Soviet Emigration in Rearview Mirror. Chapter 1.

Soviet Emigration in Rearview Mirror. Chapter 1.

Philosophers' Ship Oberbürgermeister Haken. Photo from:'_ships

Philosophers’ Ship Oberbürgermeister Haken. Photo from:’_ships

The Small Streams that Washed Away a Mighty Mountain

40 years after emigration, the panoramic view of the 1970s has emerged. No surprise: big things are only seen from a bird’s eye view. This is doubly true for us who were led by a lucky star to the clearance under the Iron Curtain just high enough to wriggle through. That the Curtain was raised was a development so improbable it seemed a dream, an oversight or, had we been religious, a divine intervention. It still does.

Let’s talk  about how the 1970s came about!

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 halted the decades-old large-scale exit from Russia but did not completely shut it down in the first fluid years of the regime. The cease and desist hammer hit in 1922 when a new name graced the world map, the Soviet Union. The first wave of emigration from the Soviet Union had ended.

Several hundred people were exiled that year. In a sign of things to come, they were all intellectuals. Most of them were transported on what was dubbed “philosophers’ ships”. Paradoxically, the country conceived and founded by intelligentsia saw no useful role for its citizens who did not work with their hands or thought too much of themselves to cheerfully obey marching orders.

The mistake of choosing a humane solution to rid the worker’s paradise from dissenters was not repeated. Soon executions came, internal exiles, camps but leaving the motherland was not an option again for close to half a century.

In 1935, a law went into effect that defined sprinting across the border as a capital offense for the sprinter and a grave crime for his entire family. Ditto for defectors. The same year, right before the peak of repressions, Stalin uttered a phrase that became, from then on, part of our mentality: “Life has become better, life has become happier!”

Remnants of the Berlin Wall in 2016. Photo from:

Remnants of the Berlin Wall in 2016. Photo from:

The valiant border patrols, the Berlin Wall, and vigilance against foreigners were portrayed as a means to stem the inbound flow of Western spies. It was the means to stem the outbound flow of ordinary citizens. A popular joke says it all: a visitor to Moscow asks his guide, “Why does the Kremlin Wall have teeth on top?” ‒ “So that no scumbags crawl over it!” ‒ “From which side?” inquires the simpleton innocently.

Kremlin Wall. Photo from:

Kremlin Wall. Photo from:

Borders “under lock and key”

An endless book series featuring a particularly brainy border guard was every child’s favorite, myself included. With the help of his no less brainy dog, he caught an inordinate quantity of particularly dumb spies.

Hard to believe but some leakage occurred on Stalin’s watch, the most notable being the defection of the celebrated choreographer George Balanchine in 1924. The total number was negligible and consisted of KGB agents on foreign assignments.

The population displaced during WWII that settled in other lands constitutes the second wave of Soviet emigration. We are going to dive right into the third wave, the late 1940s to the late 1980s, which corresponds to the “cold war” period.

Someone said that facts could be juggled not the consequences of the facts. By the late 1960s, a dozen years after Stalin’s death, his ways came back to bite his former associates now complacent successors. Relieved to have come out of his meatgrinder alive, they were caught unawares when a few unwise souls showed signs of life by speaking out or asking for political asylum while abroad. The new rulers flailed pathetically.

As a result, even Andrei Sakharov got away with mere internal exile to a town closed for foreign reporters and with being force-fed during his hunger strike. After all the harm he’d done with his human-rights babble!

Andrei Sakharov on the remnant of the Berlin Wall. Sign on the bottom, in German: "Thank you, Andrei Sakharov." Year 2009.

Andrei Sakharov on the remnant of the Berlin Wall. Sign on the bottom, in German: “Thank you, Andrei Sakharov.” Year 2009.

Vladimir Vysotsky’s songs ridiculing the system were not banned outright. The likes of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Mstislav Rostropovich, Iosif Brodsky, Alexander Galich did not conveniently die in auto accidents. Neither were they pronounced enemies of the people with all the consequences that status implied.

Instead, they were punished by a prompt kick in you know what toward the West. None of them begged for the chance to stay like Boris Pasternak had only a decade earlier. The Father of All Peoples must have been spinning in his grave (a good thing he was not displayed in the Mausoleum any longer.)

In this new lenient era, no person deserving to showcase the accomplishments of socialism to the world could be automatically trusted to return home. The same applied to groups touring or competing in the West. More often than not they incurred “loses” along the way, to the mortification of their KGB handlers and to the delight of the media.

The KGB defectors now had competition. The ballet sensation Rudolf Nureyev’s escape breached the barbed wire surrounding the country; he paid for it by not being allowed to visit his mother for 25 years. The next, and the icing on the cake, was Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva.

Anatoly Kuznetsov, the author of the novel Babi Yar and the son of a teacher from my school; the incomparable Mikhail Baryshnikov; Chess Grandmaster Viktor Korchnoi; Olympic and World champions in pair skating Oleg Protopopov and Ludmila Belousova; conductor Maxim Shostakovich (son of the prominent composer Dmitri Shostakovich), followed them, among others.

Though their decisions were personal their bravery created an aura of fearlessness that sowed dangerous ideas in the minds of their average compatriots. Singlehandedly, these mere mortals hollowed the mountain with nothing but audacity. They proved to the world that “the emperor has no clothes.”

Crossing the Soviet Border

It was challenging, to put it mildly, to devise and carry out a disappearing act outside the Soviet Union. But it did not compare to the superhuman determination it took to fight for making legal crossing of the border possible if you were inside the country and not number one in ballet, sport, nuclear physics, chess, and such. And I don’t mean the border to Bulgaria (at least  if you were not childless or Jewish you could hope to be selected to spend a week there with a group of your coworkers and a KGB handler in tow.)

The fight began with defection attempts. There were quite a few. Some received worldwide attention. Some became blips on the news circuit. Most remained unknown to the wider public and only lived through word of mouth tales. Of several rumored unsuccessful skyjackings, one of them in Riga, Latvia, the Dymshits-Kuznetsov hijacking affair (I knew it as “the airplane case”) belonged to the first category.

On June 15, 1970, a group of sixteen Leningrad dissidents and refuseniks was stopped from hijacking a small plane under the guise of going to a wedding. They had planned to fly to Sweden. In 2015, Kuznetsov’s daughter, a filmmaker, produced a documentary about that history-defining moment in her documentary Operation Wedding.

The Western radio stations provided information about worldwide protests against the death sentences to the leaders of the plot and about the drive to allow Soviet Jews to emigrate.

The Soviet Union blinked. It commuted the death sentences. Overnight, the Soviet emigration transformed from a vulnerable underground crusade into a powerful movement—thousands of permissions were issued in the remaining months of 1970. The right to emigrate, however, was still not on the books.

Eight months later, on February 24, 1971, twenty-four Jewish dissidents gathered in the waiting room of the head of the Soviet government. They vowed not to leave the premises and to go on hunger strike until they got permission to immigrate to Israel.

This blink came in no time. The government satisfied the dissidents’ demand provided they immediately left the country. Most importantly, the government passed a law that allowed emigration for humanitarian reasons, namely to unite Soviet Jews with family in Israel, and stripped the emigrants of Soviet citizenship. It later expanded to cover Russian Germans (Volga Deutsch) and Seventh-Day Adventists.

What about people whose ethnicity or religion did not make them emigrant material but who were dead set to escape? About them ‒ in the next post.

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