Sharansky and Soviet Refuseniks’ Story, 30 Years On
I always thought that it is impossible to explain our life to anyone who did not live through it. When I wrote my books on Soviet realities, taught the contemporary Soviet history in several Western universities, authored numerous columns and articles on what we lived through, was given hundreds of interviews to all possible media in so many countries around the world, and was addressing various international forums, I have had a pretty clear understanding that there is a barrier in perception by my Western readers, students and audiences which would allow them to comprehend only rational part of the narrative I was conveying to them. Without feeling it, without emotional component, their understanding would be rather registering. And no wonder.
Later on, when lecturing or leading seminars, I have had an odd feeling , as if hearing myself from aside, and hardly believing my own ears. Seeing rounded eyes of my students, I felt: “What she is talking about? Can this be true?” It was, for hundreds of million. Some of them had become a part of my life, and I do remember them always.
Pariahs among us
Rada and her family were ordinary Soviet engineers in Ukraine, intelligent, kind, and hard working. Everybody liked them in our neighbourhood. And they were always polite, smiling and open towards everyone around. This cloudless landscape was changed in a blink of an eye one day in the early 1970s when this nice family had become pariahs overnight.
Nobody was greeting them any longer, nobody spoke to them. With Rada, her husband and children appearing in our large neighbourhood, everybody stopped to talk, and they had to cross the yard in a lead-like heavy silence under hostile looks. Rada and her husband kept hands of their young children in their hands tightly and they were almost running both ways, from the house-block where their apartment was towards the end of huge courtyard, or in the opposite direction. Rada’s family were refuseniks. They did dare to apply to the Soviet authorities to leave our communist motherland for Israel. With this, they became enemies by default.
I was sixteen at the time. Not in my wildest dreams I could think that because of people’s wish to leave in the place of their choice I should stop to know them. It was not any protest or demonstration from my side. It felt just natural. The same as I could not imagine why on earth should I insult my father with agreeing to hypothetically arranged changing of my nationally which has to be written in the Soviet passport, from Jewish to anything else. I refused to give in on that, and the discussion of the matter in our family was ultra-short and it happened just once. I am the daughter of Isaac, I love my father, and I regarded the idea of changing the nationality in my passport as ridiculous nonsense. No way.
I was greeting Rada, her husband and children every time I saw them in our huge courtyard, the same as my parents and grandparents did. We were the only one in the apartment block where 150 big families with several generations in each were living. It was surreal.
Rada’s family situation was aggravating. They were banned from living Soviet Union citing her work with secret scientific information which was not the case, but it was a standard for the KGB proceeding. Both Rada and her husband, also engineer, were fired from their jobs. They desperately tried to get any other job, but for a long time, their efforts were fruitless. In the end, she has got a position of cleaning employee in a small kindergartens, thanks to some friends. I also I saw her cleaning floors of entrances of our apartment block.
She was quite depressed, and tried to work very early or very late, in order to meet as few people as possible. In our family we discussed that Rada’s family is having desperate situation with money and that they do need help urgently and badly. We did help although we lived very modestly, with every rouble counted. That saga of one family went on for several years.
Rada and her husband has become permanently very pale, they both lost a lot of weight, and they were obviously under-nutrinioned. Their children clearly changed in their outlook and behaviour. They looked shy, sad and vulnerable.
All these years, I was the only person, along with my parents and grandparents, and later my husband, who would speak with Rada for some ten minutes when we met occasionally in our court-yard. We did it under firing stares of the other neighbours, for years on, and who visited them briefly. I understood what those brief visits meant for them, and we were glad to do it.
I was increasingly worried: for how long it would be going on? How they are living amidst such persistent ostracism? What will happen if they will never get permission to leave our socialistic paradise?
After eight years of refusal, Rada’s family was permitted to go. Her mother has died shortly before that, being emotionally turmoiled by her daughter and her family’s life in total ostracism and in extremely daring financial circumstances. The death of loved ones was the case for so many of refuseniks, their extra-duty to the regime.
The Treasure of an Old Tanah
When my aunt and uncle were leaving Ukraine for Israel in the second half of the 1980s, after several years of turmoil, with two children, one of them with Down syndrome, the last greeting that Soviet custom low-rank officers decided to wave them with, was a firm grip by one of them of the old Tanach they did discover during their ever rigorous search in my uncle’s hand-luggage.
The officer was happy: he found something forbidden among very few belongings of my uncle. “No, – he said being visibly satisfied, – this will go nowhere”. – “Please, – said my uncle who is not overly sentimental man, – this is the book of my father who died recently. It is the only memory of him I am taking with me”. The officer felt better with every word of my laconic uncle. “ ( It is) forbidden” – he as if stamped the air with the word which we used to hear the most.
“What’s point does it make? – my uncle is not the one to be put off easily. – It is forbidden inside here, I understand. But we are going outside now. We are crossing the border. We will never return. What does this old book that you have no clue how to read about matter to you?”
The officer held the old Torah belonging to several generations of the family of pious and religious men, firmly with his face grim and his eyes squeezed. “Do you want to stay, perhaps?”- he seethed to my uncle. – “ It can be arranged easily”. My other uncle who stayed behind talked the officer over to give the old Tanach to him, not to throw it away to a garbage bin.
The first thing that my mother did when visiting us in Finland for the first time, several years later, it was to bring that old Tanach to us. The first thing that we did when going to Israel for the first time as soon as we could, in a year after coming to the West, it was to bring the old Tanach to my uncle in Ashdod.
My uncle is a self-composed man who went through many daring things in his life. That’s why, perhaps, I still remember tears in his eyes and gentleness with which he took the Tanach of his late father many years after it was forcibly taken from him, in a last good-bye of the customs officer on the Soviet border. “ I thought I will never see the father’s Torah again”, – he said quietly, stroking the old brown leather.
Decade later after Rada and her family left Ukraine for Israel, living in Finland, I was approached by one of our dear Finnish friends, a heroic woman who did help to so many Jews in her life, in different countries and circumstances. “Inna, can you please meet up with someone who just came from Leningrad and who need help?” Of course, I could. I did not even asked who was the person whom I was going to meet.
At the agreed day and time, at cozy central cafe I was approached by a woman with two adorable small girls, beautiful and vivid. Woman was looking peculiar. One could not figure out her age, her eyes expression was tense and painful, and her skin was literally green. I felt worried.
As it happened, the woman was recently released from the perestroika-time Gulag, this is late Gulag. What was her crime? Collection of under 300 political jokes which were told in Soviet reality freely and by everyone. Her crime was in collecting it and printing it for samizdat on her old type-writer.
It did not matter for the Soviet authorities that her father bombed Reichstag during the WWII, very successfully so. They did put his daughter into pretty efficiently run Gulag camp, with treating her on purpose in the way that she would not be able to have children – and having pleasure of telling it to her repeatedly.
Of course, Irina did the opposite. With two small girls, two and three years old, she was put on bus to Finland by our Finnish Zionist angels, as tourists, with one small bag. Entering that bus, Irina and girls had no intention to come back. They were willing to get to Israel. How? This was for us to figure out. Which we did.
Irina Tsurkov, one of the last Soviet dissidents and well-known prisoners of Gulag who was married to her husband, also well-known refusenik Arkady Tsurkov in prison, with an apple brought in by their lawyer, serving at the same time as the gift and the feast, was sent to Israel from Finland in the end of the 1980s without proper documents, with just a bit of money collected by the Finnish friends, and some goods organised by them, as well.
Her husband Arkady did join his family later, and two more children, sabras, being born to Tsurkovs on our land, one of them, David, the only son in the family, becoming the IDF officer.
Since that first meeting, we have become close friends and are keeping in close touch ever since. Ira’s famous collection of political jokes that has become the reason of her terrible imprisonment in Gulag, is still with me, it is a part of our archive.
In Gulag, Arkady was sharing his prison cell for a long time with Natan Sharansky.
We learned from Ira and Arkady a lot about Sharansky family. And we also have heard a lot about Natan and Avital from Volodja Bukovsky, our dear friend, the leading Soviet dissident who was deeply involved and did a lot for Natan’s release at the top levels of the Western power.
It was Natan about whom Volodja has told me, emphatically: “He did his time ( in Gulag) well’ meaning that Sharansky was not broken under the brutal pressure of the Soviet penitentiary system. Doing one’s time well, or opposite, was a key criteria for seasoned dissident like Bukovsky to judge on a person.
Refuseniks’ Memories Thirty Years On
The new two-parts documentary on Soviet refuseniks, From Slavery to Freedom, with Sharansky family’s story in its centre, was premiered on the Israeli TV on November 7th and 14th, 2019, at the week when the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is commemorated. Years on, these commemorations are getting more and more remote. Is it a human natural absent-mindness? Rather, it is an unprecedented generational super-gap which we are living through.
In this context, the reaction to the film of the generation of Sharanskies’ children and their friends is important and encouraging. As Arkady Kogan, prominent Russian Jewish documentary-maker who emigrated to Israel with his family in 2015, have noticed in our conversation on his film, ‘after the premiere, the one of Sharansky’s daughters, younger Hannah, came to us, the film-makers, with tearing eyes. “All my life, I was hearing about all this, but now I saw it”, – she said.”
It is important, to see, that’s why I always believed that documentaries and documentary footage is not only the best way for understanding personalities, from Mussolini to Bernstein, but it is also the strongest element in the construction of memory.
In this long film, in which many people have participated, former Soviet refuseniks, Israelis who helped them, Americans who did a lot to get Sharansky out of the USSR, the characters of Natan and Avital Sharanskies are getting close to a viewer in the same simple and unpretentious way in which they both live their lives. Those are noble characters of decisively strong people who could be easily mistaken for shy personalities who are uncomfortable to be in lime-light. Shyness and modesty are the different things though.
Smart and deeply intelligent Alexander Daniel, the son of famous Soviet dissidents, observed quite precisely in the film: “Natan is both deep and strong. And this combination of depth and strength was something that the KGB just could not handle”.
Avital who is telling her story on screen for the first time, is very strong too. And the story is astounding and touching.
Two young Jews in Moscow, both from intellectual circles, are falling in love from the first sight. They are dreaming of chuppah which was mission impossible in Moscow in 1974. The Creator is with them, and they found the man who agrees to do it secretly in an ordinary Moscow apartment. Those who know what it is would smile and sigh.
Prior to the chuppah date, the groom is arrested by the KGB, and the bride is called in there to be commanded to leave the country in a week, or else. On the way out, she and outstanding Natan’s mother, great Ida Milgrom, decided to start to prepare for chuppah. “For the first time in my life, I was praying. I prayed that Natan would be released”, – remembers Avital now, 35 years later. When they reached home, dirty and tired Natan had just came from the prison.
The morning after the chuppah literally, Natan went with Avital to airport to say goodbye to his newlywed wife, possibly and most likely, for good “She had a small carpet which she did fold in two, to sew a bag for herself with which she left the country”, – Sharansky remembers on his wife’s departure.
They have met the next time in twelve years. Nine of them Natan spent nine of them in prison where he went on multiplied hungry strikes, with one continuing for 110 days – just think about it, and 405 days spent in infamous Gulag punishment cell. No wonder that Bukovsky said on him that ‘Sharansky spent his time ( in Gulag) well’.
People from a Close Range
We know the Sharansky story. Or we thought we knew. What the new film brings as a valuable element it is bringing the characters of these two remarkable people to us from a close range. In the case of Avital and Natan Sharansky it is very rewarding for the viewers.
The most impressive part of their sharing their life story with us is their both’ deep feeling towards our Jewish people as one and the same family, and their wholehearted devotion to Israel. Does not matter what. And whom. That attitude had never changed, and this is another important message and lesson.
“When we were celebrating our chuppah in that ordinary Moscow apartment with chuppah cover made out of white bed-sheet, we had a feeling that we were already in Israel”, – says Avital in the film in her mild voice and manner.
For the first two and a half years when she was in Israel and her husband stayed behind in Soviet Union, Avital was telling him non-stop on everything what she was seeing, touching and smelling around. She was transferring our land to her strained husband with complete devotion to both. “I tried to do everything possible that he would have an impression that he is living here, in Israel, with me”. Israel was an absolute priority, the main thought of their hearts. I wonder if people who were not in a similar situation would ever appreciate it fully.
Sharansky’s inner understanding and feeling of belonging to the big, international Jewish family is as natural, as exemplary. He always felt this way. And this gave him strength and determination to overcome all the hurdles on his way to freedom. It is a rare understanding, as we know, but it was common among the Soviet refuseniks and the people who were loving Israel without possibility to live there. We were all a bit naive behind the Curtain, but I believe that it was the best kind of naivety, which in its own way was a mighty support to all of us. Elie Wiesel who had the same naivety, and who fell in love with Soviet refuseniks the minute he found himself among them in Moscow in the 1970s, did share that family-feeling with them precisely because of the same reason.
When Sharansky was arrested, claimed to be a CIA spy, and after many threats to be shot ( espionage was a capital punishment crime in Soviet Union),was convicted to 13 years of hard labour in Gulag in 1976, he refused official lawyer during his trial, and in his last word, he said: “L’Shana Haba’ah B’ Yerushalaim” in Hebrew, to genuine horror of the presiding judge. Now, 35 years later, Natan tells us from the screen: “I was saying it to Avital then, to her only”.
During long and very difficult nine years, the man who was assistant to Academician Sakharov and who simply wanted to live in the country of his people, was allowed to see his mother and brother just twice.
Tsahal Soldier Avital Sharansky
Meanwhile, modest and quiet Avital did find herself on the international front-line in her extraordinary fight to free her husband. She was flying the world, sometimes changing world’s capitals overnight, to participate in demonstrations, to meet with political leaders, to appeal publicly for Sharansky’s freedom. Only those who know this very self-contained woman would understand what a tall she imposed upon herself.
Now she tells us: “ I have had a complete feeling that I was a soldier. The Tsahal soldier. That I am fighting as a member of Tsahal, for entire Jewish people”. Golden words, to me. And diamond feeling. In-des-truc-tab-le.
It was not easy. After many years, the focus and interest of media faded away. The political leaders were supportive on the surface but were not really doing much, except President Reagan ( and some of his people, as I know first-hand), and Lady Thatcher, as I also heard from all the parties personally.
The Israeli Ambassador to the UN in 1980s Benjamin Netanyahu was the only top Israeli official who was really supportive and sympathetic, and who did something real to free Natan Sharansky – as the astounded viewers would learn from the film. My dear friend, brave and brilliant Irwin Cotler who was one of those who fought for Sharansky for years, did bring this important theme to the film’s narrative. This is the case when the truth is absolutely necessary to be established and recognised however bitter it is.
The film’s director Arkady Kogan said in our recent conversation: “ Yes, indeed, very many people were astounded on this knowledge, that the government of Shimon Peres in the mid-1980s was rather inept with regard to fight for release of Natan Sharansky, and that additionally to great Rabbi Kook and his people, there were ordinary Israelies who being moved by Avital’s tireless efforts, voluntarily came to help her, but the Israeli government of the time was largely absent, quite unexpectedly. We found out that in general, the public knowledge on Sharansky story is rather shallow. That’s why we are glad that the film did contribute to fill the gaps.”
From the Ocean of Hate to the Ocean of Love
It was understandably difficult for both Avital and Natan to meet at last in February 1986 in front of so many people and cameras in a room in the Frankfurt airport. They both would prefer it to happen in privacy.
Natan did not let Avital’s hand from his own for hours. For the first time during twelve years she allow herself to melt down a bit. “Sorry that it took me so long”, – Natan tried to joke at the highly emotionally charged moment hoping to prevent their both’ tears in front of cameras.
Thirty three years later, Avital tells us from the screen: “ When I was saying goodbye to Natan in the Moscow airport departing for Israel in 1974, it was dawn, 6 am. When he entered that room in Frankfurt airport twelve years later, it was evening, just before sunset. I had a strong impression that a very, very long day has come to its end.”
As Natan pointed out in his unassuming way: “Entering that room in Frankfurt airport, I was transferred from the ocean of hate to the ocean of love”. He meant both his wife and his people, and his country.
I was never surprised that Sharanskies did refuse the Hollywood offer to buy the rights for their story to make a feature film of it. I understand them completely. They were absolutely right on it. The same, as Elie Wiesel did refuse to sell the rights to put his Night on a Hollywood screen.
Elie believed that only genre of documentary could feature the theme of the Shoah, and for that matter, to pick up authentically the real-life immense human tragedies, in every private case of it, as well.
For people like Sharanskies and many of their friends, to risk our lives to be processed in a Hollywood style does not worth any money in the world. But it absolutely worth for their story to be told by themselves in the way natural for them in a calm and detailed documentary, such as From Slavery to Freedom is. No wonder that being shown in the Israeli cinemas, the film is presented widely on the international stage, at many and various film festivals, from London to Los Angeles, and from New York to Toronto. And also naturally, its Russian premiere preceded the Israeli one.
The films like this one is the best way for many people who are unaware with realities we lived through to get it from the Soviet refuseniks and their friends first-hand, and , importantly, to see the eyes of the people sharing the innermost of their lives with us.
The screenings of the Sharansky Story had happened at the time of our all’ mourning over passing of Vladimir Bukovsky who will be buried in London at the historic Highgate cemetery where Karl Marx is buried, ironically, on November 19th, 2019, shortly after the world would commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall.
If such commemorations are worthy of anything, it is probably, of the cause to remember the price which the best of us has paid for their and our freedom. And of a rare possibility to hear what they have to say, once in thirty years, to share the part of their just hearts with us. The best way of learning, indeed.
November 7th, 2019