Former refusenik sees conditions getting worse for ex-Soviet Jews

The number of anti-Semitic incidents in the former Soviet Union is steadily rising, according to one expert, who says his former country "is not a good place for Jews. They should leave."

Leonid Stonov should know. His father, a professional writer, was jailed by Stalin for ties to an anti-Nazi group. He himself was stripped of his advanced degrees in biology for attempting to help himself and other refuseniks leave Russia. After 11 years, Stonov got out. But he still remembers those left behind.

Currently international director of the Union of Councils, also called the American Jewish Human Rights Organization, he has helped form six human rights bureaus across his former country, and plans are under way for another such office in Latvia. He formed the first while still living in Moscow in 1990.

Today those six bureau offices respond to thousands of complaints each year, with help and funding from American agencies, including the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal.

Stonov, who lives in Chicago, was in the Bay Area last week to meet with BACJRR leaders about his human rights work.

The small offices in the former Soviet Union are staffed by three to five workers each and aided by a network of 25 volunteers. They strive to help all those at risk of hate crimes or violations.

"We don't only monitor anti-Semitism and freedom of movement but all human rights. We want to force the establishment of democracy, which is good for all people and especially the Jews" as prime victims, Stonov says.

While he says government-sponsored anti-Semitism has decreased slightly since the breakdown of communism, Stonov is concerned that with dozens of new nationalistic parties forming, anti-Jewish propaganda is burgeoning. What's more, he says, it has become difficult to try crimes committed against Jews. Often the case is dismissed before it ever goes to trial. And when cases are tried, he says, the state, wanting to cloak such problems, chalks them up to "hooliganism."

The main function of the bureaus is to force the courts to hear human rights cases by publicizing them both in the former Soviet Union and in the West.

In one instance, the Ukraine office helped a Jewish professor who was accused of taking bribes for grades. "He is absolutely innocent," says Stonov, who insists the university was just looking for a reason to fire the Jewish teacher. He was dismissed, but with the help of the human rights agency, the case is being reconsidered.

In Uzbekistan, a young Jewish man was accused of murder. He was tortured so badly while in custody that he "lost his mind, didn't recognize his own mother," according to Stonov. "Everybody knew he was innocent, even the investigator."

Last year, he and his mother were allowed to emigrate to Israel.

"I love this work," says Stonov, recounting his group's victories. At 65, he isn't planning to retire. Instead, he has taken on several new projects, including the presidency of the American Association of Jews From the Former USSR. The New York-based agency helps resettle emigres.

Chief among his concerns about newcomers are the new welfare reforms, which will force legal immigrants in the U.S. to wait up to a year for benefits. At a Washington, D.C., rally planned for April, Stonov and his group will also fight for immigrants over 65, who they believe should be allowed to take the citizenship exam in their native language.

He is also working to keep emigration to this country a viable option for former Soviets.

"I love this country," he says. "Here, there is freedom, you are the owner of your own fate. There's a well-organized Jewish community. It's easy to be involved in Jewish life."