Waiting for Gorbachev

ROSH Ha’shana, the Jewish New Year is welcomed with apple and honey but for many Soviet Jews it is the taste of bitter herbs which lingers. In the Jewish year 5746 (1985/6), approximately 1,000 were permitted to leave the Soviet Union. Although Anatoly Shcharansky, Ilya Essas and the Goldshtein brothers have all been permitted to emigrate, the publicity emanating from their departure should not obscure the fact that this is an abysmally low figure. In July alone, a paltry thirty-one people were allowed to go. It would appear that Mr Gorbachev’s zeal for reform has not touched upon the vexed question of Jewish emigration from the USSR. In May 1983, in conversation with Canadian members of Parliament, Mr Gorbachev commented that only 7 per cent of those who had applied to leave during the previous fifteen to twenty years had actually been refused. If Mr Gorbachev’s figure is to be believed, then there are about 20,000 refuseniks waiting to leave. At the present rate of emigration, this backlog would take at least twenty years to clear—assuming that the Kremlin wishes them to go. Any Soviet Jew interested in emigrating must firstly request a vyzov, an invitation from a relative in Israel. Since August 1968, there have been approximately 400,000 requests for vyzovs from Soviet Jews who have not subsequently left the USSR. The figure of 400,000 therefore represents the interest in and indeed potential for Jewish emigration from the USSR.

Why have so many Soviet Jews signalled a desire to leave the USSR? Why did the Kremlin acquiesce and permit a quarter of a million to leave in the seventies? The answers are rooted in Soviet nationality policy towards the Jews as well as in the Zionist aspirations of a section of Soviet Jewry.

In “Marxism and the National Question” (1913) Stalin formulated the need for a territory as one requirement in his definition of a nation. The Jews, together with some other ethnic groups, pose a problem in that they were dispersed within the USSR. Even the establishment of the State of Israel did not completely deal with this anomaly in that the territorial base was neither inside the USSR nor even within the Eastern bloc. Under Stalin, the doctrine of “socialism in one country” eradicated the internationalism of the early Soviet state and neutralized the policy of positive discrimination in favour of ethnic groups which had been practised under Lenin. The Jews, however, were the very embodiment of internationalist ideas and contributed disproportionately to the construction of the Soviet state. It is not surprising that many of the Bolshevik old guard who were liquidated in the Great Purge were Jewish. With them disappeared genuine participation in the Soviet political system. After the Holocaust, the Black Years of Soviet Jewry (1948-53) bore witness to the liquidation and exclusion of the Jewish intelligentsia as “rootless cosmopolitans”. Even under Krush-chev, although the violence and terror abated, Stalin’s policy of eliminating Jews from political office continued. In March 1956 on a visit to Warsaw, Krushchev told Polish Communists: “The percentage of high Jewish officials is now nil in my country”. And, looking at the Polish Communist leader Roman Zambrowski (ne Zuckerman), he said “Yes, you have many leaders with names ending in ‘ski’, but an Abramovich remains an Abramovich. And you have too many Abra-moviches in your leading cadres”. A half century ago, the Jew Maxim Litvinov was Soviet Foreign Minister; today there are virtually no Jewish diplomats representing the USSR.

Lenin regarded the concept of a separate Jewish nation as “absolutely untenable scientifically” and “reactionary politically”. He considered voluntary assimilation as the obvious solution to the Jewish problem. Yet Stalin’s policy of coercive fusion into one Soviet people became a tenet of faith. The introduction of the Soviet passport in the 1930s, however, listed the bearer’s nationality. The people of the USSR, educated to believe in internationalism, were now frozen into specific national groups. Moreover, Soviet citizens were unable to change their nationality if they so desired. This meant that Jews and their descendants were not free to assimilate because they could not reject their passport nationality. And if they could not totally assimilate, they were also unable, as is well known, to lead a full national Jewish life. Even so, Jews have, until quite recently, fared well in the USSR in the sense that they have been upwardly mobile. Some Western scholars believe that in the context of socio-economic status, the Soviet Union, like the United States, was a goldene medina for the Jews.

In recent times, there has been a concerted effort to restrict Jewish entry into higher education and thereby limit access to the professions. As long ago as 1956, the Ministry of Higher Education ensured the rigging of examination results so that a quota of only 5 per cent of the student body should be Jews. In a meeting with French socialists, Krushchev commented that “in due course, we have created new cadres. Should the Jews want to occupy the foremost positions in our republics now, it would naturally be taken amiss by the indigenous inhabitants”. Soviet policy is thus geared towards downward social mobility for Jews. The idea of meritocratic selection of Jewish candidates has been replaced by a numerus clausus—a quota system. One former party member who held a senior position in a construction organization recalled his experience:

Since 1942 and until the end of the war, I was in the army, was wounded twice and awarded several military decorations. After the war I graduated from the university and for twenty-five years I built electric power stations, working sometimes sixteen hours a day—for the good of the state, as the saying goes. But when my son finished school at the top of his class, he was not given a gold medal which entitled one to enter university without writing university exams. And in the exams they deliberately failed him. I went to visit the head of the selection committee—I’ve never been in a synagogue, but his reception room reminded me of one. Only Jews were there. I talked to some of them and went home. I knew it in advance but simply did not wish to face the facts. My son’s failure was not accidental, state instructions were behind it. The state paid me this way for all my service. Within several days, we decided to emigrate. It was risky because we had only a year for preparations, otherwise my son would be drafted. But we succeeded. I have wasted my working life for them. At least my son won’t. (from Victor Zaslavsky and Robert J. Brym, Soviet Emigration and Nationality Policy (1983) ).

The realization that their children’s educational development was being deliberately stunted has led many assimilated Jewish families to seek emigration from the USSR as a solution to their situation. This is perhaps a central factor for the increasing neshira (drop out). In 1971 when the mass departure really began, only 0.4 per cent did not go to Israel. By 1981, this figure had risen to 80.6 per cent with the repatriation and emigration rates reaching parity in 1976. Nationally conscious Jews—mainly from the territories annexed by the USSR in World War II and from Georgia—went to Israel in a great Zionist wave between 1971-4. Those Jews who were products of decades of Soviet assimilationist policy began to emigrate shortly afterwards. The exodus of thousands of Soviet Jews suited the Kremlin. Their existence in the USSR not only complicated the general thrust of Soviet nationalities policy, but also soaked up sorely sought-after jobs and housing. Victor Zaslavsky, a former Soviet Jew, has shrewdly pointed out that “what is voluntary emigration for some is ‘gentle’ deportation for others”.

Since 1980 Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union has been dramatically decreased by the Kremlin and no doubt this has been influenced by the internal situation as well as foreign policy  considerations. A succession of Soviet leaders have forcibly bottled up the hopes of thousands in the belief that the Jewish movement can somehow be contained. Clearly it cannot, without reverting to the mass terror of Stalinism, and even today’s repression dents Mr Gorbachev’s public appeal to Western public opinion. The causes of peace and freedom are interrelated; they run along parallel tracks with many crossover points. If Mr Gorbachev realizes this, will he then institute changes? On the surface, he appears to be unfamiliar with the problem. On French television last year, he stated that Jews are represented in the political and cultural life of the USSR “on a scale of at least 10 to 20 per cent”. Such a statement is, of course, an absurdity. His unprecedented remarks, however, about the continued failure of the Soviet economy suggests that it might be in the interests of the USSR to retain and encourage its Jewish professionals. Yaakov Tsur, the Israeli Minister of Absorption recently pointed out that there has been a liberalization of the entry of Jews into Soviet universities coupled with a reduction of anti-Israel propaganda in the media. In the cultural sphere, the writer Andrei Voznesensky is pressing for the establishment of a Chagall Museum in Vitebsk whilst an official commission has been appointed to report on the work of Osip Mandelshtam—an unperson for nearly fifty years. A straw in the wind perhaps or something more profound? Whatever the analysis, the reality of a virtual cessation of free emigration remains. Some—Slepak, Nudel, Begun, Abramovich, Pres-tin, Lerner—have been refuseniks for the best part of fifteen years. Others have been separated from their families in Israel for over a decade. For them, at Rosh Ha’shana, it is a question of ha’shana ha’zot b’yerushalayim—this year in Jerusalem.

The Polish Yiddish poet Israel Emiot recalls in his memoirs the words of his NKVD interrogator: “Everything has its special time. In our country, policies change frequently. Our dialectical approach is dictated by life itself. What was correct yesterday, may be incorrect—even criminal—today”. The constancy of pragmatism, stripped of morality and coated with inhumanity, remains a cornerstone of Soviet policy. The Kremlin, if it so desires, can easily solve the problem of Jewish emigration and thereby overcome many other obstacles in the path of foreign policy objectives. This is particularly pertinent in view of a projected meeting with Mrs Thatcher, a probable summit with President Reagan and the prospect of normal diplomatic relations with Israel. Mr Gorbachev must reverse the policy of his predecessors and permit the reunification of separated families. Let us hope that this year 5747 will end the ordeal and torment endured by many refuseniks and that this will indeed be a sweet year for Soviet Jewry.

Jewish Quarterly Autumn 1986



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