Unfortunately the editor’s preface to this interview will not resemble the usual prefaces - brief information about the person who was interviewed, that tell the reader in a nutshell who this individual is and why we interviewed him or her.
Aba Taratuta interviewed Yuri Chernyak in June 2004 in Boston. The interview was processed, transcribed from the tape into a computer file and sent to Yuri for correcting and editing. But, instead of an edited and approved of interview text, we received the sad news of Yuri’s unexpected passing on 23 November 2005.
I got acquainted with Yuri in the beginning of 1988. At that time, together with my wife Mila, I was thoroughly engaged in updating the Leningrad refuseniks’ lists, while Yuri was doing, among other things, the same for Moscow and for the whole of the Soviet Union – as far as possible. When I came to his place for the first time with my records, there was an immediate chemistry between the two of us, and after a fifteen minute talk I felt as if I had been there many times, as if I was seeing friends I had known for years. Since then there was no question of where to stay during my frequent trips to Moscow. We worked together a lot and I remember how after our day’s work we would sit up in the kitchen (where else?), having long talks well after midnight. Yuri was a man with bright lively eyes that emitted intelligence, optimism and benevolence. He was an interesting interlocutor, often expressing paradoxical ideas making it easy to have disputes with him.
I would like to tell a story which each of us individually and both of us together liked to tell. It was connected with a conference he mentions in this interview: I came to that conference and stayed at his place, as usual, helping him with the preparations. As luck would have it, on the morning of the first session, which was to be held in his apartment, he suddenly completely lost his voice, so that I was compelled to open and chair the session, sometimes improvising, sometimes getting instructions which Yuri would whisper into my ear.
Two days before his death I sent him an e-mail, relating in detail what I was doing, about my last holiday and so on. He answered immediately with a short note, promising to write at length soon. I will never get this letter...
I do not know how to interpret this, but the last words of his interview were “...and I’m still alive”.
Blessed be his memory!
The interview was translated from Russian into English by Elena (Ilana) Romanovsky.
YURI CHERNYAK: I was brought up in a very assimilated family. My mother came from a family of Jewish converts to Christianity (cantonists). My father retained more ties to Judaism, at least, he understood Yiddish well. His family had lived in Vitebsk; they were people of culture, Chagal’s family being among their friends. I was born in Moscow in 1944 and lived, like many did, in a communal apartment (one where several families share kitchen and bathroom facilities). Our next door neighbor was Isaak Abramovich Shner. The wall which dividied us was very thin. He used to wear a scull-cap (his job was merchandise manager), and I liked to come to him and sit with him. He used to read a thick book – it was the Talmud. When I asked what it was he explained to me that it had answers for all questions. Behind the door opposite ours lived Professor Falkovsky Semion Izrailevich. Falkovsky and his wife were my parents’ closest friends. I did not know that we were Jews, that the next door neighbor was Jewish or that the couple across the corridor were Jewish. Jews lived in six or seven of the apartment’s nine rooms, but, again, I knew neither that we were Jews nor that our neighbors were Jewish. In short, I spent my childhood in a Jewish milieu, without being aware of it. In 1949 my father started working on a project in the town of Michurinsk and this went on for four years. He would leave Monday morning and come back on Saturday. He was a highly regarded industrial designer and was the only man permitted to start up a machine in the plant in the town. I later found out that during this dark period he was advised to be out of sight as much as possible, and between 1949 and 1953 he only came home for weekends. It was then that I started hearing certain words, but I still did not understand anything. My father’s uncle was one of the “assassins in white gowns”, Professor Rappaport. I later encountered quite a lot of anti-Semitism closely.. All the Jews around us were highly assimilated. Our relatives were teachers, Russian linguists, etc.
I had a teacher in elementary school, and I thought she liked me. When I was about fifty years old and already living in the US, my mother brought me my school record written by that teacher. This letter, about events of forty years before, was imbued with such fierce hate, filled with such savage ferocity towards a ten-year old child that I was absolutely shocked. I realized how naive I had been forty years before, how little had I understood the virulence of the anti-Semitism, which could have been the only reason for her viciousness, for there could be no other reason. I had been living in an unreal world with beautiful illusions in those days.
In my teens, when kids started sticking together in crowds, I found out that all my friends were Jewish. It was then, when we talked about everything, that I started to understand things. My doubts of the Soviet system had arisen before my Jewish identity was shaped. I first became a Soviet regime opponent and only then a Jew. Finding Jewish companions became a recurrent pattern, first at school, then at the University, especially at the University, where finding Jews was like looking for a needle in a haystack. And it was like that everywhere, even on a holiday. I realized that there was something that united us and I started to take it very seriously.
My university life was also connected with “paragraph five” (The fifth paragraph of the Soviet passport was intended for indication of nationality. - Translator’s note). First of all, I simply was not admitted to the Moscow University. Then there was a short-lived “window” (Period when a certain number of Jews could be admitted to the University. – Translator’s note), and I got in through that “window”, through the Evening Department (between 1956 and 1967 there was a quota for Jews and a certain number of Jewish students was admitted every year). They would not transfer me to the day department because of “paragraph five”, I still keep evidence of their harassing me. While being a freshman I passed exams in Theoretical Physics and in five mathematics term courses, for I wanted to complete all the courses in three years. I had all “fives” (On a five-point grading scale. - Translator’s note), the only “three” being in the History of the Communist Party. At the rector’s insistence I was eventually transferred to the day department but he also insisted that I re-sit for the exam in the Party History to improve my grade. The Dean of the faculty of Physics, one Fursov, was a rabid anti-Semite, and he started a campaign against me. I was driven into a trap and I thought that I belonged to a different department, so I didn’t sit for some sessions, and I was expelled for academic failure. I went to Rector Petrovsky, may he rest in peace, and told him everything. When he saw my record book, his hair stood on end. He called Fursov:
- If I had a student like this one, I would send a car for him every morning and have him taken back home after classes. I would feel honored to have him on the faculty, and you dismiss him for academic failure, and he hung up.
That’s the story. Five years later one of my friends met this Fursov’s subordinate in an elevator and demanded:
- Why did you do all this to Chernyak?
His answer was:
- Don’t you understand? They all want to be better than everyone else.
By that time I had completed my education and transferred to the evening department. I had to find a job soon, and I found myself in the Institute of Nuclear Physics of the Moscow State University. I had worked as a lab assistant there before so I knew the people and decided to work there for a while, before graduating from the university. The group I joined was working on theoretic aspects of space technology. It was not connected with secret research, even though it was later recorded as my having had access to classified information. Because it was a rapidly developing field, the KGB bureaucratic standards were not so strict there, and a young man could get promoted. After one or two years, even before I had formally graduated from the University, I was made a group leader. The group leader was authorized to spend money for salaries, and I started employing people (the salaries were paid on a contract basis). Who would work under Chernyak? Only Jews, because "normal" people would prefer to go to a well-known professor. Out of the six people in my group five were Jewish (Volodya Shakhnovsky, Lyova Kiselevich and others.
In the beginning of the sixties a group of young professors from the faculty of Physics visited Israel. The group’s account of the trip was exhibited at this anti-Semitic “Black Hundred” (Anti-Semitic organization in Tzarist Russia in the beginning of 20th century. – Translator’s note) faculty in the form of photos and texts, the texts written in a business-like style, with a warm colleague-to-colleague attitude (towards their Israeli counterparts). That was the impression they were left with after their visit
I remember Golda Meir saying in her speech on the future of Israel that Israel would become a country exporting ideas. I was completely charmed by that. By the beginning of the seventies my Jewish identity had taken shape. Israel had become nearly the most important spot in world politics for me.
But then, in the aftermath of the Leningrad (plane high-jacking) case, the troubles really started. Kiselevich applied for an exit visa, then Shakhnovsky, both having given notice before that. I realized that I would not be allowed to leave the country. Vitya Yakhot had a fight with somebody at a banquet celebrating receiving a group bonus and was detained by the militia. People started looking askance at us, remembering our Zionist friends. He (Vitya) said that he would apply for an exit visa without retiring in advance. That was the end of my career (I had been awarded a PhD in1972, just before all these things happened). I was accused of organizing a Zionist group in the Moscow State University. By 1972 six individuals from the University had applied for permission to leave the country (out of 30,000), three of them being members of my group. I had been allotted first degree secrecy, though I held no real secrets. Then I was denied access to classified information. For five years I had been engaged in theoretical atom physics research. I began to understand that my being Jewish outweighed my usefulness; that I could no longer be useful professionally to the Soviets. Now I had to wait for five mandatory years to expire. That was the end of my education.
I had a talk with my supervisor, telling him that I wanted to apply for a visa and handed in my notice. I applied for a visa at the end of 1976.
I had had some refusenik friends even before the application. Many a time did I spend Shabbath with Volodya Shakhnovsky, where I received my first lessons on the subject and later made friends with many interesting people. My Jewish education started during the process of preparing to leave the country and that it went on for almost thirteen years in refusal.
I got married in the beginning of 1979. It was an act of heroism on the part of my wife Natasha, because I had been a refusenik for three years by then. Employment was denied to me wherever I sought it; during the same period, I was time and again brought to the militia station on the charge of parasitism. I found a way out of the situation by registering as a science advisor (a position that did not have to be sanctioned by the manpower office) and that helped me somewhat financially. For half a year I painted cars, then I started tutoring on a private basis and also did some translating, I was earning a decent living, but that was not very stable. After my marriage we re-applied for a visa in 1980, having previously moved into another apartment.
In 1977 I started participating in Brailovsky’s seminars, and also in those held by Lerner. I was a regular speaker there. When Brailovsky was arrested, we continued to come to the doors of the apartment block, where he lived, every Sunday for two months. Once I went there with a friend, it was in November 1980. We decided to try and get inside and opened the entrance door. There were hefty thugs there, and they started pushing us out with their chests. I was a rather aggressive man by nature, so I decided to amuse myself at their expense by calling a policeman. I found one at a metro station and told him that some hoodlums were blocking the entrance to an apartment block. This dashing young police sergeant approached one of our thugs, who bent down and whispered something into his ear. You should have seen that policeman, how his face changed color, how he lost the use of his voice. This was by no means a safe way to amuse ourselves, for two cars with open doors were parked nearby, and there was no knowing where they would have dropped us.
Then we started to get together at Yasha Alpert’s, though only up to fifteen people used to assemble, instead of the forty-five who used to come to the previous seminars. Brailovsky used to hold a session in humanities for every three sessions in technical sciences, and it was this fact that the KGB disliked. The Alpert seminar was more to their liking, as we later realized. We could meet foreign scholars and scientists who were visiting the Academy of Science, but the seminar stopped being open to everyone, as opposed to Brailovsky’s seminar where anyone could come, informer or not, who could know that? But for the Alpert seminar one needed an invitation. That is how an idea was conceived that we disliked being controlled by the people whom Alpert invited, and in the beginning of 1986 we started a moving seminar. A group of activists was formed, me included, and we left Alpert and started holding our own seminars, at four apartments randomly. Alpert visited one or two of them and then stopped coming.
ABA TARATUTA: At whose apartments were these seminars held?
Y. CH.: Alik Yoffe’s, mine, Igor Uspensky and at the apartment of a very silent man from the Faculty of Physics, whose name I have forgotten. Later another two apartments were added, but these four were the principal ones. We held a broad-gauge conference, which became a major event. A vast number of papers were read, including those on religious and cultural subjects. Alik Yoffe was an outstanding leader, an ideal leader for the period when we had to survive as specialists, without severing ties with supporting organizations.
A.T.: Was something new in this for the Alpert seminar?
Y.CH.: It was a conquered ground; we were doing it and organizing it without knowing what would come of it, for it was quite obvious what the KGB did not want us in any case. If we were meeting our overseas colleagues and discussing scientific issues, they could say that even though the refuseniks did not work in their fields, nobody prevented them from meeting colleagues. It became clear that we had to play our own game, defending the principles by which we lived, for which we took risks.
The life in refusal had its own bright sides. I used to think that applying for a visa was the wisest step I had ever taken. My life became infinitely better, because I became a free man, I could say what I wanted to, without being afraid that I would be dismissed or demoted.
I later invented a metaphor which described that situation precisely. When you first apply, you think that you will be living in a labor camp, where the rules are like this: if you step aside, you will be shot down. And you think that you even can’t jump up, because the ceiling is right there. But you apply, you step aside, and you are still living, then you jump up, and there’s no ceiling there. So you jump higher, and still the ceiling is not there. Then you hit it, but it’s not that hard (summons for a talk at the KGB). This sense of freedom was such a blessing that I felt sorry for the rest of the 200 million (Soviet citizens).
They would say to me:”Poor thing, how do you live? You have no job”, etc.
And I thought: “And you – it’s who you are really wretched, you have to humiliate yourselves”.
It was a nervous life, to be sure. My wife used to worry a lot, often not knowing whether I would come back home or not. The children were a special problem; you could not hide them away from all these things.
A.T.: Did the children experience ill-treatment at school?
Y.CH.: My daughter went to an unremarkable Moscow school. My son went to school No 57 (Where they were specializing in math and physics. - Translator’s note), where there were many refusenik children. When he came here, he was the 160th student from that school to reach this country. The KGB tried to close down that school. The children went to the synagogue for Jewish holidays and everything was all right for them.
Now, about the refuseniks’ life. On the one hand, it’s unstable; on the other hand, you make new friends. You apply for a visa and your life changes at once. There are people with whom your relations remain the same, there are others with whom they change for better, people who start noticing you. There are people who used to hug you when they saw you; now they just say hello or only nod. Unexpected changes happen. Refusing exit visas after 1979, when there were tens of thousands of people trying to leave the country was a terrible miscalculation on the part of the Soviet system. It was then that our lifetime friendships were made.
A.T.: Why was it a miscalculation?
Y.CH.: It was a grave miscalculation. In 1975 after three years of refusal, a person became a veteran refusenik. By 1979 I was a veteran refusenik, people used to come to me for advice. Before that people did dare to build long-term relationships. Long years in refusal led, for example, to establishing Jewish kindergartens. It could not have happened in 1970, because people would not have put their chance of leaving the country at stake.
In 1981 the first international book fair was held in Moscow. Alik Yoffe organized the smuggling in of Jewish books. We were the first to receive them. At ten o’clock the fair was opened for the general public, but for the foreigners it was opened earlier. At eight o’clock a couple of people would come there, in complete silence with their bags loaded with books and they would bring them to us, sometimes in two trips. In the evening, when it was dark, I would take about a hundred kilos of books that had been brought to me during the day and bring them to my Russian friends, who were granted the right to read those books, as a token of gratitude for their help. These were books the Soviet authorities would not allow: Jewish literature, “non-kosher” from the point of view of the Soviet system, a lot of religious literature, Jewish historic literature, the whole of the “Aliya” series. I became even more involved in that when Alik left in 1988. Later, when we opened libraries (three libraries were opened), the KGB had not the slightest clue what to do; they could not figure out how dozens of thousands of books had got there. The libraries were declared to be Jewish public libraries. The first one was opened by Sokol, a retired colonel, who claimed to be a war hero, so closing down that man’s library did not seem to be a proper thing to do.
I used to be on the go for sixteen hours a day. During my last year and a half in the Soviet Union I worked as a professional refusenik. I left the country in 1989. In 1988 I had a heart attack and was registered as disabled.. It was then that I felt a profound happiness, because a disabled refusenik would not be locked behind bars, besides which I did not have to seek employment, and I even started receiving a pension of thirty roubles a month. In the January of 1988 Yoffe, Brailovsky and some others almost simultaneously received exit permits. I had a feeling that I would soon get one, too. Meanwhile I took over running the seminar and plunged into work, really getting my teeth into it. I organized a meeting with a delegation of the USA National Academy of Science. It became clear that we could hold large meetings, and I started preparing new ones. In February 1988 I suggested holding an international refusenik conference and we started preparing it. I was held in December 1988. The majority of the participants had obtained permission to leave the country before the beginning of the conference (56 people). Nevertheless, practically all those who had received visas, with one or two exceptions, participated in the conference. The atmosphere was very special, for it was a conference of winners.
There were all kinds of peculiar incidents. One day Alik Yoffe said to me that he was dead sure that he would be arrested on the same day. It was clear that a number of knapsacks with reading matter were to be moved from his apartment to mine (we lived in the same block of flats). Or take another story. A TV team came to Moscow from Boston to shoot a film about Soviet scientists. Among other things, they decided to visit our seminar. They were at Alik Yoffe’s place, and we made up a plan to mislead the KGB, who had sealed up the whole neighborhood. We decided that they would pass my entrance door on the way to the metro, and I would be waiting in my car, with open doors, they would hop in with their equipment, and we would take off at once.
The seminar was to take place at Vladik Ryaboi’s place, so it was there we headed for. My wife Natasha saw from the window how the KGB men started running around, because their cars had been parked in different places. They chased us, but I left them behind, careering at 130 km/h along Leninskii Prospekt. When we were leaving after the conference, they were not there. Probably, they could not figure out where we had escaped to.
At the beginning of 1987 I received a computer. At that time it was a treasure. I would not even think of being the sole user, and organized a computer school at once. During that year we received another 14 computers. In that way we provided reading materials for Jewish schools (the printers were doing five-six pages a minute).
A.T.: How did your life progress later? Had you ever imagined it like this to yourself?
Y.CH.: To tell the truth – no. I had had an absolutely wrong picture of the scientific world of the US in my mind. The first revelation came about in May 1989, when I came to Cornell University. It was the people working for industry that asked questions and found solutions. The Academy people were dealing with issues that were not worth a damn, and there was no shine in their eyes. Myself, I exist somehow, making the best of the situation. With a friend, I founded a company for heart disease diagnostics, for which we received a grant. We have some good ideas, but it is difficult for physicists to promote their ideas; it is not usual here. I have no chances of getting financial support for my project. My choice to go to the USA and not to Israel was based on professional considerations. I thought that Israel was too small a country for my kind of scientific work, and my friends thought the same. I thought I would make it in the US, but I was wrong, though I would not have made it in Israel, either. Besides, my wife did not want our son to serve in the Army in Israel.
I have a wonderful family; everything is all right with the children. My son is making the best use of his abilities; he is studying at Berkley and working for an industrial enterprise in California. And I am enjoying life: I have written a book, and I am still alive.
The site editorial board is glad to inform that wife of late Yuri Chernyak, Natasha Chernyak, donated to the Technion, Haifa, a certain amount of money as an One-Semester, Non-Endowed Scholarship in Honor of Yuri and Natasha Chernyak with preference to be given to students from the former USSR in the field of physics or other science area.The scholarship was arranged through American Society for Technion - Israel Institute of Technology/New England Region.