A group of the forgotten--Soviet Jewish women struggling to emigrate after the more famous refuseniks have gone--are observing a three-day fast to try to remind the world that they are still barred from leaving their country.
Some of the women gathered Thursday in the apartment of Ella Varshavsky, a graying, soft-spoken Muscovite who served as a personal secretary in the KGB during the Stalin Era but left her job 41 years ago and began trying to emigrate in 1977.
The women, who sipped water out of wine glasses and shared jokes to lift their spirits, included several who have waited a dozen years to leave, as well as a “new refusenik,” as Marina Gorelik describes herself.
‘To Frighten Others’
“It’s easy to forget us, but we must not be cast aside. Only noise will get us out,” said Natasha Stonov, who has been trying to emigrate since 1979. “Otherwise the Soviets will simply keep us here, both to frighten others who might want to leave and to keep people in the bank to trade with the West at some future date.”
Gorelik, a 30-year-old linguist, and her husband, a computer programmer, were denied exit visas only three weeks ago on the grounds that they had access to state secrets.
Gorelik flatly refuted the allegation. “The Soviets simply don’t want everyone to think they can leave now, so they use state security as an excuse to create new refuseniks,” she said.
Improving Rights Image
More than 20,000 Jews, the largest number since 1980, were allowed to emigrate from the Soviet Union last year as part of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s efforts to improve his country’s human rights image and allow the Soviets a greater role in the Middle East.
Among the well-known recent emigres were longtime Soviet Jewish activist Natan Sharansky, Hebrew teacher Josef Begun and Ida Nudel, known as the “mother of refuseniks.”
The United States and Israel had demanded freedom for Soviet Jews before Moscow could be accepted as a potential negotiator in the Middle East. Last month, in a sign that the Kremlin’s tactics were at least partly successful, Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Arens met with his Soviet counterpart, Eduard A. Shevardnadze, in Cairo.
Nevertheless, emigration restrictions have not yet eased enough for the 46 women across the Soviet Union who are participating in the fast, which began Wednesday on International Women’s Day. They say in all there are about 80,000 refuseniks and that countless others have not even applied, fearing repercussions.
Women in several cities, including Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev and Minsk, are participating in the strike, organizers said. They are calling on the Soviet Union to set up a commission to review their cases.
About half of the group were denied permission to emigrate on the grounds that they had had access to state secrets, and the other half were refused permission to leave because their parents or divorced spouses failed to sign official documents stating they have no financial claims on the would-be emigrants.
Varshavsky, 74, was initially turned down because of the KGB job she had held from 1938 to 1948, when Josef Stalin ruled the Soviet Union. She is reluctant to talk much about her work, saying only that she is ashamed of it and left when she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
“At first, the Soviets said I possessed secrets. Now they know that is ridiculous and simply say it is ‘undesirable’ for me to go,” said Varshavsky, who is seeking to join her son in Denmark.
“The years of Stalin were a nightmare, and I still suffer bouts of depression from my work at the KGB,” she said, her eyes filling with tears. “I have begged the authorities, at least, not to deprive me of motherhood in my old age.”
Varshavsky said the group meeting in her apartment was heartened by receiving calls of support from the United States, London, France, Canada and Australia.
“The Soviets are trying very hard to create the impression that everyone who wants to leave is out now,” said Stonov. “We can only hope these calls mean they are not succeeding.”