Encounter in Moscow:
One Moment in the Soviet Jewry Saga

Poster, Let My People Go, 1969
Illustrated by Dan Reisinger
National Museum of American Jewish History
Peter H. Schweitzer Collection of Jewish Americana.

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

Thirty years ago this month the Berlin Wall fell, and with it we would see the demise of the Soviet Union. During my tenure as the director of Los Angeles JCRC (Jewish Community Relations Committee), the human rights campaign for Soviet Jewry represented a Jewish community priority. The JCRC’s Commission on Soviet Jewry regularly sent small groups to Russia to meet with Refuseniks involving those Jews who had requested the right to leave the Soviet Union but whose petitions had been denied. The cornerstone of this effort was built around religious freedom and the right of an individual to be free to emigrate. Israel’s exploits during the 1967 Six Day War served to inspire Russian Jews. In response, Soviet authorities would place high profile Refuseniks on trial and impose prison sentences and special taxes on those applying to leave, while denying Jewish activists the right to work, all in an effort to intimidate and to silence this movement.

Among those seeking permission to leave was Boris Kochubievsky, a radio engineer. In a letter to Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, he wrote:

I am a Jew. I want to live in the Jewish State. That is my right, just as it is the right of a Ukrainian to live in the Ukraine, the right of a Russian to live in Russia, the right of a Georgian to live in Georgia. I want to live in Israel. That is my dream that is the goal not only of my life but also of the lives of hundreds of generation that preceded me, of my ancestors who were expelled from their land. I want to my children to study in the Hebrew language. I want to read Jewish papers; I want to attend a Jewish theatre. What is wrong with that? What is my crime…?

The practice of sending “visitors” into the Soviet Union was taking place across the country, orchestrated by local communities and national organizations committed to the welfare of Soviet Jews. Such meetings were designed to update these individuals on actions being taken on their behalf in the West, to learn from them about any changes to their status, and to offer them support and encouragement.

During the fall of 1988, following a series of briefings on the rudiments of the Russian alphabet, learning the layout of the Moscow subway, and reviewing the biographical data of a selected group of Russian Refuseniks, my comrades and I were set to depart on our mission! The composition of this particular fact finding group was itself unique. My friend, John Mack, a prominent civil rights activist and the President of the LA Urban League, and Larry McCormick, the weekend news anchor of KTLA, Channel 5 would be my “travel mates.” Rae and David Finegood would join us. Dave had just completed his term as chairperson of the LA Jewish Federation.

As John and Larry were African-Americans, we expected that the KGB would likely be less interested in their “tourist” activities around Moscow and other cities. I, on the other hand, had experienced previous encounters with Soviet operatives. On a trip twelve years earlier, items from my hand luggage were confiscated in Warsaw, even prior to my arrival in Russia. On that occasion, Soviet agents interrogated me on the nature of my visit. A Russian operative tried unsuccessfully to “turn me” by making overtures that I share with them information! This time, the Russian authorities mysteriously “lost” my suitcase. While it was returned to me some six months later, waterlogged and unfit for use, our trip continued unimpaired, as I would borrow clothing from my “room mates” creating a humorous and interesting form of personal “community relations!”

While the Finegoods pursued their separate visits with Refusnik families, all five of us skillfully dodged KGB operatives in our hotel and on the streets. Our meetings with the various individuals and families, to whom we were assigned, generally took place in public settings, so as to avoid any suspicion with neighbors or the authorities. One such meeting took place at the Moscow Circus. Indeed, on several occasions, since we had mastered the intricacies of the famed Moscow subway, we were successful in losing the government operatives assigned to us.

Of particular note, Larry McCormick, with the permission of his station, would tape interviews with individual Refusenik family members that were aired during his television broadcasts later that year. John Mack would reference his visit to Russia in his public appearances, identifying the human rights for Soviet Jews with the issues of civil rights. David, Rae and I provided information on our findings, while offering a series of presentations concerning our visit to Jewish audiences.

Our visit to Moscow occurred some ten months after the largest demonstration for Soviet Jewry in history that had taken place in Washington on Sunday, December 6th 1987, where some 250,000 people joined Congressional members, administration officials and Jewish leaders. This gathering, which included a significant number of West Coast Jewish activists, was designed to greet the visit of Communist Party leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, who was scheduled to meet with President Reagan the next day. A year after our trip to Russia, on November 9th, 1989, the Berlin Wall would come down!

In many ways the Soviet Jewry movement, in general, represents a casebook study of community organizing and advocacy. The strategies invoked and techniques employed provide critically important insights into managing human rights campaigns. The real story here is about the Refuseniks and their ultimate triumph over the Soviet system. The families we would visit all would eventually be released and able to join family and friends in Israel and elsewhere.

Upon reflection, in many ways those of us who participated on these missions would come away inspired by the courage and commitment of the Refuseniks who were prepared to place their lives on hold in order to achieve their freedom and exercise their religious liberties. For years after, whenever any collection of the five of us would meet, we relished the opportunity of retelling these stories and our tale of intrigue!

Steven Windmueller served as the LA JCRC Director from 1985-1995. His writings can be found on his website: www.thewindreport.com