The Jews of Hope: The Plight of Soviet Jewry Today
The Yugoslav dissident socialist, Milovan Djilas, once commented that since they are pervaded by the spirit of internationalism, the Jews are doomed to be persecuted whenever a regime isolates itself. Martin Gilbert’s book shows that this dictum remains unchanged.
Under the late Yuri Andropov, the oppression of the Jewish movement in the USSR became harsher despite the flaunted belief that the former KGB chief was the vigorous apostle of change. Although 400,000 Jews indicated that they wished to leave, the Kremlin granted a paltry 1,300 exit visas in 1983. As Andropov’s star rose in ascendency, the emigration rate decreased accordingly. Neither did the megaphone war between the superpowers help, as Colonel Lev Ovsishcher, a Red Army veteran and refusenik since 1970, makes clear, “There must be made some steps among the nations’ leaders to avert a new war. I believe that then Jewish emigration will begin again.”
Gilbert’s book is the detailed record of a brief visit to the refusenik community Iasi, year. By allowing the Soviet Jews to speak for themselves, a personalised testimony of persecution, harassment and frustration is catalogued. In the absence of free emigration and enforced dismissal from work, seminars covering a panoply of subjects were instituted by the refuseniks to fill the aimless limbo they inhabit. As Gilbert learned from the Jews in Moscow, even this proved too much for the KGB to cope with. Soon the scientist Brailovsky earned five years exile in Kazakhstan while the Hebraist Iosif Begun received another twelve years at his third trial for services rendered to Jewish culture. So many in this book have waited a decade or more simply to leave. The list of official excuses for refusals is endless.
Even family reunification is an insufficient reason. Viktor Barshevski was brought up in an orphanage in the mistaken belief that his mother had been murdered by the Nazis. In 1979, he discovered that his mother was alive and well and living near Tel Aviv. Despite a separation of 40 years, the emigration authorities have four times denied Barshevski permission to leave.
In an era when anti-Semitism is thought to be a fading obscenity Gilbert writes that the Leningrad history magazine, Neva, recently argued that the tsarist pogroms were nothing more than “zionist propaganda.” The massacres, according to Neva, actually arose because the Jews provoked the local peasantry. As in McCarthyite America, the use of a suitable label—in this case “zionist”—is a panacea to cover all ills. From the leaders of the Prague Spring to the unofficial Moscow Peace group, from the plotters of the Kennedy assassination to the supporters of Mao—all under the control of the “zionists.” In reality, the ordinary Soviet citizen makes little distinction between his Jewish neighbour and the conspiratorial efforts of these “zionists.” Such absurdities do not help to eradicate that ageless scourge of Old Russia—hatred of the Jews.
Although Gilbert casts himself in the role of a mere observer it is clear that he was deeply moved by all that he heard and witnessed. The experience is symptomatic of the symbiotic effect between western and Soviet Jewry. The former release upon their assimilated hosts the uninspected vaults of Jewish learning while the latter dictate for posterity the accumulated memory of the persecution of generations.
The inclusion of a couple of doubly exposed photographs must make this book unique. The bizarre superimposition of the refusenik Yuli Kosharovsky with scenes from the Henley Regatta may seem a trifle Pythonesque. The KGB confiscated hundreds of photographs at the end of the trip. Those unconnected with Soviet Jews were selectively returned, including by accident those strange shots.
It is disappointing that Gilbert, a noted historian, has made little attempt at analysing the Jewish problem in the USSR as opposed to merely reporting it. Even so, apart from occasional inaccuracies, this book serves as an important primer for the uninitiated.
New Society 8 March 1984