Yuli Kosharovsky: Death of a Personal Hero

At 72, Yuli Kosharovsky is dead. I have been thinking about this sad fact for the past week. He passed away on the first day of Pesach, and as we just ended the holiday I felt the need to pen a short personal eulogy for this remarkable man.

To many, Yuli Kosharovsky was a famous refusenik during the Soviet regime and, later, a historian, broadcasting manager, and Jewish advocate. All these labels only scratch the surface of who Yuli Kosharovsky was. Let me add another label to the list: While I only met him a few times, I consider him a personal hero.

A Personal Inspiration

I first met Yuli over 27 years ago during my first trip to Russia. When  Carol and I first arrived there all those years ago to offer moral support to struggling Soviet Jews, we were told that he was the first person that we absolutely “had to see.” We had been told that we were there to strengthen him and his spirits, but the truth is somewhat different. In fact, he gave that gift to us. We were there to give him continued hope that he would one day reside in Israel, but it was he who gave us that hope.

During the few hours we spent with him in his Moscow apartment, his encouragement, belief, and hopes for the future inspired us deeply. In spite of the treacherous conditions in which he lived, his optimism for the future was amazing – and left an ever-lasting impact on us. There is no question that he was a major factor in sparking our own desire to move to Israel. (Ironically, he made it here several years before we did!)

Unfortunately I did not maintain regular contact with him and saw him only twice since he moved to Israel. However, he continued to serve as a silent inspiration to me and I spoke of him often to others.

“The Man Behind the Scenes” – a History

Yuli Kosharovksy was born in Sverdlovsk in central Russia. During his formative years and early adulthood, he considered himself a Soviet patriot. After studying engineering, he went on to work at the Sverdlovsk Institute of Automation, where he designed system controls for strategic military missions. Yuli saw himself as an engineer, first and foremost, and his role as an assimilated Jew was not a major focus in his life.

I remember the discussion in his apartment in October 1986 when he told us the changing even of his life.  The 1967 –  Six Day War. Everything changed. As he witnesses the anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli sentiments that filled the streets, he truly felt his Jewish identity for the first time. He realized that he was giving his time and talents to a country that was actually working against his own people. In short order, he left his prestigious and highly paid job and became a Jewish activist.

In 1971, he applied for an exit visa so he could move to Israel. This action let to condemnation by the local press, where he was labeled a traitor and temporarily detained. After his release, he moved to Moscow and joined the growing refusenik community there.

As part of this community, he found his true calling. Yuli worked with other refusenik engineers, holding seminars despite official threats. There, he taught Hebrew, which was then considered a crime, and eventually helped create a large underground Hebrew language network. In this role, he inspired other young Russian Jews to become activists.

He also became an important contact for the secret police of Israel and often met with Western reporters and visiting dignitaries. One highlight of this era was his speech to American President Ronald Reagan at Moscow’s American embassy, in which he urged freedom for his people. In the late 1980s, he and his wife participated in a hunger strike in his most desperate appeal for freedom.

Finally, he was granted his exist visa to Israel, a full 18 years after he had first applied for one. He moved to his true homeland in 1989 and enjoyed the last 25 years of his life there. But Yuli wasn’t content to rest on his laurels. He became a manager at Israel’s first cable TV broadcasting station, continued his advocacy for remaining Jews in the former Soviet Union, and became a consultant for the Jewish Agency for Israel. He even founded the Movement for Democracy and Aliyah. Yuli also wrote a detailed history of Soviet Jewry’s Zionist movement and established an archival website to document the movement. His work is considered pivotal in preserving Soviet refusenik history.

Yuli’s contributions to Soviet Jewish culture were destined to both help define the refusenik movement and then to capture its history – a remarkable feat all around.

Remembering Yuli

At Yuli’s funeral, eulogizers remembered his impact on the Moscow refusenik movement. But he was also remembered for his wit and humor, his love of family, and his outsized personality. He and his wife Inna were parents to five children and seven grandchildren. A vibrant man, he practiced tai chi and kept himself fit with running.

Yuli was being his vigorous self before he died. While doing yard work, he climbed a palm tree to trim it, and fell to his death. I hope the view from the top of the trees was glorious.

Once again, I feel the tug of intimacy. The tree from which he fell at his home in Beit Aryeh is less than a twenty-minute drive from where we live. But an entire country and Jewish people mourn him, not just I.

Yuli Kosharovsky was the embodiment of the universal human cry for freedom. The irony of his passing on a holiday that represents the celebration of freedom has been duly noted by others. Somehow, it seems only fitting. יהי זכרו ברוך – May his memory serve as a blessing.