From Glasnost, a Jewish Spring : Despite Opening, It’s Too Soon to Declare Long Winter Over

<i> Deborah E. Lipstadt is the author of "Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust" (Free Press, 1986). While in the Soviet Union, she conducted Jewish-history seminars for refuseniks and Jewish cultural groups</i>

Glasnost . Perestroika . It has been two years since we initially heard those words. At first we could hardly pronounce them. Now they tumble off our lips.

They have wrought incredible change. In Lithuania and Latvia the nationalist colors fly freely. History examinations are canceled because the “correct” version of history is changing so rapidly that educators don’t know what questions to ask. Andrei D. Sakharov, who two years ago was in exile 500 miles from Moscow, may soon travel abroad. A prominent Israeli scholar will open a school in Moscow. A teacher has been given permission to teach Hebrew--an act for which not long ago people were thrown into jail. And the number of exit visas granted to Jews and others has increased dramatically.

Is this a new Soviet Union? Have we witnessed the end of the struggle that landed Anatoly Sharansky, Ida Nudel and others in prison camps because of their desire to leave for Israel? During a three-week stay in the Soviet Union this fall I saw change everywhere. Refuseniks who used to secretly rendezvous with foreigners at street corners now come to tourist hotels. Individuals who had never openly discussed their situation on the telephone now do so.

But it is not only those who have applied to leave who are stepping forward. Jews who have no plans to emigrate want to know about their culture. One young father invited me to his home, where a Jewish community library has been established. When we arranged to meet, I asked, “How will I recognize you?” He answered, “Don’t worry, you’ll know.” And I did. He was the only one at a Moscow bus stop wearing a button that proudly proclaimed in Hebrew:"The nation of Israel lives.” Over his door-bell was the sign sefriah , the Hebrew word for library. Not long ago this would have earned him harassment and possibly imprisonment. Yuli Kosharovsky, who has waited for 17 years for permission to emigrate, estimates that there are now 25 Jewish groups in Moscow. None are official or legally recognized, and they conduct cultural activities under trying and difficult circumstances. Yet many Jews who never before would have participated now do so. The same is true in other cities.


Everywhere I visited, Jews in the Soviet Union besieged me with requests that I teach them about their tradition. They thirst for knowledge of their history and literature, an opportunity generally unavailable to them. They do not delude themselves into thinking that centuries of anti-Semitism have been eliminated. But, as Michael Chlenov, the leader ofthe cultural movement in Moscow, put it, “If we do not know who we are and the great tradition from which we come, then we have let the anti-Semites define us.” Soviet Jews have come to recognize that they cannot be Jews because of oppression, they must be Jews despite it.

True, things have improved dramatically. The changes go to the heart of the Soviet system. But caution is in order lest we naively assume that the human-rights problem has been solved.

Glasnost has won the Soviets international praise and support and, most important, hard currency. European nations are sending significant aid to the Soviet Union. Multinational corporations are seeking investment opportunities. We may give the Soviet Union “most-favored-nation status,” which will greatly enhance its trade position.

But refuseniks and other Jews wonder: Is glasnost just a change in the window display while the store and its management remain the same? Even with today’s improved political climate, a simple commemoration ceremony for the victims of Babi Yar, a World War II atrocity against Jews, is locked out of a Moscow theater. The Soviet Union continues to refuse to recognize Hebrew as the language of the Jewish people. The Russian nationalist group Pamyat is permitted to regularly hold demonstrations where it engages in anti-Semitic rhetoric reminiscent of the worst of Czarist Russia while a small demonstration in front of the Moscow Radio Ministry, which has denied 11 of its employees permission to leave, lands two Jews in jail. Yuli Kosharovsky, Elena Keis, Alec Zelichonek and many others continue to sit as they have done for more than 15 years--their professional and personal lives on hold--waiting for exit visas to Israel.


Those in the United States who have been at the forefront of the human- and Jewish-rights struggle must not relax their guard. As this small window of opportunity opens, they must push harder than ever. Even as they acknowledge that there has been significant improvement, they must ask some tough questions. America must not be deceived by appearance. Only the Soviets’ continued progress toward an internationally accepted level of human rights will prove that both the window display and the management’s policies have truly changed.