By Roald Zelichonok

Eduard Usoskin in his laboratory

      As fate would have it, I met this fantastic man at the end of the seventies, when I was a freshly created refusenik. Before that, I had known about Eduard Usoskin only by hearsay – my wife Galya had once worked with him in the Institute of Long Distance Communications. I met Eduard only a short time before he left for Israel with his wife Ira and his sons Zhenya and Sasha, while Galya and I stayed in Leningrad. When we said good-bye to each other, we never imagined that we were parting for a decade. Before he left, he had given me, among other things, a small blackboard with a stock of chalk and a heap of materials for teaching Hebrew, and also materials for teaching English with Tenenbaum's picture method, which he had discovered for himself and immediately started using.

      Even a superficial acquaintance with him was enough for me to become aware of his outstanding personality. To apply for an exit visa to Israel after he had worked in the Institute of Long Distance Communications where he had a first grade secrecy permit, after he had presented a classified PhD dissertation and became a leading researcher in developing a communications system for the USSR's Strategic Missiles Headquarters, after he had attended a certain course which was delivered by, for security reasons, masked lecturers, - who would have dared do a thing like this? Eduard did dare and he eventually succeeded. But at first, as might have been expected, he got a downright refusal.

      A refusal was no joke and many would become depressed and even have to go to a psychiatric hospital. Eduard had no time for depression; he started acting right away. It was not by chance that on the day Galya and I were refused exit visas and the Visas Office inspector Peskovatskaya (Edik insisted on calling her Pussyvatskaya) explained to us that our "maternal aunt" in Haifa would have to go on with her life without us, we went to the Usoskins' straight from the Visas Office. We downed a bottle of the then popular "Alazan Valley", added something else and decided that life was still worth living and that there was no point in getting the blues.

      One day I asked Eduard what his opinion of Mark Chagal's pictures was. He must have seen some kind of a trap in that question, for he made a joke in reply, in a rather grumbling manner. Even though I did not mean to pick at him, the question did have a second meaning. I had noticed that when Edik came into contact with reality, he was transformed it in some inscrutable manner, and it seemed quite possible that goats would fly or play violins at his bidding, just like in Chagal's pictures. The kind of things that would sometimes happen to him would never have happened to an ordinary person. To flesh out my point, I will tell in short how he got permission to leave the USSR.

      When he found himself "in refusal", Eduard decided to send copies of his scientific papers to Israel. A chance to do so soon arose: a relative of his received permission to leave the country. Edik asked him to hand in his papers at the Dutch Embassy, which at that time represented the interests of Israel in the Soviet Union and where all exit visa holders (the Embassy people called them "gospoda yevrei" – "ladies and gentlemen Jews") had to register their visas. Edik and his relative talked about it in the kitchen, as was customary in those times among the intelligentsia. Later, when things started moving, Edik paid attention to the dust which was slowly falling down from the ventilation vent. When he took off the grating, he found what is now called a bug. In the innumerable Russian crime serials a bug is a tiny eavesdropping device which the smart guys – cops or criminals – stick onto whatever they want. Now, that bug was not like this – it was a big, fist-sized mike, suspended on two wires from above. Edik tore it off – alas, after his relative had been stopped and searched on his way to the Embassy and the print-outs had been confiscated.

      Soon Eduard was summoned to where such misbehavior is dealt with and explained the situation: two of his papers bore a stamp "for office use". Trying to pass them to a foreign embassy would be considered divulging state or military secrets, according to a Decree to such effect, and Article 64 of Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic Criminal Code, called "high treason and espionage", and the punishment was most severe – even unto capital punishment. Edik retorted that normally, papers stamped "for office use" did not contain any secrets and were not considered classified documents. The answer was the usual "you will explain this at the trial” together with the suggestion that he should "co-operate" to avoid the worst. Even though Edik refused to co-operate, he was released and allowed to go home, probably to let the tension build up. Everyone who knew about it, myself included, thought that jail was inevitable, and Edik's calmness seemed like putting a bold face on it.

      After that Edik received a summons to the Prosecutor's Office to answer a criminal charge where he then pulled out a document and put it in front of the investigator. It was an official document, to the effect that the "for office use" stamp had been lifted from those articles, and it had been issued long before all these events took place. Shortly after that it was suggested that Eduard and his family leave the USSR borders at once.

      For every miracle there can be a rational explanation which will suit most people with practical minds. For the manna from heaven in the Sinai desert, for prophetic dreams, for the Bermuda Triangle – explanations can be found for all these mysteries, usually even more than one. In this case also – for those acquainted with the winding paths the Soviet half-truth (let's drop the euphemisms and call it a lie, which it is) used to wander, the explanation is more or less evident. No doubt, the "Leningrad comrades" wanted to cook up a case for a show-trial, and they wanted it to be a "neat" case – that is, not a complete fake, as the custom was, but something with a little bit of truth in it. It is clear that those prints came in most handy, that reports were sent to the big bosses, most probably – to the biggest bosses, that everything was approved of and signed, ready for action. And suddenly – such a slap in the face! It was easy to open the case, but to close it… Obviously, in this delicate situation it was important for them to dispose of the main figure of the would-be trial as soon as possible. Had it happened two years earlier, it could have cost him his life, but in '78 they didn't dare kill him. So they let him leave and even closed their eyes at his first degree secrecy permit.

      If Eduard had showed them the document about cancelling the "for office use" stamp at once, nothing special would probably have happened: the case would have been brought to a close as quietly as possible, and Eduard would have had to wait for his exit visa, like many, myself included, did till perestroika rose to its height; and with the kind of character he had, he would have been put behind bars even before I was. When thinking about this story and its end you can't help but admire Eduard's foresight and self-possession, which, if you wish, is the rational explanation of what happened. And if you wish, you can see something else in it, something, for which, for lack of other words, we use the trite word "miracle". I wonder what Chagal would have called it.

      No-one spread a red carpet for the Usoskin family when they came to Israel. They had to go through what all the rest of "olim hadashim" had to go through. But Edik at once found people who were helping Soviet Jews and joined them in their work. In less than a year's time Edik was known to everyone who was in any way involved in our struggle, from Knesset members to the girls who sat in the tiny rooms of all kinds of small associations putting into envelopes letters to the Soviet Union.

      Long and detailed letters from Edik started coming at once, and it is clear that he could only write them at night, at the expense of his own sleep. And phone calls – we had no idea that he paid from his own pocket for most of them. And books, and parcels – through them we got acquainted with lots of hitherto unknown devices and gadgets, like Tipp-ex and staplers – I am still using the one Edik had sent me. We also started getting letters in English and Hebrew from people whom we had not known before and who got our address from Edik. Some of those pen-friends with time became simply friends, and we have kept this friendship to this day.

      It's a shame Edik's letters could not be kept "for history", as the phrase goes. The ones which were addressed to us and were actually received by us were later read by many other people, but after that they were invariably destroyed. This was an unbending rule: mail, especially from abroad, was disposed of after reading – we never planned to make the KGB's work of collecting information and cooking up cases any easier.(*)

(*)Not everyone followed this basic rule. An addressee of one of my letters, Sh., did not, and his carelessness played a fatal part in my life. He did not destroy the letter after reading it, and the KGB men seized it during a search. The consequences were really hard for me, and Sh. also paid a dear price for his, to put it mildly, naivety. On the other hand, I enjoy recollecting our coming back home after a holiday in '81. Dozens of letters had piled up while we were away, and even though I was exhausted, I spent half the night reading them and tearing them into small pieces after reading. My wife Galya pleaded with me: "Stop it, go to bed, you'll finish it tomorrow.", but I retorted: "What if they come tomorrow?", and continued to fill the garbage pail with the shreds. Only when I was through with that did I go to bed. But I did not really complete what I had to do: I should have emptied the bucket into the garbage can downstairs, but I was too tired to do it. They came early in the morning to search our place (in connection with an action brought against no one else but Sh. himself and also another man), and it took some ingenuity to replace our garbage bucket with the one of our neighbors, under their very noses. Our neighbors in the communal flat {one where several families share bathroom and kitchen facilities – E.R.} were my mother and my sister, and, at our request, they kept in their room everything that was usually taken away during searches (for example, typewriters and many other things which they used to look for). On that day my mother and sister were out of town; in any case, they didn't have a search warrant for the neighbors. They did rummage around in the garbage bucket, but it wasn't ours, so they soiled their hands for nothing.

      Edik's letters were really good. Later, when we finally got to Israel, people sometimes asked us if we felt disappointed with the reality of life here after so many years of struggle, when the longed-for goal, Israel in our case, would inevitably be idealized. These questions were not totally ungrounded: such disappointments were not uncommon, and they could be very painful, at that. That it did not happen to us was, to a great extent, Edik's doing. It was only afterwards that we were able to appreciate his tact and his sense of where to stop when he wrote about different sides of life in Israel, including the most painful ones, without trying to conceal or exaggerate anything.

      For example, I once asked him what he thought about the conflict between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews. In his next letter Edik reproduced his dialogue with a Moroccan Jew, to whom he had shown a very good album of the Hermitage art. The man leafed through the album with interest and then said: "Splendid. It's a shame the Soviet Union lacks culture." - "Does Morocco have culture?" - "It certainly does. Every year I go there to pray at my father's grave. Listen, we are at war with them, but it never occurs to them that they can deny entry to a son who wants to pray at his father's grave, even though there's such a valid reason to do so. Now, we are not at war with the Soviet Union, but can you go there to visit your parents' graves?" This dialogue is, to my mind, lots more forceful than all abstract reasoning about different mentalities and calls for mutual tolerance.

      Even though the future big aliya was years away, he never doubted that the day would come. Like no one else, he perfectly realized that for thousands of otherwise intelligent people their notorious Soviet lack of knowledge of foreign languages would be the main obstacle in their absorption and he did not spare efforts in trying to persuade all the refuseniks to use the time of forced waiting for permission to leave for serious and intensive learning of Hebrew and English. I saw eye to eye with him, but unfortunately, we did not succeed here. For even among the students of our semi-underground "ulpanim", Hebrew classes – seemingly, people who had chosen their way and had taken no small risks to do so – even among them only a small minority ground away at Hebrew grammar – all the "binyanim", "gizrot" and "mishkalim". The majority shirked like real truants, and they did it in such an unmistakably Soviet student manner that some "morim", Hebrew teachers, arrived at the sad conclusion that the Soviet mentality had eternal life. It looks like even though the Evil Empire has collapsed, certain events confirm that they were right at this point. One of my former colleagues even keeps an Internet site devoted to this topic.

      Being a high class professional, Edik found work practically immediately after coming to Israel, and it was a job in one of the strongest hi-tech international companies. It was hard work, and he had to slog away at it, but he never slackened his efforts to help our hapless community, especially the sick and the prisoners. To this day I can't figure out how he found energy for everything. He took up the most difficult cases, including those that for some reasons drew less public attention in Israel and in the West. (*)

(*)Edik was certainly a perfectionist – that is, he simply liked to do his work well. He got his first Master's degree at the Military Translators' Institute, majoring in Japanese. Even though he worked in this field only for a short period of time (the Soviet Army was not quite a suitable place for people like him), it was Edik whom the Japanese consulate used to ask to write calligraphic inscriptions in hieroglyphs.

      Edik was a man of firm convictions, in Israeli terms – a right-winger (which did not help him to find friends among the Israeli establishment, whose members from time immemorial suffer from "the infantile disorder of left-wing thought" {"Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder" is the title of an article by Lenin –E.R.}, which with the years some of them have transformed into provincial left-wing senile dementia). But when his "second vocation" was involved – that is, the struggle for aliya and helping those in trouble, he was ready to co-operate (and did co-operate) with anyone, left-wing or ultra-left – it did not matter. It was more difficult for him to get on well with the authorities: he was not good at "fitting into the system" in the "pre-historic motherland", and he did not become any better at it in the "historic motherland", and to tell the truth, he never was much of a diplomat, either. That is why he was never short of troubles and enemies.

      He was an open-minded person, absolutely free from any prejudice. Unfortunately, this cannot be said about those for whom helping Soviet Jews was their job. Similarly, we, the objects of this help, were sometimes, let's put it mildly, a little too scrupulous and finicky. Eduard, a secular man in every respect, saw these things, I would say, as tradition prescribes, in the spirit of the Jewish commandment of ransoming prisoners. If a Jew applied to leave the USSR and got into trouble because of that, and it did not matter to Edik whether this Jew was a Zionist or a Democratic dissident, or even one who wanted to go directly to the USA; whether that Jew was a hero or not, a religious Jew or an atheist, a right-winger or a left-winger, a smart guy or not so smart, whether he was in his right senses or a little bit cranky – the first thing to do was to get him out of "there", and then, if you wished, you could find out all about him, label him and pigeon-hole him. But the Israeli authorities were more willing to help active Zionists (*), so those who sought serious, not necessarily material, help, for a certain person, were compelled to stick this honorable label onto that person, even if this person didn't quite fit the definition. Eduard sometimes did the same, and sometimes he got reprimanded when the real person fell wide of the mark. But these discoveries were made when that person was no longer behind bars, and that was the most important thing for Eduard.

(*)This seems to me a sensible policy in the political situation in which Israel had to struggle for Soviet Jews, but it sometimes carried them too far. I do not like to recollect the kind of pressure I had to withstand shortly after my release from prison camp, when certain Israeli authorities paid attention to my contacts with Russian democrats. When I did not succumb to that pressure, the "Ma'ariv" wrote that Zelichonok didn't intend to repatriate to Israel; instead, he was going to emigrate to the USA. That's how it was…

      Years passed, but the situation with us didn't get any better, even though the General Secretaries kept changing one after the other. I received a KGB warning during Andropov's or Chernenko's reign, but was arrested exactly a year later, when Gorbachev was in office. I will not elaborate on those events; those interested can read about them in "A Sketch for a Prisoner's of Zion Memoirs" in our site. In this context the important thing is that I was tried for my private letters (by the way, two of them were addressed to Edik), which were unlawfully opened at Leningrad Central Post Office, ostensibly in search of "banknotes and valuables". No valuables were found, but they read the letters, decided that they were anti-Soviet and charged me with "Producing, spreading or keeping materials containing slanderous fabrications which defame the Soviet state and social system", according to Article 190-1 of the Criminal Code of the RSFSR. That was the background, and at that moment Eduard joined the game.

      As usual, his was no banal idea: he planned to collect as many of my letters to different people as possible, and to do it quickly, preferably before the trial, and then to publish them in a book form in two languages, Russian and English. The goal was to give those letters wide publicity, to demonstrate the absurdity of the charge, to mobilize support in Israel and in the West and to help me by binding the KGB people hand and foot, as much as it was possible. That was the general outline of his plan, and he started implementing it at once, and then incredible things started to happen – you can judge for yourselves.

      I was arrested on June 11, 1985. For about four days I was kept in the lock-up (detention cell) before trial, and after that, on the 15th or 16th of June, an "avtozek", the Soviet equivalent of the Black Maria, transported me to the infamous "Kresty" prison. On the same day Edik already had about fifty of my letters lying on his desk! The work team consisted of Edik himself with his wife Ira and his son Sasha, a former prisoner of Zion Arye Vudka, who volunteered to make the book dummy, Yefim Maidanek, who did the English translation, artist Batya Ton, who made the book's cover, and some other volunteers. The team called themselves "Let My People Go" Publishers, the address of this publishing house being the Usoskins' apartment. By June 20, even before my first interrogation in prison, the Russian version of "Letters from behind the Iron Curtain" was practically ready!

      Anyone who has ever prepared a book for publication will say that this is impossible, that it takes months of work. You needed to contact dozens of people, to collect and systematize separate pages, to cut out strictly private or less important information, or what was not meant for the KGB's eyes. You needed to have a lot of translations done. You needed to supply suitable photographs. You needed to find a suitable print-shop and sponsors (though as to the paper, for example, - Edik simply bought it and paid from his own pocket). Then you needed to correct the misprints. You needed…, you needed…

      I am holding this 101-page book. Its greatest fault is the compliers overestimation of the letters' author's personal qualities, but this is understandable: we always love prisoners, at least till they get liberated. There are no misprints or other signs of haste; everything is up to the mark. I know that those guys worked non-stop, day and night, but I am still unable to understand how they managed to have all this done in a matter of days. I once asked Edik about it and he retorted, in his teasing manner: "What do you think – everyone works like they do in your precious Electric Company?" I chose to defend the honor of "my precious company", and that ended the discussion.

      Two weeks before "my" case was heard in the Leningrad City Court on the Fontanka Embankment in the building of the former Third Department of His Majesty's High Office (also known as Okhranka – the Secret Police Department), the English version of the book of letters, called "Caught in a Trap… Letters from behind the Iron Curtain" was ready for the reader.

      In the Soviet Union the first readers to pay tribute to this book were the KGB, and they had quite some understanding of these matters. I have fair grounds to believe that the bosses of "my" camps also read it, at least those who knew how to read. All the attempts to send the book to us ended in nothing. When I was still in the camp and after my liberation, when perestroika was at its height, when they had even stopped seizing Solzhenitsyn at the border – Usoskin's brain-child was invariably taken away!

      No doubt, the plan worked and its goal was achieved. But I did not mean to write at length about these matters, for it is Edik that I am writing about. I will only say that the effect surpassed all expectations: it seems that the KGB had assumed that I was a prominent writer and that I could even be dangerous for them in that role (just imagine, all this happened after Voinovich, Shalamov, Dovlatov, Ginzburg …, even Solzhenitsyn!). So they sent a great number of informers to me, to find out if I was going to write memoirs when I leave camp. Their efforts were not left unnoticed by my cell-mates, who started telling me their life stories: "Remember this, you may need it." When our luggage was being rummaged through in the Domodedovo airport, it became clear that we could have taken to Israel not only the then forbidden for taking out of the country Khokhloma Handicrafts products, but also all the diamond stock of the USSR: they were looking only for papers, for reading matter, paying no attention to anything else! (*).

(*)It may seem that I am exaggerating. But Russian security people always had a special way of thinking. I once happened to translate into Hebrew certain documents concerning Pinchas Rutenberg (the one who rescued Father Gapon on "Bloody Sunday", and then executed him, after finding out that he was a tsarist security agent, and then this man became a Zionist, founded the Electric Company and built the first electric power plant in Eretz Israel, then called Palestine). Among those documents there was a secret letter to a certain Councillor of State who was probably the Russian Embassy's officer in charge of the Russian agents in Paris: "When the pamphlet on the Jewish question which has been compiled by Rutenberg comes out in print, Your Excellency is required by the Police Department to procure a copy of the aforesaid pamphlet for the Department". The answer bore a "top secret" stamp: "… due to the difficult censorship conditions caused by the on-going war, the pamphlet could not be obtained. Only two or three copies reached Paris, while the copies which had been sent by our agents from America were not delivered to their destination… New measures for obtaining it have been taken; it will be procured by me without procrastination". The year is 1916, World War I is going on, the worst is coming to the worst for Russia, Their Excellencies would soon meet their bitter end, but top officers of the Russian Secret Police are chasing after a pamphlet on the Jewish question… Doesn't it remind you of something?

      It should be mentioned that Eduard was a right-winger not only in Israeli terms, but also in the European understanding of the word, that is, he was a convinced champion of free economy, so it was only natural for him to step on the thorny path of private enterprise. But that he would have the cheek to intrude into a specific field of modern electronics, which seemed to be once and forever monopolized by hi-tech giants, without having any capital besides his brilliant mind - this could not be expected even from Eduard Usoskin. His friends, myself included, were terrified and anticipated a swift and inevitable bankruptcy. People tried to reason with him, but he always followed his chosen path to the end, ignoring what to most people seemed common sense arguments. That's what he did in this case, too.

      The field of electronics I am talking about is called electromagnetic compatibility testing – that is, testing equipment's conformity with electromagnetic compatibility standards. Today no appliance, whether intended for home, industrial or military use, can be produced or sold in any civilized country without an electromagnetic compatibility certificate. I will not go into details, suffice it to say that powerful laboratories equipped with very expensive equipment work in this field. But even possessing such equipment means nothing, if such a laboratory does not win formal world recognition, first of all, in the USA and Europe, as an organization empowered to carry out electromagnetic compatibility tests.

      At the start Usoskin's laboratory, called Hermon Laboratories, was housed in rooms that were rented from "the Berkovich Community Centre" in Upper Nazareth (*). Its workers were Edik with his sons and a couple of new immigrant engineers. While sympathizers were worrying about the impending bankruptcy, he obtained a bank loan, bought equipment and started work. Its quality proved to be higher than that of the powerful competitors, while its costs and time of execution were lower, so that the competitors had to step aside. The laboratory was winning international recognition. Dr Eduard Usoskin from Israel became a welcome participant of international electromagnetic compatibility conferences.

(*) A funny detail – somebody from the local authority suggested that the mezuzot should be taken away from the doors of those rooms, in order to spare the feelings of Arabs who came to the Community Centre. Edik answered in the Russian version of what in English are called four letter words, but abstained from using his fists – with the years his temper had definitely softened.

      Then a new building was built in Binyamina, new equipment was purchased and new workers were hired. Being true to his "second vocation", Edik strived to employ as many new immigrants as it was possible. The main obstacle was, as he had foreseen back in the seventies, the Russian notorious lack of foreign languages knowledge. With bitterness did he time and again tell me how difficult it was to find among "our boys" a good electronics engineer whose English would be good enough for serious work in hi-tech.

      Then the hi-tech crisis broke out, and newspapers spoke about companies that had to close down. Edik reacted to this challenge in the same way he had met all the previous challenges in his life: he had a new building built for his laboratory, next to the first one. He won again!

      Twice a week I leave Haifa and go south. When the train rushes past Binyamina, I always look in the direction of the sea. Here they are, standing not far off from the railway, the two compact buildings, pretty elegant in their hi-tech functional style. I may pop in one day to have a look – how things are there. It's only that Edik has died…

      That's it, no more about it – I just can't…

Translated from Russian by
Ilana (Elena) Romanovsky.