A local law professor and advocate of the refuseniks recalls memories of Vladimir Slepak, who helped head the movement from his Moscow apartment.
Shulamith and I loved Vladimir “Vovichka” Slepak from the moment we met him in 1974, when he opened the door to his apartment on 15 Gorky Street, Moscow, and gave my wife and me a broad smile that dispelled our fears as we had just outrun the KGB to meet with Jews in the Soviet Union fighting to go to Israel.
The KGB, the Soviet version of the Gestapo, had confronted us at the airport in Moscow and searched our luggage, reading page-by-page the American Constitutional Law book and other materials we had carried with us. They later followed us closely as my wife and I almost sprinted to the Slepak apartment.
There we met many “refuseniks,” Jews who had been refused exit visits to Israel, which they claimed as their national home. The Slepak apartment was the headquarters of the movement in Moscow. There, in addition to the Slepaks, we met with Anatoly Shcharansky (now Natan Sharansky), Sasha Luntz, Aleksandr Goldfarb and others. I took notes in Hebrew of instructions on what we must do during our short “tourist” trip. We were there officially as part of a visit arranged between the Philadelphia and Moscow Bar Associations, but we had a broader agenda.
We brought jeans, records, books and other items on which refuseniks could live for a month. They needed these because when they applied for an exit visa, they were thrown out of their jobs.
My first assignment was to confront Soviet judges whom we were scheduled to meet with regarding the case of a Jewish doctor in Vinnista who was accused of poisoning Ukrainian children. The chief judge denied there was such a case and I replied — as I was instructed to do, with details furnished to me by the refuseniks — that it was widely known in the West. I was reprimanded by other Philadelphia lawyers on our trip for abusing Soviet hospitality. Years later, that doctor was permitted to leave the USSR.
To celebrate the holiday of Sukkot, refuseniks assembled in the park and the Slepaks took us with them. There, while the Hebrew blessings were recited, I took pictures of the KGB with large, heavy sticks who surrounded the Jews. My picture of the scene appeared in The Washington Post with an article I wrote entitled, “A Picnic With the KGB.”
Three years later, Peter Liacouras, then dean of Temple Law School, and I returned to Moscow to advocate for Shcharansky, then in prison under indictment for spying for the United States, a crime punishable by death. We met in Slepak’s apartment and reviewed our strategy in meeting with the KGB members who were masquerading as the Moscow Bar Association. Again, Slepak advised us what tactics to use in dealing with the Russian officials.
In the coldest weather I ever remember, I went out to the public telephone booth in front of his building to call reporters from Western newspapers to invite them to a press conference after our meeting with the Russian lawyers. We couldn’t use the Slepaks’ phone because all refusenik telephones were cut off. KGB thugs crowded around the telephone booth to see what I was dialing and to hear the conversation. I tried to breathe heavily to fog up the glass and succeeded in reaching reporters. Trembling, I returned to Slepak’s apartment and he comforted me while congratulating me on the mission accomplished.
Dean Liacouras and I met with the Soviet lawyers and offered to conduct a summer session in Moscow like the program we have with other countries. They jumped at the opportunity, eager to receive American dollars. But smiles turned to frowns when we said the offer was conditioned on Shcharansky’s release, showing them the Soviet laws that made clear his imprisonment was in stark violation of their own statutes.
We returned to the United States and, at a national meeting of law professors, we got hundreds of signatures on a petition to the Soviets to release Shcharansky.
His wife, Avital, and I broadcast it to the Soviet Union on Voice of America. Shcharansky was convicted and served another nine years in prison before he was released and reunited with his wife in Israel. The Slepaks waited a total of 17 years and endured imprisonment in Siberia.
Vladimir Slepak has been called the Moses of Soviet Jews. To Shulamith and me, the smile we saw in 1974 will last as long as we are alive and his name of endearment will always be “Vovichka.”
Burton Caine is a professor of law at Temple Law School who served as a co-chair of the Philadelphia Lawyers for Soviet Jewry.