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Two aspects of the book make it unique as a historical document.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 KGB and the Prosecutor-General of Moscow, his immediate reaction is to think: “I suppose it was not until this confrontation with such a formidable array of top-ranking authorities that I fully realized what a threat we posed to them.” Which of us ordinary mortals would entertain such a thought at such a time?

The final turning point of his duel comes when he is interrogated by an official of even higher rank, Sergei Ivanovitch Gavrilov, the liaison man between the KGB and the Central Committee. Here Azbel takes the offensive. “You’ll encounter some new troubles, which, I assure you, you don’t anticipate. Either you’ll have to let me go, or you’ll have to imprison me for a long term; you won’t have any other choice. You seem to know a lot about me, Sergei Ivanovitch. You probably realize that I’m not lying…. So there are the alternatives for you. Which do you prefer: simply to let me go, or to create another martyr to arouse the sympathies of the scientific community? It seems to me that in this case our interests coincide.”

The second reason Azbel won is that the Soviet establishment has in some sense lost its nerve. Forty years ago, the interrogators of Rubashov would not have been intimidated by Azbel’s defiance. They would not have hesitated to add one more martyr to the millions they had already made. They would have replied to his recalcitrance by sending him down to be shot in the cellar or sending him away to rot in a labor camp. Now, forty years later, things have changed. The Soviet regime, even in the innermost recesses of the KGB, is unsure of itself. Azbel prevailed over his enemies because he was prepared to die and they were unprepared to kill. This is a historical development of profound importance, not only for the future of Soviet society but for the future of all mankind.


We in the West have a double responsibility, which we cannot evade. In the first place, as Azbel’s story makes clear, we have a responsibility to give practical and moral support to individuals who are fighting for their lives and their freedom within the Soviet system and who call to us for help. In the second place, we have an even greater responsibility to avoid doing harm to the millions of loyal Soviet citizens who do not ask for our help and can only be endangered by it. In particular, we must think of the plight of the multitude of Jews who are striving to build a future for themselves and their children in the Soviet Union and for whom any action tending to identify Jews in general as Western protégés represents a deadly threat. Above all, we must avoid repeating the mistakes of 1918-1920, when the well-meaning but blundering attempts of the United States and other Western countries to help the opponents of the Soviet regime ended in the strengthening of our enemies and the massacre of our friends.

Confronted with this double responsibility, what should we do? Whether we decide to involve ourselves or not to involve ourselves in the struggle for human rights in the Soviet Union, we are gambling with other people’s lives. I have generally believed that it is wise for us to avoid involvement, remembering the words of Solzhenitsyn: “I put no hopes in the West—indeed, no Russian ever should. If we ever become free it will only be by our own efforts.” But now Mark Azbel has convinced me that there are occasions when Western involvement is practically effective and morally justifiable. I regret now that I gave no help to Azbel during his years of struggle. I still am afraid that our impatient attempts to force the Soviet regime to adopt our alien standards may result in halting the slow internal evolution of the regime toward more humane patterns of behavior. We must weigh the consequences of intervention in each case as best we can, never acting in a spirit of self-righteous ignorance, giving help only when we can clearly see that the people we help are like Mark Azbel, people who have the strength and the courage to become free by their own efforts.

© 1981 by Mark Ya. Azbel & Grace Pierce Forbes

This Issue

April 30, 1981