Refuseniks in the News
An iconic photo of the most famous refusenik activists, taken in 1976: Front row, left to right: Vitaly Rubin, Anatoly Shcharansky, Ida Nudel, and Alexander Lerner. Second row: Vladimir Slepak, Lev Ovsishcher, Alexander Druk, Yosef Beilin, and Dina Beilin.
October 8, 2009
Beginning in the mid-1960s, a movement began among Soviet Jews seeking permission to emigrate to Israel. Despite an agreement to allow emigrations, Soviet authorities subjected most of those who sought to leave to a campaign of intimidation: Soviet citizenship might be revoked; many were fired from their jobs; they were harrassed, their phones were bugged, and they faced hostile interrogations. The most vocal activists, such as Anatoly (later Natan) Sharansky and Vladimir Slepak, were arrested on charges of treason and espionage and sent to psychiatric hospitals or labor camps.
Although eventually, in the 1970s and again in the Gorbachev era, tens of thousands of Jews were allowed to leave, many were denied exit visas for months, years, and even decades on grounds of national security or political animosity. These unfortunates became known as "refuseniks," and their plight, both in itself and as shorthand for the plight of Soviet Jewry in general was a cause célèbre in the West and a sticking point in U.S.-Soviet relations.
Jews had always faced pervasive discrimination in the USSR, but several factors coincided in the 1960s to crystallize Jewish national consciousness and stimulate a drive to emigrate. Some were the same factors that spurred the dissident movement. The Khrushchev-era Thaw produced new interest in Jewish culture. The trial of Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuly Daniel in 1966 signaled a crackdown on the intelligentsia, a disproportionate number of whom were Jews. The 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia convinced many that their hopes for reform were pipe dreams.
Other factors were specific to the Jewish question. Jewish groups in the West began to organize around the issue of Soviet antisemitism and to make contact with Soviet Jews. Most importantly, Israel's stunning victory in the Six-Day War (1967) stirred the imagination of Soviet Jews and made them listen more attentively to Israel's call, while the vicious and scurrilous anti-Zionist campaign that followed made Jews feel that there was no place for them in the USSR.
Large-scale Jewish emigration began in earnest in 1971. Nearly 13,000 left that year, followed by 32,000 in 1972. Most of the early immigrants went to Israel. The flow of émigrés ebbed in the mid-1970s, then soared to a high of 50,000 in 1979, with more than half going to the United States before slowing to a trickle following the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow under the repressive hands of Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko. Why did the Soviet government allow Jews to emigrate at all? One theory cites external factors, including intense pressure from Jewish and human-rights organizations in the West, Soviet attempts to win concessions in the era of détente, and legal measures such as the Jackson-Vanik Amendment in the United States, which tied most-favored-nation trading status to a country's emigration policies. Another theory gives primary credit to internal factors: the pressure of Jewish nationalism itself, a desire to rid the country of troublemakers, the hope of using emigration to plant spies in capitalist countries. Both theories presume that Soviet emigration policy was coherent and followed a set of clear goals articulated at the top. Archival documents reveal the contrary; the central authorities had little expertise on the issue and reacted on the spur of the moment to biased reports from self-interested bureaucracies.
In 1987, after initial hesitation, Mikhail Gorbachev allowed the majority of refuseniks to leave as perestroika and glasnost gathered steam. With the fall of the Soviet Union, most restrictions on emigration were rescinded, and the Jewish exodus became a flood.
Lewin-Epstein, Noah; Ro'i, Yaacov; and Ritterband, Paul, eds. (1997). Russian Jews on Three Continents: Migration and Resettlement. London: Frank Cass.
Morozov, Boris, ed. (1999). Documents on Soviet Jewish Emigration. Portland, OR: Frank Cass.