Refusenik Doc Screening 3: We Weren’t All Refuseniks

Last updated on February 19, 2024

*This is the third in the series on the Refusenik documentary. Read the first two posts here (Part 1: Defining Moments) and here (Part 2: The Rescuers and the Rescued).

As I wrote in my first post on the Refusenik documentary screening, the evening gave me a chance to see the different levels of knowledge about the movement that existed among just this one small group of people. More importantly, I saw how different generations, all coming from different places and backgrounds in the Soviet Union, interacted about this singular, life-changing immigration. (That’s something I’ll be able to talk more about once I can get some video clips posted.)

But I also got to learn much more about how the refusenik-activists differed from many other immigrants of that time. And that’s where my conversation with S., which I mentioned in my last post, also fit in, along with the comments I heard directly after the movie. The refuseniks, their goals and aspirations, became the story of the movement. For a long time, they were the face of Soviet Jewry. That’s why it can be surprising to people like S. to learn that most Soviet Jews are very different from the refusenik-activists in several key ways. What I heard after the movie is “this was not our lives. This was not us, we didn’t want the same things.

A longing for Israel

Let me be clear. A lot of the personal stories chronicled in the documentary resonated with my group, especially stories of being beaten up as a child or being denied academic rewards and work opportunities as an adult. But the staunch Zionism of the refuseniks portrayed was largely unfamiliar. Even those of our friends who studied Hebrew in secret, or were involved in various efforts related to the movement, didn’t identify with the strong longing for Israel. I suppose that’s why they ended up here in Canada, while many of the refuseniks are in Israel. I don’t think anyone shown in the movie ended up in Canada or the US; most now live in Israel, and a few are still in Russia.

By the late 1960s, when the Soviet Jewry movement took off, Jewish identity in the USSR had become nothing more than a series of discriminatory moments. So, things like studying Hebrew became important identity-building exercises. Refusenik is filled with scenes of people hiding in the forests to study Hebrew and sing songs, and of North American activists sneaking Hebrew material into the country.

Most notably, in one scene, Yosef Mendelevich, who was involved in the Leningrad hijacking, relates how the hijacking confirmed for him that he truly loved Israel, because he was ready to sacrifice everything to get there:

And I asked myself, “You admit that it was a mistake, now you are a prisoner, everything is lost. It was the stupidest thing to do.” And I answer myself, “No, it was the true thing to do, for I love Israel and if you love something, if you are not ready to sacrifice for your love, you are liar. You don’t love it.” Now I know, that I love Israel indeed for I was ready to sacrifice my life, so I am quiet with myself.

His sentiments are foreign to many immigrants. The reality is that once it became possible to go to countries other than Israel, most chose that option.

What makes an activist?

Many, many Jews became refuseniks during this time. But a refusenik is actually simply someone who was refused permission to immigrate. Not every Soviet Jew, and not even every refusenik, was an activist, holding signs out on the street, or broadcasting their plight to the world. So what makes one person choose to stand up to the KGB, while another does not? It’s hard to know.

Take someone like Natan Sharansky, who became the public face of Soviet Jewry for most of the world. Had he been granted a visa when he first applied, we would probably never had heard of him. But, he turned out to be someone who was willing to speak out and was not afraid of the KGB. In the end, he was jailed for his daring and became a cause célèbre. Most of the 250,000 or so Jews who left then didn’t become activists, even if they were refuseniks, or were lucky enough to just get their papers on the first attempt.

After the movie, we talked about why these particular people became activists. Were these so different from everyone else? It’s easy to guess at things in hindsight. But I’ll leave the last word to our friend Igor F. He was involved in some Jewish activism on the periphery of the Leningrad hijacking, and was turned into the KGB by a friend. He’s spent a lot of time thinking about the why’s and the how’s, and about what people do when push comes to shove. In the end, he concluded that you can’t ever know who you might turn out to be, put in the right situation. You don’t know whether you’ll turn out to be someone who caves in a KGB interrogation, or someone who decides to stand on the street and demonstrate against that same government, or someone who decides to become a secret informer against those same protesters.

Many of the refusenik-activists didn’t set out to shake the Soviet empire. They simply wanted to leave and when they were denied, they felt they had nothing left to lose, especially since even the act of applying for an exit visa usually meant being fired from work. In the end, their efforts changed the lives of all Soviet Jews.

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