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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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Evgeny Lein

Interview with Evgeny Lein by Laura Bialis

Interview date: Summer 2004.
Place: Jerusalem
Translation: Nika Gofshtein
Revision: Evgeny Lein (Summer 2016)
Annotation: Ann Komaromi, Nika Gofshtein
Publication: July 2016, in the electronic archive “Project for the Study of Dissidence and Samizdat,” ed. Ann Komaromi, University of Toronto Libraries

L. B. – Please tell us your name, your title, and what you do.

E. L. – My name is Evgeny Lein: I kept the name my parents gave me.[1] It was a common name among Jewish families in Soviet Russia.

After immigrating to Israel, I held the position of senior lecturer of mathematics in The Rothberg School for Overseas Students, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Now I am retired.

I was born in 1939. It was the year of the pact of Stalin and Hitler regarding the partition of Poland,[2] the year the Soviet army tried to seize Finland.

From 1941 to 1945 my father fought on the front with Nazi Germany, and my mother and I were evacuated from besieged Leningrad to the Orienburg area. In 1946, our family returned to Leningrad, where I graduated from a regular Soviet elementary school. That is where I met my wife – Irina.

[…]

L. B. – What happened after you and Irina were married and began your own family? Did you start to study what it means to be Jewish, celebrate the holidays?

E. L. – Not at first, because we married at twenty and were very young. We went kayaking and travelled on a motorcycle. We were just a young family enjoying life and health.

Everything seemed to come together very well: I graduated from the Faculty of Mathematics at Leningrad State University,[3] though I only got in on my second try. At twenty-eight I had already defended my dissertation. Irina graduated from the Faculty of Chemistry at the same university.

And we did not live poorly in the material sense – we bought a co-op apartment and even a used car, which was considered a rather high level of material comfort for Soviet citizens. We had two children and very nice parents.

Afterwards I was often asked: “Why, having achieved a relatively high level of comfort, did you apply to emigrate from the Soviet Union?” Yes, because we matured and realized the cruelty and inhumanity of the communist system. We read the newspaper Pravda[4] and recognized the monstrously false and aggressive coverage of Israel’s struggle for survival in 1967. The events of 1968 – the entry of Soviet troops into Czechoslovakia – did not leave us indifferent. We understood that, willingly or not, we were participating in the crimes of Soviet authorities against humanity. That realization specifically, actually was the first and most important push to our unwillingness to be “serfs of Soviet power.” 

[…]

We submitted our documents in 1978 in the hope that we would leave.

[…]

Irina and I were fired from work the day that we submitted our documents for emigration to Israel. And so began those terrible years of life in refusal: years of striving to overcome fear and of actively rebelling against Soviet authority.   

L. B. – When did you realize that being Jewish was an important part of your identity?

E. L. – The Jewish question was present in my childhood, but somehow in the background. It was my father who always repeated – “Fear has accompanied our generation our entire conscious life” – who brought me back to Jewish consciousness. My father was a teacher of Russian literature. During his lessons he said what the Soviet school system required, but in informal literary groups, he spoke of Jewish writers. Even when he spoke of Russian writers – of Gorky, for example – he mentioned the letters Gorky sent to Bialik, where Gorky wrote: “I read your poems and cried…”[5] In this way, he taught his students about Jews through the eyes of Russian writers. These digressions on the topic of Jewish culture were not safe at all, but something forced him to do it anyway. Later, in my father’s archives, I found letters from his students thanking him in particular for these lectures.

Yet, even when we submitted our documents for emigration, our priority was to leave this terrible “Empire of Evil.” It was only after - when we started to receive letters from Israel: from Kibbutz Lavi, from Kibbutz Ketura, Beer-Sheva and Jerusalem - that we began to feel our unbreakable connection to the Jewish people. After that we made a conscious choice to emigrate to Israel specifically.

***

There were two approaches to behaviour in refusal. Some hid, going to quiet cities and behaving like mice in a burrow. And some others became confrontational toward the authorities.

In an attempt to preserve our human dignity, we joined a group of active refuseniks. There were not many of them then. The leader of the Leningrad refuseniks was Aba Taratuta.[6] He helped us very much by explaining some basic things: “You already submitted your documents to OVIR. [7]  The KGB knows everything about you; they know that you do not want to live in this country. What sense is there in hiding?”

[…]

Irina and I began to offer our apartment for a Jewish cultural seminar. It is important to remember that people weren’t allowed to rent a space in those years and meeting was only possible in a private apartment.

Imagine a three-bedroom apartment into which forty, sixty, a hundred people are squeezing themselves. Participating in this kind of gathering was itself very brave, and the owners of the apartment were taking an even greater risk. Nevertheless, we decided to go all the way – Irina understood and supported me.

In 1981, right after the completion of the Olympic games, the authorities decided to impose “final order.” There were arrests: one or two people in every city. In Moscow, they arrested Brailovsky,[8] in Leningrad – me […]. In Kiev – Kislik,[9] Paritsky…[10] During Stalin’s rule it was possible for thousands to be arrested, but now it was enough to arrest one or two and people immediately began to hide in their apartments, like mice in burrows. They understood that they must behave quietly. The Soviet people were well trained.

***

I was arrested on May 17, 1981.

Why me? To answer that question, it might be necessary to look into the KGB’s archives. There were other refuseniks more worthy of arrest, I think. Although, as the saying goes, “If there is someone to arrest, you can find an article for him.” In reality I was, of course, one of the people who annoyed the KGB with my behaviour.

Not long before my arrest, I presented a report at a mathematics seminar called “Statistics on Refuseniks in Leningrad,” and sent this report to the West. The report was published along with diagrams and conclusions about the absurdity of the reasons people were receiving refusals. The KGB found out about this, of course.

Soon, as a threatening warning, two men beat my daughter. I heard the screams and – thanks to the neighbours – we were able to detain one of the attackers. In the police station, the detainee cracked under pressure and indicated the man who had paid him to commit this act of terror. The case was closed when someone higher-up called about it and the KBG’s involvement in this story became apparent. And the KBG evidently understood that I am the kind of person who will always fight.

[…]

L. B. – What did they say you did wrong when they arrested you and brought you to court?

E. L. – The operation was led by a “Certain Person” in civilian clothes. When he saw me, still in the apartment, he immediately said: “Seize this one.” The policeman grabbed my hands and instantly began to loudly yell: “Ow, you’ve struck me so hard, you’ve hit me, it’s so painful!” This was absolutely just how they did things. Many dissident-refuseniks were arrested for this exact accusation – resisting the authorities. Afterwards they accused me of striking an officer, “not causing further health complications.” That was not enough to convict me according to Article “191-2,”[11] and so they added that I tore the epaulettes off the policeman’s uniform. At first I could not understand why they needed this absurd story about the epaulettes. It turns out that was the most important part of the accusation: the epaulettes – a symbol of power.

I did not admit my guilt and they took me in a closed prisoner car (avtozek)[12] to an infamous “Kresty”[13] prison in Leningrad. There they kept me or, more accurately, tried to break me, in a cell with eight other convicts – for five months.

Until the trial I did not have any contact with the outside world; I was not allowed a lawyer, I was forbidden correspondence with my family. But I could not give myself over and admit to false accusations in the hopes of clemency. I prepared to use the trial as a tribune for protest.

***

And my clever wife did what I could not do, totally isolated as I was. Irina wrote statements and protests to highly placed Soviet authorities and sent copies of these to the West.

Many, very many, Jews in those years considered this line of action reckless. “You are tightening a noose around your own husband’s neck. And a brick will fall onto your own head. You cannot save your husband now, and all of us will suffer… You don’t know how your husband is behaving during investigation. It is possible that he has already been broken…,” those who favoured keeping quiet would tell her.

Irina would always answer the same way: “I know my husband. He will stand until the end. If you want to help, help. If you are too afraid, move aside.”

This protest, having challenged the all-powerful Communist system, was a desperately courageous act in those years. It set the tone for the campaign of protests against my arrest, against the persecution of Jews, demanding the freedom of repatriation to Israel.  

On August 4, 1981 I was taken in the closed prisoner car to court. Knowing the KGB’s way of operating, I thought that I would get the maximum sentence – five years in the camps – but I was not planning on giving up. When I saw the familiar faces of refuseniks just before entrance into the courtroom (they were yelling “Shalom, Zhenya”), when I saw my wife, Irina, in a new dress from overseas (that was how I knew that my family was not left to the caprices of the KBG), my strength tripled.

The Consul General of the American Consulate came to my trial, as did foreign visitors. I did not admit my guilt, but, using my right to self-defence and the last word, spoke of the persecuted Jews wishing to emigrate to Israel.

Of course, the court found me guilty (people were not put in jail so they could be later acquitted), and sentenced to two years of imprisonment

Even so, this was our VICTORY. The KGB was not able to grind me down into powder, crush the witnesses, and intimidate the Jews.

[…]

Irina arrived in Chernogorosk and saved me a second time. If, the first time, she saved me from a legal lynching when she gave all information about my arrest to the West, the second time she saved me when she came to the special commandant’s office in Chernogorosk and stayed with me in voluntary exile.

I insisted that she should return to our children in Leningrad. It was not easy for them with my elderly parents. But Irina did not want to leave me. Even today, she keeps a photograph of me that was taken in those days in the special commandant’s office for the “Blacklisted.” Eyes, the eyes say a lot. The hardened glare of a beast driven into a corner and ready to seize the enemy’s throat, is truly appalling. That was how she found me, and without her I would not have been able to rid myself of the terrible tension produced by what I had been through and the uncertain future that awaited me.

Irina rented a room and began to nurse me back to health. Our friends had not forgotten us and letters of support began to arrive to the commandant’s office. The head commandant was horrified: letters from abroad requiring receipts. He opened these letters in front of me and asked me to translate them for him: “In this difficult time, we are with you.” Very simple notes, but it was important that the KBG saw that we have help. Irina told me that when she went to the judge in Leningrad and asked for my file, she saw dozens of telegrams and letters from abroad. The KGB had not thrown them out. They were clipped to my file as documents. In fact, this attention from the outside world saved us.

[…]

After a little over a year, the KGB had not yet freed me, no, but I was allowed to return to Leningrad under the supervision of the Board Oversight Commission.

[…]

There was a point when, during a television interview, Martin Gilbert[14] asked the interviewer: “How many Prisoners of Zion[15] can you name?” The interviewer could not name even one. In this extravagant way, Professor Martin Gilbert attracted people’s attention to the problems refuseniks faced. After that, many Jews visiting us would say that they first heard of the refuseniks’ struggle from Martin Gilbert.

The Bensusans,[16] for example, were a family from London – the first foreigners to visit us in 1979. They came to Russia knowing nothing about the refuseniks. But their lives, as they said themselves, were overturned after they visited us.

[…]

General Secretary of the CPSU Gorbachev was stubborn and had no plans to change things in any fundamental way. In order to punish the refuseniks, while Gorbachev was in power, the authorities began to apply the rules for compulsory army service much more strictly to summon the children who had grown up during their time in refusal. And after they were released from the army the KGB issued them refusals on the basis of their knowledge of secret information. In that way our son, who was only seven years old when we first submitted our documents for emigration, grew up. He’d just turned seventeen years old and they were already dragging him around to the military recruitment offices. They told us openly: “We will call up your son for army service, and you will not leave without your son.” Even though our daughter had at this point married, had two children, and received acceptance to leave as a separate family, we were held back with our son.

In December 1987, there was a game-changing demonstration in Washington: Jews from all the states of America came to the White House with posters of refuseniks and Prisoners of Zion.

One must credit to President Reagan who assessed the situation correctly. President Reagan came to Moscow in May of 1988 – he invited the families of dissidents and refuseniks to Spaso House.[17] Yuli Kosharovsky spoke on behalf of all refuseniks in marvelous English, which got people’s attention.

[…]

Only in 1989 the situation changed thanks to Richard Schifter, Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs. He personally brought a list of Soviet refuseniks to Soviet authorities. Finally, we were allowed to leave.

We got ready in ten days and left, leaving all our possessions.

[…]

I arrived in Israel after eleven years of refusal completely exhausted physically and feeling like an athlete who, upon reaching the finish line, collapses. It seemed I would not last even a year. But we were immeasurably happy to see our daughter and grandchildren. We were happy because we made our way out of that Soviet hell alive. We immediately embraced Israel as our home. We were also lucky with work. Irina found a job in the Hadassa school of medicine, and I began to teach math at a school for foreign students in a Jewish university. Just like all olim,[18] we had enough everyday problems, but it was in our power to overcome them. “Problems – they are not misfortune,” my wife would say. And now three generations of our family live in Israel. Six grandchildren – they are the greatest result of our repatriation.

L. B. – Does it bother you that not many people know what refuseniks have lived through?

E. L. – For me, personally, that is absolutely unimportant. After all, all that I did, I did not do in order to be rewarded. In Israel, every second citizen is a hero – because it is not simple to live here, and it is not simple to work here. Many people in Israel have been in extreme situations, sometimes in even more difficult circumstances than I endured. For me, present-day events are more important than those of the past.

Even so, the struggle of the refuseniks and Prisoners of Zion – what set off a huge wave of aliya – this is a significant episode in the history of the Jewish State. It is an episode that should not be forgotten.

On Sukkot every year, refuseniks meet in the forest near Ben Shemen[19] beside a monument on which, in three languages, is written:

Тем, кто боролся за наше право вернуться в эту землю.
Тем, кто пришел сюда со всех концов света.
Тем, кто пал в пути.

For those, who struggled for their right to live in their own land
For those, who retuned home from all corners of the earth
For those, who in their quest to return, made the ultimate sacrifice

לאלה שנאבקו למען זכותנו להתיישב פה
לאלה שהגיעו ארצה מכל קצווי תבל
לאלה שנפלו בדרך

In recent years our friends began to attend these reunions – participants from other countries in the events I described.

I want to thank you for your attention, to wish you success in your project to bring attention to the fight for aliya, for the revival of national pride, for the lives and freedom of the Jews of the Soviet Union.

“Welcome to Jerusalem: ברוכים הבאים” – we say to our friends, already as citizens of Israel.

 

 

[1] Many Jewish activists changed their names, particularly after making aliya. For example, Anatoly Sharansky became Natan Sharansky.

[2] Better known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, signed August 23, 1939.

[3] Leningrad State University was renamed Saint Petersburg State University in 1991.

[4] Pravda (Truth) was founded on May 5, 1912. It was the official newspaper of the Communist Party.

[5] In the only extant letter from Maksim Gorky (1868-1936) to Hayim Nahman Bialik (1873-1934), dated December 28, 1916, Gorky proposed that Bialik write a book in Russian about Moses. He expressed his admiration for Bialik’s poetic genius and emphasized the importance of such a book for battling antisemitism (Maksim Gorky. Pis’ma: v dvadtsati chetyrekh tomakh. Moscow: Nauka, 2006, p 98). In Gorky’s essay on Bialik, first published in the Zionist Journal Evreiskaia zhizn’ (Jewish Life), 1916, Gorky described his emotional response to Bialik’s poetry and his admiration for Bialik’s talent as an expression of the experience of the Jewish people. M. Gorky. “O Kh.-N. Bialike” (On H. N. Bialik), Iz literaturnogo naslediia: Gor’kii i evreiskii vopros, eds. M. Agurskii, M. Shklovskaia, Jerusalem: The Hebrew University of Jerusalem - The Centre for Research and Documentation of East-European Jewry, 1986 (Russian), pp. 251-53. 

[6] Aba Taratuta (1935) and his wife, Ida, were leading activists in Leningrad. They taught Hebrew and supported Jewish samizdat production, among other activities. They applied for an exit visa in 1973, and left for Israel in 1988. After immigrating, Aba Taratuta directed the organization “Remember and Save,” which collected historical documents about the Jewish movement in the Soviet Union. See the interview with Aba Taratuta in this section.

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

[8] Viktor Brailovsky 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 Evrei v SSSR. In 1980, Brailovsky was arrested for his work on the journal, imprisoned and sentenced to five years of exile. Viktor Brailovsky was released in 1984, and he and his wife Irina left for Israel in 1987.

[9] Vladimir Kislik (1935, Kislovodsk), applied for an exit visa in 1973. He began teaching Hebrew and organized scientific and legal seminars in Kiev in the mid-1970s. Later he and his wife Bela Gulko ran a legal seminar in Moscow. Kislik was arrested in 1981 and sentenced to three years of forced labor. Kislik and his wife left for Israel in 1989.

[10] Alexander Paritsky ran a seminar in Kharkov. He was arrested on August 28, 1981.

[11] Article 191-2 states: “Attempt on the life of a policeman or people’s in connected with their official or public activities regarding the protection of public order.” From Ugolovnyi kodeks RSFSR (The Criminal Code of the RSFSR), Moscow: Iuridicheskaia literatura, 1964, pp. 79.

[12] Avtozek (prison slang) – an automobile for the transportation of prisoners.  

[13] “Kresty” (Crosses): Remand prison № 1 in Leningrad / Saint Petersburg.

[14] Martin Gilbert (1936-2015) – Sir Martin Gilbert was a British historian, the biographer of Winston Churchill, and author of books on Jewish history.

[15] “Prisoners of Zion” was a term used, in this context, for people who were in refusal in the Soviet Union because of their Zionist activity. A list of such prisoners, based on the album Haaretz Nikneit Baisurim (The Land Is Attained Through Suffering), Tel Aviv: Central Council of the Association of Prisoners of Zion from USSR, 1995, can be found on the site of the Remember and Save Association, www.soviet-jews-exodus.com/English/POZ_s/POZ_En.shtml (Accessed 14 Feb. 2016).

[16] Judith and Raymond Bensusan worked with the organization the “35s” and later emigrated from London to Israel. They are mentioned in Evgeny Lein. Lest We Forget: The Refuseniks' Struggle and World Jewish Solidarity, Jerusalem: The Jerusalem Publishing Centre, 1997, p. 287.

[17] The Spaso House became the American ambassadorial residence near the end of 1933, at the same time diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the former USSR were established. It is located at No. 10 Spasopeskovskaya Square in Moscow, near the Kremlin.

[18] Olim (Heb., pl.) – people who make Aliya, that is, move from another country to Israel. Oleh (masculine), Olah (feminine).

[19] The meeting place for former refuseniks and their relatives and friends, in the forest near Ben Shemen, is called “Israeli Ovrazkhi” (“Israeli Ravines”), in remembrance of the meeting place “Ovrazkhi” in a forest near Moscow. See: “Ovrazhki.” The Jewish Movement in the Soviet Union, ed. Yaacov Ro’i, Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2012, pp. 83-84.