To Russia with love: Jewish Diaspora in the USSR

The Jewish community’s ongoing campaign to support Soviet Jews facing persecution was supplemented by an Israeli programme of sending UK Jews on Intourist holiday packages to the Soviet Union. A steady stream of Habonim members travelled under these auspices, whose precise character was kept quiet but we believed was based in the Israeli foreign ministry. Our purpose was to meet up with refuseniks, Jews whose applications to emigrate to Israel had been denied and were then generally victimised, losing jobs and educational opportunities. We were tasked with taking them information pamphlets in Russian about life in Israel, as well as easily barterable goods such as toothpaste and jeans. Being still youthful, I was far less concerned about the risks than my parents were. The worst we had heard of was some visitors being roughed up by KGB agents during the tense period around the Moscow Olympics.

I was paired with an old Habonim friend from Manchester and we were due to travel in early January 1981 for a week, visiting Moscow, Kiev and what was then still Leningrad. There was something thrilling about the cloak and dagger preparatory interview for the visit with an Israeli calling himself Moshe, whom we met while attending Habonim veida (conference) at a nearby hotel in Shrewsbury, where we ate sandwiches and he looked around furtively every now and again. We were instructed in how to try to conceal printed information on our persons as went through Soviet customs and immigration, given some numbers and names to call when we got there, and asked to disguise any information we brought back, such as new names and addresses, among university files we took with us. If stopped and questioned, we were to deny meeting Moshe, even if when asked where we got the pamphlets from and we said, from our local rabbi, they responded, is that Rabbi Moshe? We were also told not to pretend not to know other people on the tour we might recognise.

When we checked in for the Aeroflot flight to Moscow we immediately saw that the Habonim camps organiser was going to be on the same plane. We arrived in Moscow when it was already dark. At first, I thought I was being waved through passport control and customs, but then I was beckoned aside and asked to start emptying my pockets. I had taken one of my father’s old overcoats, stuffed full of the pamphlets, so I looked broader than usual. My suitcase was also searched, but it had little or nothing in it. After a while waiting in a side room, my fellow traveller was brought in, who I was very glad to see. There were two non-uniformed men asking us questions and a uniformed woman who translated for them. The questioning was not particularly aggressive, though one of them got it into his head that I knew some Russian, because I had with me my address book which my father had given me years earlier as a souvenir from his business trip to the USSR, which was decorated with palekh, Russian lacquer. We ended chatting in a friendly way with the translator while the other officials wrote up a long document, a protocol, in which they detailed everything that had been confiscated from us. Then we were allowed to join the bus, our prim tour guide and the other three people on our particular tour, one of whom (a carpenter from Liverpool) had been very disconcerted to have also been brought in to empty his pockets.

We had been told to go on the trips included in the tour package, so we got to see Red Square and no doubt other sites I do not recall. We were to use our free time to make contact with refuseniks and arrange to meet them. In Moscow we met Benjamin Bogomolny who had been sent out of Moscow for the Olympics but had managed to sneak back to be interviewed by Western media. He told us to go to the metro to a particular station and sit in the last carriage. As we made our way of the station with him, he pointed out the KGB agent who passed us on an escalator. Bogomolny had to wait twenty years, until 1986, to be granted an exit visa. Soviet surveillance was not intended to be covert, but to demonstrate that it was constant and proximate.

We flew from there to Kiev, where we felt most nervous, as if feeling the closeness of the site of the 1941 massacre of Babi Yar, where some 33,000 Jews from Kiev were murdered by Nazis and Ukrainian auxiliaries. We had to find our way to the apartment of Lev Elbert, another well-known refusenik who had applied for a visa in 1976, using the tram and a street map and got lost in the dark and the snow. Fortunately, someone helped us out, so we assume that person was not a KGB agent. It turned out Lev needed to go out so his brother Mikhail hosted us for most of the time. He told us he had been beaten up outside the apartment quite recently. So, we had some trepidation we made our way back to the hotel. The following day, when out guide told us that she had arranged for a radio journalist to interview our group, we felt compelled to participate, as if it were a scheme to keep us out of mischief.

From Kiev we flew to Leningrad, which was the most enjoyable leg of the trip for me. The contact we had led us to a group who were not aiming to emigrate to Israel but to the US and were learning English rather than Hebrew. We had a few visits over the days we spent in Leningrad, including mid-morning drinks, and were also taken on a trip or two, including one to the fabulous Hermitage museum where I feasted on its Impressionist collection. In principle, our purpose was to support refuseniks and bolster their connection with Israel. But after hearing so many experiences of state-sponsored antisemitism, especially denial of educational and professional opportunities, it would have extremely churlish to have denied the deep sense of connection we felt. The secretive circumstances of the trip and the eagerness with which the group embraced us had the intense emotional feel of a Russian novel. In any case, we were both Western Jews, not Israelis, the descendants of earlier emigration from Eastern and Central Europe to the West. Maybe Moshe would be disappointed, but so what?

The Hermitage Musem today. Image by Q K from Pixabay

Some more intense emotion came as we left Leningrad and the USSR. As we checked out at the airport, I noticed our tour guide pointing myself and my traveling companion out to the passport officials. We were both taken away separately but I was not detained for long. An official held up the protocol I had been given when I entered and told me it had cause me a lot of bother, so I pointed out to him that it had really been more bother to them to list everything. When I emerged there was no sign of my companion and as time went on, I became more worried. Had they found or planted something on him that would be grounds to hold him? What if they did not release him before we boarded? Would I be allowed to stay behind and if so, how would we pay for a new ticket? Would I be taken for further questioning? I went to the toilets and disposed of a photograph of a group we had been given by the Elberts to give to Moshe and which was hidden in one of my university files.

Much to my relief, my partner appeared before boarding time and we were on our way. On the plane, an older bearded traveller said to my companion, ‘I see you are becoming a refusenik  yourself.’ When we landed, we were finally able to talk to the Habonim camps organiser and found out that on her tour of five, which went to Riga, four were there for the same purpose as us and had surprised each other by visiting the same person. The other person was there to visit relatives. We also told the other people on our tour what we had been up to, though their reaction did not betray what their view was. If I recall correctly, the older man with us may have had an ideological reason for taking the trip while the pair of women, around our own age, were simply curious. There was an unmemorable debrief with Moshe some time later. Despite the intensity of the connection I felt in Leningrad, I did not keep in touch with the group there and am not sure we even took names and addresses.

My visit to the USSR and especially the affective charge of the ties felt in Leningrad demonstrate that in practice I had a good deal of affinity for other Jews suffering antisemitic persecution. Our trip was funded by Israeli funds and the ostensible purpose was Zionist, to support emigration to Israel. Yet, the Jewish solidarity I sensed in Leningrad was diasporic, an affection for other Jews who wanted the same diaspora life as I enjoyed in a pluralist, liberal democratic country. Many Jewish organisations and communities, in the US in particular, practiced this solidarity, rather than focusing on the right to emigrate to Israel. They embodied the destiny chosen by the majority of Jewish emigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia fleeing persecution and seeking better opportunities. My own family has branches who did not stop in the UK but went all the way from Eastern Europe across the Atlantic. Between 1881-1914, around two million Jews emigrated from the Russian Empire to the Americas, about half a million to Western Europe and only 80,000, or about 3%, to Palestine. The transatlantic route has also been the path chosen by my younger sister who is now a US citizen and, as I shall show, could have been my path too. I did not have a diasporic awakening as a result of my visit to Soviet refuseniks, but in practice I afforded as much legitimacy to Jewish diasporic existence as to Zionist settlement in Israel. 

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