The term “refusenik” was a name attributed to Jews from the former Soviet Union and other Eastern bloc countries who were denied the right to emigrate. It is derived from the “refusal” handed down to a prospective emigrant from the Soviet authorities. Refuseniks included Jews who desired to emigrate for religious and Zionist reasons as well as flee from anti-Semitism. Jewish refuseniks were also called “Prisoners of Zion.” Large numbers of Volga Germans, Armenians, Evangelical Christians, Roman Catholics, and other ethnic and religious groups who tried to escape persecution as well were called refuseniks.
Following Israel’s victory in the Six Day War in June 1967, many Soviet Jews applied for exit visas to emigrate to Israel and the West. Although some were allowed to leave, many were denied the right either instantly or had to wait years for an answer. In many cases, the reason given for the denial was that these individuals had at some point in their lives been given access to information vital to Soviet national security. Jews were constantly under suspicion of being traitors or informants during the Cold War. Many jobs were entirely off limits to Jews and public Jewish and Zionist activity was restricted. To apply for a visa, a Jew often had to quit his/her job, thereby becoming vulnerable to charges of social parasitism, a criminal offense. The very act of seeking to leave the Soviet Union was considered treasonous.
One of the leading spokespersons of the refusenik movement during the 1970s was Natan Sharansky. Having been denied an exit visa himself, Sharansky became the international symbol of the refuseniks and the struggle for freedom and human rights. He was one of the founders of the Moscow Helsinki Group that helped establish the struggle for emigration rights within the greater context of the human rights movement in the USSR. His arrest and subsequent trial and conviction on charges of espionage and treason placed the Refusenik cause at the forefront of struggle to “free” all Soviet Jewry. In “The Case for Democracy” published in 2004, Sharansky writes:
“By the early 1970s, the number of Soviet Jews asking for invitations was in the tens of thousands. The Soviet leadership, suddenly faced with a serious challenge to their authority, took steps to stop the Jewish exodus. Since the regime did not want to endanger détente by shutting the gates completely, it embarked on a two-pronged strategy. First, it allowed a few thousand Jews to leave, but in parallel, it organized public trials against “Zionists” and persecuted “refuseniks”…The plan was to send a clear message to all Soviet Jews that the consequences for most of those who would apply to leave would be disastrous.
The strategy failed. Instead of deterring Soviet Jews, the high-profile trials convinced them how pervasive the desire to leave had become. Moreover, the trials showcased their plight, galvanizing world Jewry still further and increasing pressure on the regime to open the gates.”
-”The Case for Democracy” p.111
Indeed, the plight of Soviet Jewry and other minorities created an entire movement in the West for human rights and freedom. To a great extent, the activities of Sharansky and his fellow activists placed these issues at the forefront of international diplomacy. The Cold War became a personal struggle for the rights of individuals to pursue freedom. By the 1980s, new leaders came to power such as Mikhail Gorbachev who instituted major changes in the Soviet system. The USSR began to open up to the west and with it came the right to emigrate. By 1992, one and a half million Jews and countless others had left the Soviet Union to live in freedom.
Famous refuseniks include Ida Nudel, Vladimir and Maria Slepak, Benjamin Bogomolny, Natan Sharansky, Yosef Begun, Yuli Edelstein, Vladimir Kislik, Yosef Mendelevitch, and Alexander Lerner.
“Normally, a Jew who applies for an exit visa is fired immediately. But as a graduate of the Institute of Physics and Technology, I was considered a ‘young specialist’ who, under the law, is required to stay on for three years and can be fired only for certain very specific reasons. And so I remained at my job until March 1975, when they finally dismissed me.
My real life was elsewhere, however, and at the center of that life were the regular Saturday gatherings of Jewish activists who met on the street across from the Moscow synagogue on Arkhipova Street. The authorities kept a close eye on us and occasionally dispersed the crowd, but mostly they left us alone. On one of my first visits, someone distributed tickets for the World University Games, which were being held in Moscow in August 1973. Israel was sending a small delegation, and having never seen a real Israeli, I was tremendously excited.
We attended the opening ceremonies, where Yasser Arafat was the guest of honor and the Israeli team was booed by the crowd. We returned the following night to watch the Israeli basketball team, and during the intermission we actually spoke with the players. The third night, when the Israelis played Puerto Rico, the hall was packed with soldiers, and many refuseniks who arrived with tickets were told that no seats were available. When the Israelis appeared, there was shouting and whistling, and calls of ‘Zhid’ -kikes. And when a woman in our group unfolded a big banner in Hebrew, MAZAL TOV L’YISRAEL, Good Luck to Israel, a group of soldiers immediately jumped over spectators in order to tear it down. It was a real battle; the Israelis stopped the game and demanded that our safety be guaranteed.
After the game, which the Israelis won, several of us were punched and kicked on the way out. Despite the temptation to fight back, we knew that any attempt to defend ourselves would result in our arrest and imprisonment. It was a frightening moment. Thus far my struggle to emigrate had been purely bureaucratic, but now, suddenly, I felt like a soldier in battle. I was familiar with state anti-Semitism, but it was shocking to see this same phenomenon in raw form…
For me these few days were like an entire youth movement compressed into a single week, and from then on I was permanently involved in aliyah activities. The driving force of the movement were approximately a hundred Jewish activists from Moscow, Leningrad, Riga, Kiev, and other cities. We created underground seminars for learning Hebrew, maintained contacts with Jews abroad, and organized demonstrations. Among my fellow activists I became known as Natan, the name of my great-grandfather, which my parents had felt was too Jewish for the Stalin era.
I started out as a demonstrator. After discreetly informing the foreign press, a handful of us would stand in a central square in Moscow and raise signs with slogans such as ‘We Want to Live in Israel,’ ‘Visas to Israel Instead of Prisons,’ and ‘Freedom for Prisoners of Zion.’ ”
A successful demonstration would continue for a minute or two until the KGB or the police arrested us. (Often, through informers, the authorities knew about our demonstrations in advance.) Nobody could predict what would happen next. There might be fine of fifteen or twenty rubles, a fifteen-day jail sentence, or a far more serious penalty. After our demonstration in front of the Lenin Library, two of my friends, Mark Nashpitz and Boris Tsitlyonok, were sentenced to five years of exile in distant Siberia…
Demonstrations were important to remind the world of our struggle, but demonstrations alone were not enough. I soon became acquainted with Sasha Lunts, a fifty-year-old mathematician and one of the leaders of our movement. His apartment reminded me of a doctor’s office, with people coming to see him from all parts of the country. Lunts had a sincere interest in the fate of every Soviet Jew, whether he was a shoemaker from Derbent or a carpenter from Bobruisk who had applied for a visa and was helplessly fighting the cruel and idiotic bureaucratic machine.
Lunts drew up lists of refuseniks, and maintained records on who had been refused, on what grounds, whether the family needed material help, and so on. He also organized several fact-finding trips to other communities to collect additional information about refuseniks. The world had to know about these people; it was a necessary condition not only for saving them but for ensuring that thousands of others (and in good years, tens of thousands) would be able to emigrate.
It was in Sasha Lunts’s apartment that I came to know some of the foreign correspondents who were stationed in Moscow, and soon the activity for which my friends jokingly called me ’spokesman’ took up most of my time. Because I spoke English with some fluency, I began to organize press conferences and meet with a steady stream of correspondents, diplomats, politicians, and Jewish activists from the West.
The more intense my activity, the more closely I was watched by the KGB. I was often detained in the streets and brought in for talks with their bosses. They argued with me, warned me, and threatened me, but their harassment was merely an annoyance that inspired me to become even more active.
For years I was under constant surveillance, as my tails changed shifts every eight hours and followed me day and night. I grew accustomed to the sound of their car engines under my window-they ran the engine all night to keep the heater going-just as in my student days I got used to the sound of my neighbor playing his tape recorder in the next room. In time the surveillance became more overt, and before long the tails were breathing down my neck, running behind me on the stairs of the subway, joining me on buses and in elevators, and sometimes even in taxis-in which I insisted that we split the fare.”
-Natan Sharansky, “Fear No Evil” Pages xvi-xix
“Among the many Jewish activists with whom I was associated, a smaller group crystallized who became my comrades-in-arms. After Sasha Lunts left for Israel, the responsibility for maintaining lists of refuseniks passed to Dina Beilin. No detail was too trivial for Dina, who worked with refuseniks day and night, giving them advice, looking over their documents, and helping them struggle against the KGB.
Dina was tough on herself, and no less demanding of her friends. While I actually enjoyed our struggle, for her it was more like a noble duty, which is why there were sometimes conflicts between us. Why hadn’t I taken care of this? Why had I missed that meeting? She took everything personally. We would quarrel, but the next day our common struggle with the KGB would unite us again. I always knew she was a true friend.
Information about Prisoners of Zion-refuseniks who were jailed for their efforts to live in Israel, came from Ida Nudel. Ida knew everything: where A was being held, and under what conditions; when B’s birthday was; how many days C was kept in the punishment cell’ when D’s family would be allowed to visit him. She was in regular contact with the prisoners and their families, with the Soviet authorities, and with our friends in the West. Ida did everything possible to break down the barriers between Jewish activists in Moscow and in prison.
Volodia Slepak was a veteran of our movement. His name was widely known in the West, and his apartment in the center of Moscow was always full of guests from abroad. He would slowly smoke his pipe, displaying tremendous patience as the same discussions with our foreign guests dragged on year after year.
‘But he falls asleep during meetings,’ said those who were envious of his fame.
‘That’s his business,’ I would reply. We had no shortage of people who could speak elegantly and write statements, but Slepak was courageous and reliable, and he stood up to the authorities like a rock. Even the police near the synagogue and the KGB tails seemed to sense his inner strength and treated him with a cautious respect.
Alexander Lerner was an internationally known specialist in cybernetics, and the authorities felt betrayed when he came one of the first high-ranking scientists to apply for an exit visa. He organized a seminar in applied mathematics for refusenik scientists, and I was one of the participants. But even more useful from my perspective were the opportunities to talk with him about strategic and tactical questions in our struggle. Even if you didn’t agree with everything Lerner said, even if he sometimes seemed too cautious, it was important to hear the views of a man who knew the system intimately. And if you had time between meetings, you’d go to his apartment, where his wife, Judith, would always give you a good meal and a piece of cake to keep you going.
I also enjoyed visiting Vitaly and Ina Rubin. Vitaly was a renowned specialist in ancient Chinese philosophy, and his inability to leave the Soviet Union lead to great indignation and protests by his fellow Sinologists in the West. As a refusenik, Rubin organized an eclectic seminar on Israel, Judaism, philosophy, history, and related topics. His broad erudition, his easygoing nature, and his openness to different views drew people to his apartment, where you could meet refuseniks, dissidents, foreign correspondents, and diplomats.”
-Natan Sharansky, “Fear No Evil” Pages xix-xxi
“You can arrest a body, (but) you cannot put in prison a spirit. Faith prevails…Our people are entitled to reach the shores of their homeland as free people, as Jewish people, and this is an uncompromising struggle that will be continued.”
-Shimon Peres, Israeli Prime Minister, on Natan Sharansky’s arrival in Israel
“Though I come from a Jewish family, everyone in my family had come to America a long time before this period – so I didn’t live through any of this. As a fourteen-year-old, I remember going to my synagogue to hear Natan Sharansky speak after his release. It must have had a big impact on me, because I can still remember this image of what seemed like thousands of people who had gathered to hear him. He is short in stature, but a giant in terms of his presence …. I still have that picture in my mind.”
-Laura Bialis, Producer/Director, “Refusenik”