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

(Part 4)

By Solomon Schimmel, Ph.D

       We packed our bags and I wrote brief notes on postcards to be mailed in the morning. I made sure to be general in my remarks with no mention of the visits we were making. I even signed the card to my own family with "Father" rather than my usual Hebrew "Aba".

       During our stay at the National Hotel we met several other Jewish tourists visiting Moscow for the same reason that we were there. It was good to know that Jewish communities throughout the United States and around the world were supporting the refusenik community. Thus, paradoxically, it was in the major world center of contemporary anti-Judaic activity and anti-Zionist propaganda (outside of the Middle East) that we acutely experienced the brotherhood of the Jewish people.

Wednesday, January 7, 1987

       We left for the airport in the morning and were brought to a waiting area that was virtually empty but for three other passengers. The five of us boarded an empty plane and I wondered why so few people were traveling between Russia's two major cities. However, after we had settled in to our seats, more passengers boarded, rapidly filling up the old, cheaply furnished plane. We foreigners were assigned to a different boarding area than the native Russians, and were allowed to board first. This can be interpreted in two ways - It can be seen as a courtesy to foreign guests. It can also be seen as an attempt to minimize the average Russian's contact with foreigners, which is probably the primary reason, as suggested by Hedrick Smith in "The Russians".

       We were met at the Leningrad airport by an Intourist representative who had already gathered our luggage and were taken to the hotel to which we had been assigned by Intourist, the Pulkovskaya, a new, modern, first class hotel. The hotel faced an impressive plaza and monument commemorating the suffering and heroism of Leningrad's population during the Great Patriotic War, as the Russians refer to World War 2.

       It had been our bad luck to arrive in Leningrad just when it was experiencing record cold temperatures - about 30 below zero. This extremely frigid weather remained with us for the duration of our stay, one day plummeting to 40 below zero (which happens to be the point of intersection of the centigrade and fahrenheit scales so that -40C = -40F ). However, notwithstanding the arctic cold we were not deterred by the weather from scheduling and making visits to families we contacted.

       After settling in to our room we went for a walk in search of a public phone booth. Our first contact was Lev Gandin, who was expecting a call from us since Misha Rabinovich, who was a good friend of his, had called him from Moscow on our behalf. Because of the extremely cold weather, making a phone call outdoors was a major effort. It was difficult to retain the fine motor control necessary to insert the 2 kopek coin (or its "clone" - an American dime, and in the few seconds it took to dial the number with my fingers in contact with the metal of the receiver and the dial, my fingers froze with pain. The same happened to my lips and cheeks as I removed my scarf so that I could talk. To make matters worse, after I reached Lev we were disconnected and I had to repeat the procedure a few minutes later. After being disconnected I worried that perhaps Lev had deliberately terminated our conversation abruptly, for fear of his phone being tapped. We had been told that except for Lev Gandin we should not call our other contacts directly since the "phone" situation in Leningrad is worse than in Moscow - meaning that the KGB in Leningrad are more severe in their harassment and intimidation of refuseniks and in their attempts to prevent their maintaining contact with foreigners than are their counterparts in Moscow. We had been informed that Moscow is the most "liberal" of Soviet cities since the Russian government wants to present it as a showcase to the West and because there are many foreigners residing in or visiting Moscow who could report to the West unfavorably if they were to witness excessively brutal and overt acts of repression. The further a city is from Moscow and from accessibility to Westerners the less inhibited is the KGB in its use of brute force and viciously cruel techniques of terror against refuseniks or dissidents. However I called Lev again and this time we were able to complete our conversation. Alan and I were to come to Lev's apartment at 7 p.m. and Lev would try to arrange for Dr. Alla Kelman and her husband Boris to be there too, since the Kelmans were the first on the list of those we were to meet in Leningrad.

       We arrived by taxi at Lev Gandin's apartment at 7 p.m. where we were greeted by Lev, a retired mathematician in his sixties. As soon as we "undressed" - as we referred to the removal of coats, sweaters, hats, gloves, scarves and, in many cases, shoes (which were replaced with "guest slippers" provided by our hosts) we were accompanied to the living room where we met Lev's younger son, Alex, a handsome, slim thirty year old truck driver. To my astonishment we were asked to sign the guest register. My immediate reaction was one of suspicion and fear. No one else whom we had visited had ever made such a request. Moreover, why was such a formal procedure necessary? What if the KGB were to confiscate this register of guests who had visited the Gandins? Lev realized my apprehensions and half jokingly asked if I thought he was working for the KGB (which thought did pass through my mind - there have been cases of Jewish informers who have penetrated Jewish activist circles). While still ill at ease I made the decision to acquiesce to my host's request, particularly since Misha Rabinovich considered Lev to be a close friend of his, and as I indicated before, had called him from Moscow to tell him to expect us today. But my apprehension intensified when Alex indicated that we were to sign the guest register by typing our names, addresses, and telephone numbers (including business phones) into a computer which he had programmed for this very purpose. However, civility overcame suspicion and I sat down by Alex's small Canon X - 07 computer ready to docilely obey authority. My apprehension turned into relief and even delight when out of the tiny computer which was loading Alex's program there piped forth the melody of Hatikva and other well known Jewish songs. Alan and I broke out into a laughter - a laughter at our own paranoia (which was engendered by being in Russia) but more significantly, a laughter at this form of a refusenik's passive resistance to Soviet attempts to squelch Jewish expression. Even such a mundane activity as keeping an address book was deliberately infused with Jewish content. And, of course, upon reflection, it was quite understandable that Lev Gandin, who is something of a patriarch to the Leningrad refusenik community, should want a record of foreign visitors. After all they might be useful in the future when some specific instance of need might arise or Lev might simply want to write to a visitor to thank him or her for some assistance that had been rendered. As a mathematician and computer programmer he was operating in an efficient scientific manner. Even if the KGB were to confiscate his register, they could do the foreign visitors no harm and in any case they already probably knew who visited him, if they were at all interested in that information. The Jewish songs emerging from the tiny computer broke the ice and a relaxed and warm atmosphere ensued. Lev proudly showed me his guest register accumulated over a period of several years and as I leafed through it I discovered, to my pride, pleasure and amazement that several of those who visited Lev were former students of mine. Indeed one woman, currently a Rabbi, studied with me twenty years ago - and here in Lev's guest register in Leningrad our paths crossed again! This was another of the numerous incidents and experiences of my trip which heightened my sense of the familyhood of Jews.

       In the context of recalling little acts of Jewish affirmation I recall the story that was told to me that evening of one refusenik whose name is Shanin. When Peter the Great revised the Cyrillic alphabet he deliberately borrowed letters from several different alphabets, such as the Greek and the Hebrew. One of the Hebrew letters borrowed is the "shin" which, in Cyrillic, is identical to the Hebrew "shin" and represents the same sound. On Shanin's doorbell his name is written with a giant "shin" followed by the rest of the letters in tiny print. Of course only those in the "know" - his Jewishly active friends - appreciate the humor and the symbolism in this graphic statement of his - the most important thing about me is my "shin" component, the Hebraic dimension of my identity.

       Lev told us of the computer programming courses he conducts for the refusenik community. Some time ago he received a gift from a visitor of a very small computer a Sinclair Timex 1000 - which in the States would be considered an expensive child's toy - on the condition that he use it to teach programming to six students. Lev has gone far beyond his initial commitment. This Sinclair and the Canon serve a group of sixty adults and children at three different levels of instruction - who come to Lev's home for systematic lessons. The beginner's course runs for ten two-hour sessions on the Sinclair. The next level course is ten hours on the Canon - which allows for more complex programming than the Sinclair. The third group come for individualized work in advanced programming. The courses include homework assignments. All of this instruction is provided by Lev to his students for free. The courses serve two purposes - to teach refuseniks marketable skills and to provide them with opportunities for intellectual stimulation. Many of the refuseniks, being unemployed or underemployed, are quite concerned about intellectual atrophy and Lev's course is one way of coping with this problem. Lev indicated that a few inexpensive computers, particularly the Sinclair Spectrum or Spectrum Plus, available in England for perhaps $200, would go a long way to serve the refusenik community and enhance the effectiveness of the classes which he conducts.

       When Lev's wife came home she prepared for us a delicious and full meal. She herself is now learning English at night school. Lev' second son, Nick, is married to a Swedish girl and recently received permission to leave Russia for Sweden. Later I was told that Lev's wife is not Jewish. I cannot help pondering about the question "Who is a Jew'? Here we have Alex, fully identifying with his father's involvement in the refusenik movement, and his desire to emigrate, proudly programming Hatikva and Hava Negilla, gleefully recounting to us a whole series of pro-Jewish jokes and linking his fate with that of other Jews - yet halachically not Jewish. I am not suggesting that halachic definitions are unimportant and should be set aside. I am only reflecting that, notwithstanding certain individuals' halachic status as non-Jews, they, by their actions, have a claim upon me to relate to them emotionally as members of my Jewish family.

       Boris Kelman joined us at Gandin's home later in the evening. Boris is a short, sweet, soft spoken and gentle man of forty-five. He is an engineer, married to Alla, a pediatrician. They have two sons, one about eleven years old, the other about eighteen, serving in the Russian army, somewhere in Siberia. Boris is very active in a number of ways in the refusenik community. Among his involvements are helping to distribute kosher meat to the elderly and ill, participation in group study of Jewish history and teaching about Judaism and Jewish culture to small groups of Jews in other cities where he visits frequently. For example, in Tallin, where he was to be going on Sunday night, there were twenty-five people actively interested in Judaism some two months ago. The group had grown so that on his previous visit to Tallin, a few days before, some forty people had gathered together for a Chanukah celebration which he had helped to organize and he taught them about the meaning of Chanukah. There was also a Jewish band in Tallin, and recently a Brit Mila ceremony had been held in the city. Boris was delighted to learn that we had brought with us two pair of teffilin and two talitot. There were two children soon to be Bar-Mitzva in outlying cities and they would be overjoyed to receive teffilin. His own nephew in Riga was to be married soon and the tallit would make a wonderful chuppah and gift to the groom. Boris was quite knowledgeable about Judaism and I was amazed to learn from him that he grew up in a completely assimilated Jewish home. The one Jewish teaching which his father imparted to him was to take a Jewess for a wife. The first time in his life that he saw a matzah was at the age of thirty-two. Boris described for us the different types of Jews in the Soviet Union and the different forms of renascent Jewish identification, ranging from the secular-cultural to the extreme orthodox. Boris is a very tolerant individual and even when being critical of certain individuals or groups, he spoke with sympathy, understanding and respect. Boris is a pragmatist. He did not think that hunger strikes are appropriate ways of fighting the Soviet authorities since they are dangerous to one's health and threaten the primary objective of refusenik Jews - to survive as Jews. Boris' wife Alla, in addition to working very long hours as a pediatrician, volunteers her medical services to the Leningrad refusenik community. We left with the Kelmans a considerable amount of medicines for this purpose. Boris mentioned that several weeks before, Rabbi Kogan, who had been the leader of the Chabad community in Leningrad, emigrated to Israel. This, he said, was a great loss to the community because Rabbi Kogan had been a remarkable individual, helpful to all and appreciated by all. It seems that there was developing within the ultra-orthodox community a separatist mentality which Boris considered to be unfortunate. Boris was very much involved in celebrations of the various Jewish holidays for children that were organized by Michael Makushkin (more about him later). He was very close to and supportive of the Lifshitz family. At the time of our visit Vladimir Lifshitz was imprisoned in a labor camp for allegedly "slandering the Soviet state". Boris explained to us that one of the gifts which we brought would help fund a trip by Anna Lifshitz to visit her husband at the camp, which was 12,000 kilometres from Leningrad! When I jokingly told Boris that I had been disappointed that Lev Sud had turned down my offer of thermal underwear because it was white and couldn't be sent to Prisoners of Zion, he told me that he would be very grateful for it because his son based in Siberia could use it and it is permissible to send a soldier thermal underwear, even if it is white. I was more than pleased to part with the thermals knowing that they would be serving a good cause (not the Soviet Army, but Kelman Jr. the Jewish soldier). Boris visits his son in Siberia when permitted to do so by army regulations, and the cost of the trip is two months salary.

       Boris arranged our itinerary in Leningrad for the remainder of our stay and accompanied us to many of the homes which we visited. He is an absolutely lovable person - sparkling eyes, smiling face, caring, compassionate, thoughtful and ever so gentle in manner and speech.

Thursday, January 8, 1987

       Boris Kelman did not schedule any visits for us until Thursday evening, so we took advantage of the first free morning and afternoon of our trip to do a little sightseeing. In addition to wanting to see the world renowned Hermitage museum, we had been advised that some tourist activity on our part might make our visits to refuseniks less conspicuous. Europe was experiencing a record cold spell this week, and in Leningrad it was reflected in temperatures that ranged from thirty to forty degrees centigrade below zero. We didn't relish walking to and from the Metro stations in this frigid weather and luckily we were able to get on a bus that was taking a group of tourists at the hotel to the Hermitage. During the tour I politely asked the Intourist guide many pointed questions meant to suggest certain inconsistencies in Soviet communism's attitude towards history and religion. For example: Why such pride in describing the achievements of the Czars if the Czars were so decadent and reactionary? Why the importance of displaying and taking pride in works of art on Christian themes if religion is anathema to communist atheism? The Intourist guide was able to coldly but correctly respond to my questions with superficially adequate answers but did all she could to avoid any follow-up discussion of the issues which I raised.

       After a tour of the Hermitage we walked along Prospect Nevsky, the main thoroughfare of Leningrad and entered a large bookstore. In the bookstore two young men approached me and began to strike up a conversation in English. They seemed quite friendly and eager to converse with a foreigner. They made many disparaging remarks about Russians and Russian society and described themselves as cynical about Russian values and communism. I was fascinated by their willingness to express such sentiments publicly and loudly (albeit in English and not Russian) but I was also slightly apprehensive of them, wondering whether they were not KGB agents trying to lure me into some illegal act or incriminating statement. One of the men said that he was a thirty-three year old assimilated Jew, trained as an engineer but unable to find a job for many months already. The other fellow said that he was a twenty-six year old Moslem, who had studied sexology and was also presently unemployed. What made me feel that these fellows were "legitimate", aside from my intuitive assessment of them, was that did not ask me if I had anything to sell. They simply wanted to talk about who I was, what I did, and about American society and culture, including rock music, about which I know absolutely nothing. After a while one of them commented that I am a person willing to take risks since I don't seem to be afraid of conversing openly with Russians. I said to them that it seems to me that they are the ones who are taking risks, not I. First of all, it is not illegal in the USSR for a tourist to talk to natives. The KGB would have little cause or justification for harming me for talking to them, and I was going to be leaving the country in a few days anyway. But they were remaining and might be harmed in some way for what they were saying to me, if it was being monitored. I said to them also, that perhaps they themselves are KGB agents, a suggestion which they denied and even laughed at. I would very much have liked to have pursued this conversation, and even gone to meet with them in some more private setting. However, aware of the purpose of my trip, and that other people's interests might be at stake, I politely terminated the conversation after about ten minutes, with the excuse that I had an appointment to keep. Aside from the intrinsic interest of the encounter with these two young men, the fact that I had to be on my guard in talking to them, and had to wonder whether or not they were KGB agents, reflects the guarded suspiciousness which accompanied me throughout my trip, a suspiciousness which, to a lesser or greater extent, pervades Russia with its extensive secret police apparatus, government informants and technological intrusions on privacy.

       At the Hermitage I had bought a collection of rabid anti-American posters depicting the United States as a bloodthirsty, warmongering capitalist monster, ready and eager to set off a nuclear war while the dove-bearing Soviet Union led the peace-loving peoples of the world in warding off this vicious and inhumane American threat. At the bookstore I found a fascinating series of posters on the theme of the dangers of alcohol abuse. I was eager to find some anti-Zionist literature to bring back home as a souvenir too. Unable to speak any Russian I approached the clerk behind the poster counter with a finger pointing at posters while saying to her rather loudly, as if that would make her understand me better, "anti-Zionism, anti-Zionism?" She indicated that she didn't have any such posters. Although I should have been pleased, paradoxically, I was disappointed. Later Alan Geller joked that this only proved how successful the rabid anti-Zionist sentiment and propaganda in Russia is - those posters must be such hot items that they were all sold out. Be that as it may, I consoled myself with buying various attractively decorated greeting cards adorned with heroic poses of Lenin proclaiming communist affirmations and slogans.

       I returned to the Pulkovskaya Hotel to prepare for our evening visit.

       In the evening we set out for the apartment of Michael Beiser where we were to meet a group of people who were particularly interested in the history of the Jews of the Soviet Union. Beiser, by training an engineer and computer programmer, has become a self-taught expert on the history of the Jews of Leningrad, and Martin Gilbert, in his book, Jews of Hope, devotes several pages to Beiser. He has been a refusenik since 1979. At his home around twelve people gathered, almost all in their twenties and early thirties. Each one of these individuals had taken upon himself to become an expert in some aspect of Russian Jewish history or culture. Many of them go on expeditions around the country photographing sites or interviewing informants. They have established contacts with Jews in various parts of the country who report back to them recollections of events they experienced and this data is then preserved in writing for posterity. These self-taught, self-trained historians and ethnographers seemed to be obsessed with a mission of not allowing Russian Jewish historical memory to be lost and forgotten. They spoke of their activities with a sense of deep reverence, almost sanctity. The group consisted of both secular and religious individuals. One gentleman studied the history of Jewish surnames, and gave me a publication in Russian which included several paragraphs describing some of his findings. Another member of the group told us that he has translated several of Eli Wiesel's books into Russian, showed me a manuscript of "Night" and requested that upon my return to Boston I inform Wiesel that he had just completed translating "Dawn". These works then circulate throughout the community of the interested. One of the most moving of the enterprises described to me was that of Daniel, who told us how he is collecting eyewitness accounts of mass shootings by Nazis that took place during World War II in eastern White Russia. Daniel took out a small pad and showed me his list of more than three hundred informants whom he has interviewed directly or via others. Sadly, he told me of one old man in White Russia who said to him that soon, when the last survivors of those horrors die, the history of what the Jews of White Russia experienced during those war years will be lost forever, and those communities will have become as extinct as the prehistoric mammoths. Daniel considered it his responsibility to do what he could to prevent at least the extinction of the historical memories of those Jewish communities.

       These Jewish historians are eager to receive books on Jewish history and culture and bibliographies on Jewish history. They want to establish and maintain academic contacts with scholars outside of the USSR. They would be delighted if some Jewish scholar would spend some time conducting research on Russian Jewish history in Leningrad who could also act as a resource person for them. They asked whether it would not be possible for some internationally recognized academic or learned institution to declare that they recognize these Leningrad historians as bona fide academics. This might give them legitimacy in the eyes of the Soviet authorities and facilitate their research.

       The group of twelve individuals had gathered into a small salon. A very young fellow had recently become involved in a project of researching the history of last Jewish school in Leningrad. Since he had collected some very interesting material it was decided that he would first report to the group on his research after which I would make a brief presentation. So Ilya gave a two hour presentation, in Russian, which I recorded on my micro cassette, and intend to have transcribed, translated and published. Ilya acquired his data from documents, informants (his mother, for example, had attended the school) and photographs. I was struck by the intensity and seriousness which Ilya had invested in his work, and the no less intensity and seriousness of his audience in listening to what he had to say. The entire atmosphere in the small crowded room was that of a high level academic seminar, imbued with feelings of companionship and a mutual sense of mission. These individuals were well aware that what they were doing bordered on the dangerous, since the Soviet authorities have often interpreted the study of Jewish history and culture as a form of religious behavior, and if conducted in a group setting, could be declared by Soviet law to be a criminal activity. However, the environment was relaxed, and as the lecture proceeded, friendly comments and occasional laughter were interspersed with politely asked questions. Ilya, who was a little apprehensive, at this, his first public talk, responded to questions softly and smilingly. Although I could not understand a word of Ilya's talk, it was clear that he had prepared thoroughly, and that his audience was very much interested and intrigued by what he had to say.

       At one point in the presentations, as I allowed my thoughts to wander and my feelings to surface, I said to myself, and then whispered to Alan sitting beside me, that here we are witnessing in real life, before our very eyes, the message conveyed by the Talmudic story about Rabbi Akiva, who continued to study Torah, defying the Roman decree outlawing such study on pain of death. Rabbi Akiva had compared himself to a fish and Torah to water. Since he could not survive without Torah, he had nothing to lose by spurning the Roman decree. In their own way these individuals were spurning Soviet decrees and threats and doing what they did because they wanted to survive as Jews. As I thought these thoughts and felt these feelings tears came to my eyes.

       I could not help noting the manners of the group. For two uninterrupted hours they sat and listened, and not once did any of them nosh from the refreshments that had been set out before them.

       After Ilya finished his presentation, we took a brief break after which I spoke. I said that an appropriate topic for the evening would be to describe Jewish education in Boston, if the group was interested. As they were, I went on to describe the different types of Jewish schools in Boston, their orientation, curriculum, language of instruction, enrollment and organization. My capsule summary of this topic was followed by a question and answer period. As it was now quite late, we had to adjourn although both I and the group could have continued our discussion for much longer had it been feasible.

       After the group left Alan and I remained to spend some time with our host, Michael Beiser, who asked us if we could take back some photographs and mail them to a friend of his in the States. As he was rummaging through his desk we saw that he had hundreds of photographs that he had taken of objects of Jewish interest.

       Beiser impressed me as being extremely serious and somewhat anxious that evening and when I commented on this later to Boris Kelman he told me that Michael is quite capable of laughter and relaxation. However, he has an almost maternally protective concern for the individuals whom we met at his home, and the underlying fear of a surprise visit by the KGB as well as the academic environment of the evening masked the lighter side of Beiser's personality.


       I did not have the time to write up the rest of my experiences on this trip. I list the rest of the people whom I visited in Leningrad.
Friday morning Anna Lifshutz
Friday evening Nellie Shpaizman
Shabbat remained in hotel
Saturday night Michael Makushkin
Sunday morning Boris and Alla Kelman
Sunday afternoon Lev Gandin (Gilbo, and some other people)
Monday morning Departed from Leningrad

Copyright by Solomon Schimmel, April 1987
Part 3 <==