VICTOR BRAILOVSKI is an otkaznik ( refusenik) and a Prisoner of Zion from Moscow. In 1980, he was sentenced to three years exile for publishing a samizdat magazine Jews in USSR. He immigrated to Israel in 1987 and today lives in Tel Aviv.
Aba Taratuta: Tell us about your childhood and family.
Victor Brailovsky: I don’t think it was an extraordinary family. My parents were both born in Kremenchug at the time when the Revolution took place, and the Jews were granted equal rights. My parents moved to Moscow, each on their own. In Moscow, they got married and as a result I was born. My father was an engineer; after he graduated from a Kharkov college he worked for engineering companies. My mother, as far as I know, occupied less prominent positions; she did secretarial work or something like that. Later, when I was born, she quit work all together. It was quite a typical Jewish family, one of those who moved to Kharkov or Moscow, got a formal education for the first time and began their working careers. Then I went to school. When I was in the 10th grade, the notorious Doctors’ Case occured which strongly affected me personally. I literally felt the concentration of anti-Semitism and suddenly realized where we, the Jews, stood in this country. I suppose that this was the starting point of all my future activities. This is what happened to me at the outset.
A.T.: What Institute did you graduate from?
V.B.: I graduated from the Moscow Power Engineering Institute; I also studied at an extramural Mathematical University. It proved to be a rather good combination since I found myself on both sides: it enabled me to observe the nature of things. After graduating, I got married and then was assigned to work at the Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Electronic Control Machines, which was not bad at all. First, I worked at the experimental department, where I was even awarded a great number of certificates of authorship, as they were forever inventing something there. Then I transferred to the Theoretical Department where I began working in my profession, which was image identification and other things, and I worked there to the last moment. I was married, two children were born, a son and a daughter, the son arrived in 1962 and the daughter, an otkaz (refusal) era child, came in 1974.
A.T.: Did you begin to establish contacts before you applied for permission to leave?
V.B.: When I was at college, we formed a group of students. We tried to understand what kind of place we were living in (I suppose there were a lot of similar groups in Moscow and other cities), where we were heading, in what direction we should be going and how we should live. Since there were no sources of information, we thought that Marxism could really ensure a bright future for all of us, and that it had been distorted in the Soviet Union. Thank God, nobody in the group squealed on us, which was rather unusual. Maybe the group was small, maybe the people were decent. Thus, the group existed and it inspired my dissident sentiments. Then there came a time when we felt there was a possibility to leave for Israel; it was when the Baltic Jews began to leave (at the end of the 60s). Before that, the feeling was that there was no way for us to get out of the country – there was the iron curtain on one side, and if you tried to break that you landed behind bars. Stuck between the Iron Curtain and the bars you had to manage to function somehow, to exist. Eventually, however, we began to realize that if you made certain efforts, there was a chance to force a hole in that curtain – providing you beat your head against it long enough. My family and I began beating our heads against it, and we kept doing so for 15 years, sometimes being put behind the bars.
A.T.: When did you apply? Whom did you contact first?
V.B.: We submitted our documents in 1972, and in the beginning, I became acquainted with people who left the country in 1972. Then I joined a group of people who organized a seminar of refusenik scientists. They were Voronel, Azbel, Benya Levich and a whole group of other people. Later I became acquainted with all the others, for instance, with a certain Taratuta from the former Leningrad. Our Zionist activities began, and we were in contact with Muscovites and people from other cities.
A.T.: What came first – your being editor of the Jews in USSR magazine or your heading the seminar?
V.B.: First I was the formal editor of the Jews in USSR magazine. I mean to say that when Voronel was running the magazine, my name was mentioned there but, in fact, it shouldn’t have been there, my contribution was minimal. I returned to the magazine later, but this only happened after a number of editors had succeeded each other. Among them were Ilya Rubin, Sotnikova and Lazaris. When it turned out that there was nobody to take up the magazine – everybody had left – it all returned to me in 1978. I cannot say that I am a great writer, I am more of a reader, “Chukcha is not a writer” (reference to a Russian joke). But at that time there were quite a lot of people who were ready to cooperate. We needed some kind of krysha, a masking shield. I and a few other people acted as the shield, while the actual authors were quite professional.
A.T.: You said it. That’s why the magazine was that good.
V.B.: The magazine was not bad. In those conditions when you had to get the material to the typist in secrecy, making sure that you were not followed, and the typist was scared, people were afraid to hold the published copies in their hands, when every step of yours was imbued with danger, emotions and fear – in those conditions the magazine was not bad.
A.T.: And what about the seminar?
V.B.: There was a seminar which had been organized by Voronel in his flat. Later, it was held in Azbel’s flat. After Azbel left, we had it in my flat. This was in 1977. The seminar united a rather strong group of scientists who were responsible for the scientific accuracy of the seminar. Besides which there was a powerful stream of foreign scientists visiting us. It got to a point when, if a Western scientists came to Moscow and did not attend our seminar, he would be met with a storm of indignation upon return. Therefore, they were actually afraid not to attend our seminar. To think that it would come to this!
I got acquainted with six or seven Nobel Prize winners at our seminar and heard them presenting their reports. Such a number of them; it seemed quite unbelievable. Not all of them were Jews, but most of them were. We didn’t check their Jewishness too thoroughly as we were not familiar then with the Lishkat Ha-kesher’s or Misrad Hapnim’s methods. It was a certain kind of coalition of left and right-wing Jews, of pro-Israel ones and those who were not sure whether we needed Israel or not, etc. It was a fight for the refuseniks, since it was human rights that were at stake. Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov attended our seminar. I remember him with warmth and I am proud of knowing him because he was, in fact, a great man who has not been recognized at his true worth yet despite the fact that there is a street in Moscow named after him, a street that runs parallel to Andropov Street. This is the way both of them coexist in today’s Russia, though in life they did not coexist too well, one of them having put the other one in jail. Sakharov was exiled by Andropov to the town of Gorky after the Afghanistan invasion. Yura Orlov, a worthy man, visited us. Many dissident people visited us, for instance, Ernst Neizvestny presented a report. There were many rabbis of various schools – conservative, reform, orthodox – who gave lectures on Jewish subjects, philosophy, religion, etc. Once a month, there was a seminar on cultural issues. We held a seminar every week.
A.T.: And what about the local rabbis, did they ever turn up?
V.B.: The local rabbis damned us. Today they are prominent figures of the renascent Jewish culture, Shaevich, for example, being one of them.
A.T.: Was there any kind of reaction to the seminar on the part of the authorities?
V.B.: They were afraid of it because of our contacts with the Western scientific community. The authorities were apprehensive that their scientific and technological contacts with the West might be damaged. They realized that should the seminar be banned the consequences could be rather grave. Therefore, even when I was arrested in the 80s and they organized some kind of KGB siege blockade around my flat, the seminars were not banned. The seminar continued to function for a certain period, but then I was sent into exile and I suppose that one of the reasons for my exile was just that, my involvement with the seminar. My wife began visiting me at my place of exile, and thus the seminar had to leave our flat. The times were hard and there was no other flat to be found. The seminar traveled from one flat to another, for some time it was at Alpert’s flat, at Alex Yoffe’s and sometimes, when my wife was in Moscow, it was again held at our place. When I returned, the seminar was still traveling from place to place, but later, in 1984-85, it was fully revived.
Besides having scientists visit us, we also, occasionally, arranged international sessions. From 15 to 20 scientists from all around the world would come to these sessions. Leading scientists from USA, England and European countries would come to us. From Israel too, those who had dual citizenship would come. Reports were presented; we had 3 to 4-day sessions, every day packed from morning till night. In between the sessions and during the breaks we discussed Jewish issues. Sometimes there were unpleasant side effects for the authorities. Here is one example: The American scientist Arno Penzias was awarded the Nobel Prize for experimental proof of the Big Bang. He got his Nobel Prize in 1977, in Stockholm, and right from there he came to Moscow, to our seminar, and presented a speech (repeating his Nobel Prize speech). He refused to visit the official offices of the Academy of Sciences and went home straight from his speech to us. This was just too much for the authorities. It was a very powerful move and it contributed to the solidarity of the scientific community, both Jewish and non-Jewish, in favor of the Soviet Jews' Aliyah. There was also had another component to this since these scientists were an influential crowd and had wide-ranging possibilities to influence the top echelons of power. This was an important part of our common cause.
A.T.: Now tell us about the magazine. As I remember, it was when the sovetchina (a sneering name for ‘the soviets’) began their Afghanistan games that the oppression of dissidents started.
V.B.: Actually, I was indicted on the magazine case though, technically speaking, it was pending from 1975. The case did not involve any defendants, there were only witnesses, a lot of witnesses. Later, my case was singled out and I was put behind the bars in 1980. That is how my prison epic began.
A.T.: So what part of it was the most curious?
V.B.: Only two days ago, I was talking with the Russian ambassador about Zionism and I told him how I was introduced to the Butyrka prison. It was like this. There was an officer sitting in the room, who evidently knew about me and had apparently been informed about who was going to be brought in. But, as you will see, he misread the situation. He said, “Oh, it’s you Brailovski Victor, the Zionist. It would be good to get you Jews, together and send you all to Israel!” And I answered him, “You would be awarded a medal then by the Zionist movement, since the repatriation of Jews to Israel is exactly the aim of Zionism.” He clamped his jaws shut and probably couldn’t open them for a few days.
I was ushered to the prison cell. There was a man inside. Incidentally, just yesterday, I read a book about him that had been published in Russia. His name was Pasha Tsirul. He was a great thief-in-law (a person who chose criminal activity as his only profession and in principle wasn’t involved in any work at all and didn’t get any salary – Editor’s note), the holder of the obschak, a mutual money pot, and apparently, that was the reason for his death, since there were a lot of people who wanted to dive into that pot. We were together in that cell for 6 months. The idea that comes through the book I read about him is that his death was effected by a union of some criminals and some KGB men who decided to get hold of the money and share it fairly among themselves. After a while, all the criminals that took part in the deal were also killed, but that’s the way Russian games are played. I spent about 11 months in prison and was then sent into exile. The deportation was fantastic. Incidentally, my liver had been damaged while I was in prison and my wife was very much alarmed. So, she approached the governor of the prison with a very original idea: “I am ready to pay for the deportation and all the escort,” she said, “provided my husband is treated decently.” The man was quite amazed and he said, “Here, in the Soviet Union, you are deported free of charge.” I suppose, it was one of the advantages of the Soviet regime. I was indeed deported free of charge and it was a stunning experience. On one splendid day, I was told to promptly collect all my belongings. I wanted to take with me case records which they usually confiscate during a shakedown at the prison gate. I also had some notes and other things. So I put it all in my sack, somewhere in between something and something else. It turned out that they were in such a hurry to put me out that they hardly even tapped my sack and said, “Move on quickly.” And they took me to the airport. I was wondering whether they were going to take me right to Israel – this is the kind of silly thought came to my head. But I was wrong. They were taking me to the town of Shevchenko, not to Israel. Even so, I was given one third of the plane, the other passengers not being permitted to sit there. As I sat there handcuffed, major came over and asked me, “Why aren’t you reading newspapers?” “How can I do it handcuffed?” I answered. “Well, this captain here will hold the paper for you and turn the pages,” he said.
And there I was, flying, reading a paper and instructing the captain: “Turn the page over, fold down the corner here, I want to see the top of the page.” All in all, it was quite a comfortable trip, and when we landed, because I was handcuffed, I couldn’t carry my luggage. My wife provided me with big leather boots greased with cod-liver oil (veteran Zeks had been instructing her all the time what kind of footwear I would need). I don’t remember why, but I had a then stylish white dust-coat. I suppose it didn’t match the boots too well, and when I arrived at the cell, the fellows were just hysterical, “We bet your wife thinks you are going to have a walk along Gorky Street every evening!”
To make a long story short, I had three sacks and a bag with me. The scene was such: each of the four men escorting me was carrying something while I was marching as a respectable prisoner. First, I was brought to Shevchenko and from there, by train, to Beyneu. I was escorted by three militiamen, a captain and two lieutenants, all of them were Chechen. During the trip, they criticized the Soviet system out-loud and treated me to pie made with confiscated illegally fished beluga-sturgeon. They said, “Please, partake of our food. We know you are a political convict, and we respect you.” In short, I could have organized an anti-Soviet group there and then, but I refrained from doing that.
A.T.: Later other people took over your work. Were the winters cold there?
V.B.: Oh yes, the winters there were freezing. There were times when the temperature dropped to minus 37. I was supplied, via world public, with fur coats, caps and gloves.
A.T.: Were you appointed to a job there?
V.B.: It was always a problem to find work for the exiled. I was extremely lucky to get a job at an utterly useless organization called a mechanized accounting station. I didn’t understand its purpose. There were about 20 different calculators there. I was sent their design schemes so that I should know how to fix them when they broke down. And I learnt to do it. There were ten calculators of the same type, each of them consisted of several logic cards. I assembled all the properly functioning cards in one calculator since each of the calculators had at least one card out of order. You didn’t have to be a great expert to find the card which was out of order: you just had to replace it with another card and see whether the calculator worked or not. This is how I fixed them and everyone was very much impressed, since none of the calculators had ever been fixed before. When something went wrong, they would immediately throw it out since there wasn’t a single specialist in the whole region. This is how I lived there; my job was that of the mechanic of the mechanized accounting station and I was rather well paid. When I had some free time, I read books in Hebrew. The books aroused a great interest in people around and they asked what language it was. I told them it was Arabic. This aroused their national interest since that was the time of the revival of Islam. They would come to me with old crumpled pieces of paper saying that those were prayers in the Arabic language and could I please read them out loud. I would answer, “No, guys, I can’t. You see, I am a Jew and if I read prayers in Arabic it would be a sacrilege since only a Muslim has a right to read them, and my reading them would make sinners of you.” “Thank you for saving us from sin”, they would say and walk away.
A.T.: Did you begin to learn Hebrew before your exile?
V.B.: I began to learn it in Moscow, I took lessons from Dima Roginsky. After Dima left, I had number of teachers and finally ended up with Mika Chlenov.
A.T.: Did your exile last three years?
V.B.: I was sentenced to five years of exile. One day in jail equals three days in exile, so 10 months in jail is 30 months in exile. Since I spent 2.5 years out of 5 in jail, there remained 2.5 years to be spent in exile.
A.T.: Did any really serious problems ever arise?
V.B.: Yes, there were occasional problems but I managed to cope with them. One of them was when they tried to forbid me to leave the house after seven o’clock in the evening. My argument in my fight against this ruling was the fact that there was no toilet in the house. There was a toilet (a hole in the ground) some 50 meters from the house. I won’t go into details; they are quite unappetizing, but I asked the militia how I was supposed to use the toilet. Of course, it wasn’t my question that did the trick, it was the row raised by the world public about the toilet issue, and as a result the special supervision was called off. I had to report to the militia once a week, though, actually, they met me every day – the settlement was small and I wasn’t allowed to leave it.
A.T.: How many houses were there?
V.B.: There was a gas pipeline going through the settlement by which people made their living. There was a gas compressor station and the houses of those who worked at it. There were also houses where the scum of society lived. The neighborhood I lived in was called the Harem. Not in terms of sex, the name was an acronym for the Russian Gorem (city repair service). I had a small room there with a separate entrance, which wasn’t bad – I was quite independent. It was a municipal dwelling and the rent was eight rubles a month.
Ida Taratuta: Did your wife visit you often?
V.B.: Yes, she did. She would come and stay with me for three months, after which she would leave for a month to be with the children who were at school then. This way she traveled between Moscow and Beyneu. I was arrested in 1980, in 1981 I came to Beyneu and in March 1984 I returned to Moscow.
The closer it came to the day of my release, the worse the situation was getting, and I had a feeling that they were trying to prolong my sentence. Some KGB people appeared from God knows where, and it was clear that something were brewing. But I was very lucky: Andropov died a month before my release. There was probably some kind of a mess there. Chernenko came to power being constantly attached to a medical device, and nobody knew what was on his mind and his mind remained closed to everybody. This is why, I think, I managed to leave the place of my exile safe and sound and was even registered back in Moscow, which was against the law in those days. At first, all this gave rise to optimistic thoughts, such as the hope that they probably want to let me out of the country. Though later it turned out to be wrong, I nevertheless lived in Moscow till my departure. In 1985, Gorbachev came to power and things began to ease up gradually, though it was in his time that they started arresting learners of Hebrew. It was then that Edelstein was arrested.
After I returned, I resumed my seminar activities and my Zionist fervor was back. Unfortunately, I had constantly to dodge accusations of being a “parasite”. It was good for those who found a job in a boiler house, they had it nice and warm.
A.T.: You said it.
V.B.: And thus we lived up to the year of 1987 when our beloved Soviet power began to stagnate and at one point, they let us out of the country.
A.T.: And what about the magazine?
V.B.: The magazine had not been resumed because we were exhausted and there were no people who were ready to shoulder it. New times have come. The last issue was No. 21.
A.T.: It was a good magazine. What event, besides the arrest, do you especially remember?
V.B.: I think there were a lot of unforgettable moments. I can mention the international seminars and sessions, working on the magazines and, last but not least, getting permission to leave.
A.T.: How many times did you serve the 15-day sentence?
V.B.: I got it a couple of times. And of course, I was put into drying-out stations (special stations for drunkards who were arrested in streets being drunk and put for a night into those stations to sober up. - Editor’s note) occasionally.
Ida Taratuta: Were there any repressions against your children?
V.B.: My son Lyonya had trouble at school after they had figured him out. He had to drop school in the 9th grade; it was a mathematical school. There were a lot of Jews there. Lyonya was being constantly harassed; he was told that if he remained at school, it would be bad for all the Jewish kids. He spent his last school year at an evening school. Galya was in primary school where they were not interested in issues like that. They tried to draft Lyonya to the army but, with the help of doctors, we did everything to avoid it, and we succeeded. However, he was still under some kind of observation.
A.T.: Thank you.
Translated from Russian by Joseph Klein