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Does Glasnost Include Everyone but the Jews?

August 4, 1987
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To what extent does glasnost reach the Jews of the Soviet Union? News out of Moscow presents a disparate picture of Soviet government openness. Frequent stories of relaxation of restrictions on demonstrations are countered by reports by Soviet Jewry activists and recent Soviet Jewish emigres that Jews are still being harassed, and in fact even more so than ever.

Specifically, a large demonstration by Crimean Tatars demanding repatriation to their homeland went unchallenged for four days two weeks ago, and a notable concert by American rock star Billy Joel made waves when the audience broke into an unprecedented frenzy of dancing in the aisles and loud merrymaking previously not permitted in the Soviet Union. Concertgoers themselves were reportedly astonished by the absence of usual Soviet restrictions on their behavior.

These reports of what appear to be large breaks with the traditional Soviet security tightness and threat of arrest are countered by reports that Jews demonstrating for emigration or even trying to teach Hebrew are being repressed as usual.


The National Conference on Soviet Jewry (NCSJ) reported last week that former Prisoner of Conscience Iosif Begun, freed in February, has been again denied the right to teach Hebrew–the “crime” for which he was imprisoned. Yet early this year, the Soviets claimed that restrictions had been lifted on the teaching of Hebrew, and Adolph Shayevich, the “official” rabbi of the Choral Synagogue in Moscow, said during a New York visit that Hebrew teaching would henceforth be permitted.

The Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ) reported that seven-year refusenik Sergei Getchkov, in the 19th day of a hunger strike, along with other Jews who supported him were beaten by about 70 “hooligans” perceived to be KGB call ups who shouted anti-Semitic slogans as the Jews demonstrated at the Lenin Library in Moscow. Police told the Jews that they could not maintain order and that they should therefore go home. The Jews, however, remained, and “were then attacked by the bystanders, who are evidently connected with the KGB,” the SSSJ said.

SSSJ national coordinator Glenn Richter said that participants in a public memorial June 10 for the late cancer patient refusenik Yuri Shpeizman were arrested and some of them fined. (Shpeizman died of a heart attack May 10 upon arrival in Vienna without seeing his daughter or grandchildren in Israel.)


Richter said: “Certainly today, under glasnost, there have been more demonstrations and there have been several demonstrations without harassment. But the problem is that the form may have slightly changed, but the substance, which is ‘nyet,’ has not. Today, 90 percent of Soviet Jews cannot even apply to emigrate. One can certainly understand how clever the Soviet glasnost campaign has been regarding Jews.”

In June, when a state-sanctioned Russian Yiddish musical theater troupe toured North America, Richter and some others demonstrated quietly outside the Symphony Space theater in Manhattan where the Jewish Cameo Music Theatre was performing. Richter requested an interview with the Soviets filming the crowd outside “in the name of glasnost,” and they apparently complied somewhat, Richter said, because Jews in the Soviet Union saw him on television, he told JTA.

However, the interview was edited, he said, cutting out much of the sound portion in which Richter “thanked Soviet TV for permitting me to speak and very carefully describe in non-confrontational language why we were out there. The announcer simply said I was part of the Zionist agitators.”


Several Soviet emigres who have been asked in various instances what glasnost means for the Jews did not even know the word, which is not part of the common working-class vocabulary. Grigory Geishis, a 26-year-old former Prisoner of Conscience from Leningrad who arrived in Israel in June with his family and who was at the NCSJ press conference, said, “It’s very difficult for us to understand, because it’s a Western word.”

He said that there is much public anti-Semitism in the USSR now, mentioning Pamyat, the “Memory Society,” which openly makes anti-Jewish statements and which recently met with a high Soviet official. “Pamyat’s pre-Revolutionary roots have brought out some of the most anti-Semitic elements,” Geishis said. He added that on April 21 — Hitler’s birthday — 80 tombstones were destroyed at the Leningrad Jewish Cemetery.

He recalled his brother-in-law, who was rejected as a candidate for the Leningrad Medical School in a derogatory letter which referred to him as “Abramovich,” a patronym indicating he was a child of the Jewish forefather, Abraham. Geishis underlined that Jews were frequently turned down by universities in the Soviet Union, the reason that most Soviet Jews are graduates of various “institutes” which educate to a level considerably lower than the universities.

Inna Levin Yakhot of Beersheva, sister of Vladimir Prestin of Moscow, a 17-year refusenik, and daughter of Lea Prestina-Akkerman, a 10-year refusenik, addressed the press conference as representative of a recently-formed group, Let Our Parents Go. Yakhot, whose father, Naum Akkerman, died in 1985 without ever seeing his daughter again, lost her 17-year-old son in an automobile accident in Israel at about the same time. Yakhot made a plea for her ailing mother, whom she has not seen in 14 years, and who is denied emigration by the Soviets because of her late husband’s “classified work.”

“How could a human mind explain such a torment of an old woman who has lost her husband and her grandson within a few days and is denied spending the rest of her life with her daughter?” Yakhot asked.

Then, Asya Ploshchanskaya, one of the Mothers for Freedom who visited the U.S. last year to plead for the emigration of her daughter, Natasha Rozenshtein, and her family, returned to repeat her plea.

Ploshchanskaya watched with the group as a new video of the Mothers for Freedom made by IPCSJ, with the assistance of the World Zionist Organization and the Israel Broadcast Authority, was shown. As Ploshchanskaya watched herself on screen, showing pictures of her daughter and son-in-law and the grandchildren she has never seen, she wept anew, and again while watching herself crying at Ben-Gurion Airport when Aleksander Kushneyev, from whom his mother had been separated for 14 years, arrived to a large and emotional welcome.

Ploshchanskaya appraised glasnost as follows: “Before (Soviet leader Mikhail) Gorbachev, it was impossible to read in the media any negative aspect of Soviet life. Glasnost is for Soviet people. It was never like that before. They even speak about the ‘great lie in history.’ If it continues this way, I think it will be good. But our problem is that glasnost does not relate to the Jews.”


The videotape narrative relates that there is an “anti-Semitic propaganda flood into and out of the Soviet Union. Experts say there is a correlation between the struggle of the refuseniks and that of this flood.”

Chaim Chesler, IPCSJ director, said that constant but quiet diplomatic pressure has reaped its own small reward, in that 60 of the children of the Mothers for Freedom have been reunited with their mothers since the group’s visit last year.

But he also had a fantastic, and unsettling, story to tell about one of these separated families in which the mother was dying of cancer in Moscow and her daughter in Israel was seeking every venue to obtain reunification with her mother before her death.

In February, Chesler went to Vienna with the daughter, Kuchina, to plead with the Austrians and others to intercede with the Soviets to allow her a visa to visit her mother before her death. Although many times they seemed to be on the verge of a breakthrough, it finally appeared that nothing could be done. When the two of them returned to Israel, they received a telegram at the airport saying that the daughter’s visa to visit her mother had been granted. Within hours, her mother had an exit visa. Before they could make a move to travel, another telegram arrived to say that the mother had died. “That,” said Chesler, “is glasnost.”

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