A Conversation with Gal Beckerman about When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone

What brought you personally to this story? Are you a Soviet Jew?
No. Though sometimes I think that I was the most successful result of the “Soviet twinning” program that activists worked on in the 1980s. They matched young American Jews about to have a bar or bat mitzvah with children of refuseniks in the Soviet Union who were denied this rite of passage. The hope was that this would personalize the problems of the refuseniks. Well, my imagination took hold of what I learned about a Muscovite boy name Maxim Yankelevich and never really let go. Many years later, it prompted me to look for more information about a movement that seemed all but forgotten. When I realized that no comprehensive book existed, it seemed like a good and interesting challenge to try to write one.

But why was it interesting from a historical perspective? What effect did it have?
Well, it led to the emigration of nearly a million and a half Soviet Jews. But the movement was also an important catalyst for the two largest communities in the Jewish Diaspora. It led them both to a redemption they were each desperately seeking. American Jews were suffering from feelings of guilt that they had not done enough during the Holocaust to help their European brethren. The movement gave them a chance to correct this. It freed them up psychologically to feel that they could advocate for Jewish causes and better meld their American and Jewish identities without one subsuming the other. And, politically speaking, they learned how to lobby, how to work the levers of power for their own good. For Soviet Jews, of course, the redemption was a physical one. Three generations after the Bolshevik revolution they were able to reclaim a positive Jewish identity and leave a situation that had become completely untenable for them, a society where they weren’t allowed to assimilate but were also denied the opportunity to have a separate identity.

So it sounds like this is essentially a Jewish story?
Actually, it’s only partly a Jewish story. It’s also about the Cold War and the role human rights began to play in that global struggle. What was most remarkable about this movement was that it truly was one of the few causes that drew people who were motivated for reasons that were both universal and tribal. Yes, it was important for Jews to save other Jews. But, from the very beginning, the movement was strongest and most influential when it spoke in the language of international law. In international forums and superpower talks, the Soviets were battered with the demand that they open up their society and respect the principles laid out in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Free emigration became a necessary, linked part of any détente with the West. For this reason, when Gorbachev sought to reform the Soviet Union and change his relationship with the United States, he had no choice but to also begin to let Soviet Jews out. The rest is history. The push to leave the Communist world was a force that eventually toppled it completely.

Why was there a “movement”? What made Soviet Jews so much worse off than other people living in the totalitarian state?
I get this question a lot and it’s important to answer. First, Jews have always occupied a strange place in the Russian psyche, often perceived as parasites or fifth columnists, the constant outsiders. They were never allowed to completely assimilate and at times of upheaval became convenient scapegoats – a situation that did not change even after the Bolsheviks created a socialist “paradise.” But the other, more crucial distinction is that unlike Ukrainians or Latvians or any other “national” group in the Soviet Union, Jews had no indigenous land they could go to where they could speak their language and express their identity. Israel was the only option. Once a new self-awareness among Jews started to catch on in the early 1960s, they tried at first to imagine opening up a space of cultural and religious life for themselves within the Soviet Union. When it was clear that even this threatened the authorities, they turned their sights toward emigration. Thus, a movement.

What was the most dramatic part of the story?
Just in terms of heart-racing plot, nothing can really beat the episode of the Leningrad hijacking. This was the story of a group of Soviet Jews who tried to hijack a plane and fly it out of the Soviet Union. At some point they were sure they would get caught but continued anyway with the hope that even if they were arrested or killed, this was the best way to reveal their cause to the rest of the world. I interviewed most of the plotters and even spent the thirty-fifth anniversary of the hijacking with them at a BBQ cookout in Israel. This allowed me to describe in great detail the tick-tock leading up to the moment, on the tarmac, when they were tackled to the ground and taken into custody. What happened afterward was pretty remarkable as well. The Soviets put on a show trial and sentenced the two leaders to death. But there was such a world outcry in response that the death sentences were commuted.

What kind of research did you have to do?
Since there really wasn’t much primary material on the Soviet side of the story, I had to conduct many interviews. I spoke to over two hundred people for the book, mostly in Israel, the United States, and Russia, sometimes for hours, sitting in their living rooms over cups of tea or – often – glasses of vodka and plates of pickled mushrooms. Many of these people felt like they had been forgotten. When I arrived in their homes with my tape recorder, they were only too happy to share the part they felt they had played in history. Also crucial for telling the Soviet side were documents uncovered by an Israeli researcher that gave a view into how the Kremlin saw their “Jewish problem.” It was quite an experience to read the transcript of a politburo meeting in which Leonid Brezhnev suddenly says, “Zionism is making us stupid…” For the American side, it was much more straightforward: huge and largely untouched archives exist for the two largest organizations dealing with Soviet Jewry.

What was the most challenging part of writing this story?
The most challenging part by far was getting the narrative right. I covered a long period of time, from 1963 to 1987, and tried to tell both the Soviet and American sides of the story, which included hundreds of different key players. For a first book, such a complex set of circumstances was not ideal. Rather than be constrained by a small story through which I could tell a larger story, I had a very large story and had to find those elements of character and plot that would make it come alive. For a very long time – once I was confident that I knew the history of the movement and the parts of it I was going to focus on – the difficult task was casting the book, finding the right people that readers could follow. I needed a combination of characters who spanned the length of the history – people like Yosef Mendelevich – but also those whose personal stories thread through the major moments I wanted to describe.

Is there any relevance today to this story? Any modern parallels?
The story is still very relevant, and not only because Russia is behaving more and more like the old Soviet state in its suppression of dissent. One of the big questions the book poses is how a country like the United States balances its national security interests with moral imperatives. Soviet Jewry very much introduced this tension into the Cold War, turning it into a conflict that was about more than just who had how many missiles. This balance still poses incredible challenges for the United States. Take the case of China. On the one hand, the expansion of relations since the 1970s has had great economic benefits, but it has been accompanied by a deep undercurrent of discomfort about the censorship and repression that allows China’s nominally Communist authorities to stay in power. Iran is an even more dramatic example. The issue of how much and how publicly to support the growing democracy movement while also trying to stop their nuclear program strongly echoes debates from the 1970s surrounding Soviet Jews.

Is the movement still relevant for Jews today?
Many people look back to the Soviet Jewry movement with nostalgia as the last time that the American Jewish community was so united. Israel, ever since the Six Day War, has been too divisive to serve the same purpose. So there are lessons to be gained by looking at how the movement managed to bring together disparate forces of right and left. Saving Soviet Jews appealed to the most tribal instincts of Jews, but in responding to those instincts, it also linked up with larger, more basic human values of freedom. It’s hard to fathom this confluence today when human rights is consistently used to make an argument against the Jewish state. Nowadays there are many in the Jewish community who perceive these forces – the universal and particular – as somehow irreconcilable. But this story disproves that. The community was undeniably stronger when it was able to fight for a cause that had most of humanity on its side.