NEW YORK (Feb. 23)
Former Soviet Prisoner of Conscience Iosif Begun arrived in Moscow Monday morning following his release Friday from Chistopol Prison in the Tatar Republic of the USSR. He was pardoned last week after serving three years for “anti-Soviet activities” as a result of his teaching of Hebrew.
Begun was met at the Moscow train station by throngs of supporters in the Jewish movement and hoisted on their shoulders in a jubilant celebration. The Hebrew song “Heveinu Shalom Aleichem” could be heard reverberating through the streets of the Soviet capital.
Begun, an observant Jew, chose not to desecrate the Sabbath by traveling after his release from prison Friday morning. Instead, he and his wife Inna, and son Boris spent Shabbat in a hotel near the prison.
In a telephone conversation Monday morning with his wife’s cousin, Chaim Tepper of Far Rockaway, NY, Begun said that, “It was a very great Shabbat.” He also said that, “We shall continue the struggle for all Jews to leave the Soviet Union.” Begun said he had not yet heard from Soviet authorities regarding a visa to leave for Israel.
The Beguns were surprised to hear from Tepper that Iosif Begun had appeared on American television. He sounded amazed at the amount of attention he has received in the world press.
Boris Begun, who was supposed to have served 15 days’ imprisonment for demonstrating in Moscow on behalf of his father, was saved the experience.
Iosif Begun, 56, was sentenced in October 1983 to seven years’ imprisonment and five years’ internal exile. Since his incarceration, he has been a focus of activities and statements by Soviet Jewry activists and by public figures around the world.
In Jerusalem, Soviet Jewry activists were elated over the release of dissident Iosif Begun from prison, but highly skeptical of any fundamental change in Soviet policy toward emigration and refuseniks.
Haim Chessler, head of the Public Council for Soviet Jewry, said at a press conference that it was as hard as ever for Soviet Jews to get exit visas. “On one hand we see a bit of change, but on the other hand we get information that families get refusals until the year 2000,” he said.
Yuri Stern of the Soviet Jewry Information Center thought Begun’s release was significant because it demonstrated the effectiveness of the western campaign to free him. But he expressed apprehension that Begun’s friends in the USSR would “pay for his release” by being refused exit permits themselves.
The activists released a list of 29 refuseniks suffering from cancer. They said if the Soviets want to display a new policy it could start by allowing these dying Jews to reunite with their families before it is too late.