Refusenik scientist Alexander Lerner dies at 90

Alexander Lerner, a scientist and leading member of the Soviet refusenik movement who emigrated to Israel, died Monday, July 5. He was 90.

Lerner waged a 17-year struggle to leave the Soviet Union that engaged Israeli and Western leaders, until he was permitted to emigrate to Israel in 1988, visiting San Francisco later that year.

When Lerner applied for permission to go to Israel in 1971, he was fired from his position as head of the Department of Large Systems Control Theory at the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

Lerner, whose textbook “Fundamentals of Cybernetics” remains one of the standard works on the subject, specialized in the connection between electronic systems and human control systems, like the brain. In all, he wrote 12 books and more than 170 scientific papers.

He was born in Vinnitsa, in the former Pale of Jewish Settlement. He gained a diploma in electrical engineering at the Moscow Institute of Energetics in 1936 and a Ph.D. from the same institution in 1939. During World War II, Lerner took part in the construction of a metallurgical factory, using automatic equipment produced in the United States, and served as the chief engineer of the Central Autonomous Laboratory at the Soviet Ministry of Ferrous Metallurgy in Moscow.

He was the first prominent Russian-Jewish scientist to seek to emigrate to Israel. His decision to apply for an Israeli exit permit resulted in the sudden cancellation of the special series of privileges he enjoyed as a senior member of the Soviet elite: a five-room apartment in Moscow, a summer home in the country, two cars and frequent foreign travel.

In 1977, a letter written by a KGB provocateur was published in the Soviet newspaper Izvestiya calling Lerner “the leader of an espionage nest.”

His closest associates in the refusenik movement — Natan Sharansky, Vladimir Slepek and Ida Nudel — were arrested, a fate spared him only because of his stature and advanced age. Before being granted his exit permit, Lerner conducted seminars on scientific and mathematical subjects for other Soviet refuseniks and wrote scientific papers.

He finally arrived in Israel on Jan. 27, 1988, together with his son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter.

Shortly afterwards, Lerner accepted an appointment in the mathematics department at the Weizmann Institute of Science where he pursued a number of projects, including the development of an artificial heart and the construction of a mathematical model to predict the behavior of developed societies.

Lerner visited the Bay Area in 1988 at the behest of the Bay Area Committee of the American Committee for the Weizmann Institute of Science. At that time, he told the Jewish Bulletin in an interview that he believed Russian Jews should be allowed to settle in the United States as well as in Israel.

Of the artificial heart project that he was working on — which he bet would become a multibillion-dollar industry — he said, “It will be a good contribution because it’s not only very important research [and] not only a scientific problem, it’s also business.”

He is survived by daughter Sonya Levin and son Vladimir. Lerner’s wife, Judith, died in 1981, during his years of struggle to make aliyah.

Alexandra J. Wall, staff writer at j., and The Associated Press contributed to this report.