NEW YORK (Oct. 14)
Refuseniks Vladimir and Maria Slepak, who have been seeking to leave the Soviet Union for the past 17 years, were informed by Soviet emigration officials Wednesday that they had been granted permission to emigrate.
News of the development first reached the West via an Associated Press report from Moscow and was later confirmed by the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, which contacted the Slepaks directly by telephone.
They said they will leave for Israel as soon as they “sell their car and have the money for the tickets,” according to the reports.
Vladimir Slepak, a former Prisoner of Conscience and a leading Moscow activist on behalf of Jews seeking to repatriate to Israel, is the latest in a string of prominent Soviet Jewish refuseniks to be granted permission to emigrate.
Two weeks ago, another prominent former prisoner, Ida Nudel, was told she could emigrate, and earlier this year such well-known refuseniks as Yosef Begun, Vladimir Lifshitz and Aba Taratuta were told they could leave.
The latest moves have been interpreted in the West as part of a Kremlin strategy to improve its human-rights image on the eve of U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz’s visit to Moscow and perhaps weeks away from an expected summit between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
LEADERS IN THE MOVEMENT
The Slepaks’ involvement with Jewish activists in Moscow goes back to the inception of the movement, in the late 1960’s, during the renaissance of Jewish solidarity with Israel that came on the heels of the Six-Day War.
Vladimir Slepak was among the first group of Jews in the USSR to petition the United Nations by letter for the right of Jews to be repatriated to Israel. He led demonstrations and met with foreign dignitaries, journalists and visitors from abroad.
Vladimir and Maria Slepak first applied to emigrate in April 1970. Their first refusal came in June of that year, on the basis of Vladimir’s work as a radio engineer, which was deemed “secret work.”
From that time on, they were under constant surveillance and even house arrest. Their apartment was repeatedly searched and their books and belongings were confiscated on more than one occasion.
In June 1971, Vladimir was interrogated and called to testify at the second Leningrad trial of activists who had planned to steal a plane and fly it to Sweden. He was imprisoned twice that year on charges never made known to him. Publicity on his behalf mounted in the West.
Slepak was one of the original founders of the unofficial Moscow Helsinki Monitoring Committee, which he started in June 1976, along with Anatoly Shcharansky, Yuri Orlov, Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner.
Slepak was vilified in the press and on radio and television programs. In a Moscow TV program “Traders of Souls,” he and other Jewish activists were described as “soldiers of Zionism inside the Soviet Union” and as being part of a Western anti-Soviet conspiracy.
In March 1977, he was named in a malicious article in Izvestia that accused Jews of espionage and treason.
SONS PERMITTED TO LEAVE
That year, his son Alexander was permitted to immigrate to Israel, joining Maria’s mother there. In 1979, their son Leonid followed his brother to Israel. The two brothers currently reside in the United States.
In June 1978, both Vladimir and Maria were arrested for hanging a banner outside their Moscow apartment window that said, “Let Us Go to Our Son in Israel.”
For this, Vladimir was sentenced to five years’ exile in Siberia, on charges of malicious hooliganism.
Maria, a radiologist who is known by her nickname, Masha, was given a three-year suspended sentence, but volunteered to share her husband’s exile. She would travel to Moscow periodically during that time in attempts to retain her residency permit.
Vladimir worked at odd jobs in Siberia, many of them outdoors in sub-zero temperatures despite ill health.
In a letter to friends in the West, Vladimir wrote: “But in spite of everything, we are now the happiest people in the world: Our children and grandchildren are free.”
On Dec. 4, 1982, the Slepaks returned from Siberia to Moscow. Vladimir embarked on several hunger strikes, the latest in April, when he fasted for 17 days — one day for each year in refusal.
He was joined in that fast and numerous vigils by his son Alexander, who currently resides in Philadelphia, where he is completing medical studies.
Reached by telephone Wednesday afternoon, Alexander Slepak said he had “very mixed feelings” about news that his parents would be permitted to leave.
The younger Slepak, who had not yet spoken to his parents directly by telephone, said, “I want to be very, very cautious. Many times before I have heard the good news,” only to find out later that it did not materialize.
But he admitted, “This time it sounds more correct. I just want to hear it from my father.”
Alexander Slepak said he hoped his parents would be allowed to fly directly to Israel, where he would meet them; otherwise, he would fly to Vienna, the transfer point for Soviet Jews immigrating to the West.
Asked whether the good news changed his feelings about Gorbachev and his policy of glasnost (openness), the younger Slepak said, “Not at all. This is one additional drop in a bucket. It’s a good political gesture for Gorbachev.”
Noting that thousands of Soviet Jews are still awaiting permission to emigrate, Alexander Slepak said, “In terms of numbers, nothing has changed at all.”
“We need free emigration,” he said. Refuseniks need to know whether they will be allowed to leave and how long it will take, he added.
The younger Slepak said he doubted the trend of releasing the Soviet Jews best known in the West would weaken a movement that has traditionally rallied around such names as Sharansky, Nudel and Slepak.
The movement is a dragon that “might be beheaded for a second,” he said, “but the dragon has many heads” and will keep coming back.
Soviet Jewry organizations welcomed news that the Slepaks would be allowed to emigrate. The National Conference on Soviet Jewry said in a statement that it was “pleased that, after 17 years of struggle” the Slepaks had received permission.
But the organization added: “There are thousands of other refuseniks like the Slepaks who are still waiting, some for over a decade. There are hundreds of thousands of others too frightened to apply to a system that is basically arbitrary and restrictive.
Alan Pesky, chairman of the New York-based Coalition to Free Soviet Jews, said, “This development gives us reason for optimism, but there is still no room for illusion.
“Our elation is tempered by our awareness that the release of the Slepaks is undoubtedly timed with the scheduled meeting next week between Secretary of State Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister (Eduard) Shevardnadze.”