5.12.2008

REFUSENIK

If you aren't going to read this whole post, the take-home message is: You should see this film. It's playing at the Quad Cinema in Manhattan this week and elsewhere soon.

* * * * *

My earliest political memory is of the 1984 election season. I remember being driven home from school by another mom (remember carpooling?), and asking her why there were signs in everyone's lawns. She explained about the upcoming presidential election.

My second earliest political memory is of the Geneva Summit between Gorbachev and Reagan in November 1985. I remember reading about it in the Weekly Reader. I was in the first grade.

The truth is, though, that at around this same time, I was partaking in politics much more directly by sending drawings to refusenik Ida Nudel when she was in exile in Siberia for requesting an exit visa to leave the Soviet Union.1

I think the only reason that I remember sending drawings to Ida Nudel2 is because my father once commented admiringly on the perspective in my drawing. In a Purim letter to her in 1985, I drew a picture of a clown in shul, with the benches that were further away smaller than the ones that were closer to my point of view as the artist.3 I must have written to her or others more than once, but that's the only time I remember writing. When I was a little bit older, I remember not going to the big Soviet Jewry rally in Washington, DC (although I knew it was taking place), and going to a much smaller rally on behalf of Soviet Jewry in front of the Massachusetts State House. I also remember going on the Walk for Soviet Jewry, right before going to the birthday party of a classmate, during which we all put on makeup, I think under the direction of a Mary Kay woman. I missed the beginning of the party because of the walk, and I remember thinking, even then, that makeup was kind of stupid. I wonder if it's because I was coming from the Walk for Soviet Jewry. I think that both the Boston rally and walk took place in the fall of 1988.

* * * * *

I knew, when I was a kid, that I was doing these things on behalf of Soviet Jews who were being persecuted. Until I saw REFUSENIK at the Quad Cinema last night, though, I didn't really understand what that meant. It's interesting, when you know something as a child, and then don't think about it for twenty years, and then return to it as an adult. It's a bit eery, actually, but also very cool. What I knew as a kid, I now know entirely differently as an adult, and this film deserves 100% of the credit for that.

For example, I had no idea--I'm not sure how I missed this--that Soviet Jews were refused entrance to universities and were denied jobs. I think I had a vague idea, when I was a kid, that Jews who asked to leave the Soviet Union to go to Israel were fired from the jobs they already had. However, as a kid, I had no notion of what that meant.4 I also did not understand, as a kid, about the Cold War5 and the interplay between that Geneva Summit, the earlier Helsinki Accords, and the plight of hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews. Watching this movie was like one big "Oh....!" It was very informative in that way. I understood how a coalition of Jews and others were able to put pressure on the American government to tie incipient trade agreements with the USSR to the signing of human rights accords, which were then used to hold the USSR accountable for human rights violations.

I also understood how none of this would have been possible without letter-writing campaigns organized by college students and housewives, as well as some others, all across America. It was incredibly inspiring. All of these people putting pressure on their congresspeople, as well as pressure on the Soviet government by sending letters to refuseniks, along with "ordinary" women and men smuggling bits of film and pieces of cameras into and out of the USSR, is what did this. It directly saved lives. That's crazy! In a good way!

What was most inspiring, of course, were the interviews with the refuseniks themselves, both contemporary and original footage from the 1970s and 1980s. The resilience of the human spirit in incredible, and it shines through this film.

The film also showed a great exchange with Mikhail Gorbachev, which, alone, is worth the price of admission. I don't want to give away what he says, but, well, just go see it. I guess it's not surprising, but with skillful editing, it packs quite a punch.

My only critiques are that, at two full hours, it was a bit long and I thought it could have been edited down by about 20 minutes, albeit with some loss of content. Isn't that what the DVD is for? Secondly, there are a lot of subtitles of both Russian and Hebrew interviews. That's not really a critique as much as a warning. So if you're short, or even if you aren't, get there early and get an aisle or otherwise-guaranteed-to-be-unobstructed seat. I got there late and was sitting behind a tall man who was wearing a hat! Tall dudes, take your hat off in the theater!

* * * * *

One of the best parts of the screening that I attended yesterday was that Laura Gialis, the director, and Natan Sharansky, one of the most famous refuseniks, were also in attendance and took questions afterwards. (I read his book a long time ago--when I was in high school--and it's possible that if I had a better memory, the film would have been less revelatory to me. All I remember from the book is the chess.) It took Laura five years to make this film.

I asked MK Sharansky (does he still get that title now that's retired from the Israeli government?) two questions. The first was about whether he got the letters that I and other sent him when we were kids. His response was great and quite moving. It was that it didn't matter whether he got letters--the KGB always got them, and that saved his life. He could tell, based on how they were treating him, whether letters were flooding in or not. They would not kill him as long as the eyes of the world were upon him, and the letters were direct proof of those eyes. After his longest hunger strike of 110 days, they gave in to all of his demands and he attributes that to the letters. Without the letters, he would have died. Others who were incarcerated with him, but who were Ukrainian or Armenian dissidents, did not have letters sent to him and one of them, a friend, went on a hunger strike and was allowed to just die, rather than the KGB ceding to his demands.

The second question I asked was about whether we could learn anything from the ultimately successful struggle for Soviet Jewry in terms of what's now going on in Darfur, Tibet, China, etc. First, Sharansky disparaged those "so-called liberals" (his words) who talk about Darfur because it makes them feel good about himself. Then he said that he feels very lucky that he was a Jew in the Soviet Union and not a Ukrainian or Armenian, because similar atrocities were perpetrated against Ukrainians and Armenians, and there is a significant Armenian diaspora, but they didn't organize protests and put pressure on various governments the way the Jewish diaspora did. He mentioned that his wife, Avital, tried to get the Armenian community in Israel involved on behalf of the Armenians stuck in jail in the USSR, but she was unsuccessful. Then he said that the talk was silly--the only way to prevent these human rights abuses it to put pressure on all of the governments that deal with and help them. In the case of Darfur, he said that it was the Arab countries in the Middle East that support them. He said that the only way to solve this is for the US should not have dealings with any country that supports what's going on in Darfur, but that everyone (including "so-called liberals") is in favor of appeasement these days, not the absolutes that ended up working in the struggle for Soviet Jewry. If we would refuse to trade with China, they were clean up their human rights act.

Mr. Sharansky was also quite funny. Someone in the audience asked, in a sort of accusatory tone, what he was doing for the State of Israel, now that he was free. (Was this person living under a rock for the past ten years?) He made a few jokes about how his ten years working in the Israeli government were worse than his nine years in prison. When someone asked him how he managed to survive for so long, he said, "Where--prison or the Knesset?" When someone said something about how amazing his wife was in her tireless efforts to get him freed, he acknowledged that the smartest thing you can do before going to prison for nine years is to marry someone who will work tirelessly on your behalf.

So, go see this movie. And then go work tirelessly on behalf of someone else who is stuck where they shouldn't be.

____________________________________
1. For that, I thank my parents, especially my father. I don't think that most kids grow up in such a strong culture of "You can help me save lives" as I did. I don't think you have to do it that often for it to make a strong impression on kids or create in them a sense of "can do" and global responsibility. I am only afraid that I have totally failed to live up to these childhood sentiments in my adult life.
2. who was freed in October 1987, when I was eight years old
3. I remember thinking that it was funny that my father was surprised--duh! Of course things that were further away looked smaller. Wasn't that just how it was when you looked around a room? Why should a drawing be any different? Only I didn't know the word "duh!" then because it hadn't been invented.
<--- This is it! A small reproduction of the actual drawing from Purim 1985 that I sent to Ida Nudel! It's a GIF made from a PDF of a scan of a photocopy, but there she is. I have not seen this since 1985. Weird.


4
. I learned, from this film, that many Jewish scientists and engineers who were fired from their jobs got new jobs as elevator operators in hospitals. Every elevator operator had at least one PhD at once point!
5. I remember the day the Soviet Union collapsed, but I also remember not understanding, really, what the big deal was and why my grandmother was basically crying with joy. Part of the problem was that it happened in August, when I wasn't in school. I felt similarly about the collapse of the Berlin Wall almost two years earlier, but at least with that, we spoke about it during the Current Events part of our school day. I remember when it happened, and by then, I had a slightly better understanding of why it was a big deal, but I didn't really understand until much later. And, heck, I probably still don't really understand any of this stuff.

1 comment:

alg's dad said...

You wrote, "I am only afraid that I have totally failed to live up to these childhood sentiments in my adult life." This isn't true at all. You shouldn't just count political things. Anything you do to help other people counts, whether they are people around you, or half a world away. You regularly visited people in nursing homes when you were in high school, for example. And you have long had an interest in improving the Jewish community's attitude toward mental illness, an area that, unlike Soviet Jewry in the 1970s and 1980s, does not already have a mass movement behind it, which means it is more difficult to make visible progress, but one person can make more difference. It is more like Soviet Jewry was in the early and mid 1960s, in that respect, when there were only a few activists like Jacob Birnbaum.

Looking back on those years of the Soviet Jewry movement, I don't know where I got the energy to do what I did, though I always felt I wasn't doing enough. It seems like everything else in my life is more complicated and takes more of my time and energy now, so I have less to devote to such things. I am very proud that my children, each in their own way, continue to do what they can to make the world a better place.

I met Ida Nudel in person, for the first time, a few years ago, and she remembered my letters, and the pictures you drew for her. I'll bet it was the pictures that made her remember my letters, since she got letters from thousands of people.

One thing I still do, and anyone can do if they don't have time to do more, is respond to action alerts from a human rights mailing list. I do this through Human Rights First, but there are other organizations too. I used to do this through Amnesty International (in the pre-internet days when it meant typing up and mailing letters), but eventually I got too annoyed at them for their anti-Israel bias, though I still think that, globally, they do more good than harm.

I don't know if the film went into this, but I think that the main reason Jews were so active then is that they didn't want to repeat the mistake they made in the Holocaust, of not doing enough. They were also better off economically in the 1970s and 1980s than they had been in the 1930s and 1940s, so could afford to devote their time to this, and, perhaps the biggest difference, they were much more self-confident about being accepted by American society, than they had been in the 1930s and 1940s.

It's an interesting question why diaspora Armenians were so much less active than Jews. Many of the considerations I listed above also would apply to Armenians, but perhaps not as much. It's not that Armenians weren't politically active--they were, but were mostly focused on opposition to Turkey. The Russians were the good guys during the Armenian massacre of 1915, which may explain the reluctance of Armenians to criticize the USSR. But then again, the Russians were also the good guys during the Holocaust, so that doesn't explain the difference.