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‘The Jump’ celebrates leaps of faith

“The Jump” (“Suolis”) (2020 production, 2022 release). Cast: Interviews: Simas Kudirka, Henry A. Kissinger, Ralph W. Eustis, Paul E. Pakos, Vytautas Urbanas, Grazina Paegle, S. Paul Zumbakis, Barbara Korman. Archive Footage: Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, Frank Reynolds, Robert M. Brieze, Robert P. Hanrahan, Fletcher Brown, William B. Ellis. Director: Giedrė Žickytė. Screenplay: Josh Alexander and Giedrė Žickytė. Web site. Trailer.

Have you ever considered taking a leap of faith to achieve a cherished goal? It takes courage. It takes conviction. And it takes a reasoned appraisal of our chances of success. But, no matter how thoroughly we examine the circumstances, there’s still a bit of a gamble involved, and that’s where the element of faith genuinely comes into play. How often is it, though, that the leap in question is both literal and figurative? So it was for an ambitious asylum seeker in the new Lithuanian-American documentary production, “The Jump” (“Suolis”).

For years, Simas Kudirka served as a radio operator aboard the Soviet trawler Sovietskaya Litva. When he wasn’t aboard ship, he lived with his family in the Soviet state of Lithuania, but he longed for the freedom that he believed awaited him outside the USSR. He hoped for an opportunity to avail himself of that prospect, and, amazingly enough, it finally arrived on November 23, 1970 off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.

While the Sovietskaya Litva was moored in American waters adjacent to the US Coast Guard cutter Vigilant for a diplomatic conference about fishing rights, Kudirka scanned the distance between his ship and the American vessel. Kudirka was sizing up what it would take to jump ship and land on the deck of the Coast Guard cutter. As he did this, an American sailor watched Kudirka, trying to determine his intentions, an assessment that went on for several hours. And, by late afternoon, the courageous radio operator made his move, jumping the 12-foot span separating the trawler and hoped-for freedom.

Once on the American vessel, Kudirka requested political asylum, but the Vigilant’s crew was unsure how to respond. The ship’s commanding officer, Ralph W. Eustis, and his lieutenant, Paul E. Pakos, assessed options and eventually contacted Rear Admiral William B. Ellis for guidance. Somewhat surprisingly, Ellis refused Kudirka’s request and ordered him returned to the Soviets, despite the asylum seeker’s presence on an American vessel in US waters. He allowed a team of six Soviet sailors onto the Vigilant to retrieve the would-be defector, who was beaten and extracted back to the trawler. Kudirka was then returned to the Soviet Union, where he was tried for treason and sentenced to 10 years in a gulag.

So much for Kudirka’s hopes of freedom. Or so it seemed. Before long, it became apparent that all was not lost.

When word of the incident made it into the American press, considerable outrage arose over its handling. The story’s widespread coverage in print and on national news broadcasts incensed many in the general public, especially in the Lithuanian immigrant community. Many of Kudirka’s American émigré countrymen took up the fight on his behalf, petitioning the support of influential politicians like Congressman Robert P. Hanrahan (R-IL), who fought for the seaman’s release. Even high-ranking officials, like Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and President Richard Nixon, criticized the handling of the incident and sought restitution.

Onetime asylum seeker Simas Kudirka relives his 1970 attempt at defecting from the USSR to the US by leaping from a Soviet trawler to the deck of an American Coast Guard cutter while the vessels were in the waters off of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts as seen in the new documentary, “The Jump” (“Suolis”). Photo courtesy of MetFilms.

But, even with such high-powered support, Kudirka’s big break came from an unlikely source. When a Lithuanian émigré discovered that Kudirka’s mother was born in Brooklyn before returning to her homeland with her family, it became immediately apparent that Simas had an entitlement to American citizenship by virtue of his mother’s birthright. American officials pressed the issue with the Soviets, who shortly thereafter released Kudirka from the gulag. In no time, Simas and his family were on their way to America and a new life.

Once in the US, Kudirka spent time in New York, New Jersey and California. His story was made into a TV movie, “The Defection of Simas Kudirka” (1978) with Alan Arkin, Richard Jordan and Donald Pleasance. And he lived a colorful and productive life, trying his hand at various vocations and relishing the benefits that freedom had afforded him. But, once widowed, he felt a void open up in his life, which he sought to fill, somewhat successfully, by returning to a now-free Lithuania, where he has since settled down into a comfortable and content retirement.

Through this remarkable odyssey, Kudirka has set an inspiring example for all of us in myriad ways – how to live courageously, how to seek fulfillment out of life, how to appreciate what we have and how to cherish the freedoms that many of us take for granted. It’s been quite a full life, one to which we should all aspire. And all it took was a leap of faith.

What Kudirka did is something that more of us should probably do. After all, as it has often been said, when we come to the ends of our lives, we generally regret the opportunities we didn’t take more than those that we did that failed. That’s particularly true for the big decisions that come along, those that represent significant turning points in our lives. Given that they can greatly alter the course of our destinies, they should be considered carefully and, when needed, boldly, just as Simas did.

So how did the hopeful seaman come to this decision? It came about as a result of his beliefs, specifically those associated with his realization that he could do this. That’s important, given that our beliefs – whatever they may be – govern the unfolding of our reality, a result of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon these resources in the manifestation of our existence. And, even if Kudirka had never heard of this school of thought, it’s apparent from the way things turned out that he was obviously well versed in its principles.

Having successfully earned his right to American citizenship, former Soviet seaman Simas Kudirka finds life in America vastly different from his days in the USSR, as seen in director Giedrė Žickytė’s new documentary, “The Jump” (“Suolis”). Photo courtesy of MetFilms.

For his part, Kudirka courageously pursued this venture despite the risks. He faced dire consequences if he were to fail. The leap in itself was not an easy feat, and, if he were to be refused his request, he would have to address the fallout from brutal, intolerant Soviet government authorities. Indeed, considering the stakes involved here, there was a lot riding on his actions and their underlying beliefs and whether he could realistically make them work in his favor. Yet, despite it all, he had faith in himself and his beliefs, with the hope that it would carry him through. This may not have been enough in and of itself, but it certainly gave Simas a solid starting point from which to work.

This undertaking required Simas to, first, assess his fears and the limitations he was up against and, then, decide whether he could successfully overcome them. He also had to consider what he was going to do if his plan failed, an outcome that came to pass, at least initially. Such a prospect raised an array of new challenges, such as his interrogation by the KGB, the Soviet security agency, and its often-ruthless investigators, such as Vytautas Urbanas, who’s steely resolve becomes quite apparent during one of the film’s interviews. The pressure on Kudirka at the outset of this saga was severe enough, but it became even greater after events began playing out.

This, of course, backed Simas into a corner, calling for inventive measures to turn his situation around. It forced him into becoming even more creative in his beliefs and what he hoped they would yield for him. That undoubtedly had to be difficult in light of the circumstances under which he was operating, namely, the deplorable conditions of the gulag, which are graphically depicted in the film. But, despite everything seemingly working against him, Kudirka managed to manifest the means to help to make his plans unfold as hoped for.

First, there was the zealous backing of his devoted supporters, including everyone from his émigré countrymen to high-profile politicians, an excellent example of co-creation at work. Then there was the open acknowledgment that the handling of Kudirka’s situation was in error and in need of rectification. But, perhaps most importantly, there was the “lucky” break that the asylum seeker was legitimately justified in pursuing his goal. By availing himself of the synchronicities that came his way, Simas found a way and made the most of it.

To a great degree, Kudirka’s success in this matter rested with his sincere desire to attain it. Achieving freedom was something he earnestly wanted, a reflection of his true self and the core beliefs at its center. When we tap into this aspect of our being, we significantly increase the likelihood of fulfilling our goals, mainly because they arise from a genuine sense of truth, honesty and integrity.

After nearly 50 years, onetime would-be asylum seeker Simas Kudirka finds himself back on the deck of the US Coast Guard cutter Vigilant, where, in 1970, he leapt from an adjacent Soviet trawler in an attempt to defect, as seen in the new documentary, “The Jump” (“Suolis”), a frequent offering on current film festival schedules. Photo courtesy of MetFilms.

With these qualities driving the process, our chances of successful fulfillment are thus tremendously enhanced, even if they don’t necessarily seem that way at first. However, setbacks need not be a death sentence; they can often serve to strengthen our resolve, to galvanize our feelings, to bolster our commitment. And, when our adversaries are forced into confronting such circumstances, they had better beware of what they’re up against, as Kudirka so cunningly demonstrates in his inspiring story.

The taste of success in scenarios like this can be quite sweet, And, given what Simas gained as a result of his initiative, he developed a significant degree of appreciation and gratitude for his newfound fortunes. For those who have experienced the lack of abundance and personal flexibility that Kudirka endured, it should come as no surprise that such grateful outlooks would result. During his time in America, Simas tried to impress this view upon a society that had lost sight of this, encouraging the unappreciative among us to renew and embrace this outlook. That may call for some of us to take a leap of faith of our own, but it’s one that can leave us fulfilled and liberated – not unlike Simas himself.

Taking a leap of faith – literally and figuratively – is a truly inspiring act, especially when we believe that doing so will help us fulfill a cherished dream. The heartbreaking and heartwarming saga of this enlightened asylum seeker takes viewers on a rollercoaster ride as we witness his remarkable journey to freedom. Director Giedrė Žickytė’s in-depth documentary about this incredible odyssey tells a compelling tale that not only outlines the events of Kudirka’s courageous crusade, but also presents an up-close profile of a colorful and vibrant individual, one who shows us our lack of appreciation for things that we should be valuing, as well as how to stay vital well on into our senior years. It’s a combination of elements that generally works well, although the final segment loses some steam as the picture winds down to the final frame. Nonetheless, even though this is a story that has largely gone forgotten, it delivers a message that should never be.

At present, finding this film may take some effort. “The Jump” has primarily been playing the film festival circuit, which it will probably continue doing for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, it’s a title worth searching for, especially since many of these screenings have been accompanied by insightful Q&A sessions with the director after the film. There’s more to this story than what appears on the screen, and these discussions bring that to light in intriguing and uplifting ways.

Anything worth having is truly worth fighting for. That’s particularly true for those precious freedoms that so many go without and that those who possess them often take for granted. Kudirka’s story shines a bright light on the foregoing, one whose value shouldn’t be underestimated. At a time when such liberties hang in the balance – even in places where they’re supposedly guaranteed – we must remain steadfast about their protection and preservation, especially when we consider the alternative – and what it might deprive us of.

Copyright © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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