Soviet Jewry

A history of the Zionist movement in the Soviet Union.

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To read about the corresponding movement in America, click here.

Defining the exact start of a Zionist movement in the Soviet Union is difficult. To some extent, there were always Jewish standard-bearers, even in the darkest years when, following the birth of Israel in 1948, Stalin set out to decimate Jewish cultural and religious life. Jews still met in their living rooms to listen to Yiddish records, looked at postcards from Israel, and taught each other Hebrew. The embers that Stalin was unable to extinguish--and he did send some of these modest activists to the Gulag--began to glow even brighter following his death. 

The Thaw Begins

Soviet Jews in Prison Camps

Poster circa 1970s.
Credit: National Conference on Soviet Jewry.

It was only in the early 1960s that anything that could legitimately be called a movement came into existence. It began in the most obvious place. The Baltic States had only come under Soviet control in 1939, as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, so the Jews who lived there had a more recent memory of Jewish life than those in Moscow and Leningrad. Riga, which had a rich tradition of Zionist activism from before the war, was full of middle-aged men and women who had grown up in Jewish youth groups. As Nikita Khrushchev's period of thaw began, slightly liberalizing Soviet society, they became more and more public about reasserting their Jewish identity.

In unprecedented fashion, these Riga Jews began organizing around the clean-up and construction of a memorial at Rumbuli, the forest on the outside of town where thousands of Jews had been massacred by the Germans in 1940. Emboldened by the need to commemorate the Holocaust, these groups of activists became braver and more confident about demanding their rights as a minority in the Soviet Union, even starting a near riot in 1965 when an Israeli singer arrived in Riga for a performance.

At the same time, in Leningrad and Moscow, where the majority of Jews lived, small groups, meeting in a much more subdued and clandestine manner, began trying to learn how to be Jews. Most of them were at least two generations removed from any real Jewish identity--their culture, language and identity was completely Russian. A few Leningrad Jews in particular began to establish a formal underground organization, with cells and a command structure. Their objective was to inspire in their fellow Jews a desire to leave the Soviet Union by teaching them enough about their lost culture that they would realize the incompatibility of Jewish life under a regime that discriminated against them.

The Six Day War inspired Jews all over the world, giving them a sense of redemptive pride in what seemed at the time to be a miraculous victory. Soviet Jews, though insulated by the walls of the empire and inundated with anti-Israel propaganda, were not immune. Some even began to demand to emigrate. The first Zionist political prisoner of this period, Boris Kochubievsky, was sentenced to three years in a labor camp, simply for applying for an exit visa. The activities in Riga and Leningrad grew more intense, with members of the Leningrad group now leading multiple ulpans, camps for young people to learn Hebrew and Jewish culture.

More and more Jews began asking permission to emigrate, an act not attempted before because it was thought impossible that the Soviets would agree. The majority were refused. This first wave of refusals led, in 1970, to the most audacious and public act of protest yet. A group of activists from Riga and Leningrad planned to hijack a small plane and fly it illegally out of the Soviet Union. The plot took on many forms, first encompassing a large group of people in Leningrad and finally consisting of a handful of Riga Jews with a pilot, Mark Dymshits, from Leningrad. On the day of the attempted hijacking, June 15, 1970, the group was overtaken by the KGB, who had known about the plan beforehand, as they approached the airplane.  A massive wave of arrests quickly followed, destroying the growing movement in Leningrad and Riga.

The Soviets hoped to use the trial of the hijacking group as a way of indicting the entire Zionist movement. Instead, the activists, aware of the public attention, spoke eloquently of their desperation in the Soviet Union and their deep desire to live in Israel. On Christmas Eve, the court sentenced Dymshits and the other major planner of the hijacking, Eduard Kuznetsov, to death. But protests all over the world caused the Soviets to capitulate and commute the sentence to fifteen years in prison camps.

Spirit of Dissidence

The Leningrad trial changed the movement. Since most of the major activists from Riga and Leningrad were then imprisoned, the center shifted to Moscow. There, a small constellation of groups took the lead. The spirit of dissidence was strong in the capital, with many democracy activists--most of whom were Jews--already having developed an underground infrastructure that involved the production of samizdat (illegal writing), passing on information to the West, and in some cases open protest. At the center of this universe was Andrei Sakharov, a renowned physicist who had incurred the government's wrath for setting himself up in opposition to the Communist regime.

Wives of Soviet Jewish Prisoners

Inna Begun, Faina Berenshtein, Tanya Edelshtein hold
pictures of their husbands, Yossi Begun, Yosef Berenshtein
and Yuli Edelshtein, who were imprisoned as part  of a
mid-1980s Soviet crackdown on Jewish cultural activists.
Credit: National Conference on Soviet Jewry.

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

Soviet Jews Going to Israel

Flight to Freedom: Emigrating Soviet Jews line up in
Warsaw, Poland for the last leg of their journey to Israel
(UJA Operation Exodus photograph by Robert A. Cumins).
Credit: National Conference on Soviet Jewry.

Until 1985, a series of increasingly geriatric and autocratic leaders took power and then died one after the other. In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev, a younger and more charismatic leader, was elected as secretary of the party and head of the politburo. Though he began touting his reform programs of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) almost immediately, emigration did not substantially change in his first years. Even once he started meeting with Ronald Reagan, who directly demanded an improvement of the Jewish situation, the first signs of change only came in 1986 when Shcharansky was freed in a prisoner exchange. More prisoners were released the following year, and by the end of 1987 most of the major activists were living in Israel. Soon the floodgates of emigration also opened, as Gorbachev realized that he would have to concede on this issue if he wanted to improve his relations with the West. Between 1987 and 1990, 250,000 had left. A million more would follow.

The Soviet Jewry movement revived a Jewish community that was almost at the point of cultural extinction. It gave focus and support to hundreds of Jews who wanted to live their lives as Jews and knew this was impossible inside the Soviet empire. But it also helped to bring an end to that empire. Though their goal was simply to leave, the Jewish activists, denied their rights as human beings to live wherever they chose, exposed the deceit that lay at the heart of the Communist enterprise.

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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.