Excerpts from the book: Evgeny Lein. LEST WE FORGET
The Refuseniks' Struggle and World Jewish Solidarity
The Jerusalem Publishing Centre, 1997
(in English, 316 pages, 42 illustrations)
Evgeny Lein was born in 1939 in Leningrad. After graduating from Leningrad University in mathematics and mechanics, he worked as a teacher of mathematics and was engaged in research. In 1968 he was awarded a PhD in “Applied mathematics”.
In 1978 Evgeny, together with his wife Irina and their children, applied for an exit visa to Israel but were refused on the pretext that “it is not advantageous for the USSR to supply an enemy state with skilled specialists”. Evgeny and Irina Lein were fired from their jobs in order to be taught a lesson and as a warning to others. After Evgeny and Irina became refuseniks, they participated actively in the scientific seminars of refusenik-scientists, and also in seminars based on the history, culture and traditions of the Jewish people.
On May 10th. 1981 a meeting, dedicated to Israel Independence Day, was to be held in the Lein’s apartment. Entry to the apartment was, however, blocked by KGB agents and, a week later, Evgeny was arrested and incarcerated it the “Kresty” prison.
Evgeny refused to plead guilty to the charge of “resistance to authorities”, Article 191/2 of the Criminal Code, and used an open court session to express open protest against arbitrary discrimination against Jews. The court sessions were completed but, contrary to KGB intentions, developed not as an exercise in the frightening of “ Soviet society renegades”, but into an outstanding demonstration of refusenik solidarity. According to the court decision, Evgeny was sentenced to two years of imprisonment “on probation”. But the probation sentence became “relatively probational”! They tried to break Evgeny during five months in the “Kresty” prison, and after that they dragged him for a month and a half through the transit prisons of Sverdlovsk and Achinsk to Khakassia, where they tried to re-educate him on “chemia” (forced labour at chemical plants). Irina followed her husband to Khakassia and, in fact, saved him from much harsher treatment. Giving in to the waves of protest by international Jewish organizations the “powers that be” allowed Evgeny to return to Leningrad in June 1982, where he was ordered to work as a fireman apprentice in a communal heating system boiler house.
The Lein family got permission to leave for Israel only in 1989, after many years of active participation in the refuseniks’ struggle for their rights to repatriate to Israel.
After arrival in Israel, Dr. Evgeny Lein taught mathematics in the Hebrew University’s Rothberg School for Overseas Students and Dr. Irina Lein worked for the Immunology Center of the Hadassah Medical School. To-day Evgeny and Irina Lein, their children and six grand-children live in Ma’ale Adumim, near Jerusalem.
In May 1981, some unknown person named Rykov submitted an application to the Interior Ministry. He wrote that a schedule of lectures delivered in private apartments had been distributed near the Leningrad Synagogue. The next lecture, entitled “Israel Independence Day”, was to be given at the home of Evgeny Lein.
Well, Rykov was a reliable KGB informer – what he wrote was true. The State of Israel became thirty-three years old and the lecture Yom Ha'azmaut (Independence Day) was indeed to take place at my home.
It was only after my arrest that I learned about the denunciation. On May 10th, 1981 there was no warning of the coming tragedy. It was Sunday, the free day for Soviet citizens. Irina and I were making preparations for the Jewish seminar. We removed any unnecessary furniture and made benches out of boards to accommodate as many students as possible in our three-room apartment. Suddenly we heard a loud knock at the door. I looked through the peephole and saw several plainclothes men. I felt that the best strategy would be to abstain from any negotiations with the KGB, so I defiantly refused to open the door or to talk with them. Irina and I went to the balcony and saw cars gathering near our house. We saw tough-looking men getting out of their cars. They wore shabby hats and well-worn coats to make them look like hoodlums. Some of them put red ribbons on their sleeves and were pretending to be druzhinniks, members of a public force in the USSR that was supposed to help the militia.
By that time the Jews, participants in the seminar on “Jewish History, Culture, and Traditions” started to arrive. The entrance to our house was already blocked. Three gorillas in plain clothes were standing near our door and druzhinniks were everywhere.
A refusenik, Mikhail Elman, saw me standing on the balcony and shouted:
- Evgeny, they won’t let me in. They don’t believe I am your brother!
At that moment the militia officer murmured:
- Yes, I believe that, of course, but we’ll cut short your visit here.
I saw from above that a man in plain clothes was commanding the operation. The uniformed militia officer was only there to make the inspection of the suspects’ identification documents appear legal. The militia officer and the thugs detained everybody who looked Jewish. Our Armenian neighbors, Gosha and Katy Gambaryan, were detained as well. They were a young, kind, married couple. I had several times asked them to hide documents, photographs and Hebrew language textbooks when I was expecting a search of my home.
The residents of our apartment block were mainly intellectuals; the house belonged to a cooperative of the Academy of Science employees. They knew that our family had applied for emigration to Israel in 1978. For this reason the majority of them were afraid even to greet us when seeing us outdoors, but when meeting us on the staircase, unobserved, they would smile in a friendly way. During the KGB operation, the neighbors stayed behind their locked doors. Only the astronomer Dr. Galina Kastel, the cooperative chairperson, dared to come out and ask the militia officer what was going on. The answer was that a disorderly meeting of drunken conspirators in Lein’s apartment was being broken up and the militia were trying to protect my neighbors. Dr. Kastel remarked that the Lein family had never violated the ‘regulations of socialist life’ and that the crowd around the entrance to the house was disturbing the neighbors more. The uniformed officer rudely interrupted her and suggested that the citizen would be well advised to return to her apartment to be on the safe side. By addressing her as ‘citizen’, not ‘comrade’, he emphasized that he did not consider the lady to be loyal to Soviet Power.
Dr. Kastel obeyed, but proper tribute should be paid to that brave and honest woman. She was among the scientists who completely shared the views of that remarkable defender of human rights, academician Andrei Sakharov, and tried to do what she could to follow his example.
At the same time the harlequins with red ribbons on their sleeves were chanting anti-Semitic slogans trying to agitate a growing crowd of petty criminals, intoxicated workers and loyal clerks.
The Seminar on “Jewish History, Culture and Traditions” had been organized by Lev Utevsky and Grigory Kanovich in 1979. Soon, general review lectures were supplemented with lessons on Judaism delivered by Grigory Wassermann. It was clearly impossible to conceal such a Jewish seminar from the KGB. Several informers were sure to be present at every session. But the refuseniks participating in the seminar made a point of being completely open and not hiding their gatherings. We refused to abide any more by the unwritten laws that the Communists were forcibly imposing upon us. The very act of submitting our applications for emigration to Israel was a demonstration of our anti-Soviet feelings. Thus, the presence of informers at our meetings was of no great significance. Let our KGB patrons see that we were not pursuing the overthrow of the Soviet regime, but had firm intentions to return to our Jewish roots and emigrate to Israel. That was why the schedule of our lectures was openly distributed near the Leningrad Synagogue. At the time it seemed audacious, if not totally mad.
At first the KGB tried to threaten leaders of the seminar, but intimidation failed. Then they launched a malicious campaign of conspicuously checking identifications and compiling lists of participants attending the lectures in order to frighten them. Occasionally this yielded results, but not very often. Some students dropped out but others took their places. We were particularly glad to see young people among the participants, some of whom were not refuseniks. The seminar was gaining momentum. The sessions were held more regularly with a hundred or more Jews attending each lecture and finding a suitable location became a problem. It was, of course, unthinkable at that time to rent a hall for a Jewish seminar and not everybody was ready to let a hundred Jews, many unknown to him, into his apartment. However, a few Jews were brave enough to act as hosts; Aba and Ida Taratuta, Yuri and Nellie Speizman, Avraham and Olga Chechik, (we also disclosed our apartments) to name but a few.
Our KGB supervisors expected their threats to be enough to put a stop to the Jewish gatherings. They were mistaken. The celebration of Israeli Independence Day was considered by the authorities to be a political offence. It was clear that the noisy show the KGB had arranged at my door was part of an operation aimed at the final solution of the Jewish problem: to close the ulpanim, to prevent Hebrew teaching, to suppress emigration to Israel. It was clear that we would not give in. We were no longer “The Jews of Silence” about whom Elie Wiesel had written in 1963.
I took the Soviet Constitution in my hands and read aloud from the balcony: “Soviet citizens are guaranteed personal immunity, immunity of the dwelling place. The spreading of ethnic hatred is grounds for criminal proceedings. The spreading of any hatred or hostile attitude based on religion is forbidden”.
Beneath the balcony, the druzhinniks, disguised as ordinary Soviet workers, went on chanting their anti-Semitic slogans. The Jews started to disperse in different directions, as if they were heading home. In reality, however, the majority went to Wassermann’s apartment, which was not far from my place. Somebody informed the KGB about that but it was too late. The druzhinniks ran after the Jews but did not break into Wassermann’s apartment. Obviously the situation had not been foreseen and they could not do anything without an order from their commanders.
Finally, the lecture on Israel Independence Day did, indeed, take place.
The next week was not an easy one. The KGB removed the guard-picket from my door but their loiterers remained on duty, marking time openly in front of my house. The KGB frequently used such tactics to apply psychological pressure on their clients. This time I was the client. I did not want to believe they were preparing to arrest me. However, this was precisely what happened.
I was arrested on May 17th, 1981. On that day, a lecture entitled Sabbath was scheduled to take place in Grigory Wassermann’s one-room apartment. We anticipated more action from the KGB but were determined not to give in.
The lecture started, surprisingly, without interference. However, twenty minutes later the door was forced open. A militia captain and eight plainclothes men broke in. Immediately one of them reported on the two-way radio:
- Eighty fourth, eighty fourth. We are inside.
Deliberately pushing the Jewish students and stepping over them, the intruders surrounded them and blocked the exit. More and more plainclothes men were squeezing into the apartment. Without showing any identification cards or saying why they had come, they started taking pictures of the Jews and searching their bags which they found in the kitchen.
Intruders continued to take photographs, which terrified the new students. One girl was trying to cover her face, and I hid her behind me. The situation was deteriorating.
A man in plain clothes was in charge of the operation. I asked him to show his identification and explain why his men had come into a private apartment. He commanded:
- Take him away!
Immediately the militia captain grabbed me. Instinctively I tried to pull away but they were already dragging me to the elevator through a crowd of druzhinniks on the staircase. When I asked why, nobody answered me.
Outside, three buses and a black Volga car, the KGB trademark, were parked on the street. Other participants of the seminar were brought out one by one. A mob had gathered around us, swearing at us and shouting what had by now become a cliché:
- It’s a pity Hitler did not slaughter all of you!
The Jews were pushed into the buses, which then moved off.
Later, one of the witnesses at my trial said:
- The attitude of those who burst into the apartment towards the participants of the seminar was rude and provocative. A punitive action could have been brought against anyone of the core members present, including myself.
The KGB, however, had their own agenda, and their choice was not a random. They had decided that Evgeny Lein was the best person to arrest in order to frighten other Jews.
It was only much later that I understood the KGB strategy. Initially, my friends and I were just driven to some unknown place where, at last, we stopped. The operation commander in plainclothes entered the bus and ordered me to follow him. There was a young man with him, who introduced himself as investigator Veselov. His name meant literally merry, however, the actual situation was decidedly not merry. Veselov seemed very shy, and the commander looked down on him. That young man had been discreetly included in the group that had raided the apartment. Here was one more piece of evidence that my arrest had been pre-planned. His boss, Second Colonel Lemeshko, whose name and rank I had discovered from his subordinate, had predetermined the result of my questioning. In my presence, he told Veselov to charge me on Article 191, part 2 of the Criminal Code. At that time, I did not know very much, such as which crime was referred to in the Criminal Code Article which Lemeshko had mentioned. To be frank, I expected a sentence of up to 15 days of administrative detention, the usual punishment for dissidents. I asked them to bring me the Criminal Code and read Article 191/2: “Resistance to the authorities with violence against the militia is punishable by a prison term of one to five years”. I became desperate.
The investigator started his questioning. He told me softly:
- I want to help you. It is necessary for you to testify. That is, to plead guilty.
It was a routine that a sympathetic and courteous investigator worked with a colleague who dropped into the room ‘by chance’, feigning no knowledge of the events, but merely casual interest. The colleague would soon begin shouting, threatening, and bullying. Investigator Veselov had such a colleague as well. He yelled at me so that I was tense and could not concentrate, but suddenly he inadvertently helped me. He asked with a sneer:
- Why are your hands trembling?
At once I recalled Samizdat recommendations by dissident lawyer Vladimir Albrecht and told the truth:
- I am worried.
Then I asked for a sheet of paper and wrote, unashamed of my distorted handwriting:
To the Leningrad Prosecutor
[…] I claim that my detention was pre-planned. I demand to be freed from custody.
The investigators expected me to write something quite different. To punish me, they sent me to the so-called aquarium. That was a niche separated from the duty officer room by a steel bar, to enable him to see what was going on in the niche. There I was held with a disgusting whore for company. Then an athletic-looking fellow was pushed into the cell. He tried to frighten me and to make me tell him what had happened. I told nothing to that copper’s nark, called in Russian criminal slang ‘brood hen’. I had expected be beaten cruelly but was only threatened and kicked a few times.
Strangely, the time I had spent in the aquarium had a positive effect on me because I realized the inevitability of a prison term and recovered from my state of panic, though I was still tempted to expect a miracle.
Again they brought me to the investigation chamber and continued working on me. Over and over Veselov returned to the charge of resisting the authorities, hitting the militia captain, and tearing a shoulder strap off his uniform.
“What nonsense! ”- I thought. I could not understand why the accusers needed what I considered to be absurd details, like “tearing off the epaulet”. It was only at my trial that I realized that that detail was the main basis of accusation under the Criminal Code article 191/2: Resisting the authorities. Failure to obey a policeman’s order is merely disobedience. Even striking a police officer gives no grounds for being tried under Article 191/2. An epaulet is a symbol of power, and lack of respect to symbols of communist power is the real crime.
I denied the accusation completely and insisted that all the circumstances of that evening be written in the protocol: breaking into a private apartment, taking pictures of the Jews who had gathered there for a lecture, and the anti-Semitic chants of the crowd. I demanded that they write down in their report the license plates of the buses and the black Volga car as well as the names of those who had carried out the operation.
In particular, Veselov was unhappy at the mention of the name of Lemeshko, the operation commander. I watched for the investigator’s negative reaction to certain details by which he would inadvertently reveal clues as to where the Soviet legal code had been violated. This helped me a great deal.
Veselov seemed not to have abandoned his hope of breaking me and he dialed my parents’ telephone number. It was terrible telling them about my arrest. They had survived the Stalin years and were living in permanent fear of the all-powerful authorities. The investigator was probably expecting some psychological breakthrough. I tried to talk calmly with my mother and asked her to bring warm clothes for me to the precinct. But as soon as I told her I was not admitting my guilt, Veselov cut off our telephone conversation.
So we both maintained our positions. Veselov had not written the details and circumstances that were so important for me into the protocol, and I kept refusing to sign that falsification. Finally Veselov prepared an order for my arrest.
It was early in the morning when I was brought to the isolation area. There I saw my mother and father at the entrance. G-d, that was unbearable! They were sitting on a bench, their grey faces lowered. They looked twenty years older than their age. They had been expecting my arrival for some hours. We only saw each other for a moment but I managed to shout, “Tell Irina that I am denying the accusation completely!”
I spent the next three days in a preliminary confinement cell situated in a basement. A window just below ceiling level was covered by an iron sheet. A wooden plank, bed for a dozen people, was flooded with powerfully bright light round the clock. The value of food supplies was 37 kopecks a day and I even had to sign my name every day to confirm that ridiculous amount. I could hear the militiamen having sexual orgies every night. They got drunk and took girls out of the cells. They did not touch me because I belonged to the KGB, not to the police. For the time being, they tested me with hunger, cold, and fear of my uncertain future.
On the third day, female-investigator Dudkina and prosecutor Zaporozhets came to see me. The interrogation went according to the old system. Dudkina was ‘sincerely’ sympathetic to me, while prosecutor Zaporozhets tried to frighten me. From the very beginning, he offered me a choice. If I were to admit that I had attacked a police officer and torn off his epaulet he promised to release me from custody at once. He also promised me a short, symbolic sentence. The alternative was imprisonment in the infamous Kresty prison and then a sentence up to the maximum penalty under the law, five years in labor camps.
I insisted that I had not acted illegally, had not struck the police captain and had not torn off his epaulet. I demanded to question the witnesses, the participants in the seminar.
The prosecutor made a long and emotional speech. He told me he was ready to believe that the case had been fabricated but that there was no way out for me, under the circumstances, but to plead guilty. Smiling cynically the prosecutor mentioned that my watch had been broken during my attack on a militiaman and it could be used as yet more proof against me. In fact, it could not be used because the investigator had already returned my watch intact to my wife. The prosecutor was just bluffing in order to show me they could fabricate everything.
- There is always a law to imprison anybody, if we want. You could be tried under parasitism or some other pretext, - pecked the prosecutor.
Again and again he gave me the text to read. According to that text, “Cooperation with the authorities was grounds for lightening the punishment”.
I continued to deny the accusation.
- Your friends have already abandoned you. You are the father of a family. You should think about your children's future.
Here, the prosecutor struck my most sensitive spot.
Yes, I had been thinking about my children’s future when on July 3, 1978 I submitted my application to be allowed to emigrate from the USSR to Israel. I could not renounce my family, my friends and myself. When prosecutor Zaporozhets was questioning me, I believed him when he said that I would get the maximum sentence if I denied my guilt. I reminded myself of the words of Yosef Mendelevich, one of the Prisoners of Zion, “Ten years in a Soviet prison is not too big a ransom for one’s right to emigrate eventually to Israel”.
The prosecutor continued his threats. He tried to extract some information from me about refusenik Boris Chernobylsky who lived in Moscow. It turned out that Chernoblysky had been accused of a similar offense in Moscow, so the KGB considered blaming us both for a conspiracy. I flatly refused any further conversation. The prosecutor sanctioned my arrest, and investigator Dudkina composed a protocol of the interrogation. When they left, my fingerprints were taken and I waited to be transferred to the Kresty prison...
The autozek - truck for transporting prisoners- arrived next morning. I was escorted out of my cell and into the truck.
A surprise was waiting for me outside. Irina was there. My devoted wife, it turned out, had already been waiting for me there a whole day and night. Aba Taratuta, Mikhail Elman and other refuseniks had taken turns standing there with her.
The convoy of soldiers dragged me to the truck but I delayed them as much as I could, giving us time to exchange a couple of phrases. The main thing was that we saw each other.
That momentary meeting was a very important one. I had just enough time to shout that I had not pleaded guilty, that I had registered a protest to the City Prosecutor and that I was going to fight till the bitter end.
Irina blew a kiss to me.
They pushed me into the autozek. From that moment on, my contacts with the outside world were cut off for a long time.
My wife and friends did what I could not do in my complete isolation. Irina wrote applications and protests to top Soviet authorities and sent copies to the West. She reported directly to the American Consulate in Leningrad what had happened. She asked Jews, the witnesses of the events, to describe the circumstances of the raid on the apartment and of the Jewish seminar being disbanded.
Many people, too many people at that time, considered such behavior pure insanity.
M. hissed at Irina:
- You are tightening the loop around your husband’s neck. A brick will drop on your head, and the KGB will be right! You will not save your husband but you will bring harm to us all.
K. tried to persuade Irina:
- You don’t know what your husband is doing under interrogation. He has probably already broken down. You are in no position to ask those of us still free to protest actively.
Provocateur Ye. came to Irina at home and described very animatedly and graphically what was awaiting me in prison.
Irina was furious, instead of being depressed, and readily dismissed such benevolent advisers.
Some people gave well-intended advice that I should pretend to be a fatally-ill and to plead for mercy, but this was not acceptable to us.
Irina’s answer was always the same:
- I know my husband. He will hold out to the bitter end. If you want to help, help. If you don’t, stay away.
The very next day after my arrest, Irina wrote to the city prosecutor:
“All the witnesses say unanimously that my husband, Evgeny Lein, has done nothing illegal. Everything that has happened indicates that the authorities had the predetermined goal of hindering the Jews from re-discovering their history and culture. My husband’s arrest was not a mere chance event but part of an organized oppressive campaign, a fact proven when the authorities interrupted the Jewish seminar at my home on May 10, 1981. I am convinced that my husband has fallen victim to the authorities’ violence. I demand that he be released from custody immediately and those to blame for all the illegal actions be punished”.
That protest was a defiant challenge to the powerful Communist system. At that time, it was an extremely daring deed, but it was a catalyst for a campaign of protests against my arrest and against oppressed Jews who demanded to be allowed to immigrate to Israel.
One day, when Irina came home after being given the run-around by various officials, she found flowers in her mailbox. This was the Jews’ reaction to her appeal. They reacted despite the corrective conversations the KGB had had with every Jew who had been detained after the disbanding of the seminar. Many of them had problems with their jobs or studies. Shimon Asch and Mikhail Salman were serving a 15-day prison term, while Tatiana Finkelstein served twelve. Tatiana Menaker was merely fined for coming to the seminar with her 10-year-old daughter. She was warned that she should raise her daughter in the glorious Soviet traditions, not in the Fascist-Zionist spirit. They reminded her that, according to the Soviet law, she could be deprived of her maternal rights and her daughter could be sent to an orphanage.
Grigory Wassermann was fined on the basis of a report by Leykin, the vice-chairman of the State Commission for the Control of Observance of Religious Worship. According to his report some participants at the Jewish Seminar had been wearing kippot, skull-caps. Apart from this, some religious pictures had been on the walls. He testified that this was an infringement of the law, everybody has religious freedom for himself alone, but group religious practice carried out in a private apartment is forbidden.
Especially loathsome was the fact that A. Leykin was himself a Jew. So, too, were Deitsch, the commander of the Komsomol Youth, my investigator Dudkina and a few other executors. The KGB tried to destroy Jewish Solidarity with the help of a few puppet Jews. It was not a new tactic. In 1927, Rabbi Lubavichesky Yosef Yitzhak Schneerson was arrested and interrogated by the Jew Nachmanson. Rabbi Lubavichesky wrote: “Sadism is the second nature of our two-footed tormentors”. The NKVD and later KGB found pleasure in playing Jew against Jew.
It was frightening, very frightening. Nonetheless, thirty-nine participants of the seminar submitted their testimonies in written form to the city prosecutor’s office and to the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet.
Dima Greenberg wrote, “... as a witness I swear that Lein did not strike anybody. He only asked to see documents confirming their right to enter the apartment. He fell victim to a pre-planned provocation by the officials”. This was followed by a detailed description of the events.
“So what? What good will come from that for anybody” the pessimistic low-profilers asked. That seemed to be correct, in view of the cynical response of prosecutor Kornilov, who wrote to Marina Grigoryeva: “Answering your application where you ask about being questioned as a witness in the Lein case, there were 60 other persons present when Lein committed his crime, and there is no necessity to question all 60 witnesses”.
However, something did come from the appeals of refuseniks. First of all, the prosecutor’s answer was a document confirming that the investigation was one-sided because, according to the articles 70,72 of the Procedural code, “any person who knows essential circumstances of the case should be questioned”. Besides, documents confirming the violation of Soviet law later allowed us to attract the attention of foreign lawyers.
These applications and protests were of great importance for supporters of Jewish cultural development and emigration. Each person brave enough to tell the truth aloud was overcoming the fear of a generation that had survived oppression by the communist system.
A group of refuseniks in Moscow - Natalie and Gennady Khassin, Yakov Rakhlenko, Alexander Lerner, Naum Meyman, Alexei Magarik, Yosef Begun, Mark Nashpitz, Yuli Kosharovsky, Zhenya Shwartzman - appealed to Jewish communities all over the world:
“Evgeny Lein, a refusenik who took part in Jewish ethnic and cultural development in Leningrad, is now under arrest in a prison in that city. At the same time, in Moscow, a trial is being prepared for Boris Chernobylsky, another Jewish repatriation activist. They both, together with other Soviet Jews, took part in the activities of Jewish cultural groups. These activities are completely legal, but the authorities consider them undesirable and try to stop them by any available method.
The repression is intended not only to put the two repatriation activists behind bars but also to frighten thousands of Soviet Jews who want to leave the USSR.. We appeal to Jewish communities all over the world to spare no effort in defending Evgeny Lein and Boris Chernobylsky”.