Back in the USSR: Israeli Knesset Speaker's emotional Russia return

On his trip to Moscow, Edelstein visits the stations of his life as a refusenik and discusses the hardship and courage.

KNESSET SPEAKER Yuli Eldelstein holds his birth certificate and a union membership card, which were seized from him when he was jailed as a Prisoner of Zion 33 years ago (photo credit: ISRAELI EMBASSY MOSCOW)
KNESSET SPEAKER Yuli Eldelstein holds his birth certificate and a union membership card, which were seized from him when he was jailed as a Prisoner of Zion 33 years ago
MOSCOW - Emotions were high throughout Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein’s visit to Moscow this week. Sometimes, Edelstein seemed to be at a loss for words, but when he found them, he said things like “mirage” or “not in my wildest dreams.”
What could describe the feeling of standing before the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament, and speaking in Hebrew, 33 years after he was sentenced to hard labor in the gulag for teaching that very same language?
His speech was only the first of a series of touching moments on Wednesday. The Knesset and Israeli Embassy in Russia organized a day that may as well have been titled: “Yuli Edelstein - This is Your Life.” The delegation made stop after stop at sites from his life as a refusenik, and Edelstein was a fount of stories and details.
Moscow Choral Synagogue
The synagogue formerly known as Arkhipova has a yellow facade, with the message “This is nothing but a house of the Lord!” emblazoned above the door.
Edelstein first walked into the main sanctuary, where ornate chandeliers glowed, and exchanged a few words with Russian Chief Rabbi Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, who said the Gematria (the numeric value of the Hebrew letters) of USSR, is equal to that of Egypt. As in, Soviet Jews were slaves like in Egypt.
He then moved on to the smaller hall in which he and his fellow refuseniks would meet and pray alongside older members of the Jewish community. He recounted how Yom Kippur prayers ended in their synagogue. Normally, Jews chant “next year in Jerusalem” loudly and repeatedly; in Soviet Russia, the Jews would anticipate the moment when the time came to say those words – but they would whisper them to each other.
Edelstein said he wasn’t scared or nervous when he came to the synagogue. Having come to religious observance after Zionism, he had already been denied the right to make aliya, so he was already being watched by the authorities.
Yuli Edelstein prays at the Western Wall after his release from the Russian gulag in 1987 (KNESSET SPEAKER YULI EDELSTEIN'S OFFICE)Yuli Edelstein prays at the Western Wall after his release from the Russian gulag in 1987 (KNESSET SPEAKER YULI EDELSTEIN'S OFFICE)
Edelstein’s former home on Leningradsky Prospect
The Israeli delegation was unable to enter the apartment building where Edelstein was arrested, but there was plenty to see from the yard behind a massive apartment block. Edelstein remarked that the entrance to the building looked the same as it did 33 years ago, the last time he was there, when he lived with his parents, wife, daughter and brother.
Edelstein retold the story of his arrest on a Friday in August 1984. Several hours before Shabbat, plainclothes police came to his apartment to search the place. This had happened several times before – refuseniks would call it “cleanup,” because the police would take away their Hebrew books – so Edelstein did not suspect this time would be different.
As Shabbat approached, Edelstein’s father went out to the balcony to watch out for expected guests. He was able to signal to them that there was trouble and to head them off.
Meanwhile, the police found their excuse after Edelstein’s wife Tanya lit Shabbat candles. They planted a matchbox of their own with drugs in the apartment. At that point, it was clear that this was not a regular “cleanup” visit. Edelstein was taken to jail until his trial, nearly four months later.
Edelstein also took the opportunity to thank and commend the courage of Diaspora Jews who visited him and other refuseniks in the Soviet Union and brought them books and religious materials, at risk to their own safety.
The courtroom where Edelstein was sentenced
The head judge of the local courthouse surprised Edelstein with two documents that had been confiscated when he was sent to the Gulag: his original birth certificate and his labor union card.
On this visit the delegation entered a small, stuffy courtroom with a giant cage. The court spokesman said they tried to make it look as much as it did in 1984 as they could; but when when Edelstein walked in, he immediately said the cage hadn’t been there.
That didn’t make the story any less dramatic. The Knesset speaker joked that this official visit wasn’t the first time the streets of Moscow were closed off in his honor – in order to keep anyone from seeing him on his way to the courtroom, traffic had been stopped when he went to trial, as well. During the brief procedure, the seats in the courtroom were filled with people whose job it was to make sure there wasn’t any space for Edelstein’s supporters.
Edelstein recounted how, at the beginning of his trial, the judge demanded he take his hat off, and he replied no, for religious reasons. The judge pointed at the hammer and sickle emblem of the Soviet Union, as if to say that’s not a good enough reason.
His lawyer admitted that he couldn’t actually help him, but was willing to pass messages between him and his family. The defense was mostly ignored by the judge, and the lawyer, who had 30 years of experience, grew increasingly frustrated and shouted at the judge.
Edelstein’s wife, Tanya, who died in 2014, wrote how things unfolded, and the transcript told the tale of a show trial. The witnesses told inconsistent stories, and although the court admitted there was insufficient evidence that Edelstein used drugs, he was convicted of drug charges.
When the judge allowed Edelstein to address the court, he said: “I hope justice will be done here, but if not, my people and my God will help me.” Speaking to the delegation, Edelstein added: “Justice was not done, but my people and my God did indeed help me.”
He’d been in jail for a few days before the trial, but Edelstein remembered that it was Hanukka, and as he was led out of the room, he shouted to his wife: “What candle is it?” The answer: The second.
Butyrka Prison
That night, in cell 138 at Butyrka Prison, a 150-year-old fortress in the center of Moscow where many Soviet political prisoners were sent before Siberia, Edelstein came as close to lighting Hanukka candles as he could. He lit two matches, said the bracha, and held on to them until they burned his fingertips.
“Then I spent the next two hours convincing the other inmates in my cell that I wasn’t crazy,” he quipped.
Like his Hanukka story, many of Edelstein’s recollections had a hassidic quality to them, reminiscent of the tales told of rebbes of yore resisting antisemitic decrees. He spoke of many instances in which he went to great lengths to observe Jewish tradition.
At the time of his arrest, Edelstein told the guard that he was not allowed to speak to anyone before his morning prayers – not a tradition he actually adheres to – and that he could not pray without religious materials. He insisted on this, and that is how he was able to sneak a siddur and tefillin into prison.
The one time Edelstein lost his cool, he recounted, was when his tefillin were found – his siddur remained hidden long after – and a guard broke them. Edelstein pounced on him and was sent to solitary confinement for 10 days.
Edelstein was in surprisingly good spirits revisiting the prison. He mused that he didn’t know how good he had it while he was there, because he didn’t know what the gulag would be like.
The stench of body odor hung nauseatingly heavy in the air, with scarce ventilation at many of the stations in Butyrka that the group visited. As far as Edelstein is concerned, today’s criminals are spoiled compared to back then. He lived with 39 other inmates in a cell and the toilet was exposed in the room; today, his former cell has 22 beds and a separate bathroom. Plus, they have a refrigerator and an electric kettle – the lap of luxury.
More than one official Edelstein encountered on his tour said he was an example of how someone who went to prison can go far if he applies himself. It must have taken a lot of willpower for him not to arch an eyebrow. Then again, he was probably used to Russians lumping him in with criminals.
Edelstein’s story, of course, is not a typical rehabilitated-prisoner success story, but much more. As he said, his trip was “coming full circle twice – once for myself and once for the Jewish people.” The former Prisoner of Zion, returning to the scene of his “crime” of teaching Hebrew, proudly spoke in that language to the Russian parliament as the representative of the State of Israel.