A Jew behind the Looking-Glass

Part 1.

Vladimir Lifshits

Vladimir Lifshits, 2017.

Translated from Russian
by Ilana Romanovsky

Let Me Introduce Myself

My name is Vladimir Lifshits. I was born on October 24, 1941 in the town of Stalinsk (later Novokuznetsk), where my mother, Sarra Haimovna, nee Markazen, was evacuated from Leningrad during its siege. My father, Boris Haimovich Lifshits, volunteered to fight in World War II in 1941, served as an officer in the artillery and was killed in June 1944.

I am starting to write this in 2017. The last 30 years my whole family have been living in Israel. I am 76 and, like many people of my age, I like to recollect stories from my life. Now I have decided to try and write down some of them. When I say "to try", I mean it, because I don't know how to write and don't like doing it. Besides, what is written, solidifies, and even though I try to be honest, recollections may always differ from reality, and I ask the reader in advance to forgive me for that.

This is not an autobiography, but a number of short stories of separate episodes from my life that may be of interest to other people.

A Jew behind the Looking-Glass

I am a Jew. This fact has always influenced my life, in a different way at different stages, but always. It also influenced these notes - they are the notes of a Jew. Why in the looking-glass? Stand in front of a mirror and look through it. You will see two worlds: the one where you are standing, let's call it Pre-looking-glass, and the one in the mirror - we will call it Behind the Looking-glass. There are the same objects in both worlds: you and your reflection, the furniture, the walls, etc., only their orientation is different. What is on the right side in the pre-looking-glass, will be on the left side behind the looking-glass, and vice versa. I lived in two worlds: in the USSR and in Israel. Both have the same characteristic objects: the state, the government, the court, the press and we, the citizens. Everything looks alike, but the direction is different. In Israel we are positive that all the state organs exist for us, to make our life better and safer. The press helps us to see the government's miscalculations and the courts prevent its despotism. In the USSR we, the citizens, served the interests and the power of the state, the press was supposed to enforce our commitment to the government and the courts were supposed to serve its goals. I live in Israel, that is why for me this is the pre-looking-glass, while the USSR is behind the looking-glass. There cannot be a single and absolutely correct choice for everyone, but the situation in which man is denied the opportunity of choice is also totally wrong.

How Anti-Semitism Helped Me

My youth fell on the Thaw in the USSR. Starting from 1955, bans were gradually lifted from many authors that interested me - Ilf and Petrov (who were co-authors), Yesenin, Feuchtwanger and many others. In the new literature things were less straightforward and more interesting. The loathsomeness and horror of the inflated by the state anti-Semitism of the end of Stalin's epoch was well behind while the chronic Soviet anti-Semitism was perceived as the given life conditions.

At school I was, to put it mildly, not a brilliant student. In Russian, German and sport my grades floated between "fair" and "almost good". I was much better at Literature and History, and considered myself almost a prodigy in Mathematics and Physics. Until I was fifteen, I thought that I could effortlessly solve any problem in these subjects. At fifteen I participated in Leningrad Mathematical Olympics, and there I started re-evaluating my abilities. At the Olympics I shared the third place with other participants and, as a result, was admitted to the club of Mathematical Olympics winners at the faculty of Mathematics and Mechanics (Mat-Mech) of the Leningrad University. Learning there was very interesting, though I was not the most talented student there and problems that were difficult for me abounded there. When we reached the last grade, we were quite frankly informed that all of us would be admitted to the faculty of Mathematics except Jews. This exception had a fairly understandable and logical explanation: in the previous year they admitted too many Jews.

I had to look for a technical Institute [an educational establishment that awards degrees to its students - translator's note]. The criteria I used for choosing one were the standard of teaching, perspectives of an interesting job and a certain degree of flexibility in nationality-oriented selection of students. I picked the Leningrad Institute of Precise Mechanics and Optics (LITMO). The competition for entering was high, but I wanted to be admitted very much and worked hard to pass the entrance examinations. The first time that I wrote a composition without spelling mistakes was at the school leaving examinations, the second time - at the entrance examinations. Fortunately, there was no exam in a foreign language. I was admitted.

Now, years later, I see the fact that I did not enter the university as my luck. I would have made a mediocre mathematician, and to be a second-rate mathematician is lots worse than to be a run-of-the-mill engineer.

After graduating from the LITMO I enrolled in a correspondence course of the Faculty of Mathematics and Mechanics of the Leningrad University. This combination of two degrees made me a rare specialist and "compensated", to some extent, for my Jewish origin.

A Student in the Years of Thaw

Students are gathering potato in a kolkhoz. The author is in the center, to the right is Yakov Khodorkovsky (who is mentioned also below)

I studied in LITMO from September 1958 until December 1963. During my first year a conference of the Komsomol [Young Communist League - translator's note] was held there, but I didn't attend it. On the next day a student from our gang came up to me and told me that now we were guarantied tickets to all the students' parties, because there was "our man" in the Institute's Komsomol committee. To my question if this man could be relied upon in this matter he answered in the affirmative, since this man was I. Thinking of the tickets for the parties, the guys recommended me as a candidate. I was not present at the conference, and since nobody knew anything bad about me yet, I was elected.

At the first meeting of the committee I found out that most of its members were great guys, and green novices in Komsomol activity. We had no political or ideological aspirations. I do not remember any ideological activity during all my years in LITMO. As Komsomol committee's members, we strove to do something useful for students, to make their life more interesting. We organized students' parties and concerts in villages in Leningrad province. Apart from September kolkhoz trips [students were supposed to do agricultural work on collective farms before the academic year started - translator's note], there was summer construction work in villages, and Komsomol played a substantial part in arranging these trips. This work had been obligatory before our time, but towards the end of our committee's activity, it became voluntary. Sometimes we had to defend students [from the administration], but I will tell about it later. At that time it seemed a natural thing to do, but I later realized that such humane approach on the part of the Institute's Komsomol committee was possible only during the Thaw.

We Violate Human Rights

At the beginning of my work with the committee I was in charge of the academic progress. For me, a freshman, it was evident that the first problem was a large dropout of students during the first two years. Most students who were expelled for poor academic results simply neglected their studies until it was impossible to catch up. In many cases the reason was the transition from the school system with its everyday homework and frequent tests to the university style of work where everything could be postponed till the next exams. We arranged it with the dean's office that they would give us lists of students who were supposed to be expelled and we would try to help these students. We organized active groups of students with good grades and called every would-be dropout to talks with these groups. If there was an objective problem for poor academic progress, we organized help. If the students didn't need any special help, we brought pressure to bear on them. We photographed these students and hung the shots on a board with the inscription "Candidates for Expulsion" next to the assembly hall. Now I realize that this billboard was a rude violation of human rights. We didn't know it then, but as a matter of fact, this shock therapy helped many students.

The Wandering Files

In the episode I now want to tell you about the role of the committee was totally passive, we simply knew about it more than other students did.

At the end of August, between my first and my second year in the Institute, I was on duty as a committee member and it was my responsibility to stay in the committee's room every day and attempt to solve the arising problems. One day, as I was passing through the entrance hall, I saw the lists of the newly admitted students and near them there was a small group of people lively discussing something around a young man, probably Jewish, who looked very confused. Out of curiosity I came up to them and found out that this boy had passed the entrance exams with better grades than it was necessary for being admitted; nevertheless, his name did not appear on the list. I took the lad to the committee's room and phoned Gena Gromov, the secretary of the committee who represented it in the applicants selection commission. Gena remembered this young man's name and remembered his being admitted. "Keep him there, I'll come right away and sort these things out", - he said. When he came, he checked the lists another time and went to the rector, who was the chairperson of the committee. When he returned, he assured the boy that this was a bureaucratic mistake and that he was admitted.

When everyone left Gena told me what had happened. The Human Resources department opened a personal file for each applicant, with their first and last names and nationality (ethnicity) on the cover. All the rest of the papers, including their grades at the entrance examinations, were kept inside the file. After considering each applicant, the commission placed the files of those who were admitted and of those who were declined in two separate piles. When the commission finished the sitting, the head of Human Resources stayed there to draw up the report, and she concluded that the Institute had admitted too many Jews. Without paying much heed to the contents, she simply moved some "Jewish" files from the "admitted" into the "rejected" pile, and the same number of "non-Jewish" files travelled in the opposite direction - to the "admitted". To her bad luck, one of the files that were moved into the "rejected" pile contained the documents of a girl who not only had passed the entrance examinations with good grades, but had also come to LITMO on a recommendation from the Communist Party Central Committee of one of the Baltic republics. This girl's parents had been prominent communists who had been shot to death by the Nazis during the war. She grew up in a party pension and was used to seek help in high party organs. When she did not see her name on the list of those admitted, she went to the party regional committee and secured a reception with one of the secretaries. After listening to her, the secretary called the Rector, and the girl heard many Russian words that were new for her. In the end they decided to admit all the applicants from the stray files as candidate students with all student rights, and give them full student status when students with low grades were expelled.

The First Visit to the Synagogue

This episode was neatly covered by Yasha Khodorkovsky in his story "The Komsomol Patrol", which was published in an on-line magazine http://berkovich-zametki.com/2009/Zametki/Nomer16/Hodorkovsky1.php. I only want to try and add to his story some details that I find interesting and I think I remembered them better than he did.

Gena Gromov caught me in the Institute and asked me how soon the Passover was going to come. The question was so unexpected that I responded with a silly question asking if he needed matsos. Gena explained that he didn't need matsos, but somebody had set fire to the Moscow Jewish cemetery synagogue. Do we need it? To prevent compromising provocations of this kind it was decided to organize patrols of Jewish students who were Komsomol members in the synagogue. Every day another institute was to keep guard. I was appointed head of the LITMO group. Gena and I worked out the members' list, and he asked not to tell anything to anybody because they would call us to the party bureau room and explain all of it.

I was a little late to the party bureau meeting, the group had already assembled and everyone looked very tense. A call to the party bureau boded no good for a student, and when they looked around and saw that only Jews had been called, their optimism didn't fly any higher. The finishing stroke to this picture was the coming of a man who introduced himself to the party bureau secretary as a KGB officer. The tension dropped when the KGB man explained our goal. By no means were we the Neighborhood Watch, just praying Jews. Our goal was to stop any attempts by drunks or hoodlums to start riots inside the synagogue or in its yard. We were also supposed to cut short attempts of passing letters to foreigners. This task we saw as something impossible to carry out. How could we know who was a foreigner if everyone spoke Yiddish? When everyone left, the KGB representative told me that our job was only to take the hoodlum up to the synagogue yard's gate, and after that their people, who would be sitting in "Fish" and "Bread" trucks in gateways opposite the synagogue, would take care of him.

Before starting our guard we assembled at Teatralnaya Square and found out that some of the guys were not wearing a headdress. They had to go home to get caps and they came to the synagogue later. On the next day I met the KGB man, and he praised our "professionalism" - that we entered the synagogue in small groups and not everyone at once.

In my childhood, I would sometimes drop in into the synagogue for a couple of minutes, out of curiosity. When I was a student, I used to come to the synagogue yard every year for the Simchat Tora celebration. Many Jewish young people used to gather there, some sang, some danced and everyone drank. On the day of our watch I spent a whole evening in the synagogue and heard the reading of the Tora for the first time. I think that for most people in our group it was their first visit to the synagogue.

The Illicit Enthusiasm

The Thaw is first of all broadening of the borders of permitted initiative. Any breaking away out of these borders was severally punished, even if the exit had a patriotic, pro-Soviet character. I got convinced of this from my own experience connected with the flight of Gagarin. The report of this flight brought me into an ecstasy of pride and delight. The pride for the humankind, for my country, for our science, for my own belonging to all of that. I ran at once to the Komsomol Committee, where students were already writing posters for a demonstration, which the Komsomol Committees of different institutes had already arranged by telephone. The slogans were something like "Hurray for Gagarin!", "Long Live the Soviet Science!", "LITMO to Outer Space!" and so on. When we reached Dvortsovaya Square, crowds of young people had already surrounded the Alexander Column. They held posters of the kind that we had written, and the same slogans could be heard from different parts of the crowd. Then a young man with a loudspeaker mounted the steps of the column. He said that he was representing the city Komsomol Committee and congratulated everyone on the flight of Gagarin. Then he demanded that everyone disperse because we would celebrate the flight at the square at night. Nobody wanted to leave. A rumor spread that the University was demonstrating, headed by the Rector. Everyone went to the University along the Dvortsovy Bridge. We walked along the carriageway trying not to get in the way of the traffic. It turned out that the University meeting was over and its students joined us. The column turned and headed back, to Nevsky prospect. Everything was happening spontaneously, without any leaders or organizers.

After passing the Arch of the Headquarters, we saw that the passage to Nevsky was blocked by police cars and policemen with clubs. The front rows stopped but the back rows pressed. I pictured to myself what was going to happen and got frightened. One of the students leaped out of the column to the left, waved his hands and shouted: "Go to the Field of Mars Square!" Some people joined him, including myself. The middle rows turned towards the Field of Mars, the rest followed them. There were no clashes with the police. We came up to the Eternal Fire, stood there a little, sang some students' songs and then dispersed. I came to Dvortsovaya Square at night, but there was no celebration there. The official celebration was held only a few days later, when Gagarin came to Moscow.

On the next day after our procession the Deputy Rector for academic work called me and informed me that I was expelled from the Institute for organizing an illegal student demonstration and that criminal charges were brought against me and some other lawbreakers for damaging cars that were parked along the streets. I was horrified. Expulsion from the Institute automatically meant recruitment to the Navy as a seaman for three years. Moreover, this formulation of the reason for dismissing me excluded any chance of entering a school of higher learning in the future. The lawsuit will undoubtedly end up in a huge fine, which it will take a lifetime to pay. How could I tell Mother about it? It was so horrible and frightening that for a long time I was aimlessly hanging around in the Institute's corridors when, unexpectedly, I was told that the Party Bureau Secretary was looking for me. Actually, there was no reason to go there, but I went there automatically. He met me smiling and said that the order for my expulsion was cancelled and there would be no lawsuit. I was flabbergasted and convinced that I misunderstood him. Then he showed me one of the national newspapers. There was a full-page article about our demonstration that was admiring the patriotism of the students. Everything ended well, but an unpleasant aftertaste, an ill feeling towards the system lingered.

I am during our practical training at a Navy ship.

This Is Already Serious

The most serious test for our committee was "The Seamen's Case". Male students of LITMO were exempt from the Army or Navy service as common soldiers or seamen. Because the Institute had a Military Training Department, we got military training while learning in the Institute and obtained the ranks of junior lieutenants of reserve. In the framework of this course we were supposed to do a month's practice on warships of the North Navy as seamen. All the students were split into groups of ten to twelve people and each group was allocated to one of the ships. "The Seamen's Case" happened to students who were a year ahead of me in their studies. The groups for the military service course were composed in such a way that in one of the groups out of ten people eight were Jews. This group happened to get to the ship whose commander announced from the start that he did not like Jews, and later did everything in his power to make their service not just difficult, but simply unbearable. For example, after the exhausting sea trips he would send the students to clean the not yet cooled boilers.

An officer, the representative of LITMO in charge of the sea practice, was informed of the abnormal atmosphere on the ship. He decided to talk to the students away from the ship and for that goal arranged a lecture for them in a school class. In the morning the students were lined up and ordered to go to classes in formation and return to the ship by one o'clock. When they came to the classes they found out that there was no light there. The LITMO officer commanded them to go back to the ship. On the way back the boys decided that since they were expected on the ship only at one, they could meanwhile take it easy in some cozy place on the shore. The electricity in the classes was soon restored, and the LITMO officer went to the ship for the students. When it turned out that the students never reached the ship, the officer offered to find them and bring them back to school. Instead of that, the ship commander put the whole base on the alert in connection with "the desertion of a group of seamen". The patrols soon found the students and brought them to the ship. All the students of this group returned from the sea practice with references saying "can not be an officer of the Soviet army".

The incident at the military sea practice put the administration of the Institute in a difficult and unpleasant situation. On the one hand, a student who had demonstrated his incapability of being an officer had to be expelled from the Institute. On the other hand, the biased attitude towards the students was evident. The state anti-Semitism did exist in the USSR, but displays of individual anti-Semitism were not encouraged. The management of the Institute decided that first of all these students should be expelled from Komsomol. An expulsion like this was enough to throw a student away from an Institute. But at that point a flop happened that the administration did not foresee. The Komsomol committee decided to issue a reprimand to these students for breaking the service regulations and failure to carry out the officer's command, but not to expel anyone from the Komsomol.

According to the Komsomol's statute, the last authority that can take a decision on admitting or expelling members is a committee with the rights of a district committee, and our committee had these rights. No authority could change our resolution, so they started putting pressure on us. The party committee of the Institute adopted a resolution to recommend us to revise our decision, turning it towards expulsion. Two committee members, who were communists, voted for the expulsion, but the majority was still against it. They called us one by one to the party committee and to the city and regional Komsomol committees. They explained to us and tried to convince us that this lack of subordination and deviation from the party line could harm us in the future. We were already feeling by ourselves that the Thaw was nearing the end and that the age of strict submission was coming. I think that if the issue did not concern the fate of specific people, students like ourselves, we would have given in. But in this concrete case the committee stood up to it.

The Personal Final Score of the Thaw

When the term of office of our committee ended, all its members, including myself, decided to quit community service. As it was acceptable to do, we prepared recommendations for the Institute's Komsomol conference about the candidates for the new committee. In the morning on the day of the conference the city party committee sent a directive to cancel it. The conference took place a few days later, and different candidates were recommended by the Institute party committee and the city Komsomol committee. Many years later I happened to meet the student who had been elected secretary of the new committee. He was making a party career and complained to me that the Jewish nationality of his wife was a serious obstacle. Divorces were not approved of in those circles either, so the only thing I could advise him to do was to kill her.

All our hopes for development of real democracy, pluralism and personal freedom in the USSR turned out to be an illusion. Nevertheless, I do not consider my Komsomol activity useless. We managed to help specific people in given conditions. Besides, it was useful training. After retiring, when I had some spare time for theorizing, I realized that man differs from animals in that not only does he try to fit into the environment, but he also tries to change this environment in accordance with his own needs. In the material aspect man builds canals, fertilizes the soil, plants forests. In the social aspect, he tries to support the processes that he considers right and proper. At some stage I thought that the social environment in the USSR could be made more just, and that my activity in the Komsomol was helpful. Later I encountered an unfair ban for Jews to leave the USSR and tried to oppose this injustice. Among my friends there are very good people who never and in no way tried to affect the social environment and were calmly waiting for other people to change it, but it didn't work for me.

We Will Never Leave the USSR

In December 1963 I graduated from the LITMO and, like all the graduates in my specialty, I was sent to a military industrial complex, where I worked for eight years. It was a large scientific-industrial complex which included a research institute and a design office for developing large and complicated electromechanical outfits for atomic submarines, and also an experimental plant for producing the first samples of these outfits. I started work at the plant, at the section of adjustment, regulation and launching of these outfits. In the beginning the work interested me very much, but with gaining experience it turned into routine. In 1967 the institute opened research in a new direction, and its goal was seeking methods of evaluating the influence of the precision of the sets that the complex was developing on reaching the final military aims and comparing it with the anticipated expenses. The combination of knowledge in engineering and mathematics made me a valuable worker for the new field, and I was transferred from the plant to the institute, notwithstanding the personnel department's objections like "don't make it a synagogue".

Wedding. Leningrad, 25/01/1966

I knew many girls - in the Institute, through hiking and later at work. I never tried to get acquainted with a girl I met by chance in the street or in transport. It happened for the first and last time on October 12, 1965 in a bus. The girl's name was Anya Zusman. As it turned out later, she also had never agreed to make a chance acquaintance with a young man. Fortunately, she made an exception for me. Two and a half months later, on January 25, 1965 we got married. On December 14, 1967 our son Boris was born, and on March 1, 1975 - our daughter Masha. In 1969 Anya graduated from Leningrad Construction Engineering Institute (LISI) and was sent to work for an organization that designed plants for processing wood.

In 1971 I got a Ph.D. for my thesis "Methods of Evaluation of the Influence of the Systems under Development by the Institute on Achieving Final Military Targets of Atomic Submarines". I detested the final military targets and decided to leave military industry for civil industry. Again, I had luck. I chanced to get acquainted with the manager of the All-Union Institute of Jewelry Production. This institute was developing new alloys, methods of growing synthetic gems and new technologies for producing jewelry. The institute also studied problems of economy, such as price formation and planning. Irregular abrupt raising of prices for goldware and lack of correlation between the assortment of articles and the demand of the population resulted in overstocking of products. To overcome these problems the Ministry of Instrument Making, which was in charge of jewelry production, demanded from the institute to found a laboratory for studying demand. This was a totally new field, and for organizing a laboratory like that they needed a man with a wide scope of knowledge and quite some cheek. I wanted to leave military industry so much that I agreed to take a risk. There were no other candidates, and the need for such a laboratory was so great that the ministry agreed to appoint a Jew. The ministry obliged a powerful computing center in Moscow to do all the necessary calculations for us. During the years of my work there not only did I greatly improve my understanding of economics, but I also acquired practical skills in using computers.

Already in my last years in LITMO I lost hope for an acceptable for me level of personal freedom in the USSR. The reaction of most of my co-workers to the intrusion of the Soviet troops into Czechoslovakia convinced me that they did not need this freedom. I knew that Jews in the USSR, along with all the numerous limitations, had one advantage - a chance of leaving for Israel of another country of the free world. For myself I saw this decision as unacceptable for a number of reasons. First of all, my experience of learning German at school and the institute and for passing the graduate school foreign language exam showed that I would never be able to learn a new language. Secondly, I thought that the situation in the USSR was tolerable for Anya and me and that diligence at school and work would let our children achieve life conditions they would find acceptable. Thirdly, those who were leaving the USSR were obliged [in the 70-ies - translator's note] to pay for their higher education, and with three academic degrees and one Ph. D. the sum we were supposed to pay was absolutely unreal.

The Constitution of 1977 - the Turn to the Total Breakdown of Economy in the USSR

The media in the USSR were talking about great achievements of the Soviet system, but their news was not connected to reality. I never paid attention to it, so I saw the information of adopting a new constitution in 1977 as another propaganda campaign. This was a mistake. I gradually started to notice the re-distribution of power in the country. The role of party organs in decision making in industry had grown sharply. The party officials, as a rule, did not have knowledge for managing production processes; their decisions were motivated by politics, ideology and in many cases just personal interests. The power of the enterprises managements and even ministries was gradually moving to zero. I will give some examples.

The Leningrad plant "Russkiye Samotsvety" ("Russian Gems") was the largest producer of jewelry in the USSR. Its manager was a poor production organizer, but he knew very well how to please party bosses. For that, he organized a special department where the best jewelers carried out individual orders of these bosses' wives. The plant implemented production output plan by making wedding rings without precious stones. Wedding rings production demanded less labor, but lots more gold. In the end, the plant used up the entire gold fund for three months ahead. The ministry demanded to dismiss the manager, but the party bosses came to his rescue. They called the CPSU Central Committee and complained that "the Ministry of Instrument Making does not provide enough raw material for popular consumption goods". As a result, the minister got a dressing-down, while overspending of gold by the plant was going on.

Another example. The ministry of Instrument Making received an order from CPSU Central Committee for manufacturing pocket gold watches for members of the Politburo. The instructions specified that the watchcase should be entirely made of fine gold. At the conference on this order, the representative of jewelry production noted that the spring for opening the cover of the case could only be made of steel, possibly with a thick gold coating. The answer of the minister was to the effect that decisions of the party were to be carried out and not discussed. The jewelry plant received an assignment to develop a fine gold alloy with springy properties, even though it was clear to everyone from the beginning that a thing like this could not exist.

Every night at wholesale fairs of jewelry we calculated different economic indicators for the assortment of concluded contracts and separately, for potential orders of the trade. The administration of the ministry often demanded to present these calculations at conferences with the managements of the trade and representatives of the state planning body, Gosplan, that were held at those fairs. In these cases I had to be present in the conference room, to answer questions on the calculations that could arise. These conferences dealt with issues of economy. It continued up to the year 1978. In 1978 the participants of these conferences already refused to discuss certain questions, pleading lack of authority. In 1979 these conferences turned into empty babble on unimportant questions. I remember one of the participants saying bitterly after the end of one the conferences: "Never did priests govern Russia. Not to them did the czar go in times of trouble, but waited for the people's petition".

Part 2==>