Story of a Demonstration
How I Got Married
by Sydney Skully
In early 1986, after the samizdat publication [Samizdat- a clandestine publishing system within the Soviet Union, by which forbidden or unpublished literature was reproduced and circulated privately. - Translator.] of my book ''The Jews of Petersburg'', I again felt that the KGB (the organs of state security) were interested in me, and this time it was quite serious. Since they had already read my separate excursions in the LEA (''Leningrad Jewish Almanac''), the gravity of my completed work had not yet reached them. Now that both of these works had come to their attention, they made an impression. The authorities now had a rather substantial book on Jewish history, written under conditions of refusal and it was even written by a person without special historical or literary training. [Beizer's excursions around places in Leningrad connected to Jews were based on his research of the history of Jews in St. Petersburg/ Petrograd/ Leningrad and made up the bulk of the book's content. LEA was a kind of magazine with articles about historical, religious and cultural topics about Jews in general. They were written by various authors, Michael being its editor and leading author. - Translator.]
They let me slip by! They did it twice. The first time was during Martin Gilbert's visit. [Sir Martin Gilbert was a British historian, biographer of Winston Churchill and prolific author who described himself as a proud practicing Jew and Zionist. - Translator.] On his return to London, he quickly managed to write down from memory the contents of the notebooks and film cassettes that had been confiscated at Sheremetevo airport. He subsequently wrote and published the book ''The Jews of Hope'', where I was the subject of a separate chapter entitled ''On Police Bridge''. Gilbert's book promised me definitive support in the West in the event of arrest. After all, the author served as the historical consultant to the ''Iron Lady'', Margaret Thatcher.
And now they let my own book slip by. The authorities were chasing after "troublemakers and hooligans" all the time and pursued anyone who took home foreign tourists bearing gift packages. But I lived relatively quietly. I went to work every day, and in the evenings returned to my communal apartment on Rubinstein Street that had been subdivided between a drunk, a prostitute and an old hag whose son was in prison. There I edited the LEA, led an underground historical seminar (without any foreigners), but most importantly, I wrote, rewrote, supplemented, corrected, and finally finished copying my first Jewish book that was so vitally important during that period. At that time the KGB still did not know that the book had already been transferred to film and smuggled to England where it was being translated by a Russian language teacher, Michael Sherbourne, who was a veteran in the struggle for Soviet Jewry. In addition, a prospective American publisher had been found - The Jewish Publication Society. Samizdat promised to become tamizdat [Tamizdat is samizdat works smuggled abroad for publication. - Translator.] For the time being, the appearance of samizdat books was problematical.
Seminar on Jewish history in Leningrad
lead by Michael Beizer
(first row, second from the left), 1987.
While working on my book, I managed to scoop up the better part of my material from the open stacks of the public library. (It turned out, for example, that the ''Address Books of Petersburg'' were a rich source of information for the Jewish historian.) In addition, I was able to gather Jewish books and journals from private collections, to which I was able to gain access over the years, while at the same time winning the trust of their owners - Isaak Furshtein, Leonid Belotserkovsky and others. Gradually Aba Taratuta bought up these private libraries from their owners and founded a unique underground library in refusal.
Elderly Peterburgers whom I interviewed proved to be of great assistance, especially the aging Bertha Davidovna Joffe, the daughter of the spiritual rabbi of the Great Choral Synagogue, David Tevel Katzenellenbogen. Bertha Davidovna was noted for her sharp mind and splendid memory. ("Once Papa and I were strolling in Tsarskoye Selo, where we were renting a dacha for the summer. Suddenly a carriage passed by with Maria Feodorovna inside." [Maria Feodorovna - the Dowager Empress; wife of Alexander III; mother of Nicolas II. - Translator.] Besides that, Bertha Davidovna used to study in the History Department of St Petersburg University and saw the context in which great historical events were taking place.
Thus, the ''specialists'' in the KGB determined that my employment in a technical field precluded me from doing such work independently and that I could not even gather materials due to their inaccessibility without special permission to do so. They decided to trump up charges just as they did in the matter of Arseny Roginsky, who in 1981 was sentenced to four years in prison for unsanctioned use of archival materials. For that reason the KGB chose two historians who were well known to them from the circle of my close acquaintances. They wanted them to play the role of ''experts'' and serve as witnesses for the prosecution side - without success, of course. One was Natalia Vasilievna Yukhneva, an employee of the Kuntskammer and a recognized researcher on the ethnic minorities of Petersburg and who had a reputation as a free thinker. She attended my underground seminar, was the only Gentile and the only person who had something to lose. The other was the typist Rita Gimelshteyn, a convert to Catholicism who was the first person to do a literary editing of "The Jews of Petersburg" and to make copies.
Therefore, the KGB probably did not succeed in finding my other advisors and supporters. In the first instance, there was David Raskin, the head of the research department of the State Historical Archives, and the person who was the first professional to read my manuscript. In addition, there was the immeasurably erudite bibliographer of the Leningrad Public Library, Dima Levin, who assisted in searching for reference literature. Both Raskin and Levin were part of an amazing circle that included the graduates and their closest associates who had attended the elite Leningrad Specialized Secondary School #239 and especially members of its book club ''Scarlet Sails'' to which I had the honor to belong. [At the beginning of the 20th century there was a highly imaginative Russian writer, Alexander Green, who wrote many romantic stories about love, gorgeous girls and heroic men, beautiful sailing ships and enthralling voyages beyond oceans. One of the stories was titled ''Scarlet Sails'' and was very popular among young people. The title was fitting well as the name for a literary club. - Translator.] I must say that our school rarely turned out Zionists. (These days the reunions of the school's graduates take place in Boston rather than Tel-Aviv.) The school did not produce ''strongmen'', for that matter. It graduated open-minded and independent thinking intellectuals. In my case, this circumstance was more important than the doctrinaire education of the History Departments of Soviet universities.
The KGB counted on proving that Yukhneva and Gimbelshteyn had supplied me with archival documents or, at least, had given me professional assistance. Fortunately for me, both of these women refused to cooperate with the ''organs'' and told me that they had been molested. Unfortunately, I could not find out which one had been the most compliant. (I knew that not everyone in my ''underground'' seminar was quite so steadfast.) I also understood that ''they'' would never rest until they had ''found some ammunition.'' But at least they had ceased to summon, try to persuade, warn and threaten me.
Two of my friends, aliyah activists and refuseniks, Alex (Roald) Zelichonok and Vladimir Lifshitz had already been imprisoned. [Aliyah - Hebrew term for immigration of Jews to Israel. - Translator]. During Zelichonok's interrogation, I was subpoenaed as a witness in the case and the investigator even threatened me with imprisonment if I didn't "make up the right story". Like others, I wrote letters, some of which were humorous, to my friends in prison. In one that I sent to Liftshitz in Kamchatka, I advised him to ask the camp authorities for an excursion to the Kommander Islands where there are unique breeding grounds for marine seals. ''I envy you,'' I wrote, ''you probably have so much caviar there that it's like slime. I felt like visiting Kamchatka, but what did they do but send you there at government expense.'' The camp boss summoned Liftshitz, handed him my letter that had been stamped by the censor and expressed confidence in the fact that ''your friend will soon end up here as well.''
It was right at the time I was waiting to be sent to prison, that I conceived of the idea of a fictitious marriage to a foreigner that would serve as a shield against the arbitrariness of the ruling powers. I was divorced, in other words free, and that in effect gave me an advantage over other refuseniks burdened with families. But that burden was my weakness as well. If I were imprisoned, a foreign wife would never be able to send "peredachi" or "care packages" of food to me. [The meager food in Soviet camps and prisons could hardly be termed edible and its amount was less than one can imagine - just enough not to die. - Translator].
Just at that time, at the home of Borya and Alla Kelman, I was introduced to a tourist from San Diego - a somewhat extravagant, but very sincere woman - Donna. As I realized later, she was one of the typical graduates of Berkeley, who during their student years ran to demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, for the rights of blacks and homosexuals, and for women's right to an abortion. It was a logical extension that she would take up the cause of the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate freely.
Donna came to the refuseniks with instructions from the Union of Councils for Soviet Jewry, the American non-governmental organization that fought for the rights of Soviet Jews, but she paid for the trip herself, and did not even know that the Union often sponsored such trips.
It was obvious that Donna wanted to spend time with me and listen to my explanations while sitting on the couch or walking in the evenings along the deserted quays. Perhaps my black curly locks and beard reminded her of her fellow university comrades - intellectual radicals who were almost always Jews. Once I confided in her that I felt in danger, and that a fictitious marriage to a foreigner could protect me. Donna called somewhere and was counseled about the possible legal ramifications of such an act. (For example, what would happen if I arrived in the US and tried to claim a share of her property?) She agreed to it, but not until I signed the declaration that I would have no claim on any of her property. Still, she knew me very little.
At this point I do not remember all the details of that complex process known as marriage to a foreigner or a ''fictitious'' marriage. At first I thought the KGB would not allow this marriage and that they would shove her on a plane and send her home, without even letting us submit an application. But ''there'' (at the KGB) someone must have decided to give us a chance - not much of one - or they once again let me slip by. Not only did Donna not know how to do all that, but I also was completely unprepared. On the day before her departure, I took her to the wedding palace on the Red Fleet Embankment, and there, while spending some time waiting in line, we learned that they registered marriages to foreigners at another wedding palace, which was all the way across town on the cruiser ''Aurora'' Embankment. There were no means of direct communication, and as usual, you couldn't catch a cab. When, gasping for air, we finally managed to reach the right palace (which nowadays seems to be the governor's residence), the line seemed even longer and the reception hours would soon be over.
Was all lost? No, not everything. Another refusenik, Vera Elbert, a performer of Jewish songs, was standing in line near the door of the reception room. It turned out that a ferry of Swedish tourists had arrived in Leningrad, and on it was a group of young ''lifesavers'' - volunteers prepared to enter into fictitious marriages with anyone who wished to do so. Vera was one of the ones desiring to do so. Catching sight of us, she put us in line right next to her in place of some guy who had been on the list of those who had an appointment for this date, but he became frightened and didn't show up at all.
I rushed to fill in the blanks. Then a pretty looking Swede approached me. "I be your wife," she said in broken Russian. ''But I already have a bride. She's sitting right over there.'' As long as I held the place in line as her ''groom'', she had decided that she was going to marry me.
I did not realize that I had such a wide choice. Two months later, Mary, my New Zealand pen pal, arrived in Leningrad. When I told her about my matrimonial efforts, my kiwi-friend noted with some resentment in her voice, "Why didn't you ask me? I could have done it as well."
Jumping ahead, I will tell you that when my flight to Israel landed at Ben-Gurion airport, and I was filling out an Israeli form for the first time in my life, I did not know what to write in the column ''family status.'' After some hesitation, I indicated ''married'', referring both to Donna and also to my first wife from whom I only had a civil divorce and not a Jewish one. It turned out that I had to divorce both of them.
Returning to my story in Leningrad, on July 4, 1986, we celebrated Independence Day at the American consulís home on Grodno Lane. When she was preparing to leave, Donna had not forgotten to go to the consulate to tell them about our ''love at first sight,'' and so it turned out that as the fiance of an American citizen I was invited to the party. It was the first time I ever saw belly dancing. The consul's niece was the dancer. The coins on her naked belly tinkled loudly.
Whisky, gin and wine flowed like water. Non-conformist artists who were locked in ideological warfare with the Soviet Union stood out in the crowd by getting thoroughly drunk. On their way out, they were all thrown into a police bus which delivers drunkards to a holding cell to spend the night at their own expense. The next day, the newspaper (''Smena'' or ''Leningradskaya Pravda'') told its readers that at the height of an anti-alcohol campaign, a den was discovered in the middle of Leningrad. It was the home of the American consul where they encouraged all kinds of alcoholics and misfits to get drunk in order to portray them as ''representatives of urban society''.
In order to complete the marriage ceremony, Donna had to return to Leningrad from her distant home in San Diego - again at her own expense. And then, at last, we were husband and wife. The final instructions, a touching farewell.
My next attempt to submit an application to OVIR [the visa office - Translator], this time along with the request for reunion with my wife, had the same result - refusal. Once she arrived in California, my wife persistently collected letters with signatures of senators and congressmen that were sent to Gorbachev demanding a resolution to the unification of our new family. Once she completed that task, she even published articles in magazines about meetings she had with other refuseniks. It is impossible to describe how much she accomplished.
I, in turn, continued to fight in Leningrad. At first I considered a hunger strike, but realized that I could not go without food for a long time. My protest could be anything else, but not that. Besides, I could not go to work hungry. At the same time I did not want to lie and say I was on a hunger strike and not be. Suddenly it dawned on me: the powers that be didn't care if I was hungry or full. What annoyed them was the very fact that I was insubordinate. They did not want an uproar over my case. So why should I go on a hunger strike? I'd be better off declaring a work stoppage and cease going to work. It's better to eat and not work, than to work and not eat. Besides, I reasoned, in the West journalists still are in the habit of writing the words "hunger strike" and not just "strike."
There were consequences for me at work. During all my years as a refusenik, I had worked as a programmer at VPTI ''Energomash'' (All-Union Design and Technical Institute of Energy Production Equipment.) I worked in the welding department where I dealt with the problem, if I may say, of finding the optimal cutting surfaces in the fabrication of metal sheets. The head of the department, Boris Abovich Shteingoltz, was a war veteran and a member of the Party. I was a huge headache or as they say in Israel, a thorn in the ass. From time to time he would call me in for ''reeducation'' sessions. He repeated that he was fed up working with Jews who were always demanding something, and it was a lot easier with goyim [Gentiles - Translator.] who were all content. Boris' only daughter was married to a young Russian status seeker, and both of them worked at VPTI. After hearing plenty of Shteingoltz's complaints, just as my hand was about to grasp his office doorknob to leave, he would aim his parting shot at the back of my neck, ''Misha, don't you know if they're letting people out now?''
Three years later, in 1990, I was living in Jerusalem when I got a call from Boris Abovich in Maalot. He had arrived in Israel with his divorced daughter. The young status seeker had thrown her over. ''My dear Misha, how right you were!'' I heard in the telephone receiver.
It turned out that my idea of a strike was absolutely correct. After a couple of days, an emissary came to see me. He reminded me that we worked together in the same department, but for some reason I couldn't recall either his name or his face, and therefore concluded that he was a KGB informant who had been sent to clarify the situation. My ''friend'' expressed overwhelming sympathy due to the separation from my wife and conveyed a message from the VTPI personnel department head Dina Sergeevna (surname forgotten). ''Come back, and all will be forgiven.'' She even promised to include the workdays I had missed in my salary just to hush up the case. But I feigned that I was offended and said that I would not stop and would keep going until the end.
I did have other plans. I decided to back up my strike with
a demonstration and began to recruit the more militant refuseniks,
urging them to join. Everyone listened, commiserated, agreed in
principle that it would be necessary to demonstrate, but they cited
specific, yet ephemeral reasons why they could not demonstrate just
at this time: someone was sick, someone had been promised something by OVIR,
others did not want to jeopardize the status of their relatives who
were not going to emigrate. But generally speaking they were "for
the demonstration". I did find an active supporter in Aba Taratuta,
who selected the majority of the other participants. His son, Misha
made the posters. In general, there were more courageous women in
Leningrad, (Inna Lobovikova-Rozhanskaya, Elena Keis-Kuhna,
Leah Shapiro and Ida Taratuta), than men (Boris Lokshin, Aba and me.)
Once again, wisely, we decided not to transport everyone to Moscow
(there were all kinds of organizational problems, or the KGB might
take us off the train). Instead, we organized the demonstration in
our hometown, at the entrance to the Smolny Palace, which at that
time was the seat of the Leningrad Regional and City Party Committee,
and directly across from the statue of Karl Marx. Let him feast his
eyes on a bunch of heretics!
As soon as we took our place and pulled out our placards, the police arrived and threatened to arrest us if we did not disperse. I was ready for it. I had come in an old coat and hat, deliberately hadn't shaved in a long time, and figured the police could shave me at public expense. Then they said that the regional party committee was willing to talk to us. We agreed, but not until we had stayed in our place exactly two hours with our placards which is what we had intended from the very beginning. They didn't dare touch us; it was the era of ''perestroika and glasnost'', however, and we were allowed to stand there our allotted time. Then they escorted us to a certain wing of the Smolny Palace where there awaited the third secretary of the regional committee, two KGB agents and the head of Leningrad OVIR who was furious that they had dragged him there on our account and that he still had to explain something to us. We shouted and cursed a little. (I held my own as the most brazen of all, probably thanks to my American wife), and we went our own separate ways without agreeing to anything.
Since I was now officially making plans to go to the US, my poster had been inscribed with ''We want the right to leave'' instead of ''Let me go to Israel.'' In this regard, within ''Nativ'', the Israeli governmental agency engaged in providing international support for the aliyah movement, there arose numerous problems concerning the dissemination of information about the demonstration. One of the participants had come with an ideologically unacceptable placard. ''Nativ'' printed a message about it in a leaflet by Nan Greefer just four months later when I was already in Israel. The writing on my poster was intentionally blurred, and my name was not mentioned in the leaflet.
The authorities in Leningrad acted much more expeditiously. On the day following the demonstration, March 24, 1987, an item appeared on the last page of the newspaper "Vecherny Leningrad" (''The Evening Leningrad.") The headline read ''With Placards on Their Chests'' and told of our demonstration. There was also a photo. (While taking this photo they moved all the policemen out of the camera's field of vision). To the best of my knowledge it was the first photograph of refuseniks in the Soviet press. The article listed all the demonstrators except me and said that the refusals issued to the protestors had been proper.
My older sister Tema worked at the Radio Equipment Research Institute, a "closed", or secret government enterprise. When she came to work, she noticed the all her colleagues' heads were bent over the latest edition of the newspaper and they were discussing something. "Tema, look, this looks a lot like your brother. If I didn't know that it was impossible for him to be in their midst, I would have to say it was him for sure." It took my sister's breath away. What if her brother's name was mentioned in the news story? They would fire her. She ran to the party committee room, found the latest edition of "The Evening Leningrad" and carefully scanned the text of the article. She sighed with relief.
I did not attribute any particular importance to the fact that my name was not mentioned, but seasoned refuseniks interpreted it as a good sign. And that's how it turned out. Three days later I got a call from the Visa Office. ''You have been granted permission to leave! Stop by OVIR for your documents.'' I wondered if the stateís interests had already changed. I scarcely had time to catch my breath.
On arrival at the OVIR office, they took me to an inner room, where a female police major announced that, yes, they would give me an exit permit, but not for emigration to my wife in the US, but to Israel, as I had applied for previously. This decision was completely illegal. (That's the way they got their revenge with this latest meanness.) It meant that they would take away my Soviet citizenship and I would have to pay for it. [All Jews, (and only Jews) leaving the USSR with an invitation from Israel were stripped of their Soviet citizenship and had to pay what amounted to the enormous sum of 500 rubles per person, including children. This was 6-7 times more than the average engineer's monthly pay. - Translator.] In addition to that, I could only buy an airline ticket to Vienna, and not to the US. Because of that I would be left almost penniless in Vienna and without a plane ticket to my beloved wife. [ One was permitted to exchange only 90 rubles into dollars per person. We could only pay in rubles for expensive Aeroflot Airline tickets. According to the official rate of exchange at that time, this amounted to only about $141. That was the exchange rate for the ordinary human beings. There were calculations for international trade that were based on a different, "realistic" rate of exchange. - Translator.]
The policewoman conveyed her good news while distancing herself toward the opposite end of the large room so there would be time to react in case I threw myself at her. By now I had crossed the line and was considered a demonstrator and a brawler - a danger to others. But upon reflection, I made the decision that the documents for emigration to Israel, where I had intended to go anyway, would permit me to take substantial luggage, and so I did not protest their conditions.
For the paperwork, I had to stop by the personnel department at my place of work - VPTI. Even if I did not have to do so, I would go anyway, just to see the reaction by the staff. Dina Sergeevna greeted me warmly, even genially. She told me how one of the employees had married a Norwegian woman who now visited people, dropped by work, even, it seems, brought certain kinds of gifts. It sounded like the request by a petty Soviet worker's cronies in Galich's song about the aunt in Fingalia. They ask him to send them "something that won't be needed over there." [In one of his songs/poem, "The Ballad of Surplus Value", the Jewish bard Alexander Galich sings of a petty-hero, homo-Soveticus, a proletarian who is left a fortune by his auntie in the fictional country of "Fingalia". He pays for a raucous farewell binge with his cronies who ask him to send them something. They say, "When you get there, send us something you don't need." But when he already has a plane ticket to Fingalia, he hears a Soviet radio broadcast solemnly congratulating Fingalia for a socialist revolution with "all power to the people" and that all factories have been nationalized. In Galich's song we hear the would-be millionaire's spluttering curses at the untimely operation of "Karl Marx's party tricks." - Translator.]
About 20-25 people worked in my sub department and about a third of them were Jews. There was the cowardly Roma from Zhmerinka who was granted an exit visa, but reconsidered. I brought my colleagues a big cake to regale them with a treat in honor of my departure. I cut the cake and observed who ate it and who didn't. At least half of the staff took a piece. Of the others, some didn't even touch it for fear that they would be denounced. Our sub department head, Boris Ivanovich, took me aside and said, ''I envy you, Misha.''
Michael Beizer's friends see him off. (in the middle of the second row from the top). Such gatherings were usually called "farewell parties".
I will never forget the last two days in Leningrad, the days of parting. My refusenik friends did everything possible to give me a grand send-off. For a whole month, they collected money, obtained things, bought me gifts, knit warm socks and sewed padded covers. [These were for the furniture that would be packed in large containers and sent by train to Israel. - Translator.] They arranged my send-off for Friday night at someone else's apartment. It was full of guests. They sang, danced, hugged one another and were photographed in three tiers. All this euphoria, revelry and vodka kept my hour of ''reckoning'' at bay as to what was happening.
The gravity of the situation descended the next day, when relatives and old friends who had not been at our refusenik revelry, came one after another to my apartment. They streamed in from 9 in the morning until 11 at night. (The day before an old school friend from Moscow had stayed up with me almost until the crack of dawn.) The endless wine and tea drinking made me feel like I was being stretched on the rack. My whole life passed before me as, one after another, figures from the past 10, 15 and 25 years took their places around the table. Some were arriving; some were bidding me a final farewell. It seems as though our exhausted faces looked greenishly ill in the black and white photographs taken that day. From time to time, someone took me out in the hallway to say farewell in private, and it was then that I realized, as if from a newspaper obituary, how much it meant to someone. My older sister began to sob. At parting, my mother only said, ''I will never see you again.'' That was when I came to the realization that no one ever returns from ''the beyond''. Aba Taratuta said, ''We assign you as our authorized representative." Where and to whom was I to present them? I was the one who was flying away to the land of no return.
Upon arrival in Israel, I was handed a packet of my things from Donna. She had wrapped everything of mine in the packet, so that nothing in her home would ever remind her of me. In a box was a new pair of glasses that she had bought me, her correspondence with the world on behalf of my departure, and photographs taken in Leningrad with no images of herself. To all that was attached a note: ''Thank you for the invitation to participate in this adventure.''
Detroit, Michigan USA, 2016