Right of refusal

They worked in secret, late at night, in dimly-lit
basements. With little more than typewriters to work
with, the underground scribes toiled to translate the
manifestos of their struggle – words so potent that
they could destroy one of the most dominant empires in

Such was the power of Exodus, Leon Uris’s fictional
account of Israel’s birth, to a small group of Jews in
the Soviet Union. They passed chapters of the book to
trusted comrades, along with samizdat –
self-published, covertly distributed essays – that fed
each other’s hunger for Israel and anything Jewish.

Much of the literature that the Communist Party
considered dangerous and worthy of lengthy prison
sentences – Hebrew lessons, Purim plays, translations
of ‘Hatikva’ and ‘Jerusalem of Gold’ and petitions to
allow free immigration to Israel – sits in the
archives of Beth Hatefutsoth (the Nahum Goldmann
Museum of the Jewish Diaspora), on the campus of Tel
Aviv University. Until now they have lain dormant,
yellowing in silence as Israel busied itself with
quelling intifadas and launching hi-tech companies.

This week, though, 40 years after Israel’s victory in
the Six Day War gave Soviet Jewish protesters the
momentum they needed to open the gates of freedom, the
museum opened an exhibit on the movement that toppled
the communist regime and energized Zion.

THE STOREROOMS of the museum are filled with mementos
of that era. A cigarette lighter, emblazoned with the
flag of Israel, which plays the national anthem. The
Hebrew ulpan recordings of Yaakov Suslensky,
considered revolutionary material, stored in cardboard
boxes handcrafted by Moldovan KGB agents. The coat
that Natan Sharansky wore on his famous walk to
freedom across East Germany’s Glienicke Bridge after
more than a decade of Siberian exile. A postcard
written by an inspiring ulpan student: ‘Dear Saraleh,
Here is a souvenir for you. It is a photo of my first
prison in Leningrad.’

Together, these items begin to tell the story of
thousands of Jews who risked their freedom for the
right to live in the Jewish state, who threatened the
Kremlin not with guns but with placards reading, ‘Let
my people go!’ They begin to tell the story, that is,
but they cannot provide the fullness of such a tale.

Take, for example, Yosef Begun’s Hanukka in a Moscow
prison in 1971. It was the first time Begun would be
locked up, but not his last: By the time he was
allowed to leave for Israel in 1988, Begun would have
spent 10 years in Soviet jails. In this case, his
‘crime’ was helping some 20 Jewish intellectuals
organize a public hunger strike to protest the
government’s restrictions on aliya.

Begun and his fellow inmates, nearly two dozen other
Jewish ‘criminals,’ rallied each other through the
bitter conditions with the reminder that the holiday
of Hanukka was upon them. With the more learned among
them regaling the others with stories of the
Maccabees’ triumph over their far stronger, more
numerous enemy – and with a clever ruse from one of
the group allowing them to improvise a set of candles
to light – the men celebrated as if they were joined
by all their brethren at a fancy holiday feast.

In a way, they were. A deep sense of connection to the
Jewish people, as well as an abiding spirit, helped
the persecuted heroes of the movement through such
hard times.

‘Even while we were in Soviet prisons,’ Begun told The
Jerusalem Post this week, ‘we felt like Israeli

THERE WOULD be numerous injustices against men like
Boris Kochubiyevsky, who was sentenced to three years
in jail for, essentially, having the audacity to
proclaim in open court that ‘Jews are oppressed here.’
So, too, there would be outrageous acts such as the
plan by a group of refuseniks to hijack a small plane
to draw attention to their plight. But most of those
who participated in the struggle against Soviet
anti-Semitism were people, like Aba Taratuta, who
simply wanted to pack up and leave.

‘In Riga,’ Taratuta recalled, ‘all the Jews talked
about was aliya. They would see each other in the
street and say, ‘9-2.’ Anywhere else, you’d assume
they were talking about soccer scores. With them,
however, it was the number of aliya refusals versus
authorizations doled out by the authorities.’

In those days – when, after the Soviet Union severed
ties with Israel following the Six Day War, the
government led a campaign of anti-Zionist propaganda –
few of the country’s 3 million Jews had an accurate
picture of what life in Israel was like. But, Taratuta
said, they didn’t need one.

‘It wasn’t so important what we knew about Israel. The
bottom line was, we realized that Russia was not our

When that realization sank in for Taratuta, in 1973,
he had just received his Ph.D. in astronomy after
working 15 years in a sensitive munitions factory.
Simply for filing an immigration request with OVIR,
the ministry that threw obstacle after obstacle in the
way of Jews intent on aliya, Taratuta had to leave his
job. He would become a truck driver, then an elevator
mechanic and, finally, part of a crew of refuseniks
who maintained the heating system at a public bath.

While Taratuta and his family waited 15 years for an
exit visa, Americans came to offer support. KGB agents
would come and confiscate the guest books they signed,
but the blue jeans the Americans brought made
Taratuta’s son one of the most popular kids in school.
THE ROLE played by foreigners, especially Americans
and Israelis, in making the refusenik issue an
international story, was significant. In the United
States, Jewish organizations lobbied for pressure on
the Kremlin, with the smuggled samizdat of the
persecuted bearing witness to the cruelty of the
Soviets. Congress passed a law enacting trade
sanctions on countries that restrict emigration
rights. A massive rally in Washington in 1987, as
Ronald Reagan was meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev,
embarrassed the Soviet regime into allowing more Jews
to leave.

Israel was active, of course, demanding that Jews be
given the freedom to settle in the Holy Land, working
with Jewish groups abroad and sending delegations to
the Soviet Union to help inculcate Zionism and Jewish

‘The Soviets always suspected that Israel was behind
the refuseniks,’ said Zvi Magen, a former colonel in
IDF Intelligence who served as ambassador to Ukraine
and Russia in the 1990s and early 2000s. Magen also
served as head of the Liaison Bureau, codenamed Nativ,
which encouraged Soviet Jews to develop their Jewish
identities and to continue their pro-aliya activism.
Currently he serves as director of the Institute for
Eurasian Studies at the Interdisciplinary Center in

On more than one occasion, the Kremlin has accused
Nativ of being a thinly-veiled Israeli spy ring.
That’s not exactly accurate, Magen said.

‘The members of Nativ are like soldiers, in the sense
that they serve their country abroad. What they do is
not spying, but what is called ‘influence building.’
Everyone does it,’ Magen said.

‘It’s like the Alliance Francaise or the Goethe
Institute… If you ask them who they are, who they
work for, you won’t get a straight answer. What do
they do? Encourage French or German culture…’

In most cases, ‘encouraging culture’ is innocuous. In
other cases, though… ‘[Vladimir] Putin once said
something to me,’ Magen said, ‘about his time in
Dresden’ – a murky period in the Russian president’s
KGB career in which he was in charge of a Russian
cultural outpost in Germany – ‘to the effect that this
sort of thing is worse than spying.’

In the case of Soviet Jews challenging a government
singularly dedicated to crushing independence, the
‘cultural’ work of the refusenik movement took on
immense importance, and ultimately became a factor in
the collapse of the Soviet Union.

‘No one, not even the famous dissidents, was purely
interested in human rights,’ admitted Begun.
‘Overturning the regime was part of our desire – but
people who openly worked for such a thing were
executed. So we focused on aliya, and on the right to
practice Jewish culture.’

‘Natan Sharansky believes in human rights much more
than I do,’ said Magen. ‘From a certain perspective,
‘human rights’ is a weapon.’

It is possible to understand, then, why the
authorities could view ‘Hatikva’ as a threat.

‘The Soviets always saw their Jews as agents of the
Zionists, and Israel as an agent of Soviet Jews,’
Magen explained. ‘To them, no matter how assimilated a
Jew may be, he was like a ‘sleeper agent’ capable of
turning against the regime.’

TENS OF thousands of Jews poured out of the Soviet
Union in the 1970s and ’80s, with more than 1 million
of them reaching Israel. Arrival here was not always a
fairy- tale ending for the refuseniks and Prisoners of
Zion, however. For every success story like that of
Eduard Kuznetsov, one of the hijacking plotters who
established Israel’s largest Russian-language
newspaper, or Yuli Edelstein, who went on to a career
in the Knesset, there were others who never truly
found their ‘Jerusalem of Gold.’ Some left long ago
for the US or Canada, Taratuta noted, while some even
went back to Russia.

‘The ones who were idealistic, who thought that Russia
was entirely bad and that Israel was entirely good,’
he said, ‘they were pretty disappointed.’

Not long after he arrived here in 1988, Taratuta found
work at the Technion in Haifa – not as a truck driver,
nor as a mechanic, but as a scientist. He would teach
there, at the space research institute, until his
retirement a few years ago.

In 2001, fearing that the stories of the Jewish
dissidents would soon become lost, he helped found
Save and Remember. The archive of interviews and other
material was the starting place for the Diaspora
Museum exhibit.

Taratuta still has friends in Russia with whom he is
in regular contact. Aliya, however, is not part of
their discussions.

‘I don’t try to convince Jews in Russia to make
aliya,’ said the straightforward Taratuta. ‘If they
have spent their entire lives in Russia and still
don’t understand where they are… well, I’m not going
to be the one to tell them.’

There are also huge numbers of Jews living in Israel
today who are here, in large part, because of the
sacrifices and suffering of people like Begun. He’s
not sore, however, about the lack of recognition he
feels from this community.

‘I understand,’ he said, ‘that people were afraid of
getting into trouble, of losing their jobs, if they
supported us. Also, there was a lot of assimilation. A
lot of Russian Jews weren’t very interested in
Israel… Some didn’t know much about Israel, some
just didn’t care to know much about Israel.’

Now, said Begun, who recently completed a one-hour-
long movie about his life and the dissident movement,
he is happy those assimilated Jews were able to come
to Israel.

‘That’s what we were fighting for in the first place –
the Jews who were so assimilated that they didn’t know
why to care about their homeland. When I was arrested
and sent to exile,’ Begun noted, ‘it was because I was
exposed, because I was distributing my materials, not
to refuseniks, but to the rest of the Jews. Because I
tried to reach out.’

Now well into his 70s, Begun is still reaching out.
Since making aliya he has worked in Jewish education,
both here and on trips to Russia, trying to interest
Jewish youths in their culture and heritage. He has a
granddaughter, currently serving in the IDF, who used
to bring him to her school so that her classmates
could hear his story.

That, Taratuta complained, was an all-too-rare

Taratuta’s son, whose childhood was marred by the
hardships of refusenik life, has little interest in
discussing that period of his life. Taratuta’s
grandchildren, though, do want to learn about that
chapter in Jewish history – and Taratuta fears that
they, along with the rest of Israeli children, will
not have that opportunity.

‘Why is there no program to teach schoolchildren about
our struggle?’ he asked. ‘Why are our children not
introduced to the people behind the story? Where’s the
public’s interest in us and our fight, when everyone
is complaining about the death of Zionism?!’

Indeed, the Diaspora Museum exhibit is meant to
provide a remedy for this and other problems. Part of
the motivation for the exhibit is not just to bring
the struggle of the Prisoners of Zion and the
refuseniks to the attention of veteran Israelis, for
many of whom the thrill of rescuing Soviet Jewry has
faded into an outright disdain for Russian immigrants,
but to inform the children of those immigrants as

‘There’s a young Russian woman who works here at the
museum,’ said Rachel Schnold, the exhibit curator,
‘who didn’t know any of this history. She’s not alone,
of course. And a lot of what Russian olim do know of
the struggle is only the version that the Soviets
propagated. We have to change that.’

As Begun lamented: ‘At the time, our names were in the
news all over the world. We were written about every
day. Today, though, you’d be hard pressed to find
someone in the street who could name a Prisoner of
Zion, other than Sharansky. People don’t know the
whole story – which is a shame, because it’s a very
important story.’

Copyright © The Jerusalem Post


Drawing parallels
Byline: Interviewed by Sam Ser
Date: Friday, November 2, 2007
Publication: UpFront Page: 20
Section: Features
Memo: Natan Sharansky explores the importance of the
refusenik movement today. Related articles on p. 14.&
Credit: Esteban Alterman
Illustration: Photo
Caption: Sharansky at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem,
where he heads up the Institute for Strategic Studies.
Thirty years after Natan Sharansky first gained the
world’s attention, it’s almost unnecessary to note the
two ‘jobs’ that made him an internationally recognized

One was his work as translator and unofficial
spokesman for Andrei Sakharov, the renowned physicist
who became an outspoken human rights activist after
being oppressed for going from designing nuclear
weapons for the Soviets to demonstrating against
nuclear proliferation.

The other was his activism on behalf of refuseniks,
which landed him in Lefortovo Prison for more than a
year and in a Siberian labor camp for nine more years.
Sharansky was one of the founders of the Moscow
Helsinki Group which, in demanding that the Kremlin
honor the human rights provisions of the Helsinki
Accords, played a large role in drawing attention to
the Jewish struggle for freedom in the Soviet Union.

More recently, his work has involved penning the words
that guide US President George W. Bush in his push for
democracy and freedom, and in gathering dissidents and
democracy activists from around the world in
conferences like the one held in Prague in June.

In an interview in his office at the Shalem Center in
Jerusalem, where he heads the Institute for Strategic
Studies, sitting under a photograph of the Western
Wall Plaza blanketed in snow and with his trademark
cap lying within arm’s reach, Sharansky reflected on
the period that made him an international hero – and
on the connections between that time and this.

What parallels can be drawn from your struggle to the
pro-democracy struggle of today’s Russia?

It was the spring of 1976 when we formed the Moscow
Helsinki Group. Within a year from its foundation, we
were all arrested, and either thrown in jail or forced
to leave the country. But the influence of the group
was unbelievable – in terms of drawing attention to
the question of human rights, in terms of mobilizing
the American Congress to recognize pro-democracy
groups, etc.

And it’s interesting that, after all those changes,
Lyudmilla [Alexeyeva, one of the co-founders of the
Moscow Helsinki Group in 1976] is once again chairman
of this group. It symbolizes that there is still work
to do.

On the one hand, there is continuity between our work
and the work of activists today. After all, there are
very good reasons to criticize the government of
Russia today. But on the other hand, the very fact
that Garry Kasparov can participate in the [2008
presidential] election as a candidate… and that
Lyudmilla can give press conferences – not in secret,
as it had to be in my time, when I was smuggling
documents to America, but in an open platform before
the world – shows that a lot of things have changed.

Is it wrong, then, to say that Vladimir Putin’s moves
to centralize power and silence critics are
reminiscent of Soviet times?

Well, there has been a serious retreat in freedom in
the past few years. The press, for example, is much
more cautious in its criticism of Putin than it was
just five years ago. But to say that Russia is the
same now as it was then, in the ’70s and early ’80s?
No. There is no more KGB. There is no more total
control, no more total fear. This Russia doesn’t exist
anymore, and I don’t know whether it can exist again.

Of course, because of the vital role that Russia plays
in world events, this retreat in freedom should be of
major concern, and should definitely be on the world’s

However, Luda says herself that only those who were
not active back then would say that things are the
same now… I’ll give you an example. Kasparov told me
that he needs to have bodyguards when he travels in
Russia. Well, I can tell you, we didn’t need
bodyguards. We had KGB tails and they, we kind of
joked to ourselves, were our bodyguards. You know, I
was constantly under surveillance of the KGB, but in a
funny kind of way, I felt safe. If any hooligans came
around, the KGB agents would protect me; they had to
write reports about me, so they kept people away from
me. That’s the way the regime was: It was responsible
for protecting my life, but it was also responsible
for taking my private life away from me.

Is there a lesson from your own struggle that can be
applied, not only to today’s Russia, but to other
dissident movements around the world?

I say moral clarity is key. You cannot compromise on
the question of freedom. The moment you start
compromising with the authorities, there is no hope.
That was what was so great about the Prague
conference: Here were people from different places,
from different mentalities, from different races, all
with the same story. And that story is about taking a
position of moral clarity and not compromising on the
question of human rights and freedom, a position that
challenges authority.

Is there something about that moral position that is
particularly Jewish?

Well, Jews have always been extremely important in
practically all human rights movements. Sometimes we
forget that human rights ideas are based in Judaism.
The foundation of human rights, after all, is that man
was created in the image of God. It is easier, I
think, for Jews who were brought up with these
principles to identify with human rights movements.

But there is something else, as well, and that is that
Jews have long suffered for the fact that they were
really the only truly different, or separate religious
and ethnic minority group in Europe. So Jews struggled
to make society more open, more assimilated. Or, they
tried to assimilate into their society. In extreme
cases, they tried to establish new identities, such as
communism, that made ethnic and religious differences

In other words, Jews tried to abandon their tribal
identification in favor of the freedom promised by
communism. (This actually created one of the most
awful regimes in the world, which killed tens of
millions of people.) What we did was to go back to our
tribe, to go back to our own small, national
interests… and the world benefitted from this. So we
should not be ashamed, we should not think we were
merely being ‘provincial’ about our interests. The
lesson is, if you want to help the whole world, you
have to go back to your shtetl, to your identity, and
to fight first of all for those interests.

What was the most significant part of that victory, as
far as Israel and the Jewish people are concerned?

It was an extremely important chapter in Jewish
history, extremely important. Not just because it
resulted in more than 1 million Jews moving to Israel.
To me, what’s so significant is that Jewish people all
over the world were united in one struggle, for over
25 years. A Jewish teacher from Milwaukee, and a
Jewish lawyer from Montreal, and a child in the Bnei
Akiva youth movement in Jerusalem, were all involved –
without even knowing one another, without having to
agree with one another. They all took part in one big
nationalist struggle. That’s unbelievable. And it
shows how strong we are when we are united by our
principles. This is a lesson from our struggle that, I
believe, is not appreciated enough.

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