A Long Road Home? Jewish Refuseniks on Their Way to Emigration from Soviet Belarus (1967-1987)

Belarusian Jews at the Iama (The Pit) monument devoted to the victims of the Holocaust, the 1970s
Belarusian Jews at the Iama (The Pit) monument devoted to the victims of the Holocaust, the 1970s. Published in: Lev Ovsishcher, Vospominania (Ierusalem, 1988)

Dr. Tatsiana Astrouskaya

The 1967 Six-Day Arab-Israeli War worsened the relations between the USSR and the State of Israel profoundly, yet at the same time it triggered the Jewish exodus from the Soviet Union. Since then and to the second half of Michail Gorbachev’s perestroika, Soviet migration policies towards fluctuated significantly, and nevertheless, the flow of Jewish emigration persisted with greater or lesser intensity through the whole period under study. Simultaneously, a substantial number of potential emigrants whose application for an exit visa was refused, had to stay in the Soviet Union for several years, subsequently deprived of jobs and the educational opportunities. They were colloquially labeled as refuseniks (otkaznik in Russian, mesorav in Hebrew).

While in the 1960–1980 and up to the early 1990s, the restrictions of Jewish emigration from the USSR attracted much debate among the Western researchers of the Soviet Union, Russian dissidents, and the general public, the attention reduced as the Soviet State ceased to exist. Today, the Jewish exodus from the USSR provides a notable case of mass migration in modern history.

Exit Visa to Israel issued by the Minsk Department of Inner Affairs. Published in: Ernst Levin, “I posokh v ruke vashei….”. Dokumental’myi memuar 2002 goda. K tridtsatiletiiu Iskhoda iz SSSR. (Ierusalem, 2007)

This study aims at a certain movement back from the general category of Soviet Jews, and, more precisely, of Soviet refuseniks to the local community, where the individual decision of emigration, as well as individual effort and personal connections within the Jewish and non-Jewish groups, would become visible. It intends to step away from the celebration of the Soviet protest culture and to consider the complexity of different motives, where an individual or economic interest can be no less crucial than the ideological, stylistic, as Andrei Siniavskii put it, or political discontent with the Soviet system.  It focuses on the Soviet periphery, the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic (the BSSR) with its rather homogeneous population and relatively scanty Jewish minority of 1,42 percent (or 135 450 people in absolute numbers) as on the state of 1979. A comparatively small number of Jews and a peripheral status of the republic, subjected to the decisions of the center will allow probing the general knowledge of the Soviet refuseniks on a local scale.

From the methodological point of view, the project explores the potential of R programming language and R environment for statistical computing and graphics for the analysis, evaluation, and display of historical data. As an outcome, the comprehensive database of Soviet Belarusian refuseniks will be created, in which the procedures of applications, refusal, and re-application of exit visas, the social and educational background of refuseniks, the attendance of underground makeshift schools (ulpanim) or involvement in the publication and/or distribution of samizdat, as well as some problematic aspects such as bribery or pulling strings, could be reconstructed and visualized. Upon the project’s completion, the data will be publicized for scientific and public use.