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Project for the Study of Dissidence and Samizdat

By Ann Komaromi

The Electronic Archive “Project for the Study of Dissidence and Samizdat” (PSDS) includes the database of Soviet samizdat periodicals, electronic editions of selected samizdat journals, illustrated timelines of dissident movements, and interviews with activists. The Project aims to make rare materials more widely available and to provoke questions about the trajectories of groups and individuals within the varied field of Soviet dissidence and nonconformist culture.

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Aba Taratuta

Interview with Aba Taratuta taken by Laura Bialis.

Interview date: Summer 2004,  Place: Haifa

Transcript: Roman Tashlitskyy

Edited: Aba Taratuta, 2014

Translation of excerpts, notes: Ann Komaromi

Published: November, 2011; Notes updated, spelling harmonized – June 2016.

L.B. – [Tell me] a little bit about yourself. Tell me what your first memories are, when you were born, where. 

A.T. – My name is Aba Taratuta. I got this name from my grandfather, whose name it was, and I have been called by this name all my life. Until I came to Israel there were no problems. But in Hebrew “aba” is “father.” There were times when I would call some friends and the son or daughter would pick up the phone, and when I said it was Aba calling, they would answer in surprise, “What father? Father is already home.”

          I was born in Leningrad in 1935. When Hitler attacked the Soviet Union and the German armies were closing in on Leningrad my family evacuated to the southern Urals, to the city of Troitsk. At that time it was a small city built out of wooden houses. In one of them the five of us rented a room. At some point after we arrived I was walking down the street and a group of local boys my age or just a little older was coming towards me. They roughed me up a little, telling me why they were doing it. That’s how I got my first lesson in Russian popular antisemitism.

[…]

           We spent three years in evacuation. When they lifted the blockade of Leningrad we returned to our two rooms in a communal apartment on Ligovskaia Street. At school I was a good student, but not outstanding. After finishing school I studied in the Astronomy department of Leningrad University.

[…]

           […] they gave me what is called a “free” diploma.[1] A relative helped me get hired at a “post-office box” – one of the closed scientific research institutes of the Military Naval Fleet where he worked. The managerial positions were filled with enlisted naval officers, but the regular workers were all un-enlisted hired workers. There I met my future wife Ida who was working as a translator from English. In 1960, we were married and a year later our son Misha was born.

Over the course of the next ten years I changed my place of employment two times, worked my way up to lead engineer and enrolled in graduate courses by correspondence. At that point my career was interrupted, however, since Ida and I planned to go to Israel. We both had security clearance that made our departure from the Soviet Union problematic, to say the least. For that reason, in order to apply for an exit visa, we left our jobs and looked for other work without any security clearance. Ida found work at the post office and I studied to be a driver at a place that paid a stipend. 

[…]

           We began to think seriously about moving to Israel, like many Jews, after the victory of the Jewish State in the Six-Day War [in 1967]. In that war, the Soviet Union gave all kinds of help to the Arabs, while the Soviet Jews, naturally, felt sympathy for Israel. Then in Leningrad there was the “Airplane Affair” which attracted so much attention, when two Jewish activists, Kuznetsov and Dymshits, received the death sentence, which was then commuted to fifteen years in a strict-regime penal colony…[2]

[…]

L.B. :  Let me ask you this. You're talking about the alleged hijacking, the Leningrad hijacking. You were living in Leningrad then. As someone who was Jewish, how did you react when you read about all of that? 

А.Т. :   The severe sentences meted out to the participants for the unsuccessful airplane hijacking finally confirmed our intention to leave for Israel. We were of course on the side of those brave people, and our ideas were close to theirs… I don’t know, maybe if it had happened later we would also have been among the “Airplane” group. But at that time we were just preparing to submit our request for an exit visa to the Department of Visas and Registration (OVIR).[3]  

[…]

           The government of the USSR could not allow the departure of its citizens for permanent residence abroad for ideological reasons. It cast a shadow on the country of victorious socialism where, as they wrote in the newspapers, “Man is a friend to man, a comrade and a brother.” Departure was possible only for the goal of reuniting dispersed families. Moreover, it didn’t matter whether one actually had relatives abroad. Each person created his own story (legenda) about how his “aunt” or “uncle” ended up in Israel. And the authorities pretended to believe these stories. Those were the rules of the game and everyone had to submit to them.

[…]

           One could request an invitation by transmitting passport details with those who left for Israel. But they often confiscated the notebooks of those who were leaving at customs. It was practically impossible to phone there –they allowed just two conversations a day for the whole city. Letters also did not always get through. Correspondence with foreigners was controlled by the KGB, and they had a special attitude toward the “den of Zionism” [Israel].

           At that time our friends Sveta and Sasha Belinsky received permission to leave – we lived in the same building as they did. Ida took a piece of white fabric and wrote our essential information on it – ours and that of several Jews we knew who wanted to leave for Israel. She sewed this piece of fabric under the lining of Sasha’s jacket. It was thin fabric and unlike paper would not be felt in a personal search.

[…]

At the beginning of the 1970s, when Jews started emigrating to Israel, a network of illegal home ulpans [intensive language courses] began to function, and there they taught Hebrew. My wife and I began studying Hebrew even before we submitted our visa application. Our first teacher was a man from Riga – Benia Khaikin. We studied with him for two years, and then we ourselves started to teach. The principle at that time was the following: once you have mastered three lessons from the popular textbook Elef milim[4], pass on your knowledge to others.   

[…]

L.B. :  Why did you want to learn to speak Hebrew and also to teach it to other people?

А.Т. :  We learned Hebrew because we had committed our future to Israel. That part is clear. Why did we teach others although we knew that Hebrew was de facto forbidden in the Soviet Union?... I don’t have a short answer for that.

           In fact, among Jewish refuseniks there were two possible models of behaviour. Some thought that if they had received a refusal they should sit quietly and not put their head up in order not to draw the wrath of the powers that be. And then for that good behaviour they would sooner or later let you go. Others, and we were among them, thought that it was necessary to be active. First of all, so the powers that be did not forget about you. Secondly, there was the hope that our activity would irritate the authorities and they would think it better to get rid of us as quickly as possible.

[…]

           My next place of work was an organization that serviced elevators in residential buildings. They paid pennies. But it was a good schedule: you would work for twenty-four hours and then have three whole days at home. That way there was a lot of free time which went entirely for various types of Jewish activity.

           One of the things we did was prepare and distribute samizdat. In Leningrad there was a desperate need for Hebrew textbooks. We had to copy them by photographic methods. One of the pupils might make a copy on his own, but the overwhelming majority of students relied on the teacher to supply it, that is, on me. The long-time refusenik Yuri Shpeizman[5] (he died of a heart attack in Vienna on the way to Israel) had some trusted photographers who could do this job. I deliberately refused to make their acquaintance. Anything could happen, they could arrest me and begin interrogating me and then under torture I would not give up their names.

           Apart from textbooks we also copied books about Israel from the [Israeli Russian-language] series “The Library of Aliya.”[6] These books were brought by foreign tourists and there was great demand for them.

[…]

           We knew well Viktor Brailovsky[7] and Yura Golfand who put out the samizdat journal Jews in the USSR (Evrei v SSSR).[8] Ida translated for the journal chapters from the book about the Holocaust Night by Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel. Beginning in 1982, the samizdat Leningrad Jewish Almanac (LEA) began to appear.[9] My role in that edition consisted of copying it and distributing it.  

           Among Leningrad refuseniks in the mid-1970s there were quite a few scientific workers who had lost their jobs after applying to leave the USSR. At one of the “Zionist gatherings” we had the idea of organizing a scientific seminar at our house. The mathematician Boris Granovsky[10] agreed to lead it. Seminar meetings happened weekly, and they were open to everyone who wanted to come. 

[…]

           And Ida and I started gathering an audience for one other refusenik seminar – a legal seminar led by Valery Segal.[11] He was the first one to teach us not to be afraid of the police. It turned out they did not have as many rights as we thought. Once a week Segal would provide consultations by phone to Leningrad refuseniks.

[…]

           Not long before this [in 1974], Shirley Goldstein,[12] an activist with the American movement to free Soviet Jews, visited Leningrad with a tourist group. 

           After this meeting [with Shirley], Ida and I got onto a list of different foreign Jewish (and not only Jewish) social organizations and synagogues. From that time foreword, the visits by “Zionist emissaries” became a regular event.

[…]

           One morning in the spring of 1980 we had a knock on our apartment door. To the question, “Who’s there?” a woman’s voice answered: “A telegram for you!” I looked through the peephole and a young woman was standing there. When I opened the door a bunch of strangers literally burst into the apartment together with the “postwoman.” It was a search.

           They invited us to give up our anti-Soviet literature voluntarily. I answered that we didn’t have anything like that. But the investigator and his assistants, looking very much like KGB agents, had a different opinion. In the course of the search they took a collection of Pushkin’s verses translated by Slansky into Hebrew, they took a “Jewish Calendar” in Yiddish, which had been published by the Moscow Choral Synagogue, and the Pentateuch of Moses from 1902. They also seized two typewriters – one with Russian and one with Latin characters, personal letters, dictionaries, audiotape cassettes with recorded Hebrew and English lessons, Jewish and jazz music…           

           I couldn’t restrain myself and I asked, “Did they really publish anti-Soviet literature long before the Soviets came to power?” At that the investigator answered, “Well, aren’t you the funny one, Aba Yakovlevich! Don’t worry, we will return everything to you.” He lied, of course. They didn’t return anything!

           We were extremely lucky they did not find the big folder with Jewish samizdat. The folder was under a chair covered with ironing that Ida had not managed to put away. They looked for incriminating material in the depths of the washing machine right next to the chair, but they did not notice the folder.

           I was most worried about the note book with addresses and phone numbers of Jewish activists which lay in the pocket of a coat hanging on the rack in the entrance hallway. An assistant asked whose coat it was. I answered that it was our son’s, and he didn’t bother to check the pockets.  

[…]

L.B. : Why did you and Ida feel it was important to be a leader of the refuseniks in Leningrad?

А.Т. :   I am not sure you can call us leaders. In Leningrad there were various groups and various types of activity. Each direction had its own initiative group. And in each such group there was one person or two or three, whom one could call leaders.    

           For example, Yosif Radomyslsky[13] and Grisha Genusov took care of ulpans. Each Jewish new year they came to the synagogue with a poster that said: “We offer Hebrew lessons. Call this number.”[14] And then, having collected the necessary information, they distributed those who wanted to study Hebrew among the teachers.

           Religious Jews united around Yitzhak Kogan.[15] He produced kosher meat and at his home they observed Pesach and other Jewish holidays according to all the rules.

           Another authority on Jewish religious matters was Grisha Vasserman who gave Torah lessons.[16]

           There were people who did festive shows for children and adults on Purim.

           There was group that studied Jewish culture. That group included Grisha Kanovich,[17] Misha Beizer,[18] Semen Frumkin,[19] and, as far as I recall, Erlikh,[20] Kolker,[21] and Yasha Gorodetsky.[22] They organized the Leningrad Society for Jewish Culture (LOEK)[23] and even tried to register it officially. Naturally, however, nothing came of that attempt.

           One of our good friends in Leningrad was a representative of the half-secret Israeli organization Lishkat-hakesher.[24] Of course, he didn’t advertise that and practically no one knew him in that capacity.  Can we call him a leader of all the Leningrad refuseniks? I doubt it.

           Generally speaking, each person did the job he could do, the one he was suited for in spirit and character.

[…]

           The accession to power of the new General Secretary of the KPSS Gorbachev did not at first bring about any change in the situation of Soviet Jews. In the conditions of “perestroika and glasnost” refusals continued as did arrests of activists. We decided that it was time to resort to pressuring the regime by means of a demonstration demanding free emigration of Jews to Israel.

           At nine in the morning we went with homemade placards to the central square of the city in front of Smolny: Lilia Shapiro, Elena Keis, Inna Razhanskaia, Mikhail Beizer, Boris Lokshin and Ida and myself.[25]

[…]

           Later we held two more demonstrations. At one of them on St. Isaac’s Square there were about thirty participants.

[…]

           One type of Jewish activity in the USSR involved sending collective letters from refuseniks to various Soviet official addresses, the governments of foreign countries, the UN and various social organizations. Moreover, it was thought that the more signatures on the letter and the more widely the signatories were distributed geographically, the better the chances that attention would be paid to it.

           Ida and I traveled rather frequently to Moscow to gather signatures for collective letters. That was how we became acquainted with Alexander Lerner,[26] Alik Ioffe,[27] Mara and Pasha Abramovich,[28] Volodya Prestin,[29] the Uspenskys,[30] Lena Dubianskaia[31] and other activists of the capital. We also met Yosif Begun.[32] While still at liberty he came several times to Leningrad and usually stayed with us. But Yosif was not free that much and one of the times they arrested him at the Leningrad station on that very day when he had just spent the night at our apartment.

[…]

L.B. :  In looking at the big picture, how much impact do you think the Western activists had on the movement within the Soviet Union?

А.Т. :   I think that the mass movement to free Soviet Jews in the West played a huge role. Demonstrations with thousands of people put pressure on the governments of Western countries. And those governments in turn put pressure on the Soviet government, obtaining more liberal conditions for Jewish emigration. For Jewish activists in the Soviet Union it was a matter of existential importance to know that we were not alone, to know that there was powerful support and sincere friends on the other side of the Iron Curtain. In the unequal match with the Communist regime we could rely on their help – moral, material and political.

           Concerning our family specifically, many of the “emissaries of world Zionism” became real friends to us. I already talked about Shirley Goldstein from Omaha, whom we met at the Intourist hotel.

            We established very warm relations with Lynn Singer,[33] the executive director of the “Union of Councils for the Defense of Soviet Jews” on Long Island. Lynn wanted to know about everything we were doing. She said she considered us members of her family. Every two weeks at a designated time we would go to the post office to talk to her by telephone.                               We became friendly with Esther Dorflinger, who was Jewish by birth and Christian by faith. She had dual citizenship, American and Israeli, and she considered it her mission in life to help Jews gather in Israel. Once she brought with her 10,000 dollars which she had collected in various countries to help Soviet Jews. We did not have the right to keep foreign currency at home, so we advised her to give the money to Lynn.    

            We told foreign visitors about our life in refusal, we discussed what kinds of actions might actually change the politics of the Soviet government with regards to Jewish emigration. In that sense it was very useful to meet with the directors of regional committees for the defense of Soviet Jews in the USA. These included Lou Rosenblum from Cleveland, Sy Frumkin – owner and editor of a newspaper in Los Angeles, the dentist Bob Wolf from Florida, and the San-Francisco lawyer Zeev Iaroslavky.     

           Among the guests who paid us multiple visits was the famous English historian and writer Martin Gilbert, author of the seven-volume biography of Churchill. In the end they forbade him to visit Jewish refuseniks. But Sir Martin turned out to be a decent conspirator and so we met with him in a Leningrad café anyway.  

[…]

L.B.  :  What are you doing here in Israel that is actually a continuation of what you were doing in the Soviet Union with the other refuseniks? Talk about your project.

А.Т. :   That’s a great question! ... It all started when one of our acquaintances was telling us about how she saw this scene on the road: next to an overfilled trash container was someone’s family album with photographs. The wind was blowing the pages of the album and scattering the yellowed photos. She said, “That’s what’s going to happen to us. We will be gone and our children will throw out our papers and old photos. Not a trace will remain.”  We started talking about that together and had an idea: while we are alive the participants in the events of the 1970s and 1980s should create an archive of materials about how the Soviet Jews fought to go to Israel.  

           That is how our project “Remember and Save” got started.[34]

[…]

           In 2007, thanks to our Association’s initiative, a big exhibition was mounted at the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv called “The Jews of Struggle,” in honour of the fortieth anniversary of the renaissance of the Jewish national movement in the Soviet Union.[35] Almost half of the items on display came from our collections. Former Jewish activists from the U.S., Canada and England came. The exhibition was on for seven months and Israeli schoolchildren, students and soldiers came to see it.

 

[1] A diploma without the mandatory work assignment attached to most diplomas in the Soviet Union.

[2] On the attempt to hijack an airplane, the arrests, trial and ensuing international protests, see Yaacov Ro’i, “Strategy and Tactics,” The Jewish Movement in the Soviet Union, ed. Yaacov Ro’i. Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2012, 54-60.

[3] OVIR (Otdel viz i registratsii) was the Soviet department that handled registration of foreign visitors and exit visas.

[4] Elef Milim (Hebrew: A Thousand Words), a four-volume textbook by Yosef Ben-Shefer and Aharon Rozen published in Israel 1954-59. It was widely used for informal Hebrew study in the Soviet Union in this period, circulating in samizdat copies.

[5] Yuri Shpeizman and his wife Nelli Shpeizman-Lipovich were active refuseniks, who taught Hebrew and participated in cultural activity. They applied for an exit visa in 1977. Yuri got sick with cancer in 1983. They at last received permission to leave the USSR in 1987, but Yuri died on the way to Israel.

[6] The Library of Aliya (Biblioteka Aliia) was an Israeli publishing series created in 1972 to put out books on Jewish topics in Russian. The series produced more than 250 books on the creation of the state of Israel, Jewish history, philosophy and religion which were smuggled into the Soviet Union in the 1970s-1980s.

[7] Viktor Brailovsky (1935), applied for a visa in 1972. As a refusenik, he helped organize and run a scientific seminar for refuseniks and became the last editor of the samizdat journal Jews in the USSR. In 1980, Brailovsky was arrested for his work on the journal, imprisoned and sentenced to five years of exile. Released in 1984, Brailovsky and his wife Irina left for Israel in 1987.  

[8] Jews in the USSR (Evrei v SSSR), No. 1-21, 1972-1979. Moscow, samizdat.

[9] The Leningrad Jewish Almanac (LEA), No. 1-19, 1982-1989. Leningrad, samizdat.

[10] Boris Granovsky, mathematician, worked with Aba Taratuta to start a seminar in Leningrad for refusenik engineers that would run from 1976 to 1981. Granovsky left the USSR in 1979.

[11] Valery Segal’s legal seminar ran from 1977-1979, at the Taratutas’ apartment.

[12] Shirley Goldstein and her husband Buddy led the movement to free Soviet Jews in Omaha, Nebraska. See Leo Adam Biga, “Cream of the Crop. One Woman’s Remarkable Journey in the Free Soviet Jewry Movement (Shirley Goldstein),” two-part series, Jewish Press, vol. LXXXV, No. 28-29 (24 and 31 March 2006).

[13] Yosef Radomyslsky (Raday) (born 1952, Leningrad), first applied for a visa in 1978. He taught Hebrew in Leningrad, participated in excursions. He also communicated with the Israelis and managed finances for the refusenik community. Radomsylsky left for Israel in 1987.

[14] See the photo of Hebrew teachers advertising classes in Leningrad (The Jewish Movement, 348).

[15] Yitzhak Kogan (born 1946, Leningrad), applied for a visa in 1974. In the late 1970s he began leading a more intensively religious life and learned to become a shoikhet (kosher butcher). Kogan became close to the Chabad movement and was a leader of the religious revival in Leningrad. In the 1990s, he became chief rabbi of the Synagogue on Bolshaia Bronnaia, Moscow. 

[16] Grigory Vasserman (1950) became a refusenik in 1979. Together with Kanovich and Utevsky, Vasserman organized a seminar on Jewish history, religion and culture. Vasserman, associated with the mitnagdim (Lithuanian) branch of Orthodox Judaism, became a leading figure of the religious revival in Leningrad. He left for Israel in 1988.

[17] Grigory Kanovich (1934) (not to be confused with the Lithuanian writer by the same name), applied for an exit visa in 1977. He initiated the seminar on Jewish history and culture he led with Yakov Gorodetsky, Taratuta and Utevsky between 1978 and 1981. In 1981, Kanovich was allowed to emigrate to Israel.

[18] Michael Beizer (born 1950, Leningrad) applied for an exit visa in 1979. Beizer led excursions around Jewish historical sites in Leningrad beginning in 1982. He directed a seminar on Jewish history and culture from 1982 to 1987, and he edited the samizdat collection LEA from 1983-1987. Beizer emigrated to Israel in 1987. There he earned a doctorate in history at Hebrew University, in 1996.

[19] Semen Frumkin (1949) was a refusenik in Leningrad who participated in Jewish seminars and helped edit the samizdat collection LEA.

[20] Eduard Erlikh was one of the initial organizers of the samizdat collection LEA.

[21] Yuri Kolker (1946), a poet and writer whose works circulated widely in samizdat. Kolker participated in the initial editing of the samizdat collection LEA.

[22] Yakov Gorodetsky was a refusenik in Leningrad from 1981 – 1986. He participated in protests, communicated with foreign supporters and organized refusenik initiatives.

[23] The Leningrad Society for Jewish Culture (LOEK), an organization that existed principally on paper in the early 1980s, represented an attempt to legalize Jewish cultural life.

[24] Lishkat hakesher (Lishka, Nativ) – an Israeli governmental organization that studied Jews in Eastern Europe and worked on facilitating their emigration to Israel.

[25] The demonstration took place on March 23, 1987 (The Jewish Movement, 67).

[26] Aleksandr Lerner (1913-2004), a member of the Academy of Sciences since the mid-1950s, had been director of the Institute of Control Problems. He applied for an exit visa for the first time in 1971. He worked with leading Jewish activists and established contact with Andrei Sakharov. Lerner knew English and had many contacts with foreign scientists. His seminar for refuseniks on control systems and the use of mathematical methods ran from 1972 to 1981. Lerner left the USSR for Israel in 1988.

[27] Alexander Ioffe (born 1938, Leningrad), grew up in Moscow. A mathematician with a doctorate, Ioffe began attending refusenik seminars in 1972. He applied for a visa in 1976. Ioffe led Brailovsky’s scientific seminar after Brailovsky’s arrest in 1980, and he became a member of the “Mashka” coordinating group established in 1983. He received permission to emigrate at the end of 1987.  

[28] Pavel Abramovich (born 1939, Moscow), applied for an exit visa in 1971. He taught Hebrew and participated in the organization of many Jewish cultural activities, including the Symposium on Jewish Culture planned for 1976. He planned the “Week of Hebrew,” which took place in March, 1979. Abramovich was a leader of the so-called Cultural activists (kul’turniki). He emigrated to Israel in 1988. 

[29] Vladimir Prestin (1934-2015), born in Leningrad, moved to Moscow after the war. He first applied for a visa in 1970. Prestin taught Hebrew, helped plan the 1976 Symposium on Jewish Culture, and participated in the production of Jewish samizdat. He was associated with the Cultural activists (kul’turniki). Prestin left the USSR for Israel in 1988.

[30] Igor Uspensky (born 1939, Moscow) came from a non-Jewish family. His wife Inna is the sister of Alexander Ioffe. Igor and Inna were both trained as medical biologists. They began visiting refusenik seminars and signing letters of protest in the 1970s, although they did not apply for exit visas until 1979. The Uspenskys organized a medico-biological seminar (1983-1989), and from 1985 they worked on getting medical help to refuseniks. The Uspenskys left for Israel in 1989.

[31] Elena Dubianskaia (1946, Moscow), first applied for an exit visa in 1976. Dubianskaia was one of the organizers of the group Jewish Women Against Refusal (JEWAR) in the early 1980s. She participated in protests, circulated Jewish samizdat, and facilitated contacts between foreign supporters and refuseniks. Dubianskaia left for Israel in 1988.  

[32] Yosif Begun (born 1932, Moscow), began studying Hebrew and socializing with Zionists in the 1960s. He first applied for an exit visa in 1971. Begun signed letters of protest, taught Hebrew and produced and distributed Jewish samizdat. He was arrested and given significant terms three times – in 1977, 1978 and 1982. Released in 1987, Begun emigrated to Israel in 1988.   

[33] Lynn Singer founded the Long-Island Committee for Soviet Jewry and served as head of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jewry.

[34] Soviet Jews Exodus, Site of the Association “Remember and Save” (portion in English), http://www.angelfire.com/sc3/soviet_jews_exodus/English/index.shtml

[35] The exhibition catalogue is The Jews of Struggle: The Jewish National Movement in the USSR (1967-1989), ed. Rachel Schnold, Tel Aviv: Bet Hatfutsot, 2007.