After eight days without food, the Sinologist Vitaly Rubin had an alert, rapid, feverish way of explaining things. “I am no parasite, what they call. I work at Hebrew University, only I am still in Moscow. I was summoned to KGB to fill out a form: What is your working place? and I answered: Hebrew University.”
Odd to discuss such matters with men deliberately starving themselves to death. “It is possible to live here,” Vitaly Rubin was saying, “but not if you have any dignity. I am specialist in eighth and ninth century China.” He was laughing a fierce, feverish little chuckle. “They say I might have secrets about China, and thus no visa. Perhaps Soviet Union is in struggle with Tang Dynasty, too?”
There were spongy swellings under the eyes of Vladimir Galatsky, the painter who had joined the group in this hunger strike of otkazniki, refuseniks, those whose requests for exit visas were rejected. David Azbel, the physicist, 64 years old and a veteran of the Stalin camps, was pacing up and down on the balcony outdoors, in the sub-zero temperature, battling with stomach cramps. The doctor said that Azbel was being poisoned by his own body, and would die if he did not take food. Galatsky’s wife sat there with tears streaming down her face, and then rushed away without saying goodbye. Rubin went on explaining why they had persisted in the hunger strike, despite the fact that detenté was on the mind of the press, not the plight of a few Jews who wanted to go to Israel.
Rubin had a bright, eager, cheerful, boyish manner. He made jokes. He is considered one of the world’s great Sinologists. When he leaned toward me, there was a smell of acetone from his breath, the sweetish sick smell of a body consuming itself. “In other cases,” he said, “Zola, others, writers attack injustice. But in this case, Solzhenitsyn…” We were talking about The Gulag Archipelago. “In this case a writer demolishes the foundations of a government. Is it hopeless? No. Israel is an example of the spiritual revival of a people. Russia can do the same.”
Perhaps he was back in the classroom. Perhaps I look like a student. Perhaps starvation tended to make him want to say everything at once to the surprise visitor.
I kept seeing Azbel in the dark outside, pacing back and forth. I asked if he would come in and sit down.
“No, no!” he said.
The doctor said, “He must eat. He must.”
Rubin looked about with his bright eyes. “Eight days. We are quick to quarrel. We are dear friends, but sometimes now we quarrel.”
“I am less famous. Perhaps I am not known in the West,” said Galatsky.
“My dear one!” cried Rubin. “None of us is known! Of course, we are also cut off, no telephones, no reporters, no mail.”
“Then why are you doing this?”
Azbel’s incessant pacing was distracting. He was in pain. He was a ghost—pale, silent, frowning.
“Some way they have to know. The right to emigrate is the definition of slave or not slave. We are kept prisoners, we are bartered. We are like dead souls. You still read Gogol in America?”
I have heard of Dead Souls.
The doctor went out to talk with Azbel, who was having trouble breathing. Those were not groans, but a rasping breath. Azbel continued tramping back and forth. He had spent many years in prisons and forced labor camps. He was a large, sloping man with a shock of gray hair under his karakul hat, pacing as if in a cell, thinking about freedom. The doctor, also a “refusenik” —his visa to Israel refused by Ovir, the Soviet agency that passes on Jewish emigration—wanted to give Azbel massage for the ache in his bones. I heard Azbel cry out again, “No, no!”
The doctor returned, saying, “With a scientific fast they could endure perhaps even 40 days, with enemas to eliminate poisons as the body eats itself. But they refuse.”
Rubin was amused again. “What is scientific about this enterprise?”
The doctor shrugged. “He is shortening his? their? lives,” he said. “Does anybody know in America?”
“I think telegrams have been sent,” I said.
Rubin followed me to the door. “So glad you came to visit us ,” he said. “I hope to see you in Berkeley or Cambridge perhaps .” He has invitations to teach in the States.
I walked off in the crisp, fresh snow with Vladimir Kozlovsky, scholar of the Sikh religion, compiler of slang dictionaries, and also apparently the possessor of secret information that makes the Soviet government reluctant to let him go. We were silent for a time. I tugged my new fur hat down over my ears. At last he said, “Too slow and painful for me. At my age” —he is 26 — “well, I’d rather, despite your fuel shortage in America” — a sharp bark of laughter— “I am saving my gas to immolate myself in Red Square.”
“One day’s news ,” I warned him.
And we tramped through the snow toward the trolley. Slavery is yesterday’s news.
FROM MY WINDOW of the massive Hotel Rossiya I looked out over the snow falling on the onion domes of St. Basil’s and tried to understand the interlocking varieties of dissent I had met in Moscow. There is a group typified by Vladimir Maximov, an eccentric novelist, Christian and mystic (I went to his farewell party as the state got shut of him by sending him to France in the wake of Solzhenitsyn); there are the friends of Solzhenitsyn, living in horror of a continuing history of oppression; there are the Sakharovs and the Medvedev brothers, scientists, humanists, looking for Soviet power to be translated into a decent life for Soviet people; and there are the Jews, whose long and difficult history in Russia and in the Soviet state has convinced thousands of them that it is not their job to make things better, to help Russia save its soul. They just want to go. They see themselves as Jews and Israelis, detained in exile.
Nevertheless as the evening wears on in any of their apartments, someone brings a tray with cheese, sausage, bread, cookies, tea. Sometimes there is samovar. There may be miniaturized recording devices in the ceilings; there are police tails awaiting me in the hall outside; but it’s hospitality time once again, and Russian gaiety over a renewed small pleasure.
During my first few days visiting the refuseniks of Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev, the constant surveillance unnerved me. But the freedom, even the occasional gaiety of these people, who in their desperation fear no more, is contagious. By the second week I was playing games with my chaperones. In Kiev outside the Hotel Moskva, I folded a piece of paper and dropped it into the filthiest trash can I could find on the wide Kreshtchatik Boulevard, and then turned to watch my police accompanist diving into the slime to retrieve the secret message. When I winked into the wintry face, the cop just quickly walked off. I was passed to another.
The Jews who wish to go to Israel live with this process in earnest. They live with the anti-Zionist campaign with its unmistakable traditional resonance. The experience of actually being watched, recorded and followed is a treatment for paranoia. It cures shyness. We are the only free people here. We no longer care what they do to us.
Of course they don’t want to join those in prison camps and insane asylums, doing forced labor or receiving shock treatment. But they are determined. Some have time to learn Hebrew. Many even become religious. Almost all have time to make up jokes: “The price for a Jewish wife is going up. A non-Jew can only become a refusenik if there are Jews in his family.”
The Soviet dilemma is extreme. To let the Jews go freely might mean a mass exodus. And yet they don’t want a return to Stalin’s cure of souls through mass concentration camps. So the solution is bureaucratic: to waffle. They let some go, they stop others. They hope to send away the most inciting, they hope to punish the most inciting. It varies from month to month, and even from town to town. They get rid of the troublemakers. They squash the troublemakers as an example. Both the letting-go and the tightening-up stimulate further applications, a combination of hope and desperation.
They have a problem. In theory they can allow the Jews to go to their homeland, Israel, without allowing others to leave because they can admit that Jews belong elsewhere. In practice it makes difficulties. It makes difficulties with the Arabs, with their own population, with detenté, with their conception of the socialist paradise. Bureaucrats suffer, too, trying to live up to stale myths.
Vladimir Slepak lives with his family at 15 Gorki St., not far from Red Square and the bustling GUM department store, but he lives in partial isolation, his telephone disconnected, his steps followed, perhaps his conversations monitored at home. Once an engineer, now he has settled into another routine, days spent sitting at the table studying Hebrew, or talking with his friends, or occasionally setting out to visit friends or the police or the visa officials. “There are 40 Jewish prisoners in the camps, in prison because they want to go to Israel. If the situation is made normal,” he says, “they should free the prisoners.”
The limbo in which he waits makes him a prisoner too, of course. No job, and the threat of the charge of parasitism. Simple rights refused —telephone, mail. The right to know where he stands.
“The foolish period is past,” he says. “This is the cynical period.” He is eager to learn Hebrew and eager to meet his friends and eager to go to Israel, and this eagerness seems energetic and young after the moroseness of the streets of Moscow in midwinter. As a veteran refusenik he has been an example to others, such as two new ones, Alexander Goldfarb and Vladimir Kozlovsky, both young men in their 20s. Goldfarb is a microbiologist whose mother is an ophthalmologist, his father a distinguished geneticist who lost a leg at Stalingrad during the war. We talked with the help of the omnipresent child’s toy, the wax slate on which one writes and then erases what you don’t want the KGB to hear. We discussed things in a shorthand, cryptic, elliptic, and probably completely transparent manner, impatient with the slate, finally casting it aside.
Vladimir Kozlovsky, a former student of Eastern religions, now unemployed, speaks idiomatic American and is amusing himself by making dictionaries of Moscow argot. He also plays what he calls “Jewish roulette.” He can’t stay and he can’t go. His parents won’t sign permission for his visa, as if he were a minor. But he is in danger of being declared a parasite, since those who declare for Israel are fired their jobs; yet he can get no job, because he has declared for Israel. So he waits. He wears an American button that says “I’m a litter bug,” but he has doctored it so that it reads “I’m bugged.”
He has the optimism of youth. On our way to visit Slepak, he remarked, “Many refusals this week. Maybe they are stockpiling them for a special shipment when Dr. Kissinger arrives.”
WHY HAVE SO MANY Jews been given their visas for Israel? The Soviet Union has signed the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which includes the right of emigration, and acknowledges that Jews might think of Israel as their homeland. So many go. But the regime has apparently decided that it should also be very difficult for the educated class, and the doctrine of “military secrets” has been invoked to keep engineers, scientists, even a scholar of eighth and ninth century China like Vitaly Rubin. They want to milk these people, or to discourage them, or to make an example of them so others will not apply. “Military secrets” doesn’t work with the former star of the Kirov Ballet, Valery Panov, but it would look bad for him to dance abroad, like Nureyev; it would encourage other artists. His pain discourages them. Since many Jews have non-Jewish wives or husbands, this can be used on occasion, as it was for a time with Panov, although his wife begged to go with him and he refused to leave without her. Sometimes people are refused and refused and then finally released as the Panovs ultimately were, as a gesture toward detente or simply because the cat is finished playing with the mouse. An impossible “education tax” is abruptly imposed, and then abruptly suspended, with no explanation. The plain fact is that the policy is confused. It even varies from city to city. The Soviet Union doesn’t like its Jews, but it doesn’t want them to leave. It wants them to give their talents, but it doesn’t want to use them.
I asked why they consider every Jew a prisoner. Goldfarb explained patiently, as if I were a slow pupil: “Well, no, some are content to do their jobs —they don’t see themselves as prisoners. A Jewish professional can work but he knows his son will have great difficulty. Jews are forbidden from most humanities faculties, which mean the law, the arts, diplomacy, government—this wasn’t true in the old days. The society changed its myth after World War II. Now we’re not all just proletarians, all one class, one people. There is a national identity, very powerful. The USSR is a great imperial power. ‘Russians defeated Germans,’ said Stalin. There is a large state culture and some smack of national cultures. But the Jews are in a special position. No expression of Jewish heritage is allowed, except sometimes a little squeak for foreign consumption. The smallest Siberian tribe is given its books in its own language, theaters, newspapers, schools. Not the Jews. Jews find themselves in a strange position in a country with strong national allegiances and allowed none of their own. Just the word ‘Jew’’ in the internal passport. So they moved to accept this nationality.”
Slepak smiled in that hilariously suffering bright way of his. “Even very popular now. Good Christian atheist people take Jewish brides so perhaps to go to Israel.” I had met intermarried couples from the Soviet Union in Israel, and remembered, nine years ago in Moscow, the composer and madrigalist Volkonsky, son of one of the classic White Russian noble families, who now has a Jewish wife and lives abroad.
The atmosphere at 15 Gorki St. is one of waiting. In a neat and shabby room people sit. Silences are not embarrassing; they are accustomed to silence. Someone interesting might come; something interesting might happen. The American stranger brings news, souvenirs, hopes, unjustified hopes, and ears. He listens. Since someone cares, they believe things might improve. Slepak remarks patiently, “A retired KGB man lives next door.”
“What are your relations with him? He must know.” ‘
“Fine, fine. He’s retired.”
Reality paranoia has come out the other end. They didn’t know whether they dared meet, where, how. They could always get a cab, even when other people on the street couldn’t. A finger in the air, and the taxi slid up. “A dissident has no waiting,” one remarked to me as the impassive, concrete-faced taxi driver opened the door for us. Where the paranoia has come out is at humor.
The taxi hummed in the silent snow of midnight. The driver’s concrete cracked, he grinned, he asked,
“First this American to his hotel, and then me to my room.’’
I asked a psychologist who sought me out in my room at the Hotel Rossiya in Moscow how he dared visit me. He shrugged. “What more can they find out?” And paused: “Perhaps you think . . . ?”
“No, I trust you,” I said.
He explained about the tensions between the refuseniks and other outcasts. “There used to be a unity of the dissidents. Then the Jews pulled away—krakk!—because some of them could get out. It seemed the state recognized that they belonged in their own land and it was not Biro-Bidjan. It gave up trying to change what cannot be changed. Its desperation took another form. Now perhaps the groups come together again. Solzhenitsyn shows it is possible to get out safely, too, if the world pays attention. Sakharov shows that some Russians care about the Jews. So we all begin to have some hopes. Not to be allowed to emigrate —the Jews show us this—is serfdom, which Czar Alexander III was supposed to have abolished.”
“A Jew used the word slavery to me. Forced labor, forced residence, no hope .”
“Yes. They are right. I am so Russian. I am used to from slavery and call it by the generous name, serfdom.”
Boris Rubenstein of Leningrad, physicist, former senior scientist in a Research institute, refusenik, has suffered wounds worse than those that put him in the hospital for six months during what the Soviet government calls the Great Patriotic War and for which he still receives a pension. When I visited him on a cold gray day in March, he accused no one. He simply described what had happened to him, leaning on his hands because he was unable to sit, walking a few excruciating, splay-footed steps, while his three year-old daughter played “train” and “ bridge” beneath the table on which his medicines sat. He has the esthetic, transparent look that a few men develop from suffering. His voice is mild and controlled.
ALONG WITH SEVERAL other Jews he organized a demonstration. He informed the authorities; it was not illegal. However the demonstration did not take place. The others were threatened, or thrown into jail, or sent away. Although Rubenstein had been dismissed from his job, he could not be charged with “parasitism,” because he was a pensioner by virtue of his combat injuries. Nevertheless he was called in for questioning. The officer asked him to sit in the chair. He asked a few inconsequential questions; nothing new. “Why should I want to leave the Soviet Union? Why Israel? Such old questions now. Nothing very original. Rather polite. Then the officer said he had to leave the room for a few minutes and would I keep my seat. He was gone about 10 minutes. Then he returned and said, ‘It’s useless talking to you. You may go . ‘”
Rubenstein paused a moment. He is a very mild-mannered man. “In the anteroom I began to feel, oh, very much a desire for a bath . . . .”
His friends took him home. The burning grew more and more intense. “A bubbling and a searing. I have no allergies. It seemed a chemical burning. The skin, the epidermis, the flesh beneath the skin. . . . “ As we talked, his daughter played with her train. The tracks now ran around my chair. Bottles, salves, tubes stood on the table, along with gauze and tape. He was having difficulty in finding the words, and looked one up in his Russian-English dictionary: “Edema, edemas, you understand me?”
He was in the hospital for about two months. There were blisters about his thighs, his genitals. The doctors couldn’t suggest a cause; they had never seen anything quite like this. In an infection, there are invasions of microbes that can be treated by antibiotics. In this case, a burning, a searing, a blistering, the infection was secondary. Now, four months later, he still hoped to heal, but there was so much destruction of tissue it was going very slowly.
“You may state the facts,” he said. “I accuse no one.” He smiled. “I have no allergies, I am not a nervous man. Nobody seems to know the cause. Nor do I. But I want to be a Jew. I am a Jew. I know more than ever that my place is in Israel.”
In the quarrel between these refuseniks, Jewish serfs tied to a narrow space, and the great Soviet power machine, it has drawn late for compromise. Perhaps if the Soviet Union stopped playing with them, made clear its conditions, made clear what it intends, made clear how long a family must suffer before its “secrets” are obsolete, there could be some sort of security in the waiting. But instead they are pawns in games with the Arabs, with the West, with anti-Semites, with their own people; there are even power games going on between the police of the capital and the provincial cities where things seem to be easier.
HARASSMENT AND ABUSE have predictable results. People give up hope of reform by persuasion or by appeals for mercy. The refuseniks are mostly indifferent to the possibility of change in this Soviet world which nurtured them. They do not believe. They do not even very much care. After the camps and prisons, the insane asylums and the bureaucratic inquisitions, after the disappointments and cruelties, they have suffered too much even to value their own lives with the kind of egotism we accept as normal. A man who lost an arm at Kharkov to preserve the Soviet Union is willing to give up his life to leave the Soviet Union. If they do not commit suicide, it is because of that last flickering hope—elsewhere, to go elsewhere, to go to Israel. The light of life lies across the horizon in the promised land, and now I know the power of promises.
“Did you ever consider yourself a Soviet citizen?” I asked Vitaly Rubin on the eighth day of his hunger strike.
“Of course,” he answered. “But life taught me differently. I am the citizen of a country I have never seen.”
Gogol’s Dead Souls, in which perished serfs were sold, traded and even taxed, is a contemporary metaphor for the Jewish souls that become both unemployable and chargeable with failure to work; rights disappear, but duties remain; they exist in Moscow, but live in Jerusalem. Alexander Luntz remarked, “It is not clear, of course. Perhaps they really want to send away the Jews. But to let them go without difficulties doesn’t suit the system, either.”
The difficulties are different for different people. Some are only harassed in the streets, beaten up, spat on. Others go away to prison or psychiatric wards. Electroshock, insulin shock, chemical shock have been used to “change their minds”—an atrocious pun under the circumstances. The Medvedev brothers have recorded their Experiences. Gen. Grigorenko was sent to a mental hospital. This requires no judicial procedure under Soviet law, and so suits the case of Jews and dissenters. Since to disagree with the regime is madness, the average Soviet psychiatrist will certify the man who disagrees. At least one was himself certified for disagreeing with the definition of insanity. The procedures are exempt from legal action.
To vary things, “hooliganism” or “parasitism” or “economic crimes” can be arranged. It’s difficult to make a gift to a refusenik, though the state’s desire for hard currency is extreme and, with assiduous deduction, checks can be deposited. It is more difficult to open communication. Before the telephones were disconnected, they could speak with their friends. Now almost all the lines have been cut, with explanations such as “technical reasons” or “hooliganism” or “overloaded circuits.” Some sympathizers abroad have suggested getting groups of people to call Soviet agencies, Amtorg, Aeroflot, or the consulates in New York, Washington and San Francisco, and keep them busy for technical reasons, asking answers to the question: Why remove the comfort of a telephone?
I spoke French with Alexander Luntz. Gray, weary, intensely narrow-faced, dark-eyed, he might play Yves in “The Life of Yves Montand” if he can’t find suitable employment as a mathematician. Currently he works as a common laborer. Apparently a decision was made that he had state secrets, or scientific secrets, or some kind of secrets. “Why?” I asked.
“Why not?” he answered. “Why a football player, a metallurgy worker, a ballet dancer? Why not a mathematician? Of course, I do know enough about science to know there are no secrets—maybe that’s a secret. Personally, I can’t even understand secrets.” He stopped fooling and the lean, tired face fell into its natural lines. “Bad will. Monsieur, is my opinion, and bad understanding. It is more important for a bureaucrat to say Nyet, otherwise he’s just a secretary. And hostages are important, too—to make fear, which bureaucrats like, and to make a red light for others. I walk around, a living red light. The system needs oppression.”
We talked on the street, in cars, in rooms. We knew we were being followed and overheard. He said nothing he couldn’t bear the bureaucrats to know. And they knew anyway.
“How many refuseniks are there?”
He raised a humorous finger. That was counting, and his interest is in the higher mathematics. “Don’t count refuseniks,” he said, “count those who are refused and those who are afraid to apply—an X factor. The fact of asking for invitation to Israel is dangerous. So there are those who are afraid, or perhaps they are not afraid for themselves but for others. Oh, so complicated.”
“The situation seems hard.”
“In Moscow, very hard. In the provinces, a little better. They are not so concerned with ‘anti-patriotic’ behavior. They don’t talk so much about ‘parasitism.’ And there are cases where a person can work until he leaves, with the dignity of his job, his friends. I’ve heard of that in Estonia.”
It was as if the Soviet republic of Estonia is some sort of paradise.
Lydia Kornfeld’s daughter, aged 10, was in the hospital with an attack of anxiety. She wrote a poem that was published in England; it was about her desire to live in the land of Israel. Most mail to the Kornfelds does not come through. But the anonymous death threat, signed Black September, saying that its long arm would find her, managed to reach the child. Lydia’s husband, an engineer, now works as a laborer. Lydia, formerly an English interpreter, doesn’t work, tries to keep her children calm, suffers from asthma, studies Hebrew.
“What reason to harass your daughter like this?”
“To let people know,” she said. “This can happen to you, it can happen to children. Even our children have spent time in jail, since we were all picked up at demonstrations.”
When I left her I was followed by a man in a canvas coat with a black fur collar and a matching black fur mustache, along with a blind man with yellow and white cane, which he tapped irregularly and unconvincingly. I decided this was to distract me from my real tail—a beautiful Italian-speaking dwarf. I began to understand a little of both the pressures the refuseniks live under and the humor they develop. They laugh when they speak of suffering, of death threats against their children. I imagine those who do not laugh do not survive.
My own tension is suddenly extreme. Valery Panov and his wife Galina are subject to special care by the KGB. I have their address. They have received word that I am coming. I give the cab driver an address adjacent to theirs, although it makes no difference really, and set out with the enforced calm I remember when going into combat.
The Panovs were spending their days and nights in a shabby, low-ceilinged two rooms on a high floor of a dark, massive apartment building in an outlying district of Leningrad. The walls are covered with pictures of dancers and performers, letters, telegrams, photographs, souvenirs, posters of their starring moments, diplomas, evidence of prizes and victories—the atmosphere of proud graduates and artists, still striving. There are lamps with painted shades. The round table pushed to the corner is covered with the
debris of hospitality—bread, cheese, wine, cakes, glasses of tea. There is a photograph of Panov with his head shaved, dating from the time he was picked up and kept for 15 days in a cell with crippled prisoners, an interesting warning for a dancer. There is a photograph of Laurence Olivier, picketing on his behalf, and a telegram from Olivier, expressing love and admiration for a great dancer.
They have been expecting me and are immediately, with that familiar Russian hospitality, welcoming, excited, laughing, generous with food and drink! greedy for news of the world. I expected the vanity of performers, but instead found warm and easy good company, aside from the pathos of their luck, and spent the larger part of three days with them. They looked rather fit, despite winter pallor. They worked out together, Galina very serious in a heavy turtleneck sweater, her blond hair pasted to her head with exertion. She would giggle, run to wash, come back pink and glowing, and of course always with food.
When I pulled at the exercise bar attached to the wall, it rattled; I could almost pull it out. The ceiling was too low for any leaps. Panov shrugged. “Well, we stretch,” he said. “We try. Of course we also lose some of our skills.”
Galina talked about the irritable Soviet complaint that now they will let Panov go to Israel, but not her, because she is not Jewish and her mother refuses to give permission. “I am a grown woman! I have a husband! First she gave permission, then the police called her in, now she says she doesn’t like Jews and I can’t go. My poor mother, I cannot hate her for this.”
THE PANOVS REPRESENT a special problem. Nureyev defected. If they let the Panovs leave, they imply that others can go. If they make it very difficult, if they torment and harass them, it discourages dancers and other artists. Families also can be useful. Panov’s brother, a historian, no longer works in his field.
“My real name is Shulman, but I couldn’t join the Kirov Ballet until I called myself Panov. I managed to change my passport from Jew to Russian. Many dancers are Jewish, but they don’t admit it. Even ballet is ruled by politics here, though it seems far from ideology. I grew very tired of lies. Individuality is not required, not allowed. I even had political trouble over choreography—political trouble.”
The hoarse, light voice of Charles Aznavour was singing on a record. I wanted to turn it down. Valery gracefully signaled that the tape spins in the ceiling; the record was to interfere with the sound of our voices. But he shrugged. No difference. “They must be bored with my story anyway,” he remarked, and took the record off. “The director told me about my choreography: If you have such visions, forget them. Soviet art doesn’t permit your visions.”
Galina was leaning on Valery’s shoulder in that tender, slightly stagey Russian way I had already noticed with the Slepaks. Valery touched her hand, and said very slowly, looking first to her and then to me and then back to his wife: “Galina is the real hero. I knew and studied to go to Israel, but she, a young ballerina, not even a Jew, made a choice to follow her husband. Or stay with her husband, if it be thus.”
I asked about Boris Rubenstein. Yes, he knew. He was called in by the same office, and asked to sit in the same chair. Take a seat, my dear Panov, we’ll have a talk. “I looked at him with my eyes and told him I knew. And his eyes told me that he knew I knew. I looked and he looked. And then I went like this”—a slight, courteous, elegant balletic bow—”and I sat in that chair.” Panov smiled. “Nothing.”
WHEN I LEFT late that afternoon, there was a wet snow falling on Leningrad, there were mists exhaling from the stony canals. On an impulse I visited the restoration of the house near the Winter Palace where Pushkin lived, and walked in the black slush along the canal where one of his heroines drowned herself for love, and watched the visitors with their guidebooks hurrying into the Hermitage. But I didn’t go inside on this trip to Leningrad. I was passing my time thinking of the dead souls of Russian history and literature, and of the murdered and dying souls today, and of Panov saying, “For a long time they frightened me, but they can’t frighten me anymore.” The Panovs were allowed to leave the Soviet Union in June.
Ilya Goldenfeld, professor of physics, showed me his file of invitations to lecture in England, France, Jerusalem, Berkeley, Harvard—and Cairo. He can’t go anyplace now. His daughter, pretty, blond, 16 years old, explains: “We are Jew and we want to be Jew.”
Prof. Goldenfeld, a short, white-haired, chunky man, repeated the familiar consolation: “We are free men in Russia, because we do what we want, we meet with foreigners, we no longer even work.” But of course this is irony. Spinoza said that human bondage consists in not knowing the limits of possibility, not knowing what is allowed. These Jews who smile ironically—spat on in the streets, jobless, stricken—are not free. Professors, scientists, doctors, engineers are now “lift boys,” as one put it. They are riding elevators to nowhere.
To explain how they feel. Prof. Goldenfeld took me on a few visits. Babi Yar, where 100,000 or more died, is a barren park. Too many Jews died here, so it is not yet celebrated with a monument. There is a stone to indicate that there will be some sort of statement when the time is ripe.
Not far from the pits of Babi Yar is a desecrated, bulldozed Jewish cemetery. There were smashed columns, gaping holes filled with brackish ice where coffins had been. Those ancestors who were not in Babi Yar had been here. We walked, crackling twigs, breaking ice, getting muddy. My friend’s daughter was weeping. There had been no reason to destroy this relic of the ancient Jewish presence in Kiev, but nevertheless one night about a year ago the bulldozers had come to do it, and the job had been done before anyone could wake up to protest, and the official story is that a sports field was needed in this place. We sloshed about, breaking the underbrush, stumbling on the fallen stones half-buried in snow. Mausoleums were cracked and gaping, monuments toppled, and the wreckage remained, saying what it said to the people of Kiev—broken and insulted six-pointed stars. “Chepoxa. Glupost.” My halting Russian: Foolishness, stupidity. “To be Jew,” said the pretty blond girl, “is asking too much?”
Of course, Jews do not worship the stones laid for the dead. But the desecration is real anyway.
“A sports field they said when they did it. They haven’t even built the sports field.”
But perhaps most chilling was a visit to the synagogue in the Podol quarter of Kiev. The old wooden building is painted and gilded inside; there is an appropriate Byzantine influence. There is no longer a rabbi for the 350,000 Jews of Kiev, but a coven of old men was making matzos in a bakery behind the synagogue. My arrival caused a great bustle. Lights were turned on; rows of bulbs flashed above the tabernacle; the synagogue was, you might say, activated. The oldsters tottered around me, pulling at my arm. “New York? Chicago? Los Angeles?” one asked, exercising his repertory of English. “See matzos? buy matzos? give something?”
“Is everything all right?” I asked him in Russian.
He answered in English, this man with staring exhausted pale blue eyes, red and white at the rims, eyes of cupidity and disaster. “Oh wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, we are so happy,” he said.
My friends had refused to come into the synagogue with me. For them it was almost like KGB headquarters. The man who took me there was ashamed and silent. “I said they are bad,” he said at last. “No. They are only old and full of fear.”
“Is there any community here?”
“We study. We make minyans in houses, that’s all. No rabbi, but nevertheless, we invent a Jewish life, and our children do it even better than we do, since they have learned earlier.” The flashing look of rage and defiance on the face of the mild, chunky, pink-faced professor reminded me of something, and after a moment I remembered. It was the elegant flashing face of the ballet dancer in Leningrad, as he described sitting down to KGB order in the chair in which Boris Rubenstein had sat. Take a seat, my dear Panov, we’ll have a talk.
On my last evening in Kiev, last evening in the Soviet Union, I went to the Philharmonia Hall, an elegant little jewel-box theater hung with satin, to hear the Chamber Orchestra of Moscow play Bach’s ‘The Art of the Fugue.” The sweet faces of Ukrainian music lovers swayed and dozed with rapt expressions to the violins and cellos of Glickman, Schildkraut, Levin. As luck would have if, I met the 19-year-old daughter of another refused scientist in the lobby. “Oh I love it, I am drunk with it,” she said about the music.
“Will you be sad to leave Kiev?”
She laughed. “Why not come as tourist someday, as you, to visit this beautiful foreign country?”
We walked together up the Kreshchafik. She showed me the modest house that bore a plaque: “Here Lived Sholem Aleichem.” “It used to say ‘Jewish Writer,’” she said. “You see that blank space? They changed the inscription.”