Dashevsky is a Moscow refusenik (1979-1989), lives in Jerusalem.
Aba Taratuta: We are talking with Vladimir Dashevsky, and first of all I will ask him about his childhood and where and when he was born. You do not have to conceal this since you are not a woman.
Vladimir Dashevsky: Since I am not a woman I will give you precise information: I was born in Poltava in 1937, but did not stay there for a long time. At the age of nine months I was taken to Odessa and spent some happy years before the war there. After the evacuation we were in Kazakhstan and returned to Odessa in 1945. From 1945 and up to my graduation from the University in 1959 I lived in Odessa.
A.T.: It's a wonderful city.
V.D.: An absolutely unique city. My paternal grandmother observed Jewish traditions, she was the only one who refused to be evacuated and was killed as soon as the Germans entered Odessa. I have no memories of her, just the family legend. Both of my mother's parents were educated people, modern and progressive, as it was then called. My grandmother taught Russian, my grandfather was a pharmacist and he kept two private pharmacies. The family was relatively well off. My mother learned in a grammar school and later she became a doctor. She worked a lot and was exceptionally good in diagnostics, she was also a warm and caring person and people liked her. My father was professor of Chemistry. Since his early childhood he grew up without a father. His father had left somewhere to America in search of good fortune. He (father) fathered me rather late in life. He was born in 1889, at the age of eight he started working and made his way in life from an errand boy and later a pharmacist's apprentice.
A.T.: Did he study abroad or in Russia?
V.D.: No, he never went abroad. He fought in World War I, and received his education after that, he worked in pharmacies and in the management of pharmacies in the first years of Soviet power, then he defended his first theses and held a chair at a university. He gave his doctorate as a gift to some Russia woman (he had no hope of defending it) who was afraid to use it, then he wrote another theses and defended his dissertation when he was no longer young. He worked up to his last day and passed away at the age of 86. He was both gentle and demanding and his co-workers both liked and feared him. He hated communists and had the courage not to hide his feelings from his children. He was a great patriot of Israel, though he was not only not a religious man, but definitely an anti-religious one. My mother did not have any definite political views, she just did not have the time for that. Not only did she do most of the household chores, but she also was the chief breadwinner, since she always worked at two jobs.
A.T.: Did she have any siblings?
V.D.: My mother had several brothers and sisters, but my parents had only two children: my sister and I. It could be due to the late marriage or maybe it was because we were evacuated while my father stayed in Odessa and went on with his work at a military plant up to the last day before Odessa was surrendered. He later looked for a long time for us until he managed to find us. It was a hard time. Now, about my progress in education and social conditioning. I started learning in a village school in Kazakhstan. I was not the kind of a child with a fast and clear perception of things. There might have been certain deviations from the norm. But many years later it somehow surfaced that the teacher who taught me in my first year at school was a psychiatric case, which did not help her to be well oriented in this world. That was a tiny god-forgotten village at the very border with Uzbekistan. The nearest to Tashkent railway station was in Kzyltu, and from there one had to continue to our village of Saragach. It later became quite a well-known health resort, after they found mineral water there, but I have not visited the place since then. I have only fragmentary remembrances of my pre-school period. One of the most vivid of those was like this: I am sitting on a dusty road where there isn't much traffic; the day is neither especially sunny or especially cloudy. I am looking at the sky and suddenly a question strikes me: Where does everything come from? I run to my mother for an answer. She tried to give me some answers about some small things, but they did not satisfy me at all. This was the first urgent question that would not leave me in peace. Later, from my second school year and up to finishing school I learned in Odessa. We returned immediately after the end of the war. My father went there after the liberation of Odessa, hoping for a miracle – that he would find his mother alive, but he came back with definite information that she had been shot to death. My life went on in a way that allowed us to internalize doublethink with ease. It was the norm of life: you may think whatever you wish to, but you have to know with whom you can talk about it. My pioneer (pioneers is a Soviet mass children's organization) "career" was relatively smooth. The peak of it was the post of a group leader, but I was soon "sacked". At the first chance our leader Nathan Otil declared: "We don't need rotten logs here". I gathered that the rotten log was myself and received my dismissal without much grief. I somehow avoided the Komsomol (communist youth movement) until at my last year at school the question was put in this way: you have small chance of being admitted to a university without being a Komsomol member. I obtained a reference from my class teacher Zelik Markovich and joined the Komsomol. When I came home with a shining Komsomol pin my father turned away in disgust. I wanted to go in my father's footsteps and study Chemistry at the University, but I was perfectly aware of the fact that if I did not receive a gold medal there was no point even to speak about the University. So I made quite some effort to try and get a medal. In Ukraine they were reluctant to award medals to Jewish students. I always got "fives", the highest grades, in Russian composition. Now, our cautious teacher Moisei Markovich was a talented man, but he was so intimidated that every couple of minutes he would draw out of his brief-case Stalin's paper "Marxism and Linguistics" and say: "In this brilliant brochure…". He thought for a long time about my examination paper and gave me a "four", the second best grade, so that the oblast commission would not lower the grade later. In any case, I did get a silver medal. It was the last year when medal holders were admitted without entrance examinations, there was only an interview. I entered the Faculty of Physics and Mathematics; I was interested in these sciences. There was some helpful protection – my father held a chair at the Polytechnic. When I reached my fifth year I decided to specialize in Theoretical Physics and the Theory of Relativity. I graduated from the University and my department gave me a recommendation for postgraduate studies in the Kiev Academy of Sciences (a rare case - most graduates were supposed to teach in village schools). A representative of the Academy came to us from Kiev and started to question the candidates. He passed by me as if I did not exist at all. I got no invitation, no call – nothing. In Odessa I couldn't even get a job as a lab assistant. And then I went to conquer the Novosibirsk "Academgorodok", the Academic town or campus of which there was a lot of talk that year.
A.T.: What year was it?
V.D.: It was 1959. In Novosibirsk I was astonished by the absence of antisemitism there in comparison with Ukraine. I was not yet 22. I got a job at the department of theoretical mechanics at the University of Railway Transport Engineering. For a year I worked as a junior lecturer.
A.T.: But that was not in Academgorodok?
V.D.: No, it wasn't opened yet, it was about to be opened. The attitude was very nice there, everything was fine, but the important thing was that I realized that I was not born for that climate. When the temperature dropped below minus 40 Centigrade it became unbearable for me, even though there was a wonderful physicist who had already told me that he would admit me for a postgraduate course with him. His name was Otto Yulyevich Rumer, one of the Germans who had been purged, he was writing a book together with Landau. He promised this course to me, but, to my regret, I had to run away from there because of the cold. I arranged to be admitted to a postgraduate course in Moscow region, but I needed a reference from the Komsomol cell. The cell refused to give it, so I was not admitted and found a temporary job. I bided my time in a research institute that formerly had a musical name Scientific Research Institute of Earth's Magnetism, but later it was transferred to the Academy of Sciences and was renamed Institute of Earth Magnetism, Ionosphere and Radio Waves Distribution. In the same year, 1963, I was admitted to a postgraduate course under a physicist who I took a liking to at a conference. He had just arrived from some "closed", that is, classified place, from the town of N-burg, as he put it, that was Arzamas-3. His name was Yakov Zeldovich. I liked his approach and I had the cheek to come up to him and say that I wanted to do a postgraduate course under his guidance. He gave me some problem to solve, for a test, I did something, he looked at it and said: "I don't believe in your result, but I will take you". Indeed, there was a lot of nonsense in my solution. His postgraduate course was the real thing. The Odessa University produced good-for-nothings who were trained by good-for-nothings. There was not even one serious physicist in my time there. Here there was a firm where people worked real hard. The normal workday there lasted about 16 hours. You come to work after the weekend and the boss asks you: "Well, what have you come to?" - "I did not have the time for it". "What do you mean, you had no time? You had the whole Saturday and Sunday to do it. How come you were short of time?"
A.T.: Was that Moscow or the "closed" town?
V.D.: That was Moscow. He had already left the town by then, it had been declassified.
A.T.: What were they doing there?
V.D.: They were making a bomb. There were Sakharov, Khariton and the whole band of them. He had brought a small group of his main co-workers from there.
A.T.: Was that the famous Academician Zeldovich?
V.D.: Yes, sure. Three Hero of Labor awards and all that. He was a man with marvelous intuition. I had never met anybody with an intuition like that, even not near that level. From what I heard I think Ya.I. Frenkel could beat him, but I never saw him. Landau could probably surpass him, but I never saw him, either. When I started taking my postgraduate examinations Landau could no longer work after his accident. Yakov Ilyich was an outstanding man, with fantastic intuition and suburb sense of humor, all that was within certain limits. L.S. Shklovsky, after he had fallen out with him, would say about him: "A brilliant physicist and a provincial Yid." I attended night postgraduate classes under Zeldovich. In 1968 I defended my thesis. The year 68 was a very interesting year. When I defended my thesis, I was already in science with one foot and in Jewish activity with the other one. I had never been a Soviet man at heart and my bosses perfectly well saw that I was not "their man". I never had the courage to sign letters (of protest) openly, when it started in 1964 or 1965, but I was on friendly terms with the so called democrats and I was close to them.
A.T.: With whom, namely?
V.D.: For some time I was in Alik Ginzburg's bunch. A lot of my friends were activists. I never really was one, but I never tried to hide my connections with them. For me, like for hundreds of people of my generation, the Six Day War was a turning point, because anyone who saw himself as Jewish, even a little, was in a state of growing anxiety that my country was going to be smashed. When the miracle happened it was astonishing. Strictly speaking, I think we would not be sitting here if not for that victory. In the middle of the Six Day War I took the most important in my life decision: enough to be a patriot of Israel without knowing a thing about it, whatever happens, I would try to find out something. I had no idea how it was possible, I saw that it was impossible to learn to read these letters, but I decided to find out something. A friend from the group of democrats took us to these lectures. We grew closer to each other and he influenced me greatly. That was Nathan Faingold, a very interesting person. He was from Zhmerinka, a serious engineer, he had graduated from one of Moscow educational institutions that awarded degrees to their graduates, at the same time he also attended lectures at Moscow State University and reached a position of Chief Management Engineer of a project, and then he left all of it and became a Jewish painter. We became very close friends, with him and his wife, who passed away two years ago. His connections were broader than mine. He helped me to obtain a priceless book, a Russian-Hebrew Teach-Yourself Hebrew book by Shlomo Kodesh. The story of this book was in no way simple. Some guys in Kishinev stole a copying machine "Era" and made a hundred copies. In 1969 I had already acquired it, and in the same year, together with another hundred people I learned to read these letters. It was a miracle. Even now I can hardly believe that I read almost fluently. The KGB for a long time were after the guys who stole the copying machine. My parents' dacha in Odessa vicinity was thoroughly searched when the KGB were looking for that machine. It was already in 1970. All these guys were later arrested and sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. I didn't know anyone of them personally. This book was a remarkable landmark in our history. After that I was looking for a Pentateuch for a long time. Once I saw this book in the hands of one of my friends' father. When he saw an outsider he hastily shut it, but I remembered the fine letters in it. Several times I went to the Starokonny market in Odessa, the famous flee market where everything was sold higgledy-piggledy. I asked: "Torah?" – "Torah is in the synagogue". I don't remember where I obtained a bi-lingual (Hebrew and Russian) XIX century edition. I started to read without haste. For a year and a half I read one and a half books. Of cause, it impressed me a lot, but it did not penetrate inside. I was seriously interested. Up to that time I had believed that it was tensors that would save the mankind, but now I took a keen interest in what was written in that book. But I don't think that everything can be explained either only by what had been seeded in me in childhood, though without that it would have taken me a lot of time to reach that point, or only by my interest. In those years of intensive work in Zeldovich's laboratory where people of great talent worked their fingers to the bone to obtain their results I gradually started to feel that I was suffocating. And they would work for six or seven hours, then quickly play a couple of chess games, do a little jogging and get back to work. Maybe my physical fitness was deteriorating, maybe I was less talented, it is quite possible that this was the case, but I felt a kind of spiritual hunger. It can't be definitely diagnosed, but I realized that I was suffocating. I didn't want my life to be narrowed to that, and then my old high school debate with the adults came forward again, like when I was defending my credo that the meaning of life could not be sustaining life itself, it must have a different meaning. That was what my heart and soul were yearning for. I wanted life to be more than mere body movements. I must have hoped for something, seeking something. The first time I heard something of the Torah was when I heard a Sunday sermon of a Catholic priest on "The Voice of America" in English. He spoke about Jacob's cunning way of buying Esau's birthright. I thought: "What an interesting story, I would like to know what else is there in that book." During the Six Days War I started to look seriously for it, then I started to learn the alphabet and at the same time I got acquainted with Martin Buber's books through Nathan Faingold, in English, of course, because in Russian they did not exist. Martin Buber impressed me greatly. I translated something for the samizdat ("self-publishers"). His pamphlet "The Way of Man" was widely circulating, in Moscow circles at least. Even now I consider it a great book. Martin Buber greatly influenced me by his philosophy of dialogue. His ideas were something that would take me decades to get to. This was the book I needed, he expressed what I was almost ready to perceive. After that it becomes something technical. One day I heard that there was a commentator of the Torah. You don't simply read the Torah, but also read the commentaries written in a special type. I got these texts somewhere and broke the code with the help of Beling's method. I had invented this method like people invent the bicycle. Once I went on a business trip to Tbilisi and decided to learn the Georgian alphabet by reading the bilingual street names. A couple of dozens of streets, and I knew the alphabet. The same method helped me here. If the name of a specific personage appears in the text, most probably the commentary will also have it. I broke the code and was tremendously proud of myself. I realized that if some dozens, maybe hundreds of Jews would learn how to read the Torah with the commentaries, Stalin's epoch would be unable to do anything. Something of the kind was really happening. So, my progress was slow and I don't know how long it would have taken me if I didn't have a growing steadfast connection with a circle of young people. They were my daughter's friends. She was born when I was 21 and our relationship was very friendly, and it stays like this up to now. I influenced her very much and was getting a very strong feedback, and she also influenced her friends and pushed them to become rotten Zionists. Gradually this became my own natural circle, something I had never had before. I had my own friends, people I trusted, but they were not connected with each other. And here a new generation was growing, they were people very different from me, and I was interested in them and happy that I had this bond. This circle later formed Mahanaim (today Mahanaim is an Israeli center for studying Judaism in Russian).
I decided to go to Israel somewhere in 1971, but I could not convince my parents to go with me, and I didn't have the guts to leave them. My father was a man of firm views. He said: "As a patriot of Israel I must not go there because I will only be a burden there." Up to the end of his life I was unable to convince him. He passed away in 1975. I could not get a death certificate because he did not have a medical chart. He never went to a doctor, and they wouldn't allow to bury him without a post-mortem. They did it and found out that his body was full of metastases. No one knew that he had cancer. So there was something extraordinary in him. Mother was seriously ill then. She passed away in 1977, and right after that I applied for an exit visa. I left on Lenin's birthday, April 22.
A.T.: Our association was registered on the same day.
V.D.: I remember that there was an entry in the questionnaire: when would you like to cross the border of the USSR. I thought that June would be too early, August too late and decided – in July 1977. For two years I did not get any answer from them, but finally I squeezed a refusal from them. And on April 22 1990 I crossed their lousy border.
A.T.: O.K. Actually, you were unsatisfied with your scientific work, it did not give you spiritual gratification. It's not that you were uninterested…
V.D.: I am interested, even now. I cannot say that my scientific work was all roses. I did not manage to complete most of my papers. At least there were papers that are cited even now. I can't say that I was an underdog. If I had been satisfied with my scientific work I would certainly have concocted a doctorate. I would probably not become a luminary. As one of my colleagues put it: " You could become a genius, but you were late.".
A.T.: Mahanaim was the next step. You, who were looking for a teacher, started teaching there, you suddenly became a teacher yourself. It couldn't have to you at once, could it?
V.D.: I think that people are born teachers. My grandmother was a teacher, my mother's sister was a teacher, my father was a professional lecturer, my mother's brother was a poet, that is, the passion for self-expression was in my blood. I started my career in teaching in my 9th year at school, when I tutored some blockhead in mathematics and I never stopped since then. I loved teaching. Besides, the natural social structure was so that if you had learned two letters you were obliged to teach somebody who had learned only one. So it went without saying, no matter if I was talented or not. In many respects I was a lone wolf. Even before I applied for an exit visa I continued my work in the institute of Earth Magnetism, in the Sun department and did some work that did not interest me.
A.T.: My thesis was about the sun but I never worked in that field because all of it was in the Academy of Science. But let's return to your teaching work.
V.D.: At the end of the tractate "Brachot" in the Talmud it says that the word "shalom" does not mean what it has come to mean in our day, but it means "wholeness, union". There are two levels of unity – a union of birds who unite for a flight, this is a unity which has a common goal, but there is a tighter union – streams that merge into one flow. But this is not the end of it. The last stage is the wholeness of a pot where different ingredients are cooked together. We had started as migrating birds that come together for a flight, but very soon we got cooked. We were being cooked in a cauldron where everything was happening with an unbelievable speed and in fact, I did not teach anything, but kind of schooled the young people in a crescendo. They finished school in 1975.
A.T.: Was it then that you started teaching?
V.D.: No. Around 1973 I started interacting with them as with sufficiently mature people. It was not teaching, it was interacting with the young people.
A.T.: Did you come together?
V.D.: We would come together, listen to Shlomo Karlebach's tapes that produced tremendous impression. These tapes made their way to us at the end of the sixties and at the beginning of the seventies the young people were greatly interested. We used to go to the synagogue – that was an action with a specific end. By the end of school some of them started to learn Hebrew. But later, after I had given them a certain direction, they soon left me behind, they came to adopt the tradition sooner than I did and in a more profound way. I pushed them and they pulled me. I was doing all this in a crescendo and was going deeper and deeper because my vocabulary was enlarging and my knowledge became more profound. The turning point was in the summer of 1979. I realized that to do these things as I had been doing before was to be an ungrateful swine. But that was not a rational thing. It was a piercing feeling, like the question: Where does everything come from? I had changed since then, I started seeing everything differently, and after some months I realized that it was impossible to do these things seriously without observing Shabbat. I started to observe Shabbat and it was a torture, because for about two years all I did was abstaining from smoking. It was a nightmare for me, but there was no way out because I had come to it from the inside. From the start of the search and pondering from 1957 and to 1979 more than 22 years passed – that was the period I needed to mature.
A.T.: And when did the classes start?
V.D.: From 1979 we started to have classes that were more or less regular. In the beginning a couple of young people from the would-be Mahanaim started to teach one or two students, and by 1980 we were already a well formed group and we were aware of what we were doing. The year 80 was the beginning of a steady framework. We were ten.
A.T.: Did you mean it to be ten?
V.D.: No, it just happened so.
A.T.: Were there both boys and girls there and where did the classes take place?
V.D.: The boy and the girl were a married couple, and the classes took place in an apartment that the KGB had not yet sniffed out. For a long time it was the apartment that my daughter was renting. We had classes there until the police broke in. Lena Shakhanovsky was giving a lesson. My daughter phoned me and said: "The police are trying to break in. What's to be done?" I said: "Take away the books and put the kettle on, I am coming." I was at the other end of the town. The kettle was not especially helpful.
A.T.: They took down all the names?
V.D.: They sure did and they gave people a pain in the butt. My young wife had just that year started teaching, and her principle said to her: "A KGB captain wants to talk with you. I won't disturb you, you can occupy my room." He (the captain) sat with her for about four hours. The contents of the interrogation will probably surprise nobody.
A.T.: You were "in refusal" and she continued working (as a teacher)?
V.D.: We were not officially married then, so she was not "in refusal", her reputation was immaculate. She had been coached very well: "What is my role in this investigation?" Then he says: "You drop that Albrekht stuff!" (Albrekht was a man who wrote a samizdat book "How to Behave at Interrogations").
A.T.: Did it have any continuation?
V.D.: The continuation was very interesting. We would get together and we never stayed less than four hours, it made no sense, and we taught each other.
A.T.: And did you stay on your job?
V.D.: In 1977 I became a simple Soviet jobless man, and stayed in this role for another thirteen years. I made my living by private tutoring. I tutored University applicants in physics and lived comfortably enough. I was known as a tutor and so, without climbing into high-income spheres, I always had my bread and butter. During the first years they even registered me and I paid the taxes and was not considered jobless. Then this practice was prohibited, to make the refuseniks' life less easy. Then I had to find a job, in addition to the Torah studies, otherwise I could have been accused of being a parasite. (Parasitism, that is, not having an officially registered job, was a criminal offence.) Our ranks grew at the pace of our teaching ourselves: everyone once a week taught, at least two, and some even three, students of their own.
A.T.: Were all of them young people?
V.D.: No, they were people of various ages, but, of course, the young people prevailed. After a year or two we looked at our ranks and saw that we were already seventy, the next year we were 200. The people learned fast in that network.
A.T.: Did Prestin and Abramovich also study with you?
V.D.: Prestin was just a friend, he never participated, while Abramovich joined us when in 1984, when I for the first time got the cheek to teach the Talmud. That was sheer impudence, because at that time I barely knew Hebrew, to say nothing of Aramaic or of the Talmud concepts. For two weeks I was preparing to teach the first page of the Talmud, I had a vacation at that time. I simply wept because I couldn't understand what was written there. Pasha Abramovich attended classes for the whole year. He was great, a star, one of the most outstanding Hebrew teachers. I was tremendously flattered by his presence, it greatly enforced our lessons. The group was terrific. We were sixteen, a huge group for underground studies. The KGB got furious that year (1983-84), they simply ran wild. We had always known that we were being bugged. We had firm rules: in was forbidden to use the telephone in the apartment where classes were held, it was forbidden to use the word "shiur " (lesson) when speaking on the telephone. "Are you coming to me for a cup of tea? Take baba with you." Baba is the title of a Talmud tractate (and a colloquial word for "woman" in Russian).
A.T.: And what about the wives?
V.D.: The wife is a natural participant of the lesson, while baba is a subject for discussion. At the end of the academic year there was a big raid when we were examining each other, and after that Edelshtein and Kholmyansky were imprisoned. They were present at that shiur and also the late Borya Berman. The overwhelming majority of the shiur participants were Hebrew teachers, I was no match for them.
A.T.: You had various kind of activities, did not you?
V.D.: Yes, sure. There were a lot of things. We organized a school for children, we rented a dacha for children, during the last years (second half of the 80-ies) we rented a permanent place in Ukhtomka, a Moscow suburb, there was a kindergarten. There were several schools for children in Moscow. We were not the first group or the largest group, that is, a religious group. We were not the only group, or the largest, or the oldest one, but this is another subject that demands some analysis.
A.T.: I know that there were several religious centers in Moscow. I am not a big specialist in this subject, but I know that there were fundamental differences.
V.D.: Exactly. These formations were different in their principles and sprang out of personal preferences. They were partly "imported" from Israel. The Russian Jewry was rapidly progressing. The impression was that they were spurred on, "dragged by the ears", shaped according to Western standards which were not always beneficial, that is the political structure was to a certain degree brought from the outside. This caused a number of problems. But there also were formations that would have been developed in the natural way: the Lithuanian direction, the Hasidic one and the so called Modern Orthodox. The Lithuanian direction was sticking to the classical line called Shif , the Chabad was oriented towards the then still living Rabbi from Lubavich, with whom there were real ties, while our line was religious Zionism. Inside every movement there were also different directions. Aren't we Jews?
A.T.: Did you have ties with other cities?
V.D.: We did, but they were not very strong. We had ties with Ukraine, especially with Odessa, we had ties with Leningrad. Ilya Plotkin started learning with us. There were some ties with Riga, they sometimes visited Moscow.
A.T.: Do you happen to remember the family of Nepomnyaschikh?
V.D.: Yes. I do. I remember Edochka who was the star and her father. My really significant visit to Odessa was in 1980. A group was then forming there. It resembled "The Union of Sword and Eagle" (an allusion to "The Twelve Chairs" by Soviet writers Ilf and Petrov – a mythical political organization that only exists on paper). They brought young Shai to us, a naughty mischief-maker, and at once he told us a lot of jokes. His mother was terrified that he got mixed up in God knows what story. We advised him to bring his mother to Shabbat. She fell in love with the group and became the chief activist.
A.T.: And who were the people that you were connected with in Riga?
V.D.: I never visited Riga in those years, I can't recollect now.
A.T.: Did you have serious problems with the authorities?
V.D.: We didn't have really serious problems because we were not engaged in political and organizational activity. For example, Sasha Kholmyansky was arrested and sentenced not because he studied the Talmud in our group, but because he arranged a network of ulpanim for learning Hebrew throughout the country. This was something that they were afraid of more than fire. But anyway, they were giving us a pain in the butt: they broke into our classes, took down the names, informed the places of work. We had a firm rule: never to enter into any compromises with them, never to answer any questions, except giving obvious information. It looks that they didn't have anything serious against us. We did not participate in open demonstrations. The perestroika was already in full swing (1986) when I was called for a "lecture" by the operative representative for religious affairs of Moscow and Moscow region Maximov. He called me in my rented apartment. I kept away from my Moscow suburb apartment because I was a refusenik. If I was drafted into the army even for one day, I could have been imprisoned for a longer term, so I avoided receiving a draft-card from the drafting office. Every year we rented an apartment in different Moscow neighborhoods, it made contacts with colleagues and students more dynamic and convenient. So comrade Maximov called me in the apartment I was renting at the moment and said: "You know, we are looking for you and we can't find you. Come to me in for a talk." I was delicate enough not to ask who gave him my phone number. I came there. A "troika", three men were sitting there: one behind Maximov's back, another behind my back. Maximov says that it was a friendly talk, his neighbor reminds him that the talk is an official one and they will soon put me in jail, and behind my back there is a man who never opened his mouth. Maximov brings a claim: "You are engaged in illegal activities – you teach religion, see foreigners." – "Is seeing foreigners illegal?" He: "Where do you work?" First time I pretended that I had not heard him. Next time I said that everyone has his own little secrets. My secret was that I was not working anywhere. It was after a raid, when they crushed a shiur and arrested Kholmyansky and Edelshtein. This was our relationship with the authorities. The authorities did not like me, but I never tried to get anything from them. From 1977 to 1979 I was trying to knock out answers from them. The then All-Union OVIR boss, comrade Zotov, a rare swine, said: "You have been refused". I asked: "For what reason?" – "We are not going to tell you." I: "What? A secret reason for refusal?" He: "If you insist – regime." - "But what is regime? Secrecy?" – He: "It may include this". We were inconvenient to the authorities. Both a hostile power and a friendly power want to interact with an organization with similar structure. Our structure had no similarity with anything, it was an anarchical structure, it had no hierarchy.
A.T.: Tell me, among those 200 people there probably were some students, they must have had problems at the university, was anyone expelled?
V.D.: There certainly were problems. Some were expelled, some were not. One was an especially tough young man. He joined us because he was green, not during the first year of our studies, Vitya Galperin, a mathematician, in his last year at Moscow State University. A Jew who studies at Mechanical-Mathematical faculty, can you imagine that? He was International Mathematical Olympics winner, but they did not admit even those. They called him up and asked to inform on one of "Mahanaim's" organizers, whose sister he was going to marry. They miscalculated this, he told them to go to hell, they tried to expel him from the Komsomol and from the University, but failed to do it. This was a fantastic story. They made his life horrible; he was failed in a subdivision of Mathematics which nobody knows. He demanded that they summon a Ministry of Education Commission. They ranted and raved, but could not do anything. I don't know what grade they eventually gave him, but they were compelled to give him his degree. He was failed in every subject, but he did graduate from the University. There were probably weaker people who were thrown away or agreed to tell on their friends. I had indirect information that something did leak, and direct data that some people were suspected of such leaks. But to the honor of our group, I must say that we never got down to such rubbish as persecution mania, of suspecting everyone.
A.T.: Now, what about your wife's story? Was she inclined towards Judaism from her childhood or it came to her later, when she met you?
V.D.: She did have some vague inclinations, but they only got shaped in high school. It did not happen under my personal influence, rather, she was influenced by her friends, her social circle.
A.T.: Where was she born?
V.D.: She was born in Germany in 1958, (her father was serving there at that time) and she was my daughter's classmate. I educated them for a long time and in the end I brought them up like this.
A.T.: How did your wife see all that?
V.D.: As it often happens in such cases, she was actually the main driving force. She was the first to observe kashrut seriously. I was more advanced technically. If she had not been so firm and active, I don't know what my home would have looked like. No man can have such steadfastness as a woman, the lady of the house can give. Her problem was that her parents would not give their consent to our emigration. In 1987 the term of refusal for fake secrecy reason had expired. The only secret everyone knew was that not a damn thing was being done. I knew no other secrets. In 1987 they must have cancelled my secrecy. For the next three years we were waiting for our turn like poor relatives. It was impossible to explain this to foreigners, they did not understand Russian humor.
A.T.: How did the children take it?
V.D.: My daughter was ahead of everyone. They started observing Jewish tradition before me. My younger children were born refuseniks, so they had no choice and they received only Jewish upbringing. My wife and I have five children, and in addition to my big daughter I have two sons from my second marriage, eight children all in all.
A.T.: I would like to ask another question: there were several movements, were they in contact with one another?
V.D.: There were contacts, sometimes friendly, but mostly hostile.
A.T.: I may be mistaken, but my impression is that they did not have as many people as you did.
V.D.: I am sure that Essas had even more people. He had excellent organizational skills.
A.T.: And he was no fool.
V.D.: I would mind my eye with him.
A.T.: How did your life turn out here?
V.D.: Mahanaim turned out to be the only Jewish organization that moved to Israel as an organization. That was an outstanding thing to happen. We did not call ourselves Mahanaim before most of the central part of the group left for Israel.
A.T.: You did not call yourselves Mahanaim in Russia?
V.D.: No. Our friends called us "the firm". Why the firm? Because we earned our living by tutoring, giving private lessons. I taught Physics, Polonsky taught Mathematics, Karevanov – Chemistry, there were also biologists. So, several of the central families left and everyone was thinking of his own business. Of the Mahanaim's kernel I was the last to leave, they left in 1987.
A.T.: Three years is quite some time. Do you have any explanations why you emigrated later?
V.D.: Of course. I became "a poor relative". My wife's parents would not give us a permission to leave. It could have been just an excuse, but maybe I had to stay put and do something else. It was a very important period. By the end of 1988 Sheigarts came to the yeshiva, and the Mahanaim group was a very important part in it. We supported them, we spent a whole day there.
A.T.: Were there still many people who wanted to learn (Judaism) in Moscow?
V.D.: Yes. In 1989 we were still renting an apartment, but later we got the former mayor's residence. When the first families came here, the former teachers said: "Friends, don't think of settling as private people here – your activity is needed here no less than it was needed there", and they convinced them to open their center here and call it Mahanaim.
A.T.: In Israel there is a branch of Orthodox Judaism. Your version doesn't fit this framework.
V.D.: Absolutely wrong. I do not like the word "Orthodox" and I don't use it. Orthodox is a part of Christian church, it's something different. If we say that there is a movement that demands observing all the commandments, there is a movement that says that something may or must be made easier, then we certainly belong to this movement. We do not allow any slip-shod work in these matters.
A.T.: And what would you call the version that is accepted in Israel – the Orthodox approach?
V.D.: Call it whatever you wish to. The Orthodox movement is represented by three versions these days: the Lithuanian, the Hassidic and Modern Orthodox. All of these are inside the Orthodox, same thing all over the world. There are also the Conservative and Reform Judaism, that's something else. In Russia the situation was too tense to think of what the liberal American Jews got to. I used to ask the visiting Conservatives "obscene" questions: "What's the use of teaching people a part of the commandments if one has to observe all of them?" For what reason do I have to observe part of the commandments? Either I have to or I don't have to.
A.T.: Rotten democracy.
V.D.:Simply terrible. And it's getting stronger every day.
A.T.: And what about your relationship with religious authorities?
V.D.: We were not much in touch with them, they just warned us against insulting the walls, walls are covered with ears. With the local authorities here it's like this: in the first years when Mahanaim was formed the chief rabbis were Abraham Shapiro and Mordechai Eliyahu, and they were the champions of religious Zionism.
A.T.: Does it depend a lot on which rabbi is on the top?
V.D.: The establishment is totally determined by his policy and for some time everything went well while they were the government body.
A.T.: The rest of it is in SHAS (Sephardic religious party)?
V.D.: On the one hand there is the Sephardic movement of SHAS. It is diverse, it includes different sections in specific proportions, but, at least, it is not a specifically Zionist movement. There is a Lithuanian movement. It also changes, gets shuffled. There are lots of Hasidic sections, a couple of hundreds. What do you expect? Aren't they Jewish?
A.T.: Got it.
V.D.: Our relationship with the establishment are unstable, and if they are stable, they are very bad. We are respected, but no one gives us any financial support. I can understand them. We are an organization that does not fit in into the establishment, so we have to live from hand to mouth most of the time. The good thing about us is that we still have the enthusiasm to run this whole business, even though it's not so easy, as a matter of fact. I was sure that in Israel everyone will return to his specialty and learn in the evenings, but it turned out that this is not the case. Of course, there are wonderful rabbis who you can learn from, but to construct a system like the one we spontaneously built from below is not so easy. When you start choosing a school for your child in Israel you realize what the problems are. There are a lot of factors demanding great care which have to be taken into consideration. The special thing about us, without any labels, is that we naturally unite both religious and non-religious people. Some people, when they start observing the commandments, first of all blot out the whole of their previous life. Firstly, I simply don't understand this and secondly, I consider it a crime. If I lived the first half of my life in vain, it means that I have work out something anew. I also feel that it's a shame that I was standing in a line for such a long time. We have our own very important purpose. If people understood this they would give us more support. Some understand what it is to have no money like us while those who sit near the coin mint have to produce structures similar to their own organizations. Our life is in no way easy, and in the last years we've been out of the government ministries favor.
A.T.: Do they help you as an association?
V.D.: Yes, we are an approved of association and we are known world while. We mainly exist on donations from various funds and private donors.
A.T.: I thank you for your interesting story.
V.D.: And I am grateful to you.
Translation from Russian by Ilana (Elena) Romanovsky