Soviet Jewry

A history of the Zionist movement in the Soviet Union.

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The name refusenik became attached to the community of people who had applied for exit visas, were rejected, and then became suspended in a kind of limbo, ostracized and usually thrown out of their jobs. In Moscow, the movement tried to stay as diffuse as possible in order to avoid the appearance of a formalized organization, which the Soviet authorities would have used as an excuse for a crackdown. Still, there were a few distinct groups, definite leaders, and some splits between them. On the one hand there were those who believed that while they waited in refusal, they should try to stimulate a kind of cultural revival--teaching Hebrew, bringing back religious practice, and inspiring love of Israel. On the other hand there were the politicals, activists focused solely on pressuring the government to allow for free emigration and supporting those who had been put on trial and imprisoned for protesting their condition. Among the refusenik leaders were people such as Vladimir Slepak, a charismatic activist who spoke English and whose apartment was in the center of Moscow. He became a major liaison between activist groups and Western tourists who had come to meet refuseniks. There was also Alexander Lerner, a famous mathematician, who, like Sakharov, became the official and more legitimate face of the movement.

Following the Leningrad trials, the Soviets did begin to ease emigration, allowing over 30,000 Jews to leave in 1971, and increasing that number until it reached the annual record of 50,000 in 1979. The numbers increased both because the refuseniks were creating public relations problems for the regime and because of pressure from the West. But this freer emigration did not stop the Soviets from interfering with the activities of the most prominent refuseniks, and by the late 1970s the Soviets managed to severely cripple the movement by infiltrating groups and putting on trial and jailing key activists. The most famous of these cases was that of Anatoly Shcharansky, a popular young mathematician, who, in 1977, was arrested, accused of being a CIA spy, and sentenced to 13 years in a labor camp. This revived suppression of the movement also sent Vladimir Slepak and Ida Nudel, the well-known supporter of prisoners-of-conscience, into exile. The greater democracy movement was also not spared, and even Sakharov, by 1980, was living in the sealed-off city of Gorky.

Whereas a record number of Jews had been allowed to emigrate in 1979, by 1985 that number had dropped dramatically to 800 per year. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1980, cutting off most relations with the West. A side effect of linking the fate of Soviet Jews to the politics of the Cold War was that when relations between America and Soviet Union froze, so did emigration. The early eighties meant renewed hardships for the activists, with many Hebrew teachers, previously allowed to work clandestinely, arrested and sent East.

A Turning Point

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Gal Beckerman's first book, When They Come for Us, We?ll Be Gone, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in September 2010. It was named was one of the best books of the year by The New Yorker and the Washington Post, and received both the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. He has written for the New York Times, Boston Globe, and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.

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