The Refuseniks’ Struggle for Freedom:

A Personal Story

by Dahlia Genusov

Dahlia Genusov, born in Leningrad. Daughter of refuseniks (1976-1981) Laura and Alexander Genusov. Grew up in Israel and France. Graduated from McGill University, Montreal, Canada. Now lives in Jerusalem, Israel.

       - What’s your name again?

       - Dahlia.

       - That’s a very pretty name!


       When my father came to register me as Dahlia, the clerk sitting in the dingy Interior Ministry office sneered and said, “What kind of a foreign name is that? When she’s sixteen, she’ll come back here begging for us to change it.”

       “When she’s sixteen,” my father answered, “I sure hope that she’ll no longer be here.”

       “Here” was Leningrad in 1979, and my father, twenty five years old, already had four years of official refusenik life behind him. We left the Soviet Union on a misty July morning two years later, leaving behind teary-eyed family members who were certain that they would never see us again. After three days in an Austrian transit camp, we landed in an absorption center in Jerusalem.

       I only know what refusenik life was like from my parents’ stories.

       But what stories they are!

       “I have never felt as free as during that time in Leningrad,” my father once told me. The boundaries of Model Soviet Citizenship were clear, but suddenly, they were sidestepped. Refusenik life was a shadow existence, between the lines, outside the rigid borders of Soviet society.

       Once a person decided to leave the country, she immediately began to suffer from humiliating and unfair treatment, beginning with the loss of her job and the inability to work professionally. The authorities were harsh in their dealings with these “traitors of the Soviet Union”. The KGB summoned people for questionings, homes were searched ruthlessly for any evidence of Jewish and dissident literature, political expression was violently censored, physical and emotional harassment were routine, and the fear of imprisonment was always present. All in all, becoming a refusenik meant becoming a pariah in all social circles except the one formed by other refuseniks.

       But refusenik society in itself quickly became a vibrant network of support and information. Educational opportunities abounded: private living rooms housed scientific and legal conferences for unemployed scholars, Hebrew, English, and Judaism classes for the uninitiated, and Israeli dancing and folk songs in between. Cooking together as a large group for a first communal Passover seder, preparing costumes for a first Purim spiel, learning to pronounce the words in the Shabbat Kiddush – the awe of discovery, the spirit of community, the feeling of being pioneers and trailblazers laced every moment.

       Another dimension of refusenik life was the new experience of taking part in a global Jewish community. Jewish communities abroad “adopted” individual refuseniks and provided essential political, financial and emotional support. Jewish people from around the world began to travel to the former USSR in order to meet refuseniks and help, despite the risks inherent in such activities. The visitors made an enormous contribution both to the struggle of making emigration possible, and to providing Soviet Jews with the feeling that they were not alone. Hearing “Let My People Go!” for the first time from a young American guitar player made freedom accessible, breaking down the Iron Curtain through genuine human connections.

       The unraveling of the Soviet bloc in the 1990s rendered the Movement for Soviet Jewry happily obsolete. Certainly, anyone who was involved in the struggle to secure freedom for Soviet Jews, on either side of the borders between East and West, remembers those years. But for most people, this chapter in Jewish and world history is remote, if not completely unknown. In order to not let the refuseniks’ story disappear into the “black hole” of history, Aba Taratuta, who struggled for 15 years to leave the Soviet Union for Israel, is now creating an archive in Haifa that will gather written and visual documents and testimonies relating to those years.

       The archive will ensure that the story of the refuseniks is not lost to future generations. Photographs and letters that are now tucked away in private scrapbooks are invaluable historical material, a testimony to the tenacity and generosity of all who were involved with this cause. They are, after all, those who made it possible for so many courageous and determined individuals to maintain their dignity in the face of bitter oppression and to gain political and spiritual freedom for themselves and for their children.

       I cannot imagine what my life would have been like had my parents not persisted in their desire to leave the USSR. And I’m grateful that I never had to change my name, bundled as it was with hope, struggle, and anticipation of a different life.