Though millions languished under Soviet rule, a few determined individuals became the face of Soviet Jewry. But what happened to them after starting new lives in Israel? Here’s an update on three of history’s most famous refuseniks.
Boxes brimming with files, binders and newspaper clippings cover the small living room floor in Rehovot, Israel.
It’s material for Ida Nudel’s next book, in which one of the most famous faces of the Soviet Jewry struggle plans to trace the history of the movement.
Nudel, 76, still feels the same intensity that drove her to battle the Soviets and survive a murder plot by the KGB and four years of Siberian exile before immigrating to Israel in 1987.
She harbors many grievances toward her new homeland, a state she fought so hard to live in but which she says has disappointed her greatly.
Nadel admits the ideological Jewish state she imagined was well into post-Zionism by the time she stepped off her much-dreamed-of flight from Moscow to Tel Aviv.
“I cry in my heart because what we dreamed of is not happening. Solidarity won, but what have we won? To go toward creating a Muslim country? We are quietly giving up piece after piece of land,” says Nudel, known for her hawkish views.
Nudel worries Israel is losing its distinct nature as a Jewish state. “It’s becoming a global village and the victims are small nations,” she says.
Not long after her arrival, Nudel began running an organization called Mother to Mother that sought to bring at-risk Russian-speaking immigrant children into after-school programs. Many came from single-parent families who struggled economically.
Nudel takes great pride in the program and hopes it will be her contribution to Israel, the country she sees as both her home and her heartache.
Back when he was toiling in the snow of the Ural Mountains and elsewhere during 16 years in the Soviet gulag, Yosef Begun did not imagine his future home as a place with rockets falling and leaders in crisis.
Imprisoned by the Soviet authorities for his Jewish activities, Begun knew Israel was an embattled country, but he had high hopes for its future.
“I think like every citizen in Israel, I see the situation getting worse,” he says. “The Kassams falling? We did not have those in mind when we emigrated from Moscow.”
Now 75 and living in Jerusalem, Begun is a grandfather. He works as a publisher, mostly putting out Russian-language books with Jewish, Israeli or Zionist content. He takes those books to the former Soviet Union.
Begun, who recently led a Moscow tour of refusenik sites for American Jewish activists, still sees himself as the impassioned Zionist, but he is disheartened by the mood when he returns home from his trips to the former Soviet Union.
“There are people who want a Jewish life and Zionism, but most of the nation seems uninterested in such things,” he says. “The country seems tired.”
He had once been a Hebrew teacher and activist in the refusenik movement. Like others, Begun believes the incredible showing of Jewish unity paved the way to a successful outcome in the Soviet Jewry struggle.
“Everyone — Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, religious, not religious — they were all together,” he says. “It shows how when everyone unites, there can be success.”
Yuli Edelstein may be approaching 50, but his face retains the boyishness of the young Hebrew teacher in Moscow who organized secret classes and emerged as a leader in the struggle for Soviet Jewry.
Edelstein was followed by KGB agents and eventually arrested. He was sent into exile on the Mongolian frontier, where he worked in a labor camp for three years.
Now a veteran Knesset member and former immigration minister, Edelstein says the memories of exile, struggle and solidarity are never far from his mind.
Edelstein, 48, recalls one evening marching back to his barracks, when the labor camp’s commander approached him and said, “The safe in my office is full of letters for you, but I’ll never give you even one of them.”
Seeing the letters was not important, he says. Knowing they were there made all the difference.
“You know, 500,000 miles from Moscow in a labor camp, you hear something like that and know you are not alone in the snow out there,” he says. “There is a safe full of letters.”
He marvels at the force of the Soviet Jewry solidarity movement.
“Israel and the diaspora had a common issue, one without any controversy. When there is a feeling of common cause, you can really make a change.”
As for his fellow Soviet Jews who immigrated to Israel, he maintains that the process of absorbing them into Israeli society is ongoing and cannot yet be judged.
Edelstein joined with longtime friend Natan Sharansky to run for the Knesset in 1996 as part of an immigrant party called Yisrael B’Aliyah.
When huge numbers of new immigrants began to pour into Israel, he and other former activists realized if they wanted to have a say in how their fellow countrymen were absorbed into Israeli society, they would have to take an active role in government.
“It would be very difficult to find someone who would not say that the aliyah was not the best thing that happened to Israel in the past 15 to 20 years,” he said.