Refusenik Doc Screening 1: Defining Moments

Last updated on February 19, 2024

*This is the first in a series. Read part 2 here: Refusenik Documentary Screening Part 2: The Rescuers and the Rescued

A few weeks ago, I did a film screening in Edmonton for a small group of Soviet Jews, all family friends, who I’ve previously interviewed for my project. The film is Refusenik, a documentary on the international struggle to free Soviet Jews, starting in the late ’60s through to the country’s collapse. After the movie, we had a discussion, and then a Soviet-themed dinner. It was an interesting evening, which brought together a lot of disparate pieces of lives and history into one. It turned out to also be a chance to see everyone interact with each other about their experiences, instead of the one-on-one interviews I’ve done thus far. I’ll be writing a few posts about it and I’ll also be posting video clips of our conversation in the next while (once I’ve figured out a few techie details). The first post, and film trailer, are below.

Defining Moments

What are the moments that shape our lives? The ones that also enter the national consciousness? They’re not always as obvious as the 9/11s and JFK assassinations that take up all the breathing room in popular culture. In our over-informed world, we like to think we’re in possession of relevant information at all times. That the key moments of our lives won’t elude us, so long as we stay plugged in, even if we then end up “experiencing” those key moments glued to our computer monitors. And thus are born national mythologies and defining narratives.

I was reminded of the ephemeral nature of “where were you when” during the Refusenik screening. There isn’t exactly a national consciousness when it comes to Soviet Jews, but there are enough common threads to identify it as something of a group consciousness. It’s the same Soviet culture, the same identity documents stamped “Jew” on the infamous 5th line, the same immigration route through Vienna and Rome out to the west. Defining moments though, are few. A Soviet Jew of a certain generation might recall the day Stalin died. And most recall the day, decades later, that Sharansky was released from prison and onto a plane to Israel in a prisoner exchange. But otherwise, the shape of their lives and the defining elements are a little more nebulous. When they learned about the possibility of emigration. Exit. An escape route. Everyone can recall when the possibility first entered their lives, but as a single moment, it’s a moving target, one that was largely informed by one’s age and geography. People tended to get more information, more quickly, in places like Moscow and Leningrad than anywhere else.

I had organized the screening because I had wanted to share a film I found very moving. But also because I was curious to see how they’d all view the film. I had assumed there would be few surprises for my audience. They’d all come out of the USSR, so surely they would know about the refuseniks, the international activists, the marches and the government lobbying. That perhaps some details might be new, but the overall trajectory of the movement would be familiar. And sure, everyone knew about things like the Jackson-Vanick amendment. But many key events—like the Leningrad hijacking as just one example, which by many accounts brought the plight of Soviet Jews to international attention—were not actually known to everyone in the room. We don’t always know what creates the circumstances of our lives.

Picture a living room of Soviet Jews, all living in Canada for almost as long, and some longer, than I’ve been alive. They are in their 70s, their 60s, their 50s. Now take that transformative moment, that hijacking, again, and toss it around the room. A group of people who all share a common immigration story. They sit together, as they have done many times before, drinking kvass. And yet one has only just learned about this hijacking moments ago, during the film, while another was there on the periphery, has stopped the movie three times to point out people he knew, and was hauled in by the long arm of the KGB that swept up assorted affiliated troublemakers after.

How am I to tie these generations together? An image begins, finally, to emerge. It’s one that speaks of the difference between being nine and being in your 30s, in say, 1970, on the day a desperate group attempted to fly their way out of Leningrad’s Smolny airport. It begins to weave together the individual stories I already knew, criss-crosses through them—you were where at what age? and in what year? and where were you when this happened? when did you hear about that?—and then pulls them all together in this most ordinary of cities, everyone sitting in the same living room, watching the same movie. In Edmonton, of all places.

While I was surprised by the different pockets of knowledge and experiences that filled the living room, I also learned a lot more about what set apart people who became refusenik-activists and those who were able to just quietly leave. The refusenik story which we’d watched, though also largely forgotten, is the public story of of Soviet Jewry. This was the private story.

*Go on to part 2: Refusenik Screening Part 2: The Rescuers and the Rescued

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