Soviet Jewry

A history of the Zionist movement in the Soviet Union.

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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.

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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.