Remembering Vladimir Slepak, a Heroic Refusenik
One of the most important figures in the Soviet Jewry movement has died. Vladimir Slepak, one of the earliest refuseniks and one of the last to be given permission to leave for Israel, died quietly in New York on Thursday. He will be buried in Jerusalem on Monday.
In the pantheon of human rights figures, Slepak has an exalted position. A successful Moscow engineer who lived in a mid rise apartment building on Gorky Street, walking distance from the Kremlin, Slepak risked everything when he decided to apply for an exit visa to immigrate to Israel. Thus, he became a refusenik—one of the early ones—for 17 long years. He lost his job, experienced perpetual harassment, and was ultimately tried and convicted on bogus charges that sent him to five years in exile before finally being permitted to leave for Israel in 1987.
His journey to the homeland began many years earlier when he complained to a relative about one of Stalin's many roundups of Jews on trumped up spying charges. The explanation he got in response was that if you roundup 100 Jews and one of them is a spy, it's better arrest all of them and get one spy than not to arrest them and to let one go. That warped logic didn't sit well with the young Slepak who found this to be a classic violation of human rights.
Like many Soviet Jews, he rediscovered his Jewish identity after the Six Day War. He came to understand that he could never realize the full Jewish experience in the USSR where studying Hebrew, eating Matzah on Pesach, or reading Jewish literature could land you in Siberia. So, he began his long journey to move to his ancestral homeland.
He spoke English well enough to attract many visiting American and European Jews who travelled to the Soviet Union to lend encouragement to the growing refusenik community. He was a source for many western journalists. He spoke by phone to Soviet Jewry activists, myself included, around the world before the Soviets shut off his phone.
While Slepak was a proud Zionist, he had close relationships with the non-Jewish human rights community in the Soviet Union. He was a friend of Andrei Sakharov and others who sought to infuse democratic principles into that autocratic society and maintained an ongoing relationship with them. Indeed, when Slepak was on trial, Sakharov attempted to attend his trial in an effort to highlight Slepak's plight.
>Throughout his long and difficult journey, Volodya, as he was called by his friends, never lost his sense of humor. In the documentary film, “Refusenik,” he tells the story of the time he asked a Soviet emigration department official why he was being denied an exit visa. The official said, “Because in your line of work, you have access to many state secrets.” To which Slepak replied, “That's absurd. Everyone in the West knows that we are 15 years behind them in these areas.” To which the official replied, “Ah, that's the secret.”
I met Slepak for the first time in 1974 when The late Si Frumkin of Los Angeles, Dr. Lou Rosenblum of Cleveland, Bob Wolfe of Miami, and I travelled to Moscow and Leningrad for six days to meet with the refuseniks. In Moscow, a large group of them–a who's who—gathered in an apartment to meet with us. Sharansky, Ida Nudel, Professor Alexander Lerner, Slepak and many others were there. It became clear that the person for whom they all had the greatest respect, and in whom they had the greatest confidence in judgment, was Vladimir Slepak.
He gave us a clear and brilliant assessment of the plight of Soviet Jewry as of that moment. He asked for more outspokenness from the Western Jewish community; more activism on our behalf, and more pressure on the Soviet government. In particular, he and the others urged our support for the Jacskon-Vanik bill in Congress which tied Most Favored Nation status for the USSR to the emigration of Soviet Jews. In the American Jewish community, some questioned the wisdom of that bill fearing it would do more harm than good to the refuseniks and other Soviet Jews. Slepak asked us to disabuse the skeptics of that reticence. “We are asking for support of the Jackson Amendment,” he said. “We are willing to take the risk, what risk are you taking?” To those of us who wanted more action, not less, that was what we were waiting to hear. The message was clear.
In the years that ensued, Slepak became one of the symbols of the Soviet refusenik community. He was a courageous, wise and humble man. He was loved by all who knew him. We were all guided by his pronouncements and requests.
I've met many people in my day who have made a difference for the Jewish community and the world at large. No man sacrificed more, and did more for human rights, than Slepak. When “Refusenik” was premiered at the Jerusalem Film Festival, I travelled to Israel for the event. Slepak was understandably featured prominently in the film, and I wanted to be there as his story and that of the others was told on the big screen. I met Volodya and his wife and human rights partner, Masha, in the lobby of the theater. We embraced and shed some tears. Never has a Sh'hechiyanu” meant more to me than it did on that night. I asked the film's producer, Laura Bialis, to take a picture of me and the Slepak's, which she did. That photo hung in my office where I could see it and be reminded of true courage every day.
Slepak has not been well for a while. Three years ago he moved from Israel to New York to be closer to his family. His passing was not a surprise, but it leaves a great void in our world. He will be laid to rest in Israel—in Jerusalem— for which he longed so much.
For me, Volodya was the personification of the reason we all fought for Soviet Jewry's freedom. We were fighting for him and, through him, for the rest of them. He will be missed, but what he taught us as Jews and as citizens of a bigger world is eternal.