Did the ‘Refuseniks’ Really Topple the ‘Evil Empire?’

Using its huge gas and oil reserves, and its massive armaments industry, the Putin regime has embarked on an effort to retrieve its rank as a world-class power.

Some strategists welcome the effort at restoration of the comparatively predictable bipolar world of the Cold War. But few former refuseniks, the Jewish dissenters who applied for emigration visas and were rejected, share that feeling. They are happy that the Soviet Union is no longer a major player on the world stage; some go as far as claiming a share in its demise.

The unraveling of the Soviet empire was not unheralded, but so precipitous was the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rapid deterioration thereafter that most were taken by surprise.

Explanations about the decline ran from speculation regarding the loss of confidence in the leadership to an inability to keep up with Western technological advances. Neocons attributed it to President Reagan's unyielding resistance to the machinations of the "evil empire." Others are convinced that it was Reagan's unprecedented defense budget, which an already stretched Soviet economy could not match, that precipitated the collapse.

The three-decade-long campaign to extricate Soviet Jewry initially organized by Israel, and implemented largely by the Soviet Jewry movement in the United States, rarely receives independent consideration as a causative factor.

Totalitarian powers seek control of their populations through their security systems, which include everything from restricting the free flow of information to denying freedom of movement. The mistreatment of Jews could not be kept an internal matter as the Soviet authorities wished; the grievances were known and amplified by the Soviet Jewry movement abroad.

It would surely be an overstatement to claim that a bevy of Jewish nongovernmental organizations, characteristically at each other's throats, bent a superpower to its will.

Yet clearly, the support of the U.S. government and the successful penetration of the Iron Curtain gave the refuseniks greater resonance than other agencies of internal dissonance. With help from Israel, a movement or network was established with anchor points in Israel, the United States and some cities in Europe, which maintained contact with newly minted Zionists like Natan Sharansky, who armed with the passion of the converted were willing to put their lives on the line.

The intense activism for the right of emigration was not the only nail in the coffin, but it was a crucial one.

Between 1960 and 1994, about 1,021,367 emigrated. They are still trickling out today. This means that by 1994, almost half had chosen to leave.

As population movements go in the Jewish experience, that is somewhat smaller than the immigration from Eastern Europe, which began in 1871, but its importance lies also in the comparatively high level of skills and education of the European segment of the emigration flow, particularly the so-called refuseniks. That may be the reason why at one point in 1972, Moscow placed a head tax on the emigrants based on their level of education.

Roughly 1 million Soviet Jews streamed into Israel to be granted immediate citizenship under the Law of Return. Yet from a strategic and security point of view, the Soviet Jews who settled in Israel are probably more important than all its victories won on the field of battle. It gave Israel more time to find a solution to its demographic deficit vis à vis the Palestinians.

More than other human-rights trespasses, the denial of the freedom of movement served as a daily reminder of the coercive aspect of Soviet governance. The loss to Moscow goes beyond a matter of national reputation to its legitimacy. It impacts on its functionality. How freely a society taps the creative and intellectual energy embedded in its citizens — its human capital — goes far to determine its viability.

The exodus of Jews who might have become an asset to the developmennt of its economic and cultural enterprise, but became instead a liability, was the price paid for closing these avenues to them and millions of others who did not fit. The rest is history.

Henry L. Feingold is the author of Silent No More: Saving the Jews of Russia, The American Jewish Effort, 1967-1989.


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