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The Resistance in Russia

Happily, the relation of these groups to the Jewish emigration movement has at last been examined in some detail in Leonard Schroeter’s pioneering work The Last Exodus. Superficially, the Jewish movement appears easily explained: following a resurgence of Zionism in the USSR a certain proportion of Russian Jewry wanted to go to Israel; and this has caused prolonged conflict because until 1970 the Soviet regime operated an almost total ban on emigration. But Schroeter reveals how many complexities this process has involved, and will continue to involve for the indefinite future. He shows how significant in the Zionist resurgence of the late 1960s was the residue of Russian Zionism which had kept itself alive since the 1920s; how important for the Jews were the influence and example of the human rights movement, and especially, from 1970 on, of a central figure in it, Academician Sakharov.

Schroeter explains why the Jewish movement arose simultaneously not only in the major cities of Russia, the Baltic, and the Ukraine, but also in Georgia and even Central Asia, where the Jewish communities led a much more traditional and religious existence and experienced relatively little persecution; why the movement gathered momentum so quickly; why the authorities radically changed their policy in 1970 and permitted emigration on a significant scale (this was less because of pressure from abroad, which had hardly begun, than because the example given by the militancy and skillful coordination of the Jewish movement to other discontented groups was simply intolerable to the autocratic regime); why some Jews adopted methods of underground conspiracy and others those of open struggle and persistent legalism; and why, after the big trials of 1970-1971 had revealed the dangers of conspiracy, the latter methods came to predominate. Some of the emigrants, it now seems clear, are not convinced Zionists but exhausted democrats, anti-Soviet malcontents, or just plain adventurers. Schroeter believes the movement has an impetus which is likely to pose strong demands for emigration for a long time to come.

Schroeter discusses these issues with skill and directness, telling in the process some awkward truths which the world Jewish community has tended to suppress. In particular he reveals how the Israeli government has hesitated to give the Jewish movement its full backing, has caused severe resentment by suppressing samizdat documents, and has tried (with only partial success) to prevent the movement’s members from associating with the democrats—all, apparently, out of a misplaced fear of provoking the regime into retaliatory steps such as reducing emigration. He also describes some of the methods the Israelis use to try to keep the western diaspora in line with Israeli government policy. Since he is the first person who has studied the voluminous documentation, interviewed many key figures in Israel, the US, and the Soviet Union, and, though an American, worked on the question of Soviet Jewry for the Israeli government, he has much to tell.

The small volumes I Am a Jew and Jewishness Rediscovered complement The Last Exodus. Edited by Moscow activist Alexander Voronel and Victor Yakhot, they first appeared in 1972 in samizdat and have been followed by a further three in the series. Yakhot is now in Israel, while Voronel, a prominent physicist, still awaits an exit visa in Moscow. Their books contain sophisticated articles on history, philosophy, law, politics, and personal identity. Voronel points out that many Soviet Jews are passionately studying the Hebrew language and ancient Jewish history, but not Yiddish or the history of Russian Jews in the last century: their attention is riveted on Israel and they see no future for themselves in the USSR. Part of the reason, he believes, is that Soviet education policy has been changing, and a steadily declining percentage of Jews are now able to receive higher education.

These books include painfully moving essays by Larisa Bogoraz, a democrat, and Nina Voronel, a poet in the Russian language, on the crises of identity they face as intellectuals who have been formed by Russian language and culture, yet have also come to see themselves as Jews. As they show, for some people the question “Russian or Jew?” has no conceivable simple answer. Andrei Tverdokhlebov provides a learned legal commentary to an absorbing set of documents on how a young physicist was administratively consigned to forced labor for “parasitism” by one part of the bureaucracy, while another part fully approved of the honest living he was earning by private tutoring. Mikhail Klyachkin describes the regulations for Russian Jews in the late nineteenth century, quoting, inter alia, the now re-echoing words of finance minister Polovtsev, who was trying to negotiate a foreign loan: “Success with Rothschild is possible only if something is done about the Jewish question; this something could be the issuing of decrees…containing provisions for bettering the conditions of the Jews.” The decrees, Polovtsev remarked cynically, would “in no way restrict further legislative action.”

Plus ça change…. And again the banks rush to open their branches, not in St. Petersburg but, this time, in Moscow.

Jewish nationalism is a different creature from Ukrainian nationalism, but the passions and intelligence which fuel the latter can be equally formidable. Most formidable, beyond doubt, of the articulate Ukrainians is Valentyn Moroz, whose writings have been collected in two volumes (the one edited by Yaroslav Bihun being somewhat fuller) which have now appeared in English.

In his combination of elegance, precision, and power of thought Moroz surpasses all other Soviet dissenters. His defiant views are roughly summed up in what he told the authorities at his trial in 1970:

The awakening of national consciousness is the deepest of all spiritual processes…. Your dams are strong, but now they stand on dry land, by-passed by the spring streams, which have found other channels. Your drawgates are closed, but they stop no one…You stubbornly insist that all those you place behind bars are dangerous criminals…. You can pursue this absurd policy for, let us say, ten more years. But then what? These movements in the Ukraine and in the whole country are only beginning.

His trial—for circulating his essays on Ukrainian nationhood and KGB methods—was closed, and took place as if in an occupied country. Extraordinary KGB measures in various cities prevented many of his friends from gathering outside the cordoned-off courthouse, and those who overcame these obstacles and got there were closely watched by some 200 troops and KGB agents. He was sentenced to fourteen years of imprisonment and exile.

One reason for this severity was probably that Moroz collected evidence of what can only be called cultural genocide. He noted in an essay, for example, the mysterious destruction, by fire, of national libraries and other national treasures in the Ukraine and elsewhere, and analyzed the activities in the Ukraine of the Society for the Preservation of Historic and Cultural Monuments. He wrote: “What a strange Society…. It is not clear whether it protects historic treasures from pyromaniacs, or pyromaniacs from public wrath…. [Its leaders] are not concerned about drawing up lists of national monuments, yet lists of the people interested in these cultural monuments were drawn up long ago.”

In 1972 the poet Anatoly Radygin, now in the United States, had a chance meeting with Moroz in Vladimir Prison, where Moroz is still imprisoned, reportedly near death.* Radygin’s account appears in both collections of Moroz’s writings. “He brought to mind…,” he writes, “photographs of the not-yet-dead victims of Auschwitz. His prisoner’s garb hung loosely on the body of this tall man as if on a thin wire skeleton. His hair stood in sparse tufts of bristle on his dry, sallow skin, and the skin itself, horribly greenish like a mummy’s, was drawn over his high forehead and raw-boned jaws.”

Some dissenters, including Moroz, are religious, and for many of the nationalist dissenters the churches have a definite part to play in national regeneration. Partly because national and religious traditions in Lithuania are so closely intertwined, the Catholic Church there has been much more vigorous in asserting itself than, as yet, any other church. Its priests and laymen have organized mass petitions against the persecution of religion and national culture, have printed literature on secret presses, and have edited a remarkable samizdat publication, The Chronicle of the Lithuanian Catholic Church. The church’s position has thus come to resemble somewhat that of the church in Poland. Although the Lithuanian case is unique, in several other churches, notably the Uniate and the Russian Orthodox, one finds sympathy for dissenting, often nationalist activities, and in most denominations there is a movement for greater religious freedom whose members regularly clash with the KGB and maintain links with the main groups in the democratic movement.

Gerhard Simon’s unusually competent Church, State and Opposition in the USSR, which deals with these activities, thus helps to fill in the broad picture of dissent. He gives a detailed account of the Russian Orthodox and the Baptists, but, unfortunately, devotes much less attention to the Lithuanian Catholics. His chapters on the ways in which the life of the churches became more varied and even more political between 1900 and 1917 give a valuable perspective on what is happening now. He also includes a strong but balanced critical analysis of Richard Wurmbrand’s Christian anticommunist crusade on behalf of the Russian and East European churches, conducted from California and elsewhere. He criticizes in particular the crusade’s unreliability about facts and its tendency to see those churches as leading a much more “underground” existence than is really the case.

If history should be repeating itself in certain ways, then the USSR today could perhaps be compared with the Russia of the 1880s. Then, as now, there was little or no mass support for the oppositionists, the regime used a similar variety of weapons against them, and large-scale emigration of Jews and others had begun. Today, we should note, the Turkic Meskhetians and the two-million German minority, as well as some communities of Pentecostalists and Baptists, are beginning to follow the Jewish example by demanding to leave, but so far only the Germans have had much success.

Are, then, the present regime’s ideological supports any more secure than were the tsars’ three pillars of Orthodoxy, Nationalism, and Autocracy? The following, perhaps, are the equivalent Soviet supports, as they might be seen by a perceptive citizen: the Party’s claim to be the agent not of God but of History; its profession of virtuous internationalist principles as prescribed by History (in reality these are diluted by a lot of semi-disguised Russian nationalism); and its monopoly of political and economic power (justified by History’s revelation that only the Party “understands the laws of social development”). In the long run these do not look like a strong or lasting combination, and there is growing evidence that some sections of the ruling class may favor a new and undisguised commitment to Russian nationalism, or even chauvinism, which they could exploit both at home and in foreign affairs (“the threat from China”).

In this eventuality the danger of military adventures could sharply increase, especially if, as some think, the Soviet military leaders feel their armies lack the combat experience gained by the US in Vietnam, having themselves in recent years had only a few brush-fires to extinguish in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Manchuria. Unfortunately none of the books under review examines Russian nationalism of either the official and semi-official varieties to be found in parts of the Soviet press, or the nonconformist variety which has been rapidly growing and taking diverse forms in samizdat. Scholarly work on all varieties is badly needed.

But whatever the future may be, we would be foolish to underestimate the likely pace of change in the Soviet Union. The near-universal literacy of the Soviet people and the enormous influence of Western radio stations are new elements that will make the pace faster today than it was in the nineteenth century. What samizdat in fact suggests most strongly of all is that the Soviet regime is even less flexible than the tsarist autocracy was, and therefore even less able to cope with the many changes—including those demanded by the various dissenting groups—that will increasingly be demanded of it. This said, it is still hard to have great optimism about the future evolution of a country in which tendencies toward pluralism and compromise have been so persecuted since 1917 and are only now reviving. There is always the ultimate danger of disintegration and anarchy, as foreseen by Amalrik. But if the future is so uncertain, that is, perhaps, all the more reason to study the unique materials of samizdat for what they can tell us about Soviet society and its rulers. And it is certainly reason to support the voices of sanity and moderation which began to speak in this genre a decade ago, and have, through the resulting storms, continued somehow to make themselves heard.

  1. *

    See the letter concerning Moroz’s situation from Jeri Laber, NYR, November 28, p. 45.

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