Jewish Activism in the Soviet Union

Review of Yuli Kosharovsky’s “We are Jews Again: Jewish Activism in the Soviet Union” (Syracuse University Press 2017) pp.440

David Khavkin, the Podolsky family, Anatoly Rubin, Joseph Schneider, Baruch Veissman – such names are largely unknown to Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora. Yet these people, and many others, kept the flame of Jewish national consciousness
burning in the Soviet Union during the post-Stalinist thaw in the 1950s. Many paid for their involvement with long years in the gulag. They in turn were the inheritors of the mantle of Zionists who had been attempting to leave since the 1920s.

We Are Jews Again: Jewish Activism in the Soviet Union is the handiwork of the late Yuli Kosharovsky – a leading refusenik in the 1970s and 1980s who organized Hebrew classes in Moscow and Sverdlovsk. This remarkable book is different from
others about Soviet Jewry. It relies on interviews with the activists themselves, who explain the reasons for actions taken
during the period between 1967 and the fall of the USSR in 1991. It is comprehensive, rational and intelligent in conveying this episode in contemporary Jewish history – an enticing work that does not rely on emotion to convey the struggle for national liberation.

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, national sentiment was fuelled by the refusal of the Soviet authorities to allow any recognition of a specifically Jewish tragedy – Jews were demoted into amorphous Soviet citizens. Since the Star of David was not permitted, the local Jews in Nevel, on the border of Belarus, struck a bizarre compromise with the authorities and were allowed to carve instead a five-pointed star on their memorials.

While Jewish sentiment after 1945 remained strong in newly annexed regions such as the Baltic states, in Moscow and
Leningrad Jews had little opportunity to understand who they were. Fate often intervened. A chance finding of Heinrich
Graetz’s History of the Jews in a university library might initiate an intellectual exploration into the past. Thus a reading of Elie Wiesel’s book on hassidic masters led some to visit Medzhibozh and Chernovtsy – and reclaim the Jewish heritage of such locations. Such discoveries ultimately underpinned the entire Jewish movement. As the editor, Ann Komaroni, remarks: “Soviet Jewish activists were heroic because they wrote their own alternative history.”

Underground samizdat (self-published) literature “affected people like a refreshing elixir – they woke up from a stupor.” Such an awakening was aided by Israeli diplomats who visited synagogues and surreptitiously left tracts about Israel and Zionism. Some were caught and unceremoniously expelled. Copies of Vladimir Jabotinsky’s feuilletons and Leo Pinsker’s Auto-Emancipation educated and stimulated any reader.

During the Six Day War, the USSR famously cut diplomatic ties with Israel. Yasha Kazakov, a day after the war’s end, severed his relations with the USSR by renouncing his Soviet citizenship. He was the first to do so.

Ironically, it was the KGB that unwittingly created a network of activists, years before, by imprisoning Zionist Jews in the same camp. These circles grew into a first meeting of activists in a forest near Moscow in August 1969 when an informal coordinating committee was established. Many were originally dissidents who wanted a better Russia than the one that
stultifying Marxism-Leninism had built. Many, such as Natan Sharansky, crossed over to the Jewish movement while retaining their deep affection for human rights activists such as Andrei Sakharov, Vladimir Bukovsky and Yuri Orlov.
Many came from devout Communist families. Vladimir Slepak’s father had believed the Kremlin in 1953 when Jewish
doctors were falsely accused of poisoning Soviet leaders.

There were often deep disagreements – should Soviet Jews work with human rights activists who supported and helped them? Or would it endanger the entire movement because it implied internal regime change rather than external departure?
In the mid-1970s the refuseniks divided into politiki and kulturniki. The latter were accused by the former of diverting their energies away from the sole goal of emigration and concentrating on enlightening the assimilated Jewish masses instead.

Kosharovsky points out that the movement was funded by well-to-do Jews in Georgia, western Ukraine and the Baltic
republics who left money earmarked for specific refuseniks on departing from the USSR. Other funding came from visiting Diaspora tourists who brought in gifts that could be sold on the black market.
It was Mikhael Gorbachev’s rise to power in 1985 and the introduction of perestroika and glasnost due to the parlous
state of the Soviet economy that opened up the gates of the gulag and allowed emigration. In 1986, 904 left the USSR. In 1990 it was 228,400.

All who were involved during those tumultuous years will warm to refusenik Dan Raginsky’s comment: “I had the good fortune to live at the time of Soviet Jewry’s awakening and to participate in its victory.” This compilation from four
Russian language volumes is a real contribution to our understanding of this national movement.

Jerusalem Post 4 August 2017

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