New Light on an Old Story

A documentary called The Jump tells the tale of a famous defection

Many of us may remember the story of Simas Kudirka, a famous Lithuanian defector from the Soviet Union, who jumped ship in 1970. On November 1, 2020, LRT.lt ran a story from a partner website called Emerging Europe (“information about business, politics and culture in the emerging Europe region“). In the article, Nikola Đorđević writes about a new film called The Jump, depicting a daring escape that took place on November 23, 1970. That day, the US coast guard cutter Vigilant was carrying a five member delegation from the New Bedford fishing industry to meet with a Soviet delegation aboard the Sovetskaya Litva (Soviet Lithuania) to discuss the fishing of the yellowtail flounder, a staple of the northeastern Atlantic that was in danger from overfishing.

A Lithuanian-born sailor on the Litva, Simas Kudirka, decided that he would defect from the Soviet Union to the United States. He literally jumped ship, clearing the three metre gap between the Litva and the Vigilant to escape.

Kudirka had joined the Lithuanian fishing fleet as a radio technician and operator to escape a hard life in Soviet-occupied Lithuania. His past record of refusing to turn in a cousin who was a member of the resistance against the Soviets had been following him. The radio technician’s job was a good one, when they let him do it. Mostly, he cleaned toilets. And whenever the Litva docked somewhere, Kudirka was refused the papers and the passport that would have let him take shore leave.

“We were victims – all of us. We were trapped on a floating jail. The idea of jumping to the American ship flashed into my mind out of nowhere.” He would seek political asylum aboard the Vigilant. Kudirka had a wife and two children in Lithuania, and he had hoped that after a few years, he could bring them over to the United States too.

Aboard the Vigilant, Lieutenant Douglas Lundberg, the operations officer, by the rail a few metres away from the main deck of the Litva, was approached by a man in his forties, who said: “I want political asylum”.

A message was sent to Rear Admiral William B. Ellis, who insisted that Kudirka should be returned to the Soviets, but he later told Algis Rukšėnas, the author of Day of Shame, a book about the events, is that he felt Kudirka would be, if he defected, a maritime criminal.

A few hours after Kudirka actually jumped,  three Soviet officers and three crewmen came boarded the Vigilant and recaptured him, tied him down, and used a lifeboat to return him to the Litva.

All of this went on as the crew of the Vigilant, including Commander Eustis, watched.

The event caused a huge reaction in the press, with Lithuanian Americans protesting in Boston, Washington, and Cleveland. President Richard Nixon declared outrage at the return of the defector and ordered an investigation at the State Department.

In the end, Admiral Ellis would be forced into retirement following the investigation. Kudirka was returned to the Soviet Union and sentenced to ten years in prison. At first he was at Potma prison in Moldova, where he attempted to alert the West to the state of the Soviet prison system by staging a series of protests, hunger strikes, and work stoppages. Because of this, he was sent to a special correctional work institution in the Perm region where winter temperatures fall to -60 degrees Celsius.

Kudirka was not there long. A Lithuanian émigré living in New York discovered in 1973 that Kudirka’s mother was actually born in that city. This meant Kudirka could now claim American citizenship. The State Department decided to take up the case and ask for Kudirka to be released from prison. The Soviet authorities would not hear of it at first, but following demands from senators and congressmen and the personal intervention of Henry Kissinger, Kudirka was released on August 23, 1974. Two months later, on November 5, he and his family flew out of the Soviet Union, and landed in New York. Eventually, Kudirka would move to Los Angeles where he managed a building in Santa Monica. In 2002, he returned to, by now independent, Lithuania.

Today, at  90, Simas Kudirka is the subject of The Jump, a documentary by filmmaker Giedrė Žickytė which won the first prize in the Best Documentary Feature category at the International Warsaw Film Festival. Containing eye-witness reports, rare archival footage, and dramatic re-enactments featuring Kudirka himself.