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Refuseniks: Cold War Heroes

By Ruth King

While much has been written about the Cold War—recently Glenn Beck’s fine documentary Revolutionary Holocaust detailed the horrors of Stalin’s and Mao’s evil empires–there has been little attention to the heroic Russian “refuseniks” and the remarkable role they and their international supporters played in bringing down the Iron Curtain.

There were a disproportionately large number of Jews among the refuseniks. Demanding the right to emigrate, they faced job loss, systematic harassment, beatings, indefinite confinement in “mental institutions,” long and brutal incarceration, and trumped up charges of “hooliganism” and treason.

The oppression of Jews in Russia is hundreds of years old. Pogroms, often instigated by a succession of Czars, contributed to the human tide of immigration to the United States. Between 1880 and 1924 when open immigration ended, 24,000,000 people came to America. Of those, roughly ten percent were Russian Jews. Unfortunately for them, an equal number of Jews remained in Russia seduced by the dream of equality under Communism. And although, ironically, most of the Jews of Eastern Europe who survived Hitler were rescued by the Red Army, they were then subjected to systematic abuse by the iron fist of Communist tyrants.

When Stalin died in 1953 and Nikita Krushchev openly denounced Stalin, there was some improvement. Under the “Krushchev Thaw” there were limited international exchanges with Western intellectuals and loosening of censorship in media and the arts. However, Krushchev was ousted in 1964 and replaced by Stalinist Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev, who reversed reforms and rekindled anti Semitism.

Nonetheless, Israel’s Six Day War in 1967 inspired many crypto-Jews to identify with Israel and challenge their rulers. A young Moscow university student Yasha Kazakov fired the first salvo in the Jewish revolt. In an open letter smuggled abroad and published in the Washington Post he declared “I consider myself a citizen of the State of Israel. I demand to be freed from the humiliation of Soviet citizenship.” Within weeks he received a visa and went to Israel where he headed the office of liaison for Soviet immigrants.

Shortly after, another dissident, Boris Kochubiyefsky, did not fare so well, interned for three years in Siberia for sending this note to the Kremlin: “As long as I am capable of feeling I will do all I can to leave for Israel. And if you find it possible to sentence me for that, it changes nothing. If I live until my release, I will be prepared to go to the homeland of my ancestors, even if it means going on foot.” His letter was widely circulated and brought the plight of Soviet Jews to international attention, galvanizing a growing movement of support.

The Khrushchev “thaw” never extended to Georgia. After World War II there were violent rampages against synagogues and a continual recycling of blood libels. In 1969 large numbers of Jews applied for exit visas for Israel. Eighteen families wrote to the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations and in November of that year Prime Minister Golda Meir read their famous letter: “We will wait months and years. We will wait all our lives if necessary, but we will never renounce our faith or our hopes.” Soviet resolve weakened and there was a steady flow of Georgian Jews to Israel in the 1970s—in all about 30,000 Georgian Jews went to Israel.

Elsewhere in the Soviet Union Jews also found their voice. In 1973, a young Soviet Jew named Anatoly Sharansky applied for an exit visa, inspiring a chain of applications—and harsh reprisals. As the “refusenik” movement gained traction, it drew the attention of American legislators. In 1974 the late Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Representative Charles Vanik added an amendment that bears their name to the 1974 Trade Act, linking trade with the Soviet Union to allowing refuseniks to emigrate. It passed Congress unanimously and was signed into law by President Gerald Ford in January 1975.

That August thirty-five countries, including the Soviet Union, signed the Helsinki Accords. From the point of view of Soviet leaders, the accords consolidated Soviet domination of the Baltic by giving official recognition to the post World War II borders. However, its provisions also included the following: “Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.”

These words would come to haunt Soviet leaders.

In 1976, physicist Yuri Orlov and physicist Andrei Sakharov formed the Helsinki Watch Group to monitor Soviet compliance. The original group included Lyudmilla Alexeyeva, Mikahil Bernshtam, Yelena Bonner (Sakharov’s wife), Alexander Ginzburg, Pyotr Grigorenko, Malva Landa, Anatoly Marchenko, Gregory Rosenstein, Vitaly Rubin, and Anatoly Scharansky.

In October of that year, when 13 Jewish refuseniks petitioned for exit visas they were beaten, but their courage set off a wave of mass demonstrations followed by the arrests of 22 activists including Mark Azbel, Felix Kandel, Alexander Lerner, Ida Nudel, Valdimor Slepak and Michail Zeleny Sharansky. They were convicted of “hooliganism.”

In March 1977 Scharansky was arrested and charged with high treason, espionage and anti-Soviet activity. His trial and incarceration—he endured physical and emotional abuse in prison for nine years—was reported throughout the free world. Thanks to his wife Avital’s unrelenting struggle on his behalf, attention remained focused on Soviet abuses of human rights.

The refuseniks stepped up their defiance. On June 1, 1978, Vladimir and Maria Slepak stood on the balcony of their apartment displaying a banner which said “Let us go to Israel.” Ida Nudel held a similar banner on her balcony. They were arrested and charged with violation of the Russian Constitution. Vladimir Slepak and Ida Nudel were convicted of all charges. They served 5 and 4 years in Siberian exile respectively. By the end of 1981, only three of the original founders, Bonner, Kalistrova and Meiman, were free and the Moscow Helsinki Group ceased operation in the spring of 1982.

But the international outcry and the determination of Jewish supporters in the United States did not diminish but rather grew in numbers and strength.

In 1986 Scharansky was released and joined his wife in Israel where he now resides. But he did not give up the struggle for Soviet Jewry. In 1987 during his second visit to the United States, Scharansky (I was his official guide for almost three weeks during that visit) met with the leaders of all the major Jewish organizations and inspired a march on Washington to coincide with the visit of Gorbachev that culminated on December 6, 1987 with 250,000 demonstrators converging on Washington.

In The Reagan Presidency: An Oral History of the Era, Gerald and Deborah Strober quote Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Richard Schifter: “What the American Jewish community did was to put the Soviet Jewry issue on the U.S. government’s human rights agenda. And the U.S. government, in turn, put it on the Soviet agenda. The rally in Washington took place on a Sunday. The following Tuesday, Gorbachev met with Reagan, and the person who was the note taker at the meeting told me that Reagan started out by saying to Gorbachev, ‘You know, there was this rally on the Mall the other day.’ And Gorbachev said, ‘Yes, I heard about it. Why don’t you go on and talk about arms control?’ And for five minutes, Reagan kept on talking about the rally and the importance of Jewish emigration to the United States, when Gorbachev wanted to talk about something else.”

In 1989 the gates of the Soviet jail were opened and Jews flooded out to Israel and to the West. Their contribution to the fall of the Soviet Union has been summarized by Laura Bialis who made a documentary on the Refuseniks: “They were the first to realize that the Soviets actually cared about what others in the international community thought of them. The Refuseniks use that hunch to their advantage. They helped bring international attention to Soviet human rights abuses, delegitimizing the Soviet Union in the eyes of many Western countries. The ensuing pressure by governments around the world definitely had an effect.”

As for the impact on Jews, Yossi Klein Halevi wrote in 2004 in Azure: “A generation later, the massive immigration of Russian-speaking Jews has transformed Israeli society, infusing the country with talent and energy. But arguably a no less powerful transformation has occurred among American Jews. The Soviet Jewry movement roused them from their passivity, and taught them how to fight a Diaspora-generated struggle and experience victory—not vicariously through Israeli heroism, but as active partners in their people’s fate.

In this movement Glenn Richter and his mentor and inspiration Jacob Birnbaum, who created the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry in 1964, are heroes who deserve special admiration and gratitude.

Alas, today American Jewry is hostage to political correctness and liberal cant which blinds it to the dangers facing the Jewish community worldwide..

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