The Age of Exodus, as Jews themselves would soon name it, began rather silently: its start can be traced to a December 1966 article in Izvestiya, where the Soviet authorities magnanimously approved “family reunification,” and under this “banner the Jews were given the right to leave the USSR”. And then, half a year later, the historic Six-Day War broke out. “Like any epic, this Exodus began with a miracle. And as it should be in an epic, three miracles were revealed to the Jews of Russia – to the Exodus generation”: the miracle of the foundation of Israel, “the miracle of the Purim 1953” (that is, Stalin’s death), and “the miracle of the joyous, brilliant, intoxicating victory of 1967.”
The Six-Day War gave a strong and irreversible push to the ethnic consciousness of the Soviet Jews and delivered a blow to the desire of many to assimilate. It created among Jews a powerful motivation for national self-education and the study of Hebrew (within a framework of makeshift centers) and gave rise to pro-emigration attitudes.
How did the majority of Soviet Jews perceive themselves by the end of the 1960s, on the eve of Exodus? No, those who retrospectively write of a constant feeling of oppression and stress do not distort their memories: “Hearing the word ‘Jew,’ they cringe, as if expecting a blow…. They themselves use this sacramental word as rarely as possible, and when they do have to say it, they force the word out as quickly as possible and in a suppressed voice, as if they were seized by the throat…. Among such people there are those who are gripped by the eternal incurable fear ingrained in their mentality.” Or take a Jewish author who wrote of spending her entire professional life worrying that her work would be rejected only because of her nationality [ethnicity in American terminology]. Despite having an apparently higher standard of living than the general population, many Jews still harbored this sense of oppression.
Indeed, cultivated Jews complained more of cultural rather than economic oppression. “The Soviet Jews are trying … to retain their presence in the Russian culture. They struggle to retain the Russian culture in their inner selves.” Dora Shturman recalls: “When the Russian Jews, whose interests are chained to Russia, are suddenly deprived – even if only on paper or in words – of their right to engage in the Russian life, to participate in the Russian history, as if they were interlopers or strangers, they feel offended and bewildered. With the appearance of Tamizdat [a Russian neologism for dissident self-published (Samizdat) literature, published outside the USSR (from the Russian word, ‘tam’, meaning ‘there’ or ‘out there’)] and Samizdat, the xenophobia felt by some Russian authors toward Jews who sincerely identified themselves as Russians manifested itself for the first time in many years, not only on the street level and on the level of state bureaucracy, but appeared on the elite intellectual level, even among dissidents. Naturally, this surprised Jews who identified with Russians.” Galich: “Many people brought up in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s used to regard themselves as Russians from their earliest years, in fact from birth, and indeed … they share all their values and thoughts with the Russian culture.”
Another author drew the portrait of “the average modern Russian Jew,” who “would serve this country with good faith and fidelity. He … had carefully examined and identified his own flaws. He had become aware of them…. And now he tries to get rid of them … he has stopped arms flourishing. He has gotten rid of his national peculiarities of speech which were carried over into Russian…. At some point he would aspire to become equal with the Russians, to be indistinguishable from them.” And so: “You might not hear the word ‘Jew’ for years on end. Perhaps, many have even forgotten that you are a Jew. Yet you can never forget it yourself. It is this silence that always reminds you who you are. It creates such an explosive tension inside you, that when you do hear the word ‘Jew,’ it sounds like fate’s blow.” This is a very telling account. The same author describes the cost of this transformation into a Russian. “He had left behind too much” and become spiritually impoverished. “Now, when he needs those capacious, rich and flexible words, he can’t find them….When he looks for but can’t find the right word, something dies inside him,” he had lost “the melodic intonation of Jewish speech” with all its “gaiety, playfulness, mirth, tenacity, and irony.”
Of course, these exquisite feelings did not worry each Soviet Jew; it was the lot of the tiniest minority among them, the top cultural stratum, those who genuinely and persistently tried to identify with Russians. It was them who G. Pomeranz spoke about (though he made a generalization for the whole intelligentsia): “Everywhere, we are not quite out of place. Everywhere, we are not quite in our place”; we “have become something like non-Israeli Jews, the people of the air, who lost all their roots in their mundane existence.”
Very well put.
A. Voronel develops the same theme: “I clearly see all the sham of their [Jews’] existence in Russia today.”
If there’s no merging, there will always be alienation.
Nathan Sharansky often mentioned that from a certain point he started to feel being different from the others in Russia.
During the Dymshits–Kuznetsov hijacking affair trial in December 1970, L. Hnoh openly stated what he had apparently nurtured for quite a while: “It became unbearable for me to live in a country I don’t regard as my own.”
What integrity of mind and courage of word!
So it was this feeling that grew among the Soviet Jews, and now increasingly among the broad Jewish masses.
Later, in 1982, another Jewish journalist put it like thus: “I am a stranger. I am a stranger in my own country which I love abstractly but fear in reality.”
In the beginning of the 1970s, in a conversation with L.K. Chukovskaya she told me (I made a note at the time): “This Exodus was forced on Jewry. I pity those whom the Russians made feel Jewish. The Soviet Jews have already lost their sense of Jewishness and I consider this artificial awakening of their national sense to be specious.”
This was far from the truth. Despite the fact that she socialized with many Jews from both capitals, Chukovskaya was mistaken. This Jewish national awakening was not artificial or forced; it was an absolutely natural and even necessary milestone of Jewish history. It was the sudden realization that “one can say ‘Jew’ proudly!”
Another Jewish publicist reflected on the experience of his generation of young people in the USSR: “So what are we – the ‘grandchildren’ and heirs of that cruel experiment, who broke through the shell and hatched here in Israel – what are we to say about our fathers and grandfathers? Should we blame them that they didn’t raise us in Jewish way? Yet our very sense of Jewishness was in great part the result of their (as well as our) failures, catastrophes and despair. So let us appreciate this past…. Is it up to us to throw stones at the shattered skulls of the romantics of yesterday?”
This sincerely and honestly expressed intergenerational connection to the fathers and grandfathers, who were so enthusiastic in the early Soviet years, greatly supplements the whole picture. (You can read between the lines the author’s rejection of the benefits and advantages of the ‘new class’ that has replaced those ‘romantics.’)
A Samizdat article properly pointed out: “The opinion that the current rise in Jewish ethnic consciousness among assimilated Soviet Jews is just a reaction to the re-emergence of anti-Semitism seems deeply mistaken. What we have here is more likely a coincidence.”
Different contemporaries described the development of their Jewish self-identification somewhat differently. Some wrote that “nearly everyone agreed that nothing was happening in the 1960s” in the sense of national revival, though “after the war of 1967 things began to change.” Yet it was the plane hijacking incident that led to the breakthrough. Others suggest that “Jewish groups were already forming in the mid-1960s in Leningrad, Moscow, and Riga,” and that by the end of the decade a Jewish “underground center” was established in Leningrad. Yet what kind of conspiracy could it be? “Makeshift centers to study Hebrew and Jewish history were formed … and not really for study of Hebrew, but rather for the socialization of people who wished to study it. Actual language usually was learnt not beyond two to three hundred words…. As a rule, all participants were state functionaries, and, like their entire milieu, far removed from the Jewish religion and national traditions alike.” “The Jews of the 1960s had only a vague conception of Zionism.” And yet, “we felt ourselves to be sufficiently Jewish, and saw no need whatsoever for any sort of additional ‘Jewish educational remedy.’” In response to the barrage of anti-Israeli propaganda, “the inner sympathy towards Jewry and to Israel” grew. “Even if we were told then that Israel had abandoned Judaism, it would make no difference for us.” And then the movement “began to transform from an underground to a mass, open … ‘parlour’ phenomenon.” Still, “then nobody believed in the possibility of emigration, at least in our time, yet everyone considered a quite real possibility of ending up in a camp.” (The interviewer comments: “Alas, it is too short a step from conspiracy to ‘devilry‘. I saw this in the Jewish movement of the 1970s, after the trials in Leningrad.”)
Thus, the return to Jewish culture started and continued without counting on emigration and initially did not affect the everyday life of the participants. “I’m not sure that Aliyah [return to Israel] began because of Zionists,” as those first Zionist groups were too weak for this. “To a certain extent, it was the Soviet government that triggered the process by raising a tremendous noise around the Six-Day War. The Soviet press painted the image of a warlike invincible Jew, and this image successfully offset the inferiority complex of the Soviet Jews.”
But “hide your ‘Judaic terror’ from your co-workers’ eyes, from your neighbors’ ears!” At first, there was a deep fear: “these scraps of paper, bearing your contact details, were as if you were signing a sentence for yourself, for your children, for your relatives.” Yet soon “we ceased whispering, we began to speak aloud,” “to prepare and celebrate” the Jewish holidays and “study history and Hebrew.” And already from the end of 1969 “the Jews by the tens and hundreds began signing open letters to the ‘public abroad.’ They demanded to be ‘released’ to Israel.” Soviet Jewry, “separated from world Jewry, trapped in the melting pot of the despotic Stalinist empire … was seemingly irredeemably lost for Jewry – and yet suddenly the Zionist movement was reborn and the ancient Moses’ appeal trumpeted again: ‘Let my people go!’”
“In 1970 the whole world began to talk about Russian Jews.” They “rose, they became determined….There is only one barrier separating them from their dream – the barrier of governmental prohibition. To break through, to breech it, to fly through it was their only wish…. ‘Flee from Northern Babylon!’” was the behest of the arrested plane hijackers, the group led by E. Kuznetsov and M. Dymshits. In December 1970 during their trial in Leningrad “they weren’t silent, they didn’t evade, they openly declared that they wanted to steal a plane to fly it across the border to Israel. Remember, they faced the death sentence! Their ‘confessions’ were in essence the declarations of Zionism.” A few months later in May 1971, there was a trial of the ‘Zionist organizations of Leningrad,’ soon followed by similar trials in Riga and Kishinev.
These trials, especially the two Leningrad trials, became the new powerful stimulus for the development of the Jewish ethnic consciousness. A new Samizdat journal, The Jews in the USSR, began to circulate soon afterwards, in October 1972. It vividly reported on the struggle for the legalization of emigration to Israel and covered the struggle for the right to freely develop Jewish culture in the USSR.
But even at this point only a minority of Jews were involved in the nascent emigration movement. “It seems that the life was easier for the Soviet Jews when they knew that they had no choice, that they only could persevere and adapt, than now, when they’ve got a choice of where to live and what to do…. The first wave that fled from Russia at the end of the 1960s was motivated only by the goal of spending the rest of their lives in the only country without anti-Semitism, Israel.” (As the author noted, this does not include those who emigrated for personal enrichment.)
And “a part of Soviet Jewry would happily repudiate their national identity, if they were allowed to do so.” – so scared they were. This section included those Jews who cursed ‘that Israel,’ claiming that it is because of Israel that law-abiding Jews are often being prevented from career advancement: “because of those leaving, we too will suffer.”
The Soviet government could not but be alarmed by this unexpected (for them as for the whole world) awakening of ethnic consciousness among Soviet Jews. It stepped up propaganda efforts against Israel and Zionism, to scare away the newly conscious. In March 1970 it made use of that well-worn Soviet trick, to get the denunciation from the mouths of the “people themselves,” in this case from the people of “Jewish nationality.” So the authorities staged a denunciatory public press-conference and it was dutifully attended not only by the most hypocritical “official Jews” such as Vergelis, Dragunsky, Chakovsky, Bezymensky, Dolmatovsky, the film director Donsky, the propagandists Mitin and Mintz, but also by prominent people who could easily refuse to participate in the spectacle and in signing the “Declaration” without significant repercussions for themselves. Among the latter were: Byalik: the members of Academy, Frumkin and Kassirsky: the internationally renowned musicians, Fliyer and Zak; the actors, Plisetskaya, Bystritskaya, and Pluchek. But sign it they did. The “Declaration” “heaped scorn on the aggression carried by the Israeli ruling circles … which resurrects the barbarism of the Hitlerites”; “Zionism has always been an expression of the chauvinist views of the Jewish bourgeois and its Jewish raving”; and the signatories intend “to open the eyes of the gullible victims of Zionist propaganda”: “under the guidance of the Leninist party, working Jews have gained full freedom from the hated Tsarism.” Amazing, see who was the real oppressor? The one already dead for half a century!
But times had changed by this point. The “official Jews” were publicly rebuked by I. Zilberberg, a young engineer who had decided to irrevocably cut ties with this country and leave. He circulated an open letter in response to the “Declaration” in Samizdat, calling its signatories “lackey souls”, and repudiated his former faith in communism: “we naively placed our hopes in ‘our’ Jews – the Kaganovichs, the Erenburgs, etc.” (So, after all, they had once indeed placed their hopes there?) At the same time he criticised Russians: after the 1950s, did “Russians repent and were they contrite … and, after spilling a meagre few tears about the past … did they swear love and commitment to their new-found brothers?” In his mind there was no doubt that Russian guilt Jews was entirely one-sided.
Such events continued. Another Samizdat open letter became famous a year later, this one by the hitherto successful film director Mikhail Kalik, who had now been expelled from the Union of Soviet film-makers because he declared his intention to leave for Israel. Kalik unexpectedly addressed a letter about his loyalty to Jewish culture “to the Russian intelligentsia.” It looked as if he had spent his life in the USSR not among the successful, but had suffered for years among the oppressed, striving for freedom. And now, leaving, he lectured this sluggish Russian intelligentsia from the moral high ground of his victimhood. “So you will stay … with your silence, with your ‘obedient enthusiasm?’ Who then will take care for the moral health of the nation, the country, the society?”
Six months later there was another open letter, this time from the Soviet writer Grigory Svirsky. He was driven to this by the fact that he hadn’t been published for several years and even his name had been removed from the Encyclopaedia of Literature in punishment for speaking out against anti-Semitism at the Central Literary House in 1968. This punishment he termed “murder,” with understandable fire, though he forgot to glance back and to see how many others suffered in this regard. “I do not know how to live from now on,” he wrote to the Union of Writers. (This was a sentiment common to all 6,000 members of the union: they all believed that the government was bound to feed them for their literary work). These were “the reasons which made me, a man of Russian culture, what is more a Russian writer and an expert on Russian literature, feel myself to be a Jew and to come to the irrevocable decision to leave with my family to Israel”; “I wish to become an Israeli writer.” (But he achieved no such transformation of his profession from one nation to another. Svirsky, like many previous emigrants, had not realized how difficult he would find adjusting to Israel, and chose to leave there too.)
The hostile anti-Russian feelings and claims we find in so many voices of the awakened Jewish consciousness surprise and bewilder us, making our hearts bleed. Yet in these feelings of the “mature ferocity” we do not hear any apology proffered by our Jewish brothers for at least the events of 1920s. There isn’t a shadow of appreciation that Russians too are a wronged people. However, we heard some other voices among the “ferocious” in the previous chapter. Looking back on those times when they were already in Israel, they sometimes gave a more sober account: “we spent too much time settling debts with Russia in Jews in the USSR” at the expense even of devoting “too little to Israel and our life there … and thinking too little about the future.”
For the ordinary mundane and unarmed living, the prospect of breaking the steel shell that had enveloped the USSR seemed an impossible and hopeless task. But then they despaired – and had to try – and something gave! The struggle for the right to emigrate to Israel was characterised throughout by both determination and inventiveness: issuing complaints to the Supreme Soviet, demonstrations and hunger strikes by the “refuseniks” (as Jews who had been refused exit to Israel called themselves); seminars by fired Jewish professors on the pretext of wanting “to maintain their professional qualifications”; the organization in Moscow of an international symposium of scientists (at the end of 1976); finally, refusal to undergo national service.
Of course, this struggle could only be successful with strong support from Jewish communities abroad. ”For us the existence in the world of Jewish solidarity was a startling discovery and the only glimmer of hope in that dark time” remembers one of the first refuseniks. There was also substantial material assistance: “among refuseniks in Moscow there was born a particular sort of independence, founded on powerful economic support from Jews abroad.” And so they attached even more hopes to assistance from the West, now expecting similarly powerful public and even political help.
This support had its first test in 1972. Somebody in the higher echelons of the Soviet government reasoned as follows: here we have the Jewish intelligentsia, educated for free in the Soviet system and then provided with opportunities to pursue their academic careers, and now they just leave for abroad to work there with all these benefits subsidized by the Soviet state. Would it not be just to institute a tax on this? Why should the country prepare for free educated specialists, taking up the places loyal citizens might have had, only to have them use their skills in other countries? And so they started to prepare a law to institute this tax. This plan was no secret, and quickly became known and widely discussed in Jewish circles. It became law on August 3, 1972 in the Order of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR “On the compensation by citizens of the USSR, who are leaving to permanently live abroad, of the government expenditure on their education.” The amount proscribed was between 3,600 and 9,800 roubles, depending on the rank of the university (3,600 was in those days the yearly salary of an ordinary senior researcher without a doctorate).
A storm of international indignation erupted. During the 55 years of its existence, none of the monstrous list of the USSR’s crimes had caused as united an international protest as this tax on educated emigrants. American academics, 5,000 in number, signed a protest (Autumn 1972); and two thirds of American senators worked together to stop an expected favorable trade agreement with the USSR. European parliamentarians behaved similarly. For their part, 500 Soviet Jews sent an open letter to UN General Secretary Kurt Waldheim (nobody yet suspected that he too would soon be damned) describing: “serfdom for those with a higher education.” (In reaching for a phrase they failed to realize how this would sound in a country which had genuine kolkhoz serfdom).
The Soviet government buckled, and consigned the order to the scrapheap.
As to the agreement on trade? In April 1973, union leader George Meany argued that the agreement was neither in the interest of the USA nor would it ease international tensions, but the senators were concerned only about Soviet Jews and ignored these arguments. They passed the agreement but adding the “Jackson amendment,” which stated that it would only be agreed to once Jews were allowed to leave the USSR freely. And so the whole world heard the message coming from the American capital: we will help the Soviet government if they release from their country, not everyone, but specifically and only Jews.
Nobody declared loud and clear: gentlemen, for 55 years it has been but a dream to escape from under the hated Soviet regime, not for hundreds of thousands but for millions of our fellow citizens; but nobody, ever had the right to leave. And yet the political and social leaders of the West never showed surprise, never protested, never moved to punish the Soviet government with trade restrictions. (There was one unsuccessful attempt in 1931 to organise a campaign against Soviet dumping of lumber, a practise made possible only by the use of cheap convict labour, but even this campaign was apparently motivated by commercial competition). 15 million peasants were destroyed in the “dekulakisation,” 6 million peasants were starved to death in 1932, not even to mention the mass executions and millions who died in the camps; and at the same time it was fine to politely sign agreements with Soviet leaders, to lend them money, to shake their “honest hands”, to seek their support, and to boast of all this in front of your parliaments. But once it was specifically Jews that became the target, then a spark of sympathy ran through the West and it became clear just what sort of regime this was. (In 1972 I made a note on a scrap of paper: “You’ve realized [what’s going on], thank God. But for how long will your realisation last? All it takes is for the problems Jews had with emigrating to be resolved, and you’ll become deaf, blind and uncomprehending again to the entirety of what is going on, to the problems of Russia and of communism.”)
“You cannot imagine the enthusiasm with which it [the Jackson amendment] was met by Jews in Russia…. ‘Finally a lever strong enough to shift the powers in the USSR is discovered.’” Yet suddenly in 1975 the Jackson amendment became an irrelevance, as the Soviet government unexpectedly turned down the offer of the trade agreement with the US. (Or it rather calculated that it could get more advantages from other competing countries).
The Soviet refusal made an impression on Jewish activists in the USSR and abroad, but not for long. Both in America and Europe support for Jewish emigration out of the USSR became louder. “The National Conference in Defence of Soviet Jews.” “The Union on Solidarity with Soviet Jewry.” “The Student Committee of Struggle for Soviet Jewry.” On the “Day of National Solidarity with Soviet Jews” more than 100,000 demonstrated in Manhattan, including senators Jackson and Humphrey (both were running for the Democratic nomination for President.) “Hundreds different protests took place…. The largest of these were the yearly ‘Solidarity Sundays’ – demonstrations and rallies in New York which were attended by up to 250,000 people (these ran from 1974-1987).” A three day meeting of 18 Nobel laureates in support of the Corresponding Member of Academy Levich took place in Oxford. Another 650 academics from across the world gave their support – and Levich was allowed to emigrate. In January 1978 more than a hundred American academics sent a telegram to Brezhnev demanding that he allow professor Meiman to go abroad. Another worldwide campaign ended in another success: the mathematician Chudnovsky received permission to leave for a medical procedure unavailable in the USSR. It was not just the famous: often a name until then unheard of would be trumpeted across the world and then returned to obscurity. For example, we heard it especially loudly in May 1978, when the world press told us a heart-rending story: a seven year old Moscow girl Jessica Katz had an incurable illness, and her parents were not allowed to go to the States! A personal intervention from Senator Edward Kennedy followed, and presto! Success! The press rejoiced. The main news on every television channel broadcast the meeting at the airport, the tears of happiness, the girl held aloft. The Russian Voice of America devoted a whole broadcast to how Jessica Katz was saved (failing to notice that Russian families with sick children still faced the same impenetrable wall). A medical examination later showed that Jessica wasn’t ill at all, and that her cunning parents had fooled the whole world to ensure her leaving. (A fact acknowledged through gritted teeth on the radio, and then buried. Who else would be forgiven such a lie?) Similarly, the hunger strike of V. Borisov (December 1976) who had already spent nine years in a ‘mental asylum’ was reported by the Voice of America no differently from the 15 days of imprisonment of Ilya Levin, and if anything, more attention was given to the latter. All a few refuseniks had to do was sign a declaration about their inability to leave the USSR and it was immediately reported by the Freedom, Voice of America, the BBC and by the other most important sources of mass information, so much so that it is hard now to believe how loudly they were trumpeted.
Of course it has to be noted that all the pomp surrounding the appearance of a Soviet Jewish movement served to awaken among worldwide Jewry, including those in America, an exciting conception of themselves as a nation. “Prophetic obsession of the first Zionists” in the USSR “induced exulting sympathy among the Western Jews.” “The Western Jews saw their own ideals in action. They began to believe in Russian Jews … that meant for them believing in their own best qualities…. All that which Western Jews wanted to see around themselves and … didn’t see.” Others said, with a penetrating irony: “The offered product (an insurrectionary Jewish spirit) found a delighted buyer (American Jews). Neither America, nor American Jews are at all interested in Jews from the USSR in themselves. The product bought was precisely the spirit of Jewish revolt. The Jews of America (and with them the Jews of London, Amsterdam, Paris, etc.), whose sense of Jewishness had been excited by the Six-Day War triumph … saw the chance to participate…. It was a comfortable ‘struggle’… that moreover did not involve any great exertion.”
However, it cannot be denied that these inspirations both here and there merged, and worked together to destabilise the walls of the steel shell of the old Soviet Union.
It is the general opinion that mass Jewish emigration from the USSR began in 1971, when 13,000 people left (98% to Israel). It was 32,000 in 1972, 35,000 in 1973 (the proportion going to Israel varying from 85% to 100%). However these were for the most part not from the ethnically Russian areas, but from Georgia and the Baltic. (A Jewish delegate to an international congress declared that “Georgia is a country without anti-Semitism”; many Georgian Jews later became disappointed with their move to Israel and wanted to go back). There was no mass movement from the central part of the USSR. Later, when leaving was made more difficult, some expressed a serious regret (R. Nudelman): the “tardy courage of future refuseniks might have, perhaps, been unnecessary if they had taken advantage of the breech made when they‘d had the chance.” Someone disagrees: “But people need time to mature! … See how long it took before we understood that we must not stay, that it is simply a crime against your own children.”
“Ho, ho, [come forth], and flee from the land of the north, saith the LORD.” (Zech 2:6)
Nonetheless, the excitement of Jewish emigration took root in Russian and Ukrainian towns too. By March 1973, 700,000 requests to emigrate had been registered. However, autumn 1973 saw the Yom Kippur War, and the desire of many to emigrate suddenly diminished. “Israel’s image changed sharply after the Yom Kippur War. Instead of a secure and brave rich country, with confidence in tomorrow and a united leadership, Israel unexpectedly appeared before the world as confused, flabby, ripped apart by internal contradictions. The standard of living of the population fell sharply.”
As a result only 20,000 Jews left the USSR in 1974. In 1975-76, “up to 50% of emigrating Soviet Jews” once in the stopover point of Vienna “went … past Israel. This period saw the birth of the term ‘directists’” – that is to say those who went directly to the United States. After 1977, their numbers “varied from 70 to 98 percent.”
“Frankly, this is understandable. The Jewish state had been conceived as a national refuge for Jews of the whole world, the refuge which, to begin with, guarantees them a safe existence. But this did not transpire. The country was in the line of fire for many years.”
What is more “it soon became clear that Israel needed not intellectual Soviet Jews … but a national Jewish intelligentsia.” At this point “thinking Jews … realised with a horror that in the way they had defined themselves their whole life they had no place in Israel,” because as it turned out for Israel you had to be immersed in Jewish national culture – and so only then “the arrivals realised their tragic mistake: there had been no point to leaving Russia” (although this was also due to the loss of social position) – and letters back warned those who hadn’t left yet of this. “Their tone and content at that time was almost universally negative. Israel was presented as a country where the government intervenes in and seeks to act paternally in all aspects of a citizen’s life.” “A prejudice against emigration to Israel began to form among many as early as the mid-1970s.” “The firm opinion of Israel that the Moscow and Leningrad intelligentsia began to acquire was of a closed, spiritually impoverished society, buried in its own narrow national problems and letting today’s ideological demands have control over the culture…. At best … it is a cultural backwater, at worst … yet another totalitarian government, lacking only a coercive apparatus.” “Many Soviet Jews gained the impression, not without reason, that in leaving the USSR for Israel they were exchanging one authoritarian regime for another.”
When in 1972-73 more than 30,000 Soviet Jews had left for Israel per year, Golda Meir used to meet them personally at the airport and wept, and the Israeli press called their mass arrivals “the Miracle of the 20th century.” Back then “everyone left for Israel. Those who took the road to Rome,” that is to say not to Israel, “were pointed out. But then the number of arrivals started to fall from year to year. It decreased from tens of thousands to thousands, from thousands to hundreds, from hundreds to a few lone individuals. In Vienna, it was no longer those taking the road to Rome [the next stop on the road to the final desired destination, usually the U.S.] who were pointed out, it was those ‘loners,’ those ‘clowns,’ those ‘nuts,’ who still left for Israel.” “Back then Israel used to be the ‘norm’ and you had to explain why you were going ‘past’ it, but it was the other way round now: it was those planning to leave for Israel that often had to explain their decision.”
“Only the first wave was idealistic”; “starting with 1974, so to speak the second echelon of Jews began to leave the USSR, and for those Israel might have been attractive, but mainly from a distance.” Another’s consideration: “Perhaps the phenomenon of neshira [neshira – dispersal on the way to Israel; noshrim – the dispersed ones] is somehow connected to the fact that initial emigration used to be from the hinterlands [of the USSR], where [Jewish] traditions were strong, and now it’s more from the centre, where Jews have substantially sundered themselves from their traditions.”
Anyway, “the more open were the doors into Israel, the less Jewish was the efflux,” the majority of activists barely knowing the Hebrew alphabet. ”Not to find their Jewishness, but to get rid of it … was now the main reason for emigration.” They joked in Israel that “the world has not been filled with the clatter of Jewish feet running to settle in their own home…. Subsequent waves quickly took into account the mistake of the vanguard, and instead enthusiastically leapt en masse to where others’ hands had already built their own life. En masse, it should be noted, for here finally was that much spoken of ‘Jewish unity.’” But of course these people “left the USSR in search of ‘intellectual freedom,’ and so must live in Germany or England” or more simply in the United States. And a popular excuse was that the Diaspora is needed as “somebody has to give money to resource-less Israel and to make noise when it is being bullied! But on the other hand, the Diaspora perpetuates anti-Semitism.”
A. Voronel made a broader point here: “”The situation of Russian Jews and the problem of their liberation is a reflection of the all-Jewish crisis…. The problems of Soviet Jews help us to see the disarray in our own ranks”; “the cynicism of Soviet Jews” in using calls from made up relatives in Israel instead of “accepting their fate, the Way of Honour, is nothing more than a reflection of the cynicism and the rot affecting the whole Jewish (and non-Jewish) world”; “questions of conscience move further and further into background under the influence of the business, the competition and the unlimited possibilities of the Free World.”
So it’s all quite simple – it was just a mass escape from the harsh Soviet life to the easy Western one, quite understandable on a human level. But then what’s about “repatriation?” And what is the “spiritual superiority” of those who dared to leave over those who stayed in the “country of slaves”? In fighting in those days for emigration Soviet Jews loudly demanded: “Let my people go!” But that was a truncated quote. The Bible said: “Let my people go, that they may hold a feast unto me in the wilderness.” (Ex. 5:1) Yet somehow too many of those released went not into the desert, but to the abundance of America.
Can we nonetheless say that in the early years of sudden and successful emigration to Israel, it was the Zionists beliefs and ambitions that acted as the prime stimulus for Jews to leave? The testimony of various Jewish writers would suggest not.
“The Soviet situation of the end of the 1960s was one of Aliyah, not of a Zionist movement. There were many people psychologically ready to flee the USSR. What can be called a Zionist movement was entirely subsidiary to this group of people.” Those who joined makeshift centres dedicated to the actual study of Jewish history and culture “were mostly characterised by a complete lack of the careerism so common among the Soviet-Jewish intelligentsia. This was why they dedicated the entirety of their free time to Jewish affairs.” For them the “era of the Hebrew teachers” had started even as early as the end of the 1970s, and by the beginning of the 1980s these “Torah teachers were the only ones who still influenced the minds.”
The motives of many others who emigrated are explained as follows: “The Soviet government has placed obstacles in the way of achieving the most important things – professional advancement,” and so “Jewry is in danger of degradation.” “They were driven into Jewishness, and then into Zionism … by their faceless bureaucratic nemesis.” “Many … had never encountered anti-Semitism or political persecution. What burdened them was the dead end that their lives as Soviet Jews had become – as bearers of a contradiction from which they could free themselves neither by ‘assimilation’ nor by their ‘Jewishness’” “There was a growing sense of incompatibility and sorrow”; “dozens and dozens of dolts … are dragging you into insignificance … are pushing you to the bottom.” So came the longing to escape the Soviet Union. “This bright hope, when a man under the complete control of the Soviet government could in three months become free … was genuinely exhilarating.”
Of course, a complex emotional environment developed around the act of departure. A writer says: the majority of Soviet Jews are “using the same ‘Zionist’ door … they sadly leave that familiar, that tolerant Russia” (a slip, but one that is closer to the truth, as the author had meant to say “tolerated by” Jews). Or said thusly: “The vast majority decided to emigrate with their heads, while their insides,” that is to say concern with being part of a country and its traditions, “were against.” No one can judge to what extent this was a “majority.” But as we’ve seen the mood varied from the good poetry of Liya Vladimorova:
But for you my beloved, for you the proud,
I bequest the memories and the departure
to the then-popular joke: “Could the last person to leave please turn off the lights.”
This growing desire to emigrate among Soviet Jews coincided with the beginning of the “dissident” movement in the USSR. These developments were not entirely independent: “for some of them [Jewish intellectuals] ‘Jewish ethnic consciousness in the USSR’ was a new vector of intellectual development … a new form of heterodoxy,” and they regarded their own impatient escape from the country as also a desperately important political cause. In essence, the dilemma facing the Zionists at the start of the 20th century was repeated: if it is your aim to leave Russia, should you at the same time maintain a political struggle within it? Back then, most had answered “yes” to the struggle; now, most answered “no.” But an increasingly daredevil attitude to emigration could not but feed a similarly daredevil attitude to politics, and sometimes the daredevils were one and the same. So for example (in 1976) several activists in the Jewish movement — V. Rubin, A. Sharansky, V. Slepak — together made an independent decision to support the “Helsinki Group” of dissidents, “but this was regarded in Jewish circles as an unjustifiable and unreasonable risk,” as it would lead “to the immediate and total escalation of the government’s repression of Jewish activism,” and would moreover turn the Jewish movement “into the property of dissidents.”
On the other side, many dissidents took advantage of the synchronicity of the two movements, and used emigration as a means of escape from their political battlefield for their own safety. They found theoretical justifications for this: “Any honest man in the USSR is an eternal debtor to Israel, and here is why…. The emigration breech was made in the iron curtain thanks to Israel … it protects the rear of those few people willing to oppose the tyranny of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union [CPSU] and to fight for human rights in the USSR. The absence of this ‘emergency exit’ would be deadly to the current democratic movement.”
It has to be admitted that this is a very cynical justification, and that it says little good of the dissident movement as a whole. A hostile critic then noted: “these ‘opponents’ [of the CPSU] are playing an odd game: they become involved in the democratic movement, already sure of an ‘emergency exit’ for themselves. But by this they demonstrate the temporary and inconsequential character of their activity. Do potential emigrants have the right to speak of changing Russia, or especially on behalf of Russia?”
One dissident science fiction author (and later, after emigration, a Russian Orthodox priest) suggested this formulation, that Jewish emigration creates “a revolution in the mind of Soviet man”; “the Jews, in fighting for the right to leave, become transformed into fighters for freedom” in general….”The Jewish movement serves as a social gland that begins to secrete the hormones of rights awareness;” it has become “a sort of ferment perpetuating dissidence.” “Russia is becoming ‘deserted,’” “that ‘abroad,’ so mythical before, is becoming populated by our own people,” “the Jewish Exodus … is gradually leading totalitarian Soviet Moscow to the plains of freedom.”
This view was readily accepted and in the coming years came to be loudly trumpeted: “the right to emigrate is the primary human right.” It was repeated often and in unison that this was an “enforced escape,” and “talk about the privileged position Jews occupy with regards to emigration is slander.”
Yes, taking a lifeboat from a sinking ship is indeed an act of necessity. But to own a lifeboat is a great privilege, and after the gruelling ordeals of half a century in the USSR Jews owned one, while the rest did not. Those more perceptive expressed a more conscientious feeling: “It is fine to fight for the repatriation of Jews, it is understandable, and it is fine to fight for the right to emigrate for everyone – that too is understandable; but you cannot fight for the right to emigrate but, for some reason, only for Jews.” Contrary to the self-satisfied theoreticians of emigration, and their belief that it brought all Soviet people closer to emigrating abroad and so partly freed them, in reality those unable to emigrate came to feel more hopeless, to an even greater extent fooled and enslaved. There were emigrants who understood this: “What is cruellest about this situation is that it is Jews who are leaving. It has bizarrely become a question of something akin to a certificate of authenticity.”
Precisely. But they chose to blind themselves to this.
What could the remaining residents of “totalitarian Moscow” think? There was a great variety of responses, from grievance (“You, Jews, are allowed to leave and we aren’t…”) to the despair of intellectuals. L.K Chukovksaya expressed it in conversation to me: “Dozens of valuable people are leaving, and as a result human bonds vital for the country are ripped apart. The knots that hold together the fabric of culture are being undone.”
To repeat the lesson: “Russia is becoming deserted.”
We can read the thoughtful comments of an emigrant Jewish author about this Departure: “Russian Jewry were pathfinders in their experiment to merge with the Russian people and Russian culture, they became involved in Russia’s fate and history, and, repulsed away as if by a similarly charged body, left.” (What an accurate and penetrating comparison!) “What is most stunning about this Departure is how, at the moment of greatest assimilation, voluntary it was…. The pathetic character of the Russian Aliyah of the 1970s … was that we were not exiled from the country on a king’s order or by the decision of party and parliament, and we were not fleeing to save ourselves from the whips of an enraged popular pogrom … this fact is not immediately obvious to the participants in this historical event.”
No doubt, the Jewish emigration from the USSR ushered in a great historical shift. The beginning of the Exodus drew a line under an epoch lasting two centuries of coerced co-existence between Jews and Russians. From that point every Soviet Jew was free to choose for himself — to live in Russia or outside it. By the second half of the 1980s each was entirely free to leave for Israel without struggle.
The events that took place over two centuries of Jewish life in Russia – the Pale of Settlement,the escape from its stultifying confines, the flowering, the ascension to the ruling circles of Russia, then the new constraints, and finally the Exodus – none of these are random streams on the outskirts of history. Jewry had completed its spread from its origin on the Mediterranean Sea to as far away as Eastern Europe, and it was now returning back to its point of origin.
We can see in both this spread and in its reversal a supra-human design. Perhaps those that come after us will have the opportunity to see it more clearly and to solve its mystery.
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