Binyamin Bogomolny

25.9.2007

 

by Dina Goldman
The Jewish Agency for Israel ©

Year of Birth: 1946
Place of Birth: Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (Soviet Union)
Year of Aliyah: 1986
Refusenik for 20 years

Personal story

I was one of four children in my family and grew up in the Soviet Union. My father was a Mohel and the family had always been religious. In 1966, at the first opportunity, my family applied for an exit visa to go on Aliyah to Israel, but their application was rejected. We maintained a steady stream of applications and eventually the visa permissions arrived for my three sisters and my parents. My own application, however, was refused, as I was doing my compulsory military service at the time.

In the army Iit was common knowledge that I wanted to go on Aliyah and I was subjected to harassment. My commanding officer, who was Ukrainian and an Antisemite, would bully me constantly. On one occasion, he was even drunk, and he beat me.
At the end of 1971, I was demobilized. I was the only member of the family left behind, the others had all gone to Israel. I submitted another application to be allowed to go on Aliyah, but it was once again rejected by the Soviet authorities.

In 1973 or 1974, I arrived at the offices of a KGB General, for a hearing about the rejection of my application. I asked why, and he answered, "Well, what do you think?" Without another word, I got up and made to leave the room. The General seemed to think the whole story was very funny, and yelled to me as I was on my way out, "Just don't take part in any 'provocative incidents" – which was the term applied to any form of Jewish activism and a legal pretext for police action.

I took all kinds of casual labor jobs but, because I was a Refusenik, it was difficult to find proper employment, hardly anyone would agreeto employ me.

The Soviet Jewry Aliyah Struggle

In 1974, I began attending Hebrew language classes. There were also different kinds of seminars where Jewish tourists would come, especially from the USA or the UK, to teach Hebrew, Judaism and Zionism. We tried to keep it all secret, but we knew the KGB was having us followed. The lessons would take place in the private homes of different activists. Sometimes, the police would force entry and check the passports and identity documents of all those present. Some of the activists were even dismissed from their place of employment, or expelled from university; others were even sent to prison. The outcomes were different for everyone.

At first, the KGB also paid local Russian students to ambush me in the street and beat me up. Later on, when I became an active participant in the struggle, they started taking me seriously. We sent an official request to the Soviet Government to be allowed to study Hebrew and open religious schools. The KGB did not stand idly by, and began to conduct regular searches of my apartment, confiscating anything related to Judaism: books, religious articles, Judaica. Electronic bugs were planted inside the apartment and outside it. I was repeatedly summoned for investigation, and was followed whereever I went, whether on foot or public transport. Later on, I discovered that even some of my friends spied on me at the KGB's behest.

Many Jewish tourists would come from different countries to visit me: some of them even came from Israel, as scientists to conferences, or via Nativ. The Soviet regime had pathological fear of foreigners, and suspected them all of being potential espionage agents. The apartment next door was occupied by KGB agents who observed the comings and goings of all my visitors.

As I became more active in the movement, the KGB agents became increasingly aggressive towards me.
On one occasion, I was arrested in the morning and released in the evening on three consecutive days, in order to prevent me attending a Jewish symposium taking place in Moscow. Another time, I was forced to remain within the four walls of my home for a whole week, without going outside, because KGB agents took up position outside my front door and prevented me from leaving.
On yet another occasion, on my return home from a trip, I was astonished to find that my home and belongings had been smashed up and trashed. Doors were off their hinges, the furniture had been ripped apart, and the floor was covered in shards of glass. I invited David Shipler, a journalist with the New York Times, then on a tour of duty in Moscow, to come and document the damage. He did so, and published an article about it in his newspaper.

The harassment I suffered was primarily due to the fact that I was a committed Jewish activist in the Struggle, and a Refusenik. In addition, there were special events that fanned the flames.

In 1975, for example, the famous 'Helsinki Accords' were adopted internationally, to which the USSR was a signatory. This document covered issues related to Human Rights, including the Freedom of Movement, Work, Reunification of Families, etc., and inter alia a promise of family reunification to the families who had gone on Aliyah, whose relatives and children had been left behind in the Soviet Union, and who were Refuseniks.
At that time, I got to know a Jewish doctor from Miami named Motti Freiman. With my assistance, he was able to publish a book entitled, "The Orphans of the Exodus" in the USA, an encyclopaedic collection of all the Refuseniks whose families had been separated this way, with photos. The book was presented to Members of the US Congress, who proceeded to exert massive pressure on the Soviet Union on this issue.
The authorities in the Soviet Union were aware that I was behind this book and their response was not long in coming. I was also involved in organizing several other activites, for example, a Jewish theatre group. There were two actors and myself, the director; the actors themselves knew very little about Judaism.

In 1981, my friends in the UK managed to get me into the "Guinness Book of Records", and through 1987 I held the place of honour there as, "The longest Refusenik".

The USSR was extremely sensitive to public opinion in the West, and my international connections probably upset the Soviet regime's apple cart. Yet, despite everything, I was never arrested or imprisoned. At some point, I probably became just too well-known and such measures would have generated a lot of negative publicity worldwide for the powers-that-be – the kind they preferred to avoid, as far as possible. After the article about me appeared in the New York Times, the police officer who used to come round to my apartment regularly and search it never came back. Later on, I heard from the neighbours that he said he was fed up of the way I was building up my "ratings" at his expense.

Nonetheless, it is also possible that all this publicity exposure actually worked against me and was the reason that I remained a Refusenik for so many years. The Soviet authorities at the highest level had made the decision to hold me in reserve for a prisoner exchange, at some point in the future.

The Soviet Government's harassment of the Jews

The Soviet regime wanted to intimidate the Jews so that the persecution they were suffering would not become known in the West. Libellous articles of an antisemitic nature appeared regularly in the state-owned press, saying that the Jews were thieves, criminals, and spied for foreign powers. There were also spates of engineered show trials, where various Jews were convicted on trumped-up charges and sent to prison or into exile. Their objective was to compel the Jews to abandon their religion and their culture, and to reinforce their inferiority status in relation to the Russian people.

Weren't you afraid?

Of course I was afraid, only an idiot wouldn't be! It was dangerous, but life is also fraught with dangers. The Soviet authorities wanted the Jews to sit quiet, and tried to put it around that the Jews were equivalent of slaves, with the Russians being their masters.

I didn't want to prove anything to them at all but, rather, to myself. I wanted to live my own life in my own way. If you let them bully you, how would it make you feel? Surely, the most important thing is not other people's opinion, but your own self-esteem! Freedom is not only about living in a free world: that's an important factor, and it's a privilege to be born free. The most important thing is to feel free within yourself, and then you're not afraid of anything. Even if they send you to prision, you know that deep within you, you remain free.

Another important point is that the KGB's modus operandi was nothing more than a game they played with you. Even the KGB agents theselves were not free: they were allowed to do certain things, but not everything. You had to understand how the system worked. For example, they sent some people to prison, but not others. Overall, they didn't send that many Jews to prison – maybe twenty or so each year – while there were thousands of Refuseniks! So every act by the Soviet authorities was deiberately calculated: they decided ahead of time how many Jews to send to prison each year – the names weren't important.

The Six Day War

I was very proud of Israel, and found it highly amusing that the Soviet Union supported the Arabs. The Soviet Union's behaviour after the Six Day War was totally irrational. They claimed that Israel was the aggressor and had started the war, with the intention of conquering everything from the Euphrates to the Nile. I thought it was hilarious, and that they were hysterical.

I took great strength and support from the outcomes of the war. It helped me understand that I would also be successful in the long run in my desire to get out of the Soviet Union and go on Aliyah to Israel. I had a people of my own, and a state, and the era when Jews had been unable to defend themselves was over.

There is a saying by the Russian writer Rassul Gamzatov, in which I found inspiration, which goes, "If a small nation wishes to be free, it needs to have a long knife." That's the essence of my own struggle: to be free! That's how G-d created me and if you are fighting for your freedom, and know you are doing the right thing, He will help you.

Aliyah to Israel

I was released in 1986, in an exchange for a Soviet spy who had been caught in the USA, someone named Popov. He had been arrested for espionage and went to prison for it, because he didn't have diplomatic immunity. The Soviet Union then responded by creating a diplomatic incident - arresting an American journalist who just happened to be on Soviet territory at the time – for the sole purpose of arranging a prisoner exchange.

In return, the US demanded that the USSR also release Yuri Orlov, who was in prison at the time, together with myself, as part of the deal. Why me? I really can't say exactly why. All I know is that I was at the top of the list of Refuseniks who had been separated from their families.


 

 

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