Last week saw the passing of two former Soviet Jewish refuseniks, Vladimir Slepak and Vladimir Prestin, who were not permitted to leave the USSR for almost 20 years. It was only when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985 that the gates were finally opened for a small group of long-term Moscow activists. Slepak and Prestin were members of this small coterie, regarded as the public face of a movement that eventually brought a million people to Israel in the 1990s.
While Prestin was “adopted” by a leading member of the 35’s Women’s Campaign, Zelda Harris, Slepak was supported by Greville Janner MP and his All-Party Committee for Soviet Jewry. Janner initiated the signing of a siddur by Prime Minister Edward Heath, the Foreign Secretary Sir Alec Douglas-Home, the leaders of the opposition, their frontbenches and another 170 MPs. It was to be a present for Slepak’s son, Leonid, on the occasion of his barmitzvah in May 1972 – the first barmitzvah in Moscow for 27 years. It never reached him as the Soviet customs impounded the item.
The affable, bearded Slepak was known to thousands of British campaigners – many of whom visited him in his Moscow apartment and demonstrated for him in the streets of London. A radio engineer by profession, he was among the earliest refuseniks – his home was searched during the Leningrad affair, the attempt to take an aeroplane and fly it out of the USSR in 1970. Like many other refuseniks, he was the son of an old Bolshevik, those who had made the revolution, turned a blind eye and subsequently justified Stalin’s crimes. The elder Slepak accepted the official explanation for the Doctors’ Plot in January 1953 that a group of Jewish doctors had attempted to poison the leaders of the Kremlin. The younger Slepak fell out with his father, discovered his Jewishness and applied to leave for Israel after the Six-Day War.
Slepak suffered years of harassment, humiliation and short periods of arrest in difficult conditions. In 1976, Slepak joined Natan Sharansky as a member of the Moscow committee that monitored Soviet compliance with the Helsinki Final Act, an agreement that the Kremlin had signed. It promised observance of human rights and the free movement of people – but the Soviet leadership implemented neither.
The denouement for Slepak came in June 1977. His wife, Masha, discovered KGB agents fixing a device to their door to prevent anyone from leaving. The Slepaks responded by unfolding a banner over their balcony. It read: “Let us go to our son in Israel.” From above them, the KGB tipped cauldrons of scalding water down upon them. From below, a phalanx of KGB agents and bemused bystanders kept up a cacophony of abusive chants and antisemitic taunts. The double doors to their apartment were broken down and they were dragged away to waiting cars. Slepak was charged with “malicious hooliganism” and sentenced to five years in Siberian exile.
The epithet “heroes” has become a worn-out slogan in an age of celebrity, but Slepak, Prestin and their friends who spanned almost the entire era of the campaign for Soviet Jewry were truly people of profound courage and deep conviction who stood firm in dark times. We should remember them with respect and admiration.
Jewish Chronicle 1 May 2015