Politics: Yuli Edelstein’s Independence

Diaspora affairs minister celebrated the 25th anniversary of his own liberation on Independence Day.

Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein_370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein_370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
When Yuli Edelstein was released from a grueling Soviet labor camp on May 4, 1987, and the veteran prisoner of Zion was finally allowed to make aliya, he had no idea that it happened to be Israel’s Independence Day on the Jewish calendar.
But over the years, as Edelstein transformed from refusenik in Russia to Diaspora affairs and public diplomacy minister in Jerusalem, the coincidence of his own liberation and Israel’s falling on the same day became more and more meaningful and all the more reason to celebrate.
“To be honest, when I was told it was Yom Ha’atzmaut in my first step out of the camp, I knew it was very symbolic, but I was too overwhelmed to really appreciate it,” Edelstein says in an interview at his office in Jerusalem’s congested Givat Shaul neighborhood, marking the 25th anniversary of his release.
Edelstein recalls every detail of the steps that led to his arrest on false charges of drug possession, the conditions in Soviet prisons and labor camps and the efforts that led to him finally coming home. He has been told countless times that he must eventually write a book, but for now he is content with telling the world the story of his own independence via The Jerusalem Post.
When Edelstein left his home near Moscow to spend summers with his grandfather in what is now Chernivtsi, Ukraine, he never asked him to teach him the Hebrew that the very secular old man had studied religiously every day. But when his grandfather died, 21-year-old Yuli, who was a student of languages, decided to take his Hebrew instruction book and study it to pay homage to him.
He later met a veteran Hebrew teacher by chance and joined his study group. When Edelstein secretly started teaching Hebrew in 1979 and applied for an exit visa to Israel, the Soviets said no and he became a dissident or, as they were called at the time, refusenik.
The Soviet authorities did not like the network of Jews teaching each other Hebrew, especially the meetings of 20 to 30 Hebrew teachers on Saturday nights. The KGB gradually started detaining Hebrew teachers on their way to class.
“When you miss class three times because you are taken to the police station, the students stop coming,” Edelstein recalls. “The police started visiting during lessons because of ‘complaints of noise from neighbors’ and confiscating teaching materials. When the KGB was settling unsettled accounts, there would be trumped-up charges that were blatant with no real excuses. Our friends, for instance, were arrested for having a gun they didn’t have.”
Edelstein married, returned to his Jewish roots and became Shabbat observant. Before Shabbat on Friday evening August 24, 1984, he heard a knock on the door. When he refused to open the door for the police, they broke in.
The officers said they had come to search his apartment for a particular case. Seeing a box of matches for lighting candles, they informed him that they could say it was for drugs.
The police arrested Edelstein 10 days later on charges of drug possession without intention to sell. They took him to a police station for a three-month investigation during which he was treated like a regular criminal.
When a guard started breaking his tefillin, Edelstein tried to attack him, but before he could hit him, he was thrown to the floor. He was put in solitary confinement for 10 days and went on a hunger strike. Whenever he was questioned, investigators did not know what to ask and he did not know how to respond because there was no real case against him.
A prominent non-Jewish lawyer his wife hired to defend him initially told Edelstein to cooperate with authorities and enable him to prove he was wrongly accused. On December 19, 1984, which happened to be the first day of Hanukka, Edelstein’s show trial began.
“That was the only day I ever felt really important,” Edelstein says. “I was supposedly just a little criminal accused of drug possession. But I was driven to court like a VIP. They closed a huge building across the street from the court and made it illegal to park on the street that day. The court was surrounded by 200 policemen, and Western journalists and refuseniks were not allowed in.”
The trial went on for five or six hours. At the beginning, Edelstein’s lawyer proved the testimony of purported witnesses could not have been correct, but over time he saw that the judge had no interest in the facts and kept on attacking him.
When the judge announced that Edelstein had been given the maximum three-year sentence for his crime, he responded by defiantly declaring: “My God and my people will help me get to Israel.” He was taken to several prisons and labor camps. Travel between them took place by notorious prisoners’ trains. They traveled for three days with 18 people and sometimes even as many as 24 in a cell intended for four. The prisoners were lucky if they were allowed out to remove their waste twice a day.
He was taken to a dirty, snowy Siberian labor camp near Lake Baikal. He worked in the woods, cutting trees and using antiquated, unsafe machines to make them into railroad ties.
“There was a shortage of food and we were all tired and cold,” Edelstein says. “The best news was when it was too foggy or snowy, and we couldn’t work because the guards were afraid of people running away. From time to time, they checked to make sure I wasn’t distributing Zionist ideas to the prisoners who were with me who were all gentiles anyway.”
When he was badly injured and taken to the nearest hospital, officials there were told that it lacked enough security, so he had to be taken to a far-off labor camp that had a hospital. He says he owes his life to the determination of his wife, who continuously fought for him.
“They hoped I would die,” he says. “But when it got out to my wife that I was injured, she started a campaign for me. Only then did they send me real doctors who operated on me. When they wanted to send me back to the camp, she wrote the attorney-general that she would go on another hunger strike. Had I been sent back there, I think I would have died.”
Edelstein was sent instead to an less grueling camp in Novosibirsk. He gradually heard that changes were taking place in the Soviet Union.
On the day that Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko died, two prisoners in Edelstein’s camp got into a fight, which was a normal occurrence. When all the prisoners were badly beaten, it turned out that the reason was that there had been a high alert because of Chernenko’s death and the succession of Mikhail Gorbachev.
“After Gorbachev came to power, I passed by a TV in the hospital and overheard a report that 30 so-called refuseniks were allowed to move to Israel,” he recalls. “I looked at the TV in shock.”
His wife was allowed to visit him twice a year for an hour in the accompaniment of a policeman. Speaking in a foreign language, touching and delivering anything were forbidden. But she managed to tell him about several of their friends who had been allowed out of the country.
Initially, when he came before parole boards, prison authorities called him disrespectful and said he had shown no sign of repenting. But when he approached the end of his second year in prison, the tone at a hearing was completely different.
He could have been released then, but he refused to admit to the crime he had not committed. Meanwhile, all the other Prisoners of Zion were released.
Eight months later, a Moscow court held a hearing on Edelstein’s case without his knowledge and decided that although his conviction was correct, his sentence should have been for two years and eight months. Even on the day of his scheduled release, he and his wife were put through bureaucratic nightmares, but several hours later that day he was set free.
He did not waste any time. He immediately renewed his request for an exit visa. He received the visa within a month, and three weeks after that the Edelsteins left for Israel via Vienna.
It was then that he received his first dose of Israeli politics and bureaucracy. The politicians who wanted to greet him at Ben-Gurion Airport said Friday was not a good day for them. Then a general strike started in Israel, preventing planes from landing.
He was allowed into the country only thanks to the teachers’ union, which complained that it would be improper to prevent a teacher from making aliya. When he arrived, Channel 1, which was the only channel at the time, did not cover it because its staff was striking.
“When the plane landed, we cried and all the passengers looked at us,” he says. “For many years after that, whenever I arrived in Israel, it made me feel something in my stomach.”
The Edelsteins were greeted at the airport by politicians, rabbis and former Prisoners of Zion. They were received by thousands of people when they arrived at the Western Wall.
“That was the moment I finally realized I was here in Israel,” he says.
The Edelsteins have now been married for 30 years. Their daughter, who was born in Russia, lives on a moshav in the Sharon region. Their son, who is a Sabra, recently finished his army service in the Golani Brigade, which helped Edelstein come full circle because when he applied for an exit visa, he told people he wanted to be a paratrooper in the IDF.
Edelstein returned to Russia for the first time in 1989 as part of a World Jewish Congress delegation for the opening of the first Jewish cultural center in Moscow since before the Soviet Union cracked down on Judaism. When the group met Russian Foreign Ministry officials, they joked with him that getting approval for him leaving the country was much more complicated than letting him back in.
When Edelstein returned in 1997 as minister of immigrant absorption, he visited a Moscow couple who had been like second parents to him.
“Sometimes when I visited them years ago I warned them I thought I was being followed,” he says. “This time, when I came as a minister with a police escort, I said the same thing.”
He describes his quick rise from prisoner to cabinet minister as a real-life Cinderella story. He says he always reflects on it ahead of Independence Day and the anniversary of his release, pondering how difficult it is for him to separate his personal liberation from that of the country.
“For me, Yom Ha’atzmaut is very real,” he says. “It’s not just a feeling of general independence. It’s personal independence against all odds. There were officers in the camps who told me they would personally see to it that I would never get to Israel. People born in Israel maybe take our independence for granted and cannot understand. But I see it as something that might not have happened but did, thank God.”