Vladimir Slepak, describing himself as a "simple Jew" turned into a symbol by circumstances, arrived in Israel on Monday after a 17-year journey through emotional anguish and physical exile in Siberia.
"I have a feeling that this happened not with me, but with somebody else," said a smiling Slepak, who until he left Moscow on Sunday had been the longest-term Jewish refusenik in the Soviet Union.
The bearded radio engineer, who will turn 60 on Thursday, talked with about 200 reporters and well-wishers in a special hall of Ben-Gurion Airport that is used for greeting new immigrants. He and his wife, Mariya, arrived by private plane from Vienna, where they had spent their first night in the West.
The Slepaks are the latest in a number of longtime Jewish activists who have been allowed to leave the Soviet Union in recent months. Ida Nudel, sometimes called the "guardian angel" of the movement, arrived here 12 days ago, the day after the Slepaks were officially informed that they had been given permission to leave.
Slepak dismissed suggestions that his release and the others' represent a significant change in Soviet policy. It is instead a "trick of Soviet power" intended to win favor in the West, he said.
Slepak, who had been granted Israeli citizenship in absentia, first applied to emigrate from the Soviet Union in early 1970, causing a break with his father, a Communist and strong supporter of the Soviet system until his death in 1978.
Slepak was refused permission to leave on grounds that he had been privy to state secrets, a common Soviet response to such applications. Slepak was already active in the broader Soviet Jewish emigration movement, and the refusal spurred him to greater efforts. He became a symbol to supporters of the movement in Israel and elsewhere even as some 200,000 of his fellow Soviet Jews were allowed to emigrate.
The Slepaks' two sons were among those allowed to go, Alexander in 1977 and Leonid in 1979. Both now live in the United States.
In 1978, when Vladimir and Mariya Slepak hung a banner from the balcony of their Moscow apartment pleading for permission to go to Israel, they were prosecuted for "malicious hooliganism." Slepak was exiled to a remote Siberian village near the Mongolian border for nearly five years. His wife, a radiologist, received a suspended sentence.
Asked Monday where he had found the strength to persist for 17 years, Slepak responded: "I'm not an outstanding person. I'm a simple Jew with simple strength. . . . I think many, many of you, being in my situation, could do the same."