Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

Moscow Times
December 19, 2001
Refuseniks Return to Reminisce and Join Forces
By Andrei Zolotov Jr.
Staff Writer

Decades after they began to fight for the right to be Jews and leave the Soviet Union, several dozen former refuseniks returned Tuesday to Moscow from Israel and the United States to reminisce on the old battles with the KGB and set in motion a new cause: uniting Russian Jewry worldwide into a new organization.

A two-day international conference called "Jews of Silence -- Jews of Triumph. Soviet Jewry: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow" opened Tuesday, organized by the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia to commemorate the 25th anniversary of a 1976 symposium on Jewish culture in the Soviet Union.

The symposium did not take place: The KGB put the handful of speakers under house arrest. But it was seen as the beginning of an organized movement of Soviet Jews that won international support and eventually helped bring down the Soviet system.

"Our goal is to pay tribute to those who did so much for the formation of democratic regimes in the countries of the former Soviet Union," FEOR's executive director Valery Engel said at a news conference Tuesday. "But it is also a first step to uniting Russian Jewry."

A new organization, tentatively called the World Congress of Russian Jewry, is to be set up by May, organizers said.

"One would hope there is still some common denominator for people who have come from one country, who fought for some bright ideals 25 years ago," said Yuli Edelstein, a former refusenik who is now Israeli deputy absorption minister and a leader of the Yisrael Ba-Aliyah party of Russian Jews.

In one room at Tuesday's conference, refuseniks and their helpers recalled the names of KGB operatives who followed them, the difficulties of reporting to Western media about yet another arrest of a Jewish activist and the courage it took to start Hebrew classes in the 1970s. In another room, organizers spoke on how the future congress of Russian Jews would lobby Russian and other governments for support of Israel.

"Our common issue is to speak out in defense of Israel's security," Engel said. "There cannot be double standards in the approach to terrorism. Whether in Chechnya, Palestine or Afghanistan -- it is the same thing."

Organizers were not certain of the methods the new group would use to formulate and implement its agenda. But they stressed the importance of cultural projects such as publishing textbooks on the history of Russian Jewry for both Russian and non-Russian Jews.

Mikhail Chlenov, president of the VAAD Jewish umbrella organization, said the idea to unite Russian Jews worldwide arose in the early 1990s. Vladimir Gusinsky, a vice president of the World Jewish Congress, is one of several Jewish figures considering efforts in this field, Chlenov said.

FEOR is a Kremlin-connected Jewish organization that was set up in late 1999 under the aegis of Lubavitcher Rabbi Berl Lazar, who was elected last year as an alternate Chief Rabbi of Russia. The measure was seen at the time as an attempt to undermine the influence of Gusinsky, who had previously dominated Jewish life in Russia as president of the Russian Jewish Congress.

Earlier this month, former Yukos executive Leonid Nevzlin, who had replaced Gusinsky in March as president of the Russian Jewish Congress, left the post due to his election to the Federation Council where he now represents Mordovia. Yevgeny Satanovsky, a businessman and director of the Institute of Israeli and Middle Eastern Studies, was elected the new president of the RJC.

Lazar, who has suspended his membership in the RJC board, boycotted the elections.

Back to the Top    Next Article