Episode 23: The Sarcastic Refusenik

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Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we review and discuss the firsthand testimony of those who lived through the horrors of Communism over the past century.   This is Erik Seligman, your co-host, along with Manuel Castaneda, recording from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon.

Today we’ll be talking about the memoir of a Soviet dissident named Arkady Polishchuk.    Polishchuk was one of the “refuseniks” of the 1970s, the Jews who wanted to leave the USSR and emigrate to Israel.   He tells his story in his memoir “Dancing on Thin Ice:  Travails of a Russian Dissenter”.   Despite the fact that he is discussing deadly serious matters, issues which sent some of his friends for labor camps to years, he writes in a lighthearted, humorous tone that constantly points out the little ironies in Soviet life and philosophy.    Some parts of it sound more like a Kurt Vonnegut novel than a serious memoir talking about life-or-death issues.   But that doesn’t make it any less informative.

Polishchuk spent some time, before he became a dissident of course, working for major state-run Soviet news outlets.   In this position, he got to know that many of the ‘reporters’ his government sent to foreign countries doubled as KGB agents, helping to foment political unrest.   When he decided to apply to leave the country and help other refuseniks, he convinced the government that he had arrangements to reveal the names of those KGB agents if he were to disappear.   This enabled him to be a bit more brazen and outspoken without being punished as hard as many others.   But when he went over the line and actually staged a sit-in in the office of Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader at the time, that was a bit too much, and he was taken to jail for a few weeks.

When he arrived in jail, the guards attempted to set him up to take a beating from the other prisoners.    But he managed to turn the situation around with his clever sense of humor.

LOOK, BOYS! A JEW! were the first words I heard after two policemen opened the cell door to bring me in. The jailers smirked and left me facing my cellmates. Thirty-five pairs of eyes looked at me. I knew that my first reaction would determine my upcoming treatment. 
“Oh, Yisrael, is that you?!” I cried into the dim light. “It feels so good to find a cousin among these Russian thugs!” 
Raucous laughter flooded the stinky cell. A shaggy guy, outraged to the depths of his Slavic soul that I dared to call him a Jew, was climbing down from the upper berth to punish me. I turned back toward the peephole and affably waved my hand to the guards. I knew they stood there, in anticipation. 
To my horror, another inmate crawled out of his roomy den under the lower berth. … After that he shook my hand. The word “mama” was tattooed on his fleshy fingers. The bold exclamation mark on his thumb pointed to his strong filial attachment. “Political?” “Yes,” I said, “but only in Russia. Name me a country where the wish to move to a warmer land is a crime.”
My wiry guardian angel did not react and on the path back to his wooden platform said to his cellmate, “Crawl back into your [f-ing] nest, Birdie.” Judging by the dignity with which he carried himself, my angel had a criminal record that inspired respect.

Polishchuk, Arkady. Dancing on Thin Ice (pp. 11-12). DoppelHouse Press. Kindle Edition. 

The situation of the Jews who wanted to emigrate was very strange.    To have any hope of leaving, they had to apply for an exit visa.   But filing such an application was a demonstration of disloyalty to the Communist Party.    Due to external pressure, and the international detente of the 1970s, a small number of Jews actually were permitted to emigrate each year.   But those who applied and failed were often arrested, sometimes on trumped-up charges that exploited local antisemitism, with their abuse by other inmates actively encouraged.   In this case, having deflected that antisemitism, Polishchuk found himself an object of curiosity.   One guard sought him out for advice on how to make money.    Other inmates peppered him with ridiculous questions based on other silly stereotypes.

“Why do Jews put Christian blood in matzo bread?” 
The question caught me off-guard and I said, “There are many fairy tales about Jews. Who has heard about Jews having horns?” “I did,” said one prisoner. “Me too,” said the frail boy, my neighbor. “So, I’m here, try to find ‘em.” They all laughed. “Well, you laugh now, but when you heard it for the first time, did you laugh?”…
The frail boy began to feel chatty. “Where did they get water in that desert for their matzo?” I responded, “All I know is that for the first two thousand years—poor me!—I was unable to pour your blood into my matzo.” Heat rushed to my face as if I was admitting my Jewish crime. It took effort to look them in the eyes. “Christians didn’t even exist at that time.”

Of course, he always worked in an opportunity to comment on the Communist system as well in these conversations.

“Do you eat matzo bread?” was the next question from deep in the cell. “I will, if you can find some for me. My mother used to buy it in April on the black market…”
“You’re not a Russian; you’re a communist,” giggled an inmate … “A good point—all of us are more communists than Russians. Twenty million Party members. Generation after generation we’ve been reading the same papers and books, watching the same movies, worshiping the same saints. And what do they tell us? ‘We’re good,’ ‘We’re building Paradise,’ … Look at yourselves—are we any good? Aren’t we in Hell already?
So boys, be patient… they will destroy this prison and overnight put a flowerbed here instead. And all of us, when we wake up that morning, won’t be drunks anymore. For the first time in years we’ll brush our teeth, or what’s left of them, and become gardeners taking good care of roses and drinking lemonade for the rest of our no-longer-stinky lives!” And as had happened at the moment of my arrival, raucous laughter flooded the cell. 
“Now,” I concluded, “thanks to the inquisitive questions of my distinguished colleagues, you have learned why Jews want to leave this country. And on this friendly exchange, let’s finish today’s concert. The performer will be given seven years of hard labor in Perm camp #36.”


Here he alluded to another major issue:  the fact that Jews were not the only ones who wanted to leave the poverty and repression of the USSR.   In fact, one effect that intensified local resentment against the refuseniks was the fact that Jews seemed to have this special privilege— a right for a small number of them to leave the country— that was denied to other groups who didn’t have organized international pressure on their side.    Recognizing this inequity, Polishchuk later became a strong advocate for evangelical Christians who wanted to emigrate as well.     

Polishchuk only spent a few weeks in prison, but other refuseniks who didn’t know his KGB secrets or have international prominence were much less fortunate.    One of the scarier chapters of the book discusses the 1974 trial of a Jewish doctor named Mikhail Stern, who was arrested on charges of accepting bribes after his son applied to emigrate to Israel.    Polishchuk and a friend managed to talk their way into his trial and take detailed notes on the proceedings.

Upon arrival in town, Stern and his wife invited Polishchuk to visit.   He discovered that the local police had an almost comical faith in the massive wealth of Jews:

The doctor’s wife Ida said, “I’m sorry we have no decent spoons and forks. The prosecutor Krachenko picked them straight from this table as evidence of our riches, frustrated after a futile two-day search for Jewish gold and diamonds.” She waved her left hand. “Even the penny watch from my wrist.” 
The prosecutor sincerely believed in the hidden wealth of the popular endocrinologist and had dispatched requests to dozens of cities, even in Siberia, to find out whether Stern kept his money in local non-interest bearing savings banks.

The main charges were that Stern had taken small bribes from a number of patients in order to treat them.   They completely ignored the realities of how so-called “free” medical care worked in the USSR:   doctors were not given enough money by the government to pay for even the most basic medicines, so needed to ask the patients to make up the difference.   And doctors in general lived as impoverished a lifestyle as everyone else there— so in cases where they were successful, grateful patients often paid them a little extra.    But as Polishchuk asked around, he found that Stern was one of the more generous doctors, having tried to take as little as possible from his poor patients.   One of them had tried to get in to testify on his behalf, but was rebuked:

“You don’t know him,” insisted the cripple. “He would give his own to others.” “So, why don’t you offer yourself as a witness?” “Didn’t I go? I walked right into the judge’s office. I have nobody to fear. And he said”—here the man pursed his lips portraying [the judge], shook his head awkwardly as if his neck was made of wood, and choked out—“Stern isn’t charged with extorting money from you.”
(pp, 139-140)

A handful of witnesses were questioned in the court, most of whom praised Stern for his medical skills, and the prosecutors could only extract stories of the small amount of money taken with a lot of badgering and threatening.   One mother broke down in tears because she was so grateful to Stern for curing her son, and begged for forgiveness for testifying.  An audience member commented quietly that the amount Stern was said to have “extorted” per month was less than the typical Soviet grocer received in bribes every day.     

Two dozen investigators for three months had been looking in all twenty-five districts of the region for witnesses among his patients. The prosecutor knew that for a physician to survive only on his meager salary was a challenge and many asked patients for money. Forty witnesses, selected by the prosecutors out of two thousand passed in three weeks in front of my eyes in the courtroom. One thousand nine hundred sixty of the questioned patients had insisted that Stern had refused to take money when they begged him.

Bizarrely, the prosecutor tried to back up his charges with an implication that Stern was some kind of sex pervert as well, because he required his patients to undress in order to examine them.   On the final day of the trial, the judge decided at the last minute to schedule the start of court an hour earlier, hoping to trick the doctor into one last legal offense, when he would arrive late at his own trial.   Luckily, in this case he was thwarted by Soviet bureaucratic incompetence:  nobody informed the lawyers that the trial would start early, so it was delayed until the usual time.   Unfortunately, however, for the core charges, Stern was sentenced to 8 years in a labor camp.   

Polishchuk was able to smuggle his account of the trial out to the West, and thanks to international pressure, Stern was released in only 27 months.   But of course, not every refusenik could be lucky enough to have a famous dissident at his trial.

<closing conversation with Manuel>

Anyway, there is plenty more in Polishchuk’s memoir about life of refuseniks in that period of the USSR, and the ironic humor helps to balance out the chilling depiction of travesties of justice like the Stern trial.   We highly recommend checking it out!   As always, you can find show notes and links to our source materials at storiesofcommunism.com .

And this has been your story of Communism for today.