In support of Soviet Jews by Oxford Professor Michael Yudkin

Thursday, 6 March, 2014 - 2:47 pm

From Professor Michael Yudkin, University of Oxford, in honour of the visit of renowned Soviet Jewish Refusenik Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich to the Oxford University Chabad Society

Yosef Mendelevich is one of the heroes of the movement for Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union during the 1970’s and 1980’s.  I thought it might be interesting for those who’re having dinner at Chabad this evening to find out something about the way in which we in the West helped Soviet Jews to get exit visas.


As Yosef will, I am sure, explain, it was both difficult and dangerous for Jews in the Soviet Union to apply for permission to emigrate.  Difficult, because one had to jump through a number of hoops even to make an application – get an invitation from a member of one’s family in Israel, ask permission from relatives in the Soviet Union, and so on.  Dangerous, because the simple fact of applying to leave almost always led to dismissal from one’s job, which meant possible persecution as a “parasite” and the assignment of people like teachers and scientists to menial work such as cleaning streets or stoking boilers.  In any case, there was no certainty that an application to leave would be successful.  On the contrary, applications were usually refused, and the applicants, after losing their jobs, were often left in limbo for many years.  The name given to these brave people was “refuseniks”.


Many of the most prominent refuseniks were mathematicians and scientists.  The Soviet authorities were particularly upset when they applied to leave the country – partly because scientists were an elite group in the USSR and their disaffection was likely to influence others, and partly because the fact that these educated people didn’t want to stay in the Soviet paradise created a bad impression internationally.  I set up in Oxford an organisation called SRSR –  Scientists for the Release of Soviet Refuseniks – and we got a great deal of support from scientists and mathematicians all over the UK, including from many non-Jews who were shocked by the way in which their colleagues were being treated by the Soviet authorities. A little later I founded the International Committee for the Release of Soviet Refuseniks, to include colleagues from other European countries.  Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the Americans and Canadians were doing similar work.


The refuseniks did their best to keep their minds active, and they set up weekly seminars in Moscow and Leningrad (as St Petersburg was then called), at which they taught their own subjects and discussed one another’s work. We sent scientists from the UK and elsewhere to attend these seminars in Russia, so as to improve the morale of the refuseniks, and we bombarded the Soviet authorities with letters and petitions demanding their release.  I persuaded my Oxford College (Univ) to offer a Visiting Fellowship to the man who was probably the most distinguished of all the scientific refuseniks, Ben Levich, and organised a two-day seminar in Oxford in honour of his 60th birthday.  We sent the National Academy of Sciences of the USSR a request that Levich be allowed to attend this seminar, and got a very frosty letter back saying that he would never be released from the USSR; but just over a year later Levich was in the West, and the trickle of exits of Soviet Jews turned into a flood.


There’s a great deal more that could be said on the way in which people power managed to overcome the might of the Soviet bureaucracy, but I don’t want to keep you any longer from listening to Yosef’s talk.  I am sure you will enjoy it.


Michael Yudkin


Comments on: In support of Soviet Jews by Oxford Professor Michael Yudkin

Glenn Richter wrote...

Thank you for this posting from former Soviet Jewry activists in the US. While we worked closely with the London-based 35's organization, we were less aware of the work in the UK specifically for refusenik scientists, parallel to the multi-prong work here in the US by, among others, the Committee of Concerned Scientists.

You were fortunate to hear Yosef Mendelevich. His personal story is awe-inspiring and transcends generational personal recollection of the Soviet Jewry movement. May you be blessed with his presence again.