New Orleans. Used topolitely applauding at the ends of songs, the crowds barely knewhow to react, clapping along to the unfamiliar rhythms, but notdaring to get up off their seats.Of the seven boys in the band (the girls were never sent tostudy music) most of the older brothers were merely competentmusicians, but all eyes were on the two youngest children, Mikhail,and Sergey, who wielded a banjo that seemed bigger than theywere.Irkutsk made the national sensation a symbol of the city, andlavished them with Soviet-style privileges. Instead of theirhomestead, the Ovechkins moved to two large adjacent flats, weregiven extra food coupons (a regular part of life in the USSR fromthe mid-80s until its break-up), and the oldest two children weresent to a prestigious music school in Moscow.But like most Soviet artists, the family was paid the equivalentof less than $5 for filling out concert halls on a nightlybasis.The new flat may have had running water, but among the shortagesof foods that weren’t tinned cabbage, keeping animals brought inmore money, and better dinners. Once again doing what it takes tosurvive, Ninelle defied a strict crackdown on alcohol and startedselling vodka illegally at the city market during the day, andoutside her flat at night.But the Ovechkins felt they deserved a better life.An existence where Seven Simeons would perform in front ofhundreds, and then return to a flat where there was barely enoughfood, became humiliating. Frustrated band leader Vasily also quitthe musical academy, claiming that classical-minded professorscould not teach him anything about jazz, and that his horizons layfar beyond.A tour to Japan was the turning point.The surviving brothers later said that they experienced cultureshock at seeing neon lighting, supermarket shelves stacked withfood that could be bought without coupons, and memorably for them,flowers in toilets.Seven Simeons were on the verge of taking the well-trodden pathof other Soviet defectors, like dancers Rudolf Nureyev and MikhailBaryshnikov – escaping the minders who followed them at every stepof the tour, and asking for asylum in a Western embassy.But their mother would remain at home, where she would likelyface ostracism, questions from secret service agents, and possiblycriminal charges for not informing the authorities about thepossibility of defection. They would never see her again.So, they called off a taxi they planned to take, and boarded theplane home. Plan unravelsFrom the 1920s onwards Soviet citizens were not allowed to leavethe country freely, and only a tiny fraction travelled each year onofficial business or cultural tours. The Ovechkins quickly realizedthat as nationally-known performers they would not be allowed toemigrate, and even asking to do so meant they would never performoutside of a village auditorium again.A simple plan was born – with everything was riding on it.“Before we did anything else, we agreed – if the hijackingfailed, we would commit suicide rather than give themselves up tothe police. We would all die together,” says Mikhail.The Ovechkins bought a hunting rifle off one acquaintance, andasked another to saw it down. A farmer sold them gunpowder, whichthey stuffed into several primitive home-made explosive devices.Finally, they enlarged their case for the double bass, to make surethat it could not pass through the security scanner.But they needn’t have worried.As local celebrities supposedly flying to Leningrad for theirnext concert, local police did not search their instrument holdersat all, as Ninelle, three of her daughters and seven sons boardedthe plane.The family had sold everything they had, and dressed up in newclothes they bought with the money. But they had no intention ofstepping onto the tarmac at Leningrad airport, instead theirmaster-plan would have them touchdown in London.However, like many previous hijackers, the Ovechkins’ desireddestination was a fantasy. The Tupolev-154 they were flying on didnot have enough fuel to go further than Scandinavia.And the authorities wouldn’t even let them get that far.“Land the plane on the Soviet side Finnish border, and tellthem they are in Finland. Falsely promise them that in exchange forthe release of the passengers, they will be given safe passage toHelsinki,” said the voice of the security officer on theground.The authorities used the same tactic and the same airport duringan attempted hijacking five years earlier, but on landing Dmitrynoticed Cyrillic writing on a refueling truck as soon as the planestopped moving.As a warning, he instantly killed Tamara Zharkaya, the flightattendant who passed the initial note to the pilot, and demandedthat the plane take off straight away.The pilots barricaded themselves in, there was still no order toget off the ground.Without air conditioning, temperature and humidity began to risewithin the plane. For two hours, the brothers paced up and down,screaming at the passengers not to look at them, peering outsidethe steamed-up windows, and perhaps slowly realizing their gambithad failed.Finally, instructions were dispatched from Moscow.The police unit that burst into the cabin had no specialtraining in hostage rescue. Cowering behind riot shields theysprayed bullets into the aisles, as passengers crouched. One hitSergey, the youngest of the brothers, in the leg – the others wereunharmed. Three passengers were killed, dozens of otherswounded.The brothers realized that they had only minutes beforecapture.“They started shouting, ‘Come, let’s blow ourselves up,”Igor, one of the surviving siblings recalled at the trial.“I did not go – I did not want to die, because I am young.Then I heard my mother shouting ‘Kill me!’ Vasily, my brother shotat her with the shotgun, and I saw her skull open up.”Mikhail, who was at his brothers’ side, is still angry justrecalling the bloody memory.“I remember my oldest brother shooting my mother right infront of me. Why did he do that? Why did they make me watch that? Iwas just a boy.”The four oldest brothers then joined hands and set off theexplosive. But it was too weak. Rather than killing them it starteda fire that quickly spread to the seats.Instead, the four took the shotgun and one by one shotthemselves, in order of oldest to youngest.As the fire engulfed the interior, passengers started to jumpoff the plane. The officers met them with a barrage of batonstrikes, after being instructed to “detain escapingterrorists”.The death toll: one air hostess, Ninelle, the four oldestbrothers, three passengers, and fourteen more with serious injuriessustained during the escape.One man’s terroristBoth at the time of the trial, and now, a quarter of a centurylater, Russians’ condemnation of the hijacking is determined bytheir attitude towards the Soviet Union.9/11 turned the hijacking of passenger planes into a nonpareilcrime. Yet, at the time, the Ovechkins were viewed with sympathy,or at least understanding, by some. The question was voiced in theincreasingly free media: what kind of country is the Soviet Unionthat successful musicians hijack planes to escape it?Others blamed the authorities for putting hundreds of lives atrisk to avoid setting a precedent, and for mishandling theoperation. From this incident onwards, only special operationsunits have handled emergency situations, though there have stillbeen substantial civilian casualties in other hostagesituations.For many others, no deprivation could justify taking innocentlives. Those who knew them also pointed out that the Ovechkins werenot freedom fighters, but simply people determined to becomebetter-off at all costs.What neither side could condone was the plan itself.The brothers insisted that they came up with the scheme, andthat their mother was not told what was about to happen until sheboarded the plane. But that was hard to believe.The stripped down flats in Irkutsk showed that their inhabitantsknew they were not coming back, and in the past all importantdecisions in the Ovechkin family were handled by Ninelle.Including the choice to send her own children on a implausiblecrusade that was always likely to end in death.CodaWithin two years of the hijacking the Berlin Wall wasdismantled, and in less than four the Soviet Union perished, andRussians were free to travel to any place in the world.But even for those members of the family who survived March 8,1988, there was nothing on the other side.Olga (28 at the time) served a prison term for terrorism, workedas a market stall trader and was killed in a drunken row by herboyfriend.Igor (17) also spent time in prison, then became a drug addict,and was later murdered in a police cell by another detainee.Ulyana (10) became an alcoholic, then tried to commit suicide byjumping in front of a car, but survives with severedisabilities.Tatyana (14), and the oldest daughter Lyudmila, the only siblingnot to join the hijacking, still live near Irkutsk, while Sergeythe banjo-playing youngster, performed  in restaurants, andhas lost contact with the rest of his family.Mikhail, whom we tracked down in a Spanish hospital, initiallyappeared to be the most successful of the siblings.The trombonist married, and moved to St. Petersburg , where heplayed in several respected jazz collectives, before being invitedto play in a Dixieland group in Barcelona.But, due to persistent drinking he was kicked out, saw hismarriage collapse, and came to live on the streets.Alcoholism caused him to develop seizures, during one of whichhe fell and fractured his skull, causing a severe brain injury.He has recovered his memory, but half of his face remainsparalyzed, and he can no longer play his instrument well.“I don’t think I have ever come to terms with what happenedthat day. There is no way to explain why we decided to do what wedid. All I want to do is to go back to my home town and start mylife all over again,” he says.Igor Ogorodnev, RT

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Band of terrorists: the jazz family that hijacked a plane to escape USSR

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