A Refusenik Protest Remembered

Maxim D. Shrayer

Cover of Leaving Russia: A Jewish Story. Courtesy of the author.
Cover of Leaving Russia: A Jewish Story. Courtesy of the author.
In late March, just as the 1987 Purim-shpil season had been winding down, the refuseniks mulled over the news of a visit by Edgar Bronfman, then president of the World Jewish Congress, and Morris Abram, at the time president simultaneously of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations and of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry. They were received in Moscow by high-level Soviet officials. We heard from various sources that on the table was the condition of Soviet Jews, specifically refuseniks, and emigration. The Jackson-Vanik and the Stevenson Amendments, the former only repealed in 2012, restricted US trade relations with the Soviet Union. The linkage of Jewish emigration and the trade relations between the two countries was hardly new. New were concrete and real promises that Soviet officials had reportedly made. The refusenik community was on the verge of change.

Something had also changed in my parents' attitude to my direct involvement in refusenik politics. They weren't encouraging me, but they weren't trying to stop me, either. I had resigned from the Komsomol (Young Communist League), and the membership no longer weighed me down or hindered me. Nor was I any longer particularly concerned about being thrown out of the university. I finally felt free to protest the authorities alongside my parents and other refuseniks. The demonstration I remember most vividly took place in early April in the center of Moscow. My father and I took the direct Metro line to Pushkinskaya, then walked briskly for ten minutes from the Pushkin monument along Tverskoy Boulevard toward the Nikitsky Gate. There was still a chill in the air, despite the late morning hour and the sun, and the buds on the limes and poplars were only beginning to unfold and show green. The grande dame of Moscow's boulevards, with its dark-green benches, smaller monuments, and play areas with seesaws, was empty, save for an occasional retiree reading a newspaper posted on a billboard or an old lady pushing a pram. We passed the Literary Institute on the right, the new building of the Moscow Art Theater on the left. Practically every inch of the street here was a museum, of either public or private memories. In that mansion Maria Ermolova, one of the greatest Russian actresses, once had her home. On that peeling bench I had sat kissing a Jewish girl I met in front of the Moscow Choral Synagogue, both of us recent high school graduates waiting to take university examinations. Tverskoy Boulevard was a legendary rendezvous terrain, and I was now treading it with my father on the way to a refusenik protest.

The author with his parents, David Shrayer-Petrov and Emilia Shrayer, Moscow, Fall-Winter 1985–86. Courtesy of the Shrayer Family Archive.
The author with his parents, David Shrayer-Petrov and Emilia Shrayer, Moscow, Fall-Winter 1985–86. Courtesy of the Shrayer Family Archive.
We approached the end of the boulevard with its public garden and circle of benches surrounding the monument to Kliment Timiryazev, eminent Russian botanist and plant physiologist. Past this point was a busy intersection where the boulevard ring veered to the right and continued for a few blocks under a different name, only to hit the Arbat. From here one could see the yellow confines and gilded cupolas of the Grand Ascension Church where Pushkin was married to Natalia Goncharova in 1831. More or less straight ahead lay Herzen Street, which took one past the Moscow Conservatory of Music and toward Red Square. Across the street on the left, the modern gray building of the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union (TASS) stood out among its teal and tea-green old neighbors with ornate stucco façades. I was tempted to come out of the boulevard and turn right onto a quiet lovely street called Malaya Bronnaya, with a struggling Russian theater occupying the building that had once belonged to the Moscow Yiddish Theater. A short stroll brought one to an enchanting area of Moscow, the Patriarch Ponds, and to what had once been an area of Moscow seething with Jewish life, around the former synagogue at Bolshaya Bronnaya Street.

Monument to Kliment Timiryazev at the south-west end of Tverskoy Boulevard in Moscow, site of the refusenik protest described in the essay. Photo 2014 © by Maxim D. Shrayer.
Monument to Kliment Timiryazev at the south-west end of Tverskoy Boulevard in Moscow, site of the refusenik protest described in the essay. Photo 2014 © by Maxim D. Shrayer.
Timiryazev, Russia's student of photosynthesis, stood tall on a granite pedestal, his hands crossed in the front over his lap. From a certain secret angle his knuckles formed a protruding something, probably unintended by the sculptor. At eighteen or nineteen it was considered a special sign of cultural subversiveness to point this protrusion out to a girl on a date and elicit a sexy giggle. I couldn't shake this association even as my father and I joined a group of eight or ten refuseniks already lined up in front of the Timiryazev monument. I had met two or three of them before; my father knew almost all of these men and women, grown middleaged or even old during the refusenik years.Clipped or sewn to the breasts of several protesters were small posters with slogans. Having survived among my parents' papers is a sheet of white paper with a number of such slogans written out, crossed out, or edited: "Freedom of Emigration to All Refuseniks!"; "People of All Faiths, Fight for the Freedom of Jews—Refuseniks"; "Auschwitz, Babi Yar, and Refuseniks—a Jewish Tragedy," and others. Which one was my father to wear on his black leather coat with a row of buttons? I don't remember. The memories begin to falter and spin out of control. We arrive beneath the botanist's feet and greet the other refuseniks. Young men, some of them dressed in sporty attire, jump out of one of the buses parked right nearby. From another bus, slowly, descends a group of old men in derby hats; military decorations and badges are pinned to their chests. Several uniformed cops stand on either side of the low wrought-iron fence separating the inner, pedestrian space of the boulevard from the street and late morning traffic. The young men have short hair and broad shoulders; their mouths are twisted with ferocity. They are moving closer to our small chain of refuseniks. The war veterans shuffle their feet behind the broad backs of the jocks. Maybe a reporter or two is flashing cameras from a distance, but otherwise we're alone. Uniformed police are not interfering, just standing there and barking into their walkie-talkies. The jocks come up to the refusenik protesters and methodically rip off the small posters. The refuseniks continue to stand in place, some of them turning their heads to the side as if offering the other cheek to their detractors. Why are these Jewish men and women passive? I wonder. Are they prepared to face annihilation with silent determination? Father and I are standing on the leftmost flank of the demonstration. Everything is unraveling so quickly that father hasn't even attached his poster when two thugs have stepped forward to rip one off the raincoat of a refusenik woman right next to us.

"What are you doing?" I yell at the two "athletes." I cannot control myself.

"What do you want, sissy? You stay out of it," one of them replies, stepping toward me.

Face to face, I get a good look at my enemy. He is not a bored youth from a workingclass suburb seduced with ultrapatriotic hogwash. This one is a professional, a wellgroomed man in his late twenties, with a clean shave. His athletic cap and jacket must be a costume he was issued at his office that morning, to look like a Soviet nobody. But a thug he is all the same, doubly the thug because he takes a salary and state benefits for persecuting defenseless refuseniks.

"What right do you have to do this?" I scream right in his face, and in place of this one thug I suddenly see brigades of other thugs as they call Jewish kids "kike" in the school courtyard, assault Jewish girls in secluded park alleys, knock Jewish mothers off their feet on Arbat Street.

"What right?" the thug now brings his barrel chest inches away from mine. I can smell his cologned sweat, see a faint scar beneath his right eye.

"Yes, what right," I scream back. I don't know what I'm doing anymore. "These people have a constitutional right to free speech," I scream.

"Get him out of here," a war veteran's bleaty voice emerges from behind the thug's back. "Why isn't he paying his debt to the motherland?"

In my state of extreme agitation I can still process the fact that the old goat is referring to me and to military service. I know I should stop and retreat, but I cannot. I want to fight the thug, I want to rip his throat out. I feel as though years of bottled-up rage are about to burst out of me. I want revenge for what he had done to my mother just a few weeks ago. I can feel that our bodies are about to collide, that he's just waiting for me to shove him first. Fortunately my father brings his right arm around my chest and restrains me.

"Stop, he's provoking you," father whispers loudly as he drags me away from the thug, who still hasn't moved. Only after a few minutes of being pulled away from the scene and in the direction of the Pushkin monument do I begin to come out of the trance.

I was lucky, very lucky. I had escaped unscathed. My father didn't say anything to me afterwards. I think he wanted to, but held back. Only now, as a father of two children, a man in my late forties, have I begun to understand what my father was feeling.

Adapted from Leaving Russia: A Jewish Story (Syracuse University Press/Library of Modern Jewish Literature), copyright © 2013–2016 by Maxim D. Shrayer. All rights reserved worldwide, including electronic.