The following essay will appear as an introduction to Mark Ya. Azbel’s book Refusenik: Trapped in the Soviet Union, to be published at the end of April by Houghton Mifflin.
Mark Azbel is one of the genuine heroes of our time, worthy to stand on the stage of history with Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I met him first in Moscow in 1956 when he was shy and thin, a brilliant young physicist rising rapidly through the ranks of the Soviet scientific establishment. He and I had worked independently on the same problem in solid-state physics. His solution was more general and more powerful than mine. I knew then that he would become an important scientist. I had no inkling that he would become a famous dissident. His book describes the human background of his life: the hardships of childhood in wartime Siberia, the joys and sorrows of becoming a full member of the privileged Soviet intelligentsia, the gradual growth of awareness of his Jewish roots, the transfer of his loyalties from Russia to Israel, the decision to emigrate, the drama of his five-year leadership of the group of Jewish dissidents in Moscow, and the final safe arrival in the promised land with wife and daughter and cat.
Two aspects of the book make it unique as a historical document. In Book I, Azbel gives us an authoritative record of the vicissitudes of Soviet science during the post-Stalin era. The record is based primarily on his firsthand knowledge of the leading physicists and of the Party hacks with whom they had to struggle. But his interests and his knowledge extend far beyond physics, into all areas of Soviet intellectual life. And his understanding of the hidden sources of power and influence give his record a depth that is lacking in accounts written by outsiders.
In Book II we have a record of the duel that was fought, in the secret chambers of the KGB, between Azbel and the various KGB interrogators who tried to break down his resistance. This duel is similar in many ways to the duel described in Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon, forty years earlier. Koestler’s hero, Rubashov, is one of the old Bolshevik leaders of the 1917 revolution. Stalin’s policemen succeed in breaking his spirit and persuade him to incriminate himself and his friends before they execute him. Azbel was given the same treatment. He tells me that he has never read Darkness at Noon, and I therefore accept as accurate his memory of the many details of his interrogations, which faithfully echo the interrogations of Rubashov. There is only one essential difference between Rubashov’s duel and Azbel’s. Rubashov lost and Azbel won.
How could it have happened that Azbel won? There are two main reasons. In the first place, Azbel is gifted with superhuman courage and presence of mind. When, in the course of his interrogations, he is brought before a group including a full general of the …
© 1981 by Mark Ya. Azbel & Grace Pierce Forbes