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A term referring to Jews who as of the early 1970s applied to leave the Soviet Union for Israel and were refused permission to emigrate. Often remaining refused for long periods—in some cases, nearly 20 years—the Jewish activists who were denied exit permits inevitably tended to have great impact on the broader Jewish national movement in the USSR. At the same time, some refuseniks had no involvement in the Jewish movement, and refusals were not necessarily linked to specifically Jewish activity.

It was in the mid-1950s, in the context of the post-Stalin thaw, that Jews began to apply for exit visas to Israel. The majority of applicants came from the “western territories” annexed in World War II—Western Ukraine and Belorussia; the Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia; Transcarpathia, Bessarabia, and northern Bucovina—and most requests for emigration were systematically refused. Until the late 1960s, Jews who sought to leave did so on an individual basis: they had no means of publicizing their refusal or of operating collectively to pressure the regime. There was therefore no context in which to coin a term to denote their status. However, by 1970 the situation had changed, given the rise in nationalist and other political dissident activity, as well as the opportunities offered by détente, which made the Soviet leadership more sensitive to Western pressures and opinion.

Faced with a nearly untenable existence, the refuseniks adopted dissident forms of activity (indeed, several of them had been active in the general dissident movement before joining the Jewish one). Among other endeavors, they established contact with individuals and organizations outside the USSR. Many refuseniks became household names in the West and their plight provoked a major outcry against the Soviet Union in the United States, Israel, and other countries. Through their contacts, refuseniks were able to publicize their harassment by the KGB; their dismissal from work or demotion to junior and menial jobs; their economic plight, including the loss of their apartments; and the discomfort and opprobrium to which their families, particularly their children, were subjected.

All refuseniks had to cope in one way or another with the uncertainties the future held for them in the Soviet Union: For how long would they be detained? What arguments could be made to ensure success in their next application for an exit visa? Should they go public and make their plight known? How were they to make ends meet while waiting? Some refuseniks, especially in the early 1970s, resorted to acts of audacity, such as a planned airplane hijacking, thwarted in June 1970, and demonstrations at the USSR Supreme Soviet Presidium and other Communist icons. Their most common form of group activity was the study of Hebrew. Small, organized language circles, which also devoted attention to Jewish history and culture, mushroomed in a number of cities toward the end of the 1960s.

The refuseniks were a heterogeneous group. While some individuals had had reason to expect their emigration applications to be rejected, others seem to have been denied for no apparent reason. In any case, the authorities never explained their rationale for accepting or refusing applications. The most common reason given for refusal was an applicant’s alleged access to state secrets; another response was lack of permission from close relatives (usually parents or former spouses); but often the reason was simply “unknown.” Most likely, the main calculation behind the refusals was to deter other potential applicants. There seems to have been some difference in the handling of applications across the various republics and regions—in Ukraine, for example, there were fewer refusals in the western region than in Kiev or Odessa—but it is unclear whether this was the result of local or central policy. As of 1980, the number of refusals increased significantly as Soviet authorities clamped down on emigration, primarily because it seemed to be jeopardizing internal stability and also because with the end of détente there was no longer a need to use emigration as a carrot vis-à-vis the United States.

The individuals whose applications were rejected had not anticipated playing a leadership role in the Jewish national movement in the USSR; in fact, the majority had not previously been linked to it at all. Yet, brought together by a common destiny—the refusal of an exit permit, and all the concomitant deprivations—individuals possessing leadership qualities or a heightened Jewish awareness took up the cause previously pursued by an earlier generation of activists, most of whom had emigrated in 1968 and 1969.

These new leaders inherited a legacy of struggle and the skeleton of an organization. Unlike their predecessors, many were intellectuals and scientists, some eminent in their fields. They were accustomed to expressing themselves publicly and often had foreign contacts. Their professional achievements in the face of discrimination had proved their stamina and determination, and they now applied their skills to exploiting the new circumstances to the utmost. A number of refusenik scientists conducted seminars to enable them to keep up with the latest scientific developments. Despite harassment—telephones were disconnected, foreign mail intercepted, and organizers arrested—these seminars persisted from the mid-1970s to the late 1980s.

In addition to scientific material, the refuseniks’ seminars also devoted attention to Jewish culture and history. Although mainstream refuseniks remained secular, they were attracted by Jewish tradition, especially by the festivals. Jewish history and the Bible, which they perceived as the basis of the Jewish national tradition, appeared more relevant to them in their current situation than Russian culture, a culture that frequently reflected and underscored their humiliation and discrimination.

For the most part, neither the policy of refusing exit permits to a number of would-be Jewish emigrants nor the dubious criteria for doing so changed substantially over the years. However, emigration did experience a decline in 1974, subsequently rising to unprecedented heights in 1978 and 1979, and shrinking once more in the 1980s, when it became increasingly difficult to obtain exit permits. In that decade, the trend of issuing fewer exit permits was accompanied by a policy of not alienating applicants for emigration, enabling them rather to reacclimatize and even ameliorate their position—a measure intended to lessen pressure on the regime domestically and from abroad. (This leniency did not apply to the remaining refuseniks from the 1970s, who continued to be harassed and persecuted.)

The composition of the refusenik community changed radically once the majority sought to leave for the West rather than for Israel, that is, as of 1976–1977, although officially all applicants were obligated to request visas for the latter. The percentages of those who chose the West first exceeded 50 percent in 1977 and continued to comprise the majority until 1989. Most refuseniks in the 1980s were simply Jews who had filed applications to leave as of late 1979, when the clampdown began, and who desired primarily to leave the Soviet Union, rather than to reach a Jewish national home.

In the 1980s, the number of refuseniks was far larger than in the previous decade, when there were probably never more than 2,000 at any given moment (at least until 1979). By 1986, there were two or three times as many—according to some accounts, more than 10,000. Yet, it was the hard-core refusenik community—and those who had prepared the ground before them—that made Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union a fundamental issue of the cold war and of American–Soviet negotiations in the 1970s and 1980s, and laid the groundwork for the major period of Jewish emigration in the 1990s.

Suggested Reading

Mark Iakovlevich Azbel’, Refusenik: Trapped in the Soviet Union (London, 1982); Petrus Buwalda, They Did Not Dwell Alone: Jewish Emigration from the Soviet Union, 1967–1990 (Washington, D.C., 1997); Yaacov Ro’i, “Soviet Policy toward Jewish Emigration: An Overview,” in Russian Jews on Three Continents: Migration and Resettlement, ed. Noah Lewin-Epstein, Yaacov Ro’i, and Paul Ritterband, pp. 45–67 (London, 1997); Yaacov Ro’i, “Religion, Israel and the Development of Soviet Jewry’s National Consciousness, 1967–1991,” in Jewish Life after the USSR, ed. Zvi Gitelman, pp. 13–26 (Bloomington, Ind., 2003).