Refusenik (Russian: отказник, otkaznik, from "отказ", otkaz "refusal") was an unofficial term for individuals, typically but not exclusively Soviet Jews, who were denied permission to emigrate by the authorities of the former Soviet Union and other countries of the Eastern bloc. The term refusenik is derived from the "refusal" handed down to a prospective emigrant from the Soviet authorities.
In addition to the Jews, broader categories included:
- Other ethnicities, such as Volga Germans attempting to leave for Germany, Armenians wanting to join their diaspora, and Greeks forcibly removed by Stalin from Crimea and other southern lands to Siberia.
- Members of persecuted religious groups, such as the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, Baptists and other Protestant groups, Russian Mennonites, and Jehovah's Witnesses.
A typical pretext to deny emigration was the real and alleged association with state secrets.
As a rule, Soviet dissidents and refuseniks were fired from their workplaces and denied employment according to their major specialty. As a result, they had to find a menial job, such as a street sweeper, or face imprisonment on charges of social parasitism.
The ban on Jewish immigration to Israel was lifted in 1971 leading to the 1970s Soviet Union aliyah. The coming to power of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s, and his policies of glasnost and perestroika, as well as a desire for better relations with the West, led to major changes, and most refuseniks were allowed to emigrate.
Over time, "refusenik" has entered colloquial English for a person who refuses to do something, especially by way of protest.
History of the Jewish refuseniks
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A large number of Soviet Jews applied for exit visas to leave the Soviet Union, especially in the period following the 1967 Six-Day War. While some were allowed to leave, many were refused permission to emigrate, either immediately or after their cases would languish for years in the OVIR (ОВиР, "Отдел Виз и Регистрации", "Otdel Viz i Registratsii", English: Office of Visas and Registration), the MVD (Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs) department responsible for exit visas. In many instances, the reason given for denial was that these persons had been given access, at some point in their careers, to information vital to Soviet national security and could not now be allowed to leave.
During the Cold War, Soviet Jews were thought to be a security liability or possible traitors. To apply for an exit visa, the applicants (and often their entire families) would have to quit their jobs, which in turn would make them vulnerable to charges of social parasitism, a criminal offense.
Many Jews encountered systematic, institutional antisemitism which blocked their opportunities for advancement. Some government sectors were almost entirely off-limits to Jews. In addition, Soviet restrictions on religious education and expression prevented Jews from engaging in Jewish cultural and religious life. While these restrictions led many Jews to seek emigration, requesting an exit visa was itself seen as an act of betrayal by Soviet authorities. Thus, prospective emigrants requested permission to emigrate at great personal risk, knowing that an official refusal would often be accompanied by dismissal from work and other forms of social ostracism and economic pressure. At the same time, strong international condemnations caused the Soviet authorities to significantly increase the emigration quota. In the years 1960 through 1970, only 4,000 people (legally) emigrated from the USSR. In the following decade, the number rose to 250,000, to fall again by 1980.
In 1970, a group of sixteen refuseniks (two of whom were non-Jewish), organized by dissident Eduard Kuznetsov (who already served a seven-year term in Soviet prisons), plotted to buy all the seats for the local flight Leningrad-Priozersk, under the guise of a trip to a wedding, on a small 12-seater aircraft Antonov An-2 (colloquially known as "кукурузник", kukuruznik), throw out the pilots before takeoff from an intermediate stop, and fly it to Sweden, knowing they faced a huge risk of being captured or shot down. One of the participants, Mark Dymshits, was a former military pilot.
The accused were charged for high treason, punishable by the death sentence under Article 64 of the Penal code of the RSFSR. Mark Dymshits and Eduard Kuznetsov were sentenced to capital punishment but after international protests it was appealed and replaced with 15 years of incarceration; Yosef Mendelevitch and Yuri Fedorov: 15 years; Aleksey Murzhenko: 14 years; Sylva Zalmanson (Kuznetsov's wife and the only woman on trial): 10 years; Arie (Leib) Knokh: 13 years; Anatoli Altmann: 12 years; Boris Penson: 10 years; Israel Zalmanson: 8 years; Wolf Zalmanson (brother of Sylva and Israel): 10 years; Mendel Bodnya: 4 years.
Crackdown on the refusenik activism and its growth
The affair was followed by a crackdown on the Jewish and dissident movement throughout the USSR. Activists were arrested, makeshift centers for studying the Hebrew language and Torah were closed, and more trials followed. At the same time, strong international condemnations caused the Soviet authorities to significantly increase the emigration quota. In the years 1960 through 1970, only 4,000 people (legally) emigrated from the USSR. In the 1970s (right after the First Leningrad Trial) 163,000 Jews were allowed to emigrate, for a total in subsequent decades of over 1 1⁄2 million.
A leading proponent and spokesman for the refusenik rights during the mid-1970s was Natan Sharansky. Sharansky's involvement with the Moscow Helsinki Group helped to establish the struggle for emigration rights within the greater context of the human rights movement in the USSR. His arrest on charges of espionage and treason and subsequent trial contributed to international support for the refusenik cause.
Refuseniks included Jews who desired to emigrate on religious grounds, Jews seeking to immigrate to Israel for Zionist aspirations, and relatively secular Jews desiring to escape continuous state-sponsored antisemitism.
- In 2008 filmmaker Laura Bialis released a documentary film, Refusenik, chronicling the human rights struggle of the Soviet refuseniks.
- Balseros, Cuban citizens who are not legally allowed to migrate and who cross to Florida in improvised boats
- Eastern Bloc emigration and defection
- Herman Branover
- Iosif Begun
- Jackson-Vanik amendment
- Lishkat Hakesher
- Movement to Free Soviet Jewry
- Mark Azbel' and Grace Pierce Forbes. Refusenik, trapped in the Soviet Union. Houghton Mifflin, 1981. ISBN 0-395-30226-9
- "Злоупотребления законодательством о труде", a document of the Moscow Helsinki Group.
- Oxford English Dictionary,(online). Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2012-06-08.
- The Right to Emigrate, cont. Beyond the Pale. The History of Jews in Russia. Exhibit by Friends and Partners
- Joseph Dunner. Anti-Jewish discrimination since the end of World War II. Case Studies on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms: A World Survey. Vol. 1. Willem A. Veenhoven and Winifred Crum Ewing (Editors). Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. 1975. Hague. ISBN 90-247-1779-5, ISBN 90-247-1780-9; pages 69-82
- Benjamin Pinkus. The Jews of the Soviet Union: the history of a national minority. Cambridge University Press, January 1990. ISBN 978-0-521-38926-6; pp. 229-230.
- Boris Morozov (Editor). Documents on Soviet Jewish Emigration. Taylor & Francis, 1999. ISBN 978-0-7146-4911-5
- Alexeyeva, Lyudmila (1992). История инакомыслия в СССР [The History of Dissident Movement in the USSR] (in Russian). Vilnius: Vest'. OCLC 489831449.
- "The struggle behind the Iron Curtain". Philadelphia Daily News. June 27, 2008. Accessed June 28, 2008.
- Pauline Peretz, Let My People Go: The Transnational Politics of Soviet Jewish Emigration During the Cold War. Ethan Rundell, trans. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2015.
- Natan Sharansky, Fear No Evil: The Classic Memoir of One Man's Triumph over a Police State. ISBN 1-891620-02-9.
- Chaim Potok, Gates of November: Chronicles of the Slepak Family. ISBN 0-394-58867-3.
- David Shrayer-Petrov (Russian: Шраер-Петров, Давид), Herbert and Nelly (a novel, in Russian, abridged 1986; complete 1992, 2006). A saga of a refusenik family set in Moscow in the 1980s.
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