Menu JTA Search

USSR activists who stayed behind

Josef Zissels, leader of the Vaad in Ukraine, stayed behind after the Soviet government issued exit visas to build communal Jewish life in his native land. (Vladimir Matveyev)

Josef Zissels, leader of the Vaad in Ukraine, stayed behind after the Soviet government issued exit visas to build communal Jewish life in his native land. (Vladimir Matveyev)

MOSCOW (JTA) – When the Soviet government began issuing exit visas for Jews in 1987, hundreds of thousands of people trapped for decades reacted with understandable exuberance.

What came next was a tidal wave of aliyah, the largest since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, and then the collapse of the USSR.

But for many Soviet Jews active in the struggle to throw off the yoke of Bolshevism, the question of emigration was more complicated. Some had elderly relatives who couldn’t make the trip or younger children they feared to uproot. Some simply couldn’t abandon their community.

While most of the emphasis during this, the 40th anniversary of their struggle, is being placed on the plight of the refuseniks and the worldwide movement to free them, it was the Jews who stayed behind who became responsible for the transformation of Jewish life here in the world’s third largest Diaspora community.

“I found myself in the position where most of my friends left and everyone gave me some kind of heritage,” says Mikhail Chlenov, a major player in the emigration movement who ultimately chose not to leave.

Chlenov stayed, he says, “because I was really deeply involved in the building of this new community here, which I actually predicted in 1976.”

He says he remained in Russia primarily because he had three young children at the time and was too involved in community activity to uproot them all.

His son Motya, now 33 and head of the Moscow office of the World Congress of Russian Jewry, was raised in the refusenik movement. Motya even attended what was referred to as “refusenik kindergarten” at a country house outside of Moscow.

A community leader and activist, Motya Chlenov’s heavy involvement in community building was clearly shaped by his childhood experiences.

“One of my first memories from my life was a large table with lots of Jewish kids sitting around,” he recalls. “The adult people were schmoozing about things, about people who got arrested, people who got refused, who got a visa, but I wasn’t participating in that.”

Naomi Zubkova, a journalist and translator who had longed to immigrate to Israel along with her brother but stayed to take care of her parents, describes her experience as very common.

“I wanted to go, I had friends in Israel from summers. I wanted to go then and I thought I’d find my place there,” she says. “But I couldn’t go.”

While Zubkova seems satisfied with the development of Jewish life, she laments the current state of Russian politics. She describes the lack of press freedoms and increasing state control of the media with barely contained disgust.

Many of those who stayed behind to build the secular organs of communal life fit a similar description: strong-willed intellectuals with Zionist proclivities.

Josef Zissels, 61, a native of Chernovtzy, Ukraine, fits that bill as well as anyone.

“I’m a traditional/Masorti Jew and Zionist in a wider meaning of the word,” he says. “The optimal formula is strong Israel and strong Diaspora.”

He was a member of the human rights movement in Ukraine and the Soviet-era Jewish resistance. Imprisoned twice for his work, Zissels spent six years as a political prisoner in the Soviet Gulag. But when the time came to leave Zissels, who spent decades fighting for the rights of Jews to emigrate from his native Ukraine, chose to stay.

Ironically his father has wanted to immigrate to Israel and Zissels now has many relatives there. Still he says he is fully satisfied with his life and activities in Ukraine in spite of a recent spike of xenophobia and anti-Semitic attacks, and he has no plans to leave.

Zissels leads the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine, a nationwide umbrella group based in Kiev, and serves on the board of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress.

Aware of his vital role within the community, Zissels sees his mission as developing the Jewish community of Ukraine, which he says “will become stable in a generation.”

“We have to restructure ourselves because what we were doing more than 20 years ago is no longer suitable today,” he says.

For many who stayed behind, who were raised in an environment of resistance and left to revive an indigenous Jewish culture decimated by 80 years of Soviet communism, the period brings bittersweet memories as marking the end of an era.

Motya Chlenov recalls fondly the cramped apartments full of friends on holidays and the annual street parties outside Moscow’s Choral Synagogue on Simchat Torah, where thousands once gathered in defiance of the general ban on Jewish meetings.

“They all got their exit visas and they all left,” he says with a touch of bitterness. “In 1992 I went to the Choral Synagogue for Simchat Torah and there was nobody there because they had all gone.”

His father, who described himself as a “very secular Jew,” seems ambivalent about developments since the fall of communism.

Mikhail Chlenov is clearly overjoyed at the outpouring of Jewish cultural life, but when the talk turns to the predominance of Orthodox Judaism in Russia today, much of which is imported from abroad, he grows slightly agitated.

“Well, I am a bit disappointed that the dominant religious pattern which is imposed on the Russian Jews and Russia is obscurantist,” he says, “but I can certainly find positive traits in this development, too.”

Zubkova’s family has been directly affected by the ubiquity of the Orthodox. Despite coming from an extremely secular background, one of her sons, whom she described as a “deep and thoughtful person,” has become fervently Orthodox.

“I see he’s happy,” she says pensively and deliberately. “I know he had very difficult times when he was discovering all those things for himself.”

Her other son, a doctor in New York, remains fiercely secular. She calls his success a “present from the last 17 years.”

In a twist that would have been difficult for men of his father’s and Zissel’s generation to imagine when they started out struggling for the rights of Soviet Jews 40 years ago, Motya Chlenov has decided to stay in Russia because of what it offers him that Israel or Europe, where he lived for three years, cannot.

“I see a lot of more opportunities here for me,” he says. “Yes, this country is becoming less comfortable for living, not just because of the political reasons but because of traffic and expensive living.” He says he knows both New York and London, and Moscow has “a lot of the same bad marks and less good marks.”

Still, his decision is an outgrowth of much of the work done by his father’s generation to make the environment here more welcoming not only for Jews but for all the citizens of the former Soviet Union.

Not everyone, even in his own family, agrees with Motya’s assessment, however. His twin brother immigrated to the United States in 1997; his sister moved to Jerusalem the same year.

And while so much of the work here has been done by people like Mikhail Chlenov who stayed, some former refuseniks who left still remain active here, too. One example is Uli Kosharovski, an Israeli who was in Moscow recently as part of a delegation to the World Congress of Russian Jewry.

Asked if he had ever considered returning to live in his native Russia, Kosharovski’s soft eyes grow large with incredulity.

“Oh no,” he laughs, “never. Look, I didn’t run from Russia. I just wanted to be Israeli.”

NEXT STORY