Some Russian Jews still cant leave, BACJRR says

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Bay Aarea Jews no longer stand outside the Russian Consulate in San Francisco on Sunday afternoons chanting "Let My People Go!" The majority of people for whose rights these protesters were fighting, after all, have been allowed to leave the former Soviet Union.

But for various reasons, some refuseniks remain in the former Soviet Union. That fact has not been lost on such advocacy organizations as the San Francisco-based Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal.

The council is rejoicing in the release of Evgenya Kunina of St. Petersburg, a refusenik for more than two years who recently received permission from Russian authorities to leave. Last week she joined her husband and son in New York, where the pair has been living for over a year.

What is so striking about Kunina's case, activists say, is who she is — not a political radical of any kind, but by all accounts an ordinary Russian Jewish citizen forced even in these times to undergo an ordeal as stressful as those endured by Jews who tried to emigrate during the Soviet regime.

Today's refuseniks are often denied permission to emigrate not by the government — which in the chaotic atmosphere of the former Soviet Union barely exists in some places — but by low-level bureaucrats who may be either anti-Semitic or simply trying to assert their personal authority.

"It has nothing to do with government policy. It's down to the individual," explained Simon Klarfeld, executive director of the BACJRR, which has been extensively involved in Kunina's case.

"So much power is being given to the individual; they're grasping onto that power, that little bit of strength."

That appears to have been the case with Kunina, 56, an engineer at a firm that contracts with the Russian Defense Ministry. Like all Russians wishing to emigrate, Kunina had to acquire exit documents from her employer before she could get permission to leave the country.

Such documents, Klarfeld explained, state that a person does not have access to "state secrets," or information that could be detrimental to the state.

By the time Kunina asked to leave Russia, many of her colleagues and even supervisors had already been granted permission to leave.

But when Kunina approached her former supervisor, he refused to give her the requisite documents without receiving money in return. Subsequently, an article published in the Russian newspaper Nevskoye Vremya reported that a chief executive of Kunina's company had been arrested, charged with taking bribes in exchange for preparing exit documents.

In Klarfeld's words, Kunina fell victim to old-style accusations that she knew state secrets as well as the newer reality of post-Communist corruption and bribery. Given Russia's current economic climate, that sort of bribery is widespread, Klarfeld said.

"On the one hand, you could be very harsh and judgmental about these people who are bribing," the BACJRR director said. "But if you understand the economic conditions in Russia today, it's understandable that anybody who sees the possibility of money is going to run at it."

Kunina was finally allowed to leave Russia after the BACJRR, in conjunction with other activists, mounted a public campaign on her behalf that included letters and telegrams to U.S. and Russian elected officials. American firms with commercial connections in St. Petersburg joined the campaign to secure the refusenik's release.

Currently, the BACJRR maintains a list of about 25 refuseniks, most of whom reside in Russia, who have, like Kunina, been refused exit for state secrecy reasons. While the names on the list change from time to time, Klarfeld said the number of names rarely reduces in size. The organization also has a list of others who were refused for other reasons, or even arbitrarily, with no reason given at all.

"With Russian and American cosmonauts shaking hands in space, what secrets can these refuseniks possibly have?" Klarfeld asked, alluding to those on the former list. "Clearly, this is no reason to refuse anyone emigration anymore."

Those whom the BACJRR calls "arbitrary refuseniks" are sometimes refused exit by people who believe that the massive exodus of Jews will lead to a cultural vacuum, he said. Politicians have recently talked publicly about ending immigration for just that reason.

"If you look now at theater in Russia, it's falling apart; orchestras are just appalling," Klarfeld said. "All the intelligentsia have left or are considering emigrating, and there's enormous concern."

Of course, with the Communist Party's strong showing in this week's elections, there's now concern on the Jewish side that the doors to immigration could eventually shut altogether.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.