Let My People Go
The Soviet experiment was among the most momentous and catastrophic episodes in human history, and yet its passing went almost unnoticed. Of course, there have been commemorations, articles, even a few books. But considering that Soviet Communism was a manmade system that cost some 20 million lives directly, and perhaps another 100 million through wars and imitative experiments elsewhere, the attention paid to the events of 1989 and what led up to them has been remarkably sparse.
Oddly, a very large role in putting an end to this vast evil was played by a very small people—the Jews. Stirred by Israel's triumphs, a significant number of Soviet Jewish citizens defied the repressive juggernaut that was the Soviet regime by the simple act of asking permission to leave. The likes of such defiance, unknown under totalitarianism, inspired support from Jews and others worldwide, and tied the Kremlin in knots.
Much of this has been forgotten. Who can name a Soviet "refusenik" aside from Natan Sharansky? Now, after five years of research, a young journalist, Gal Beckerman, has produced in When They Come for Us, We'll Be Gone a comprehensive account of the fight for the right of emigration from the Soviet Union. He has done it through a braided narrative, one strand tracing the history of the Jewish protest movement within the USSR, the other following the activities of American Jews rallying to support their Soviet brethren. I can't recall ever having derived so much enjoyment from a book so flawed.
The flaw is that Beckerman's two strands are not equally interesting. The Soviet story scintillates with acts of bravery, generosity, ingenuity. The American story is a snooze. Who cares, 35 years later, what one Soviet Jewry support group had to say about another? Nor are the human qualities on display among the often rivalrous American activists always so edifying as those of their Soviet counterparts.
The problem is compounded by Beckerman's unsteady hand in treating things American—as if, of the two countries, the U.S. were the foreign one. He informs us that into the 1960s the Holocaust was "rarely discussed" among American Jews, and that starting with the Six-Day war, Israel "became as divisive a factor in American Jewish life as it was a uniting one." I was alive at the time; neither of these assertions rings true to me, and neither do too many others. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger was far from a "neoconservative." The term "linkage" did not signify "a game . . . in which the superpowers helped each other." Jane Fonda was not merely "perceived as supporting Communist forces" (emphasis added) in Vietnam; she traveled to Hanoi to show her support, including by donning a military helmet and peering into the sight of an anti-aircraft gun. And so forth. Similarly unlikely or tendentious claims, offered without evidence or sourcing, infect Beckerman's treatment of Israel as well.
By contrast, Beckerman limns the story within the USSR with absorbing nuance, fine sensibility, and fluid prose. Of course, not knowing those events at first hand, I would be less likely to spot factual errors. But I'm not sure that would matter: Beckerman has interviewed many of the main participants and distilled their gripping accounts, whose import would hardly be affected by occasional lapses in detail.
Beckerman shows how various individuals discovered their Jewish identities, usually in stages and often reactively. With the sinew of tradition having been ruthlessly severed by state repression, Judaism could offer only limited attraction to those who knew little of its content. Instead, they were driven to seek out their Jewish identity by the persecutions heaped upon them. Beckerman notes the irony:
If the Soviets had simply eliminated the fifth line of the internal passport [specifying one's nationality], they could have assimilated hundreds of thousands of Jews who had no other reason than that line to think of themselves as Jews.
He shows, too, how they developed courage. Jews in Riga and Kiev located the killing grounds where their families and forebears had been slaughtered and plowed under by the Nazis, often with local help; with increasing assertiveness, they marked out memorials to the dead. "Refuseniks," exemplified by the diminutive Ida Nudel, succored each other under persecution, often at the cost of making their own individual plights more perilous.
The courage, indeed, was a thing of wonder. These individuals stood naked before a power that was unaccountable and unconstrained, and the legatee of a history written in blood. What sustained them? For one thing, however little knowledge they may have begun with, as soon as they turned to Judaism they found nourishment within it, teaching each other the rudiments of Hebrew, ritual, and Scripture, not to mention songs and dances.
This journey of self-discovery was catalyzed by the example of the state of Israel with its remarkable achievements of nation-building and self-defense. The response of Soviet Jews to the Six-Day war has been described by others, but Beckerman shows that even the less momentous Sinai campaign of 1956 had resonated powerfully with Jews in the USSR.
And the dissidents were also nurtured by the intense solidarity with their cause shown by the Jewish people, not only in Israel but also in Europe and the U.S. The last-named was especially important—and not only to Soviet Jews. The very fact of the United States instilled hope and courage in the hearts of non-Jewish as well as Jewish dissidents behind the Iron Curtain. Here was a power equal to or greater than the one that oppressed them. Here, too, was the model of a society so much more successful than the Soviet system as to make a mockery of the latter's claim to represent human destiny.
Despite its success, however, American society had lost confidence in its own ways and values. By happenstance, the heyday of the Soviet Jewish struggle coincided with the latter years of the Vietnam war and the period immediately following. Since anti-Communism (or the "excessive fear of Communism," as President Jimmy Carter put it) had gotten us into that discredited war—so the reasoning went—the cause for which it was fought had no further role to play in thinking or in policy. Against that background, dramatization of the Soviet refusal to let people leave, a denial of freedom matched by few if any non-Communist dictatorships, served as a powerful reminder of the nature of our foe and, even, of the forgotten virtues of Western democratic civilization.
All of this, however, escapes Beckerman, whose vision is blinkered by leftish preconceptions. And so, although he has nonetheless written an engaging book (if you skip the chapters about America), it remains for someone else to plumb the deepest irony of the saga he relates. This is that Communism, a monstrosity in whose birth a number of deracinated Jews played a shamefully large part, was eventually brought down by acts undertaken in disproportionate measure by re-racinated Jews: Israelis, Americans, and, above all, Soviet citizens.
Joshua Muravchik, a veteran commentator on American foreign policy, is the author of, among other books, Exporting Democracy, Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism, and The Next Founders: Voices of Democracy in the Middle East.
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