To Siberia

From the play, ‘The Snail and the Whale’ with our under-fives grandchildren to a 95th birthday party. Michael Sherbourne was a pivotal figure in the Soviet Jewry campaign in this country. He maintained telephone contact with many activists throughout the long years of Soviet denial of exit visas. In a collective email, a role-call of refuseniks wished him ‘happy birthday’ and expressed their gratitude to him. As Michael admitted in his speech, he was never one to stop at communal red lights, but perhaps this was what was needed to confront the KGB.

At Jewish Book Week – and I’m discussing my new book, Israel and the European Left with the journalist, Nick Cohen. I enjoyed talking to Nick and David Aaronovitch before the formal proceedings. Both come from Communist families so they understand what I am trying to say. The room is packed, but all I can see are silhouetted figures. During the public exchange, I find myself talking about myself – something I don’t like to do, but these personal touches apparently go down well. A lot of books are sold and to my surprise, members of the audience tell me how much they enjoyed the session. My children were delighted to meet Nick and get him to sign his latest book.Today is Monday and I am off at 6am to Siberia. As chairman of the European Association of Israel Studies, I will address academic gatherings on Israel this week at the Tomsk State University, the Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies and the European Humanities University in Vilnius – and hopefully enthuse many to attend our first conference in Munich in September.

On the plane to Moscow, I recall that a friend from Novosibirsk asked me to visit her family as they were acting irrationally and trusting no one after almost a decade of refusal. They would not go out and pulled up baskets of food from their windows. Not even the granting of exit visas could dispel the sense of growing paranoia and profound suspicion. All the documentation for my trip arrived, but three days before I was due to go, I was informed that the Soviet Consulate had cancelled my visa. My friend’s father left, but the mother and sister were controlled by their demons. The mother starved to death and the sister hanged herself. This happened over 30 years ago, yet this is what I remember on the flight. If only the Soviets had allowed me in. This failure still haunts me.

My colleague, Vladimir, kindly meets me at 6 am at the airport. It is -20 in Tomsk. After a few hours sleep, I visit the Museum of the Oppressed about the Gulag. Some of the students I later meet were born after the collapse of the USSR and have no memory of living under Communism. This is the brave new world which my grandchildren will inhabit. Time indeed waits for no man.

Jewish Chronicle 1 March 2012


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