Of Leningrad and St. Petersburg; refuseniks and ISIS

On courage in difficult times.

MEN LAY FLOWERS to commemorate victims of a blast in the St.Petersburg metro.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
MEN LAY FLOWERS to commemorate victims of a blast in the St.Petersburg metro.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When last in Leningrad, Russia, in March 1985, I saw virtually nothing of the city and much more of the sprawling, drab apartment blocks surrounding it.
I memorized the names, addresses, telephone numbers and biographies of the individuals I was visiting, refuseniks all.
It was clear and expected that throughout my two-week stay in the Soviet Union my every move would be followed. As a young Jewish woman carrying “contraband” to regime resisters, I was, knowingly, walking a very fine line.
I participated in a student trip from the London School of Economics and Political Science, where I was a student.
“Rumor” had it that the Soviet government heavily subsidized groups from certain leading academic institutions. They took the long view, and worked hard to establish relationships with certain foreigners, betting that a fair number would enter public life in their home countries and become valuable future “assets” in the epic struggle with capitalism.
I had been well trained in the art of smuggling well-worn Hebrew-English dictionaries, Leon Uris novels and other items that threatened the stability of the Soviet state.
A Soviet Jewry support cell (I just love the sound of that) trained me well, instructing me, among other things, to memorize the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights; not so that I could recite it verbatim but in order to respond with sharp reference to specific clauses when challenged by Soviet authorities.
And yes, it worked.
The Soviets publicly made a great show of honoring international covenants with high ideals while doing anything but that in their brutally repressive country.
A Western interloper had the luxury of facing, at worst, short detention by the KGB and expulsion. A small risk, indeed.
My London “handlers” very sternly advised me not to discuss my visits in Russia with anyone, a warning I took very seriously.
While walking in St. Petersburg last weekend with my cousin, I remarked upon how little I had seen of the city in 1985. I had, unbeknown to both of us, been busy connecting with one of his very best friends from his teen years in Leningrad.
Strolling down Nevsky Prospekt, we reminisced, and I mentioned my numerous visits with one Leningrad family of long-time refuseniks who had suffered horribly. My cousin was shocked. I had never before mentioned their family name to him. The son had been a close friend, he told me. In fact, the son and my cousin were involved in writing and circulating samizdat literature together, the term used then to refer to anything “underground” and anti-Soviet.
His parents feared his imminent arrest and so, in middle age, they left everything and came to Canada.
Nevsky Prospekt is the Fifth Avenue of St. Petersburg and is splendid at this time of year by any measure; a celebration of lights and festive vibes. During the Soviet years, the Gregorian New Year was one of the few holidays – aside from the “Great Strides Forward in the Development of Agricultural Implements” and other such stirring events – that were allowed by the dour regime. Frivolity and fun signaled Western corruption, unless, of course, it was the Communist Party apparatchiks and leaders indulging. In that case, it promoted the glory of the workers.
As I strolled with my cousin, our discussion meandered to the recent foiling of Islamic State (ISIS) attacks planned for Christmas and New Year’s in the city.
Russian media reported on the arrest of a large terrorist cell in the northwest sector of St. Petersburg days earlier, along with stockpiled weapons and chemicals.
Last April, a suicide bomber detonated a vest packed with explosives and shrapnel in a crowded St. Petersburg subway car, killing 15 and wounding scores. The attack is widely speculated to have been the work of ISIS, which reserves a special hatred for all things Putin; hence the focus on the city of his birth. Perhaps more chilling, President Putin was in St. Petersburg on the day of the attack, sending a strong message.
According to locals, security in the city was noticeably intensified during the holiday period, particularly on New Year’s Eve in the vicinity of the grand Palace Square.
On that night, I had the indescribable honor of sitting in the private box, stageside, in the iconic Kapella Concert Hall, watching my brilliant cousin perform as a clarinet soloist, celebrated as the international star he has become, in the place where it resonates most, his hometown of St. Petersburg.
I sat in the box which hosted the last ruler of Imperial Russia, Tsar Nicholas II.
It is the box which President Putin commands when in town. And there I was.  The descendant of viciously persecuted Russian Jews, beaming, as my cousin, the prodigal son, enthralled.
And, as I sat there, I thought of pogroms and genocide and Stalin and doctors and refuseniks and ISIS.
And I thought, with boundless gratitude, of the desperation that drove so many of our ancestors to seek better lives for themselves and their children. For that, we owe them and the world that received us so much, most of all to continue to fight and seek in this new year, 2018.
The author, a former Canadian ambassador to Israel, is a businesswoman residing in Tel Aviv.