Tri­umph Over Tyran­ny: The Hero­ic Cam­paigns That Saved 2,000,000 Sovi­et Jews

Philip Spiegel; Natan Sha­ran­sky, fwd.
  • Review
By – January 6, 2012

The author, a San Fran­cis­co activist, was pas­sion­ate­ly involved in the move­ments for Russ­ian Jew­ish emi­gra­tion and Russ­ian human rights. He pro­vides an account of Jew­ish life under the Bol­she­viks and indi­cates that Jew­ish dis­sent is as old as the Sovi­et regime. Cat­a­lysts for the dra­mat­ic Jew­ish awak­en­ing were the reestab­lish­ment of a Jew­ish state, the Six Day War, an abortive plot by Russ­ian Jews to high­jack a plane to escape, the refusenik issue, and a num­ber of show tri­als. Spiegel empha­sizes that among the Russ­ian Jews and those in the West who sought to help them, the cam­paigns were main­ly grass­roots efforts. Sovi­et Jews whose sto­ries he tells include Alexan­der Lern­er, Vladimir Slepak, Yosef Mendele­vich, Syl­va Zal­man­son, and Ida Nudel. Indi­vid­ual chap­ters are devot­ed to Natan Sha­ran­sky and the great non-Jew­ish fig­ure Andrei Sahkarov. The author believes that the Amer­i­can Jew­ish estab­lish­ment was too cau­tious. How­ev­er, he prais­es Rab­bi Abra­ham Hes­chel and Elie Wiesel for their lead­er­ship. New orga­ni­za­tions, notably the Stu­dent Strug­gle for Sovi­et Jew­ry, and local and state coun­cils, took up the chal­lenge with demon­stra­tions, let­ters, per­son­al con­tacts, boy­cotts, and approach­es to the influential. 

The plight of Sovi­et Jews, who were for­bid­den to know and to prac­tice their tra­di­tions and to emi­grate, caught the imag­i­na­tion of cler­gy such as Father Robert Dri­nan and con­gres­sion­al lead­ers Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Charles Vanik and Sen­a­tor Hen­ry Jack­son, who co-authored leg­is­la­tion link­ing trade priv­i­leges to Jew­ish emi­gra­tion. Amer­i­can pres­i­dents and their sec­re­taries of state inter­ced­ed. The authors’ com­ments on the Rea­gan, Ford, and Carter admin­is­ra­tions will be of inter­est. He also quotes from mem­oirs of Sovi­et lead­ers in pow­er dur­ing the strug­gle. Mobi­liza­tion of pro­fes­sion­al groups, espe­cial­ly med­ical and sci­en­tif­ic, con­tributed to the campaign’s suc­cess. A sym­pa­thet­ic press, which kept the world informed, was an indis­pens­able element. 

Spiegel dis­cuss­es con­flicts with­in the Sovi­et Jew­ry move­ments. Israeli-spon­sored efforts on occa­sion were at odds with those orig­i­nat­ing in the Dias­po­ra. Some activists wished to assist only refuseniks yearn­ing for Israel; oth­ers insist­ed that emi­grees be giv­en free­dom of choice in des­ti­na­tion. A split devel­oped between those who wished to con­cen­trate on emi­gra­tion and those who endorsed a human rights cam­paign for all Sovi­et citizens. 

With the breakup of the Sovi­et Union, the activists’ mis­sion changed. Sup­port for reset­tle­ment and absorp­tion con­tin­ued. The move­ments and West­ern groups became advo­cates for Jews who remained in a Rus­sia shad­owed by nation­al­is­tic and chau­vin­is­tic forces.” 

This title is a ver­i­ta­ble who’s who of the Russ­ian Jew­ry move­ments. Sad­ly, many of the earnest and hero­ic indi­vid­u­als list­ed are almost for­got­ten. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the nar­ra­tive is often repet­i­tive and even­tu­al­ly drags. The chronol­o­gy lacks a high degree of clar­i­ty. Sen­a­tor Tom Harkin of Iowa is iden­ti­fied in the text and index as Sen­a­tor Tim Harkin. Despite those flaws, inter­est­ed read­ers should find Tri­umph over Tyran­ny absorb­ing. This is a pop­u­lar work in the best sense of the term. Black and white pho­tos, glos­sary, index, notes.

Lib­by K. White is direc­tor of the Joseph Mey­er­hoff Library of Bal­ti­more Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty in Bal­ti­more, MD and gen­er­al edi­tor of the Asso­ci­a­tion of Jew­ish Libraries Newsletter.

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