Report on Trip to the Soviet Union in January 1987 to Visit Jewish Refuseniks

(Part 1)

By Solomon Schimmel, Ph.D

This report constitutes Dr. Solomon Schimmel's summary of the trip made by him together with Dr. Alan Geller to the Soviet Union from January 1 through January 12, 1987. The trip was sponsored by Boston Action for Soviet Jewry.

       I begin with remarks about preparations for our trip.Our primary briefer for this trip was Mrs. Miriam Newman Pinolles, who devoted many hours and much energy, at times often inconvenient to herself as a mother of a young baby, to prepare us for the trip so that we could accomplish the multiple objectives of the trip. Miriam's oral briefings and the written materials provided to us by Action were invaluable and enabled us to use the limited time available to us in the Soviet Union in a highly efficient manner, notwithstanding the adverse weather conditions (of which the high – or rather - low point was 40 degrees Fahrenheit below zero during our final days in Leningrad).

       The objectives of our trip were sixfold.

  1. To provide moral and psychological support for refuseniks.
  2. . For Dr. Geller to meet with several physicians providing medical care to the refusenik community for purposes of consultation and to examine several refuseniks who were ill and to lecture on topics of medical/scientific interest to refusenik groups.
  3. To bring into the Soviet Union a substantial amount of medicines for use by the refusenik community.
  4. For Dr. Schimmel to conduct study sessions on subjects of Jewish/Judaic interest for refusenik groups.
  5. To bring into the Soviet Union for distribution to refuseniks various gifts that could be of use to them in their struggle for economic survival under conditions of deprivation of employment because of their refusenik status. Without going into specifics our estimate is that we successfully distributed medicines and gifts of various kinds in Moscow and Leningrad worth approximately $5,000.
  6. To obtain information from refuseniks regarding their current needs and circumstances and if possible to fulfill certain tasks or engage in certain activities on their behalf upon our return to the United States.

       It is our assessment that we were very successful in accomplishing almost all of the forementioned objectives. But beyond this, we both feel very strongly that the trip had a deep personal impact on us in several ways, an impact which we expect will shape our understanding of and commitment to the historic and heroic battle for Jewish survival and Jewish self-dignity now taking place in the USSR.

Preparations for the Trip

       Our preparations for the trip began months in advance of our departure date and required the investment of a considerable amount of time, energy and, particularly for Dr. Geller, personal financial resources. In addition to the normal time and effort spent in preparing for a trip abroad, we had additional responsibilities. Dr. Geller collected from various medical colleagues and from his own purchases, a suitcase full of medications. We purchased numerous gifts, including cameras, tape recorders, short wave radios, clothing, food, religious articles, books and more. We spent time soliciting funds from local institutions and personal friends or acquaintances for subsidizing our trip and for the purchase of these gifts, A good number of hours were spent on reading up on Soviet society in general and Soviet Jewry and the refusenik community in particular. Moreover both of us studied the Cyrillic alphabet which we found to be extremely useful throughout our ten day stay, particularly in assisting us to feel comfortable and confident in finding our way around the Moscow and Leningrad Metro. Dr. Geller spent several hours studying basic Russian phrases which also proved useful on several occasions. Dr. Schimmel acquired maps of Moscow and Leningrad and outlines of the Metro system so that upon arrival in the USSR we were able to use the METRO with relative ease and had a good sense of time, distance, orientation and the location of the individuals whom we were supposed to be contacting. Information provided to us about how to use the public telephone and precautions regarding where, what and when to say certain things certainly made us feel more confident about behaving in the very strange, novel, and threatening Soviet environment and in responding to unanticipated contingencies. Instructions regarding how to pack our suitcases and how to behave at customs inspection upon entering and leaving the USSR were put to good use by us.

       Our planning was deficient in that we did not get sufficient sleep before our departure, due in part to the numerous last minute preparations we wanted to accomplish and to the anxiety and tension caused by the delay in the approval of our trip by Soviet authorities and the arrival of our visa, which we received only one day prior to our departure date. However, we did not allow our physical exhaustion during the first few days of our stay in Moscow to deter us in any way from contacting and meeting with those individuals whom we were instructed to visit.

       Prior to our departure we spent many hours reviewing information we received about the specific individuals we were to contact, so that we had some sense of their needs and activities. This enabled us to rapidly establish meaningful and trusting relationships in the relatively short time of two to eight hours which we spent with people. The fact that both of us speak and understand Hebrew was a major asset in terms of facilitating communication and establishing bonds of mutual interest and rapport for most of the refuseniks whom we met.

       One aspect of our preparations did not proceed as planned, but we do not feel that this in any way detracted from our trip. In Moscow we managed to visit most of our "first level" contacts but had no time to contact those at the "second level" in terms of the ordering of individuals provided by Action. In Leningrad we deviated even more from the list of individuals we were given.

       However we met with other individuals instead, all upon the recommendation and arrangements made by one or another of the “first level” contacts. We have no idea what we “missed” by not meeting some of those on our initial list to be contacted, but we consider ourselves to have been highly privileged to have met every single individual whom we did meet – so overwhelmed were we by their personalities, achievements, strength of character and commitment to human dignity, Jewish self-dignity and Judaic culture, religious or otherwise.

Arrival at Moscow Airport

       We departed from Boston on British Airways on Wednesday December 31st at 9 p.m.. Following a brief stopover at Heathrow in London we transferred to another British Airways flight and arrived at Sheremetyevo Airport at 4:30 p.m.. Passport control was uneventful but we had a wait of perhaps forty-five minutes on the line for customs. Alan and I went to separate inspection lines as had been recommended in our briefing. The customs inspector requested that I open up all of my luggage for inspection. She removed all items of a Jewish nature which she could identify, none of which were concealed, again as per our briefing. These items included a small, new siddur, a small new Tanach, a small three volume set of Mishnayot, a small volume of Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, a volume of the Hebrew language textbook Ivrit Haya, several pocket size siddurim/tehillim, a hanukiya, traveling candlesticks, chanuka candles, a new Tallit and Tefillin, Grayzels' History of the Jews, Sachar's The Course of Modern Jewish History, and six cassette tapes of Jewish music. She looked at but did not remove two pairs of "tzitzit" and failed to notice another volume of Ivrit Haya and another siddur which was beneath my camera. Also removed were several blank cassette tapes and copies of Newsweek, The New York Times Book Review and one or two other such periodicals. The customs clerk called over another individual who examined everything. He spent several minutes carefully going through the Table of Contents of the Sachar book which includes chapters on Russian Jewish history, Zionism and Israel through the Six Day War. I was certain that this book would be confiscated. Then another man was called over to look at all of the items that were removed. All this time I tried to appear unperturbed, simply indicating that all of these items were for personal use. Finally I was told that the tapes with recordings on them, the new siddur, the new Tanach, the set of Mishnayot and the Ivrit Haya, cannot be brought into the country but that everything else could be taken in. I was told that if I sign for the removed items I could receive them at Leningrad airport when I depart the country. I said fine and after a few minutes the customs officer returned with a form in Russian and filled out in Russian handwriting and asked me to sign. I told him that I don't want to sign any form in Russian since I do not understand Russian and would appreciate a form in English. Somewhat annoyed he told me that he will translate for me what was written in Russian but I insisted on an English form. He said that he didn't have any, to which I responded that I would prefer to forfeit the items than to sign. He seemed to be offended at my lack of trust in him and told me that the items will then have to be confiscated and not returned, to which I consented. That was the last I saw of the confiscated items. Perhaps some Russian official will be turned on to Judaism by listening to the tapes and studying the books. I was pleased that I was allowed to bring in the remaining items.

       In addition to the above items I had a micro cassette tape recorder, two cameras, a portable printer for my Toshiba Portable Computer, a short-wave radio, a considerable amount of drugs (prior to my departure I had "acquired" several illnesses, including heart problems, glaucoma, ulcers, sinus condition etc. in the event that I would be questioned about all of the drugs that I was bringing in). I was also carrying in its case on my shoulder a Toshiba Portable Computer which I voluntarily opened up and asked if they would like a demonstration of how it works. That wasn't necessary I was told and it went through smoothly. I was told that I could repack my luggage and proceed. None of the items that I brought in to the USSR were written down on my customs declaration other than the foreign currency that I had declared. This meant that I could leave everything in the Soviet Union without having to account for its absence when I would depart.

       During these customs proceedings I heard one of the officials make a reference to the National Hotel, which was where I was to be staying in Moscow. Therefore, I assumed that I had by now been pegged as a tourist who will be visiting refuseniks and would probably be watched.

       During the customs check my greatest fear was that a small slip of paper in my back pocket with the addresses and phone numbers of the refuseniks I was to visit, would be found, and that a micro cassette which had on it a forty-five minute recording of religious and children's songs in Hebrew interspersed with comments of support and concern for refuseniks, made by my wife Yehudit, would be found and confiscated. To minimize this possibility I placed the micro cassette at the bottom of my inside jacket pocket (worn especially for this purpose) and had other items in that and in other pockets that I could remove if asked to empty my pockets. In any event no request to empty any pockets was made and I sighed a deep sigh of relief over the slip of paper and Yehudit's beautiful and emotionally powerful recording (now circulating in several homes of refuseniks in Moscow and Leningrad who copied it onto their own cassettes).

       I left the customs area and met up with Alan. We went to the bus that was waiting for us and which took us to the National Hotel in Downtown Moscow, one block away from Red Square where we arrived at approximately seven p.m..

       After settling in to our hotel room we went outside to familiarize ourselves with the area and to find a public phone booth from which to call our first contact. We first walked around in the large square directly opposite the hotel, filled with people and in which a platform had been set up to accommodate entertainers performing for the New Year holiday crowd. We wanted to see if we were being followed, and if so, to try to get lost in the crowd. After about half an hour of mingling and observing we headed to a public phone booth, armed with our dimes that can be substituted for the two kopek coin. Just as we were about to enter a booth we noticed a young, sinister looking man staring at us. We walked away from him. He followed us. We turned around. So did he. We turned around again, walked towards the entrance of a Metro station and waited outside. He turned around, continued to follow us, and then entered the Metro station. A few moments later, sure enough he reappeared, having exited from the other side of the station, and once again headed towards us. It was obvious that we were being tailed. Moreover, unless our tail was an idiot, which I doubt, it was obvious that he wanted us to know that we were being followed. In any event we decided to return to the hotel and rethink our tactics. Back in the room we decided to go out again, call our contact, tell him that we were being followed and let him decide whether or not he wishes to invite us to his home. We rebundled up and Alan called Igor Uspensky's home from a public phone. Igor wasn't home but his wife Inna Yoffe was. Alan told her that we were from Boston and would like to visit. He also told her that we had been followed. She told us to meet her husband the next day, Friday afternoon, at the Yugo Zapadnaya Metro station, which is the last stop on the Red line. We were elated. Minutes before we feared that all our trip would be in vain -after all, we had barely arrived in Russia and the KGB were already after us. Would they prevent us from accomplishing our goals? Would they intimidate us? Would we be endangering those whom we planned to contact? Inna Yoffe removed from us the cloud of gloom that had descended upon us in that first hour of our stay in Russia. We also learned from her response, and many times afterwards throughout our stay, that fear of the KGB can be overcome or at least be contained by those whom we visited, who tended to view us as somewhat paranoid and prone to overestimating the intelligence and sophistication of the KGB. However almost all whom we met had personally experienced or knew of instances in which the KGB or other government authorities had used force, threats, intimidation and brutality in dealing with refuseniks. They simply learned to live with their underlying fear and to be as reasonably cautious as possible without allowing the real and justifiable fear to incapacitate them emotionally or in their daily activities. The KGB is not happy with refuseniks entertaining Jewish tourists from abroad in their homes. Yet this is precisely what the refuseniks we met are doing whenever they have the opportunity, and indeed they look forward to such meetings and consider them essential to their own psychological and in some cases, even their physical survival.

       It should be noted that when we went out of our hotel this second time we were not aware of being followed. Moreover, at no point during the remaining ten days of our visit to Russia were we ever aware of being followed by anyone. Whether or not we actually were followed, only G-d and the KGB know.

       We returned to our hotel room in a relaxed and upbeat mood and celebrated with a tour of the rather unimpressive hotel and a pantomime and coded discussion of our experiences, feelings and plans for the morrow. Hotel rooms are bugged.

Friday, January 2, 1987

       Friday morning I went outside to call Yuri Cherniak for whom I had a gift to deliver donated by Bill Marcus of Boston. We made up for Yuri to meet me at Igor Uspensky's home in the afternoon. Yuri knows Igor.

       We met Igor at the Metro station as planned and walked from there to his home where we met his wife Inna Yoffe and their seventeen year old son, Slava. Slava has become orthodox these past few years. He works as a messenger boy by day in order to help support the family and attends an Institute four evenings a week, three hours per evening. On Sundays and on Wednesday evenings he studies Torah and other Judaic subjects with a group of teenagers and a teacher. The group is highly motivated and was it not for lack of time, would spend even more hours at their Jewish studies. Slava is studying among other things, Masechet Berachot of the Talmud and Chumash with Rashi. He reads both fairly fluently. I was quite impressed with his level of achievement. On Shabbat he walks for half an hour to Shabbat services conducted in someone's private home. His room is decorated with items of Jewish significance, including a homemade calendar with the Hebrew months handwritten on it. The room is meticulously neat. He has a small library of Jewish books and a collection of Jewish and general tapes. Slava corresponds with a Bar-Mitzva twin and keeps a file of all letters sent and received. Only some of them go through in either direction. Slava asked me to send a letter to his Bar-Mitzva twin which I did upon my return to the States. I was quite impressed with Slava's maturity. He is a quiet teenager with a strong determination to live a full Jewish life.

       Igor told me that when Slava was six years old he returned from school questioning his teacher's assertion that the best of everything there is, is to be found in the Soviet Union. He refused to believe that one country excels in everything over all others. Igor realized then that Slava would have great difficulty adjusting to the Soviet system, and this was one factor which set Igor on his path towards applying for an exit visa. Now that Slava is orthodox, to remain in Russia is an even more untenable option for the family. Igor and Inna are very much concerned about Slava's future if they are forced to remain in Russia - and this concern for their children' welfare and future was reiterated by many other refuseniks whom we met.

       I'd like to note that within a matter of minutes Alan and I felt that we had established a close, intimate and trusting relationship with the Uspenskys. This was typical of all of those with whom we met. In a very short time a strong bond of affection is forged. When the time would come to say Goodbye I found myself desiring to tightly hug and to kiss those from whom I was about to depart. I acted upon this urge and they responded in kind. My feeling, which I conveyed verbally to all, was that this farewell was but a temporary one, and in the not too distant future we would be together again, whether in Jerusalem or in Boston, to joyfully celebrate their release from bondage to freedom. Our sense of being one large, interconnected family – the family of Jews - notwithstanding cultural and geographical differences dominated our consciousness. This experience was heightened when we met or heard about other Jews from other countries who had visited our hosts and corresponded with them. Igor told us that he had been a senior scientist (entomologist) and had directed a scientific research expedition in Eastern Soviet Union. He had been penalized for firing some workers who were not performing their jobs appropriately. He realized that he could not tolerate a system in which Communist Party connections outweigh personal and scientific integrity. This was another factor that led him on his road to becoming a refusenik.

      Inna Yoffe spoke proudly of having been taught Hebrew by Natasha Ratner, wife of Prisoner of Zion, Aleksei Magarik. She told us of how the KGB had set fire to her balcony and how she stopped attending monthly film showings at the American Embassy because the Soviet militia (police) would publicly insult and demean by name those who chose to attend.

       Alan had brought along the January issue of Scientific American. We were delightfully surprised to learn that Igor and Inna translate articles from SA for the Russian language edition of SA which appears three months after the American edition and that Igor had translated the article which appeared in that very same issue.

       We left with Igor a camera which would be used to help support two needy families whom they told us about. We also left several psychology self-help books dealing with depression, anger and anxiety as well as some recent news magazines. The Uspensky-Yoffe family are warm, sophisticated, intelligent and considerate people, a center of organizational activity for refuseniks. I was surprised to learn from Inna that Igor is not Jewish but is an ethnic Russian - who, as she put it, is really a Jew in his heart.

       Most probably the high point of this Friday afternoon was our getting to meet Mila Volvovsky, wife of Prisoner of Zion Leonid Volvovsky. Mila, who is a good friend of the Uspensky's has been exiled to Gorky since 1980. Her and her husband's crime was teaching Hebrew. About a year ago Leonid was arrested and tried in Gorky for slandering the Soviet state. He insisted on addressing the judge in Hebrew at the trial, claiming his right to speak in the language of his Jewish nationality. He is presently in a labor camp in Siberia. Mila visits Moscow on occasion and happened to be there for this weekend in order to make arrangements for her trip to the labor camp to visit Leonid. We spoke with her for over an hour and recorded on tape many of her remarks. She is a most remarkable woman. She told us with great passion and pride the story of her and Leonid's Hebrew teaching activities in Moscow, how only twenty years ago there were but a handful of Jews in Moscow who knew Hebrew and now there are thousands. She said that Leonid had remarked to her in his captivity that knowing that he had a hand in the rebirth of Hebraic knowledge among Russia's Jews, makes him feel that his life had not been lived in vain and even if he were to die now he would go to his grave in peace. Mila's feelings as she recounted her past and present sufferings at the hands of the KGB who keep her under constant surveillance, were a mixture of fear and anxiety on the one hand counterpointed by hope and pride. These emotions fluctuated vividly in the tones of her voice and in her facial and bodily gestures. She told with supreme joy gratitude and pride of the actual Chanukah miracle that had transpired for Leonid the previous year. He had been worrying for many weeks how he would be able to celebrate Chanuka in the labor camp in the absence of oil or candles. Miraculously, a few days before Chanuka a vegetable oil was included in the ration of food given to the prisoners. Leonid carefully saved and guarded this oil, rather than eat it (notwithstanding his bodily need for it, given the deliberately punitive low-caloric diets provided for inmates of labor camps). Joyfully he lit it on Chanuka in a Chanukiya made from pieces of bread.

       In our conversation with Mila we solved the mystery of the "white chocolate". In the States we had been told to bring white chocolate with us but no one told us why. We assumed that it was meant as a house gif and that an idiosyncrasy of Russian Jews is that they like white chocolate. When in the course of her conversation with us Mila mentioned white chocolate we asked her what's wrong with brown chocolate. In fact, in the States white chocolate is rarely to be found. Mila explained that there are very strict rules and regulations regarding what kinds of foods may be included in the two or three parcels per year that may be sent to inmates of labor camps. High-caloric foods are forbidden, such as chocolate. However the guards aren't familiar with white chocolate and have let it pass through, or alternatively the wives of the Prisoners of Zion bake the white chocolate into a cake and the guards do not realize that it is in essence a chocolate cake. Later, in Leningrad Boris Kelman told us of the extremely high caloric cakes that include white chocolate, butter, peanuts etc that are baked for Prisoners of Zion to provide them with some caloric supplement to their very low-caloric diets.

       Both Alan and I were shocked into the realization of how different is the world of our refusenik brothers from the world which we had left less than two days before. Both Mila Volvovsky and we were interested in chocolate - but for reasons as far removed from each other as is Siberia from Boston.

       Interestingly enough, notwithstanding the tragic dimensions of our initiation into the secrets of white chocolate, neither we nor our refusenik friends lost sight of the comic aspects of our ignorance and misconceptions. All of us were able to laugh while we knew that we should be crying. And indeed we found throughout our trip that we could joke and laugh together about the tragicomic dimensions of "being in refusal" and of two innocent Americans in the land of the KGB and Kafkaesque surrealism.

       Mila asked if we could get her some perfume from a Beriozka shop which would be useful in convincing an airline booker to find a seat for her on a flight to Siberia that would otherwise be full. Leonid was waiting for her visit.

       In the meantime Yuri Cherniak arrived and I delivered Bill Marcus's gift to him. He was absolutely overjoyed, explaining to me how now he and his group of mathematician coworkers will be able to solve certain problems that they had been working on for a very long time. I had succeeded in bringing in the gift, which included several accessories, without its being recorded on my customs declaration, which intensified Yuri's delight and happiness.

       Igor indicated that he would like us to return to his home on Saturday night to meet with and lecture to a group of refuseniks with bio-medical backgrounds. We left for our hotel accompanied by Slava and Mila and as our paths parted we kissed Mila goodbye. Her final words to us were "remember my husband!". We promised that we would.

       At the hotel we made kiddush over two breadsticks, ate some kosher hard cheese, chocolate and granola bars and after reviewing the days events, went to sleep, intending to visit the Moscow synagogue in the morning. However our bodies, exhausted from several sleepless nights, jet lag and emotional strain, thought otherwise. When we awoke Shabbat morning - it wasn't morning any longer, but one o'clock in the afternoon. After dovening in the room we prepared our table for the Shabbat meal. Kiddush on a small bottle of Drambui saved for this purpose from the plane trip, and once again a sumptuous meal of breadsticks, smoked cheese, granola bars and chocolate. Many times over during our trip did we thank Noam for insisting that we load ourselves up with granola bars. They sustained us whether in times of need or just of nosh.

Part 2 ==>