- Refusenik by Mark Ya. Azbel
Hamish Hamilton, 513 pp, £9.95, February 1982, ISBN 0 241 10633 8
I first came across the name M. Ya. Azbel in about 1956. He was one of the three authors of a very remarkable paper, published in the Russian Journal of Experimental and Theoretical Physics, showing how the electrical resistance of a very pure and perfect crystal of a metal might be expected to vary with direction in a high magnetic field at a very low temperature. This paper was a decisive breakthrough in the electron theory of metals, which was my own scientific specialty. It was not surprising to see the same name attached to other papers of similar brilliance, or to hear, later, that Azbel had moved from Kharkhov to Moscow. Some of my scientific colleagues who visited Moscow in the Sixties mentioned him as one of the most stimulating members of the Landau Institute for Theoretical Physics, where he was chairman of a department; he was also a professor at Moscow University. In 1973, I heard he had applied for a visa to go to Israel. The plight of Jewish ‘refuseniks’in the Soviet Union was becoming a serious human rights issue at that time, so it was natural enough for me to join the campaign on behalf of this Russian ‘opposite number’. We sent letters and telegrams to various Soviet dignitaries, and I even spoke to Azbel on the telephone, direct from Bristol to Moscow, when a group of refuseniks were on a fortnight’s hunger strike to draw attention to their situation.
Most of the refuseniks had lost their regular scientific jobs, and were deliberately excluded from institutes, universities and libraries. As time went on, they found it more and more difficult to keep up their scientific expertise and interests, so Alexander Voronel, another physicist, set up a regular ‘Sunday Seminar’ in his apartment. There, a score or so of scientific refuseniks would meet and give talks about their scientific work. Occasionally they would be visited by sympathetic Western scientists who happened to be in Moscow on other business. In the summer of 1974, they had tried to expand the seminar into an International Scientific Symposium, but this was frustrated by the authorities. The foreign participants were not admitted to the country and we heard with dismay that Voronel, Azbel and other members of the group had been arrested. Perhaps it was the international outcry that won their release after a couple of weeks. Voronel got his visa at the end of 1974, and Azbel took over the leadership of the seminar. Many other refusenik scientists were able to leave Russia during the next two years, but not Mark Azbel. Agitation on his behalf was kept up in Britain, although we never had the organisational effectiveness to match the Americans. It was particularly disheartening that the Royal Society could not be persuaded to lift a finger in support of scientists in other countries.
By 1977, it began to seem as if Azbel was trapped in the Soviet Union for the rest of his life. I felt that I had failed him when I found it impossible to get a paper of his published in Nature or in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. It had been carefully smuggled out of Russia, but was so cryptically written that I could not puzzle it out. In fact, it had to do with the physical properties of DNA, but I could not find a molecular biologist who could understand that aspect of it and help to rewrite it. It was impossible at that time to discuss it with Azbel himself, so that even this little gesture of scientific solidarity was frustrated. Azbel and his companions were not to be deterred, however. In May 1977 they managed to get a number of foreign scientists to Moscow for a special jubilee meeting of the seminar. Fifty or sixty people crowded into his apartment, to celebrate the fifth anniversary of this unique scientific institution, and to emphasise the support of the world scientific community. Was it the public impact of this meeting that won Azbel his exit visa a couple of months later? It was a surprise and a delight for us that he was free after five years of waiting. He took up the Chair he had been offered at Tel Aviv University, and visited England a few months later, so that he and I got to know each other at last.
I have told this story from the viewpoint of a very minor participant, far from the scene of action, because I wanted to try to show how little we knew of the background of the lives of the people we were trying to help and of what was actually happening to them. This ignorance obviously affected the tactics of our support. As letters failed to arrive, and telephone links were cut, one had to rely on foreign visitors to Moscow to find out what was going on and what ought to be done next. It was difficult to determine who might be a friend and who had influence in that corrupt and convoluted society. Above all, there was an unanswered question at the strategic level: why should so many ‘successful’ Russians have voluntarily entered the limbo of ‘refusal’, from which there was no certainty they would ever escape? They were obviously in trouble and needed our help, but how did their personal situation relate to their previous careers as Soviet scientists and Soviet citizens?
Through an evocative and gripping account of his own personal experiences, Mark Azbel describes the present condition of the Jewish intellectual in the Soviet Union, and thus illuminates the cruel dilemmas of many hundreds of thousands of talented and self-aware people, trapped in the unhappy country from which he, fortunately, managed to escape. His scientific career was outstanding, but not unconventional, even by Western standards. The clever Jewish boy, precociously brilliant at mathematics, is a familiar figure in our schools and universities. Azbel’s parents were both doctors, intensely hard-working and conscientious. Born in Kharkhov in 1932, he survived a terrible railway journey to the Far East at the beginning of the war, and returned in 1944 to an excellent school. Having won first prizes in several mathematical olympiads, he managed to get into the physics department at Kharkhov University. This, also, was a first-rate scientific institution, where he soon found his way to the frontiers of research. At the age of 24 his ‘candidate’ dissertation – our equivalent of a PhD thesis – won him an appointment on the faculty and earned him the national and international attention to which I have already referred. There are delightful descriptions of moments of justifiable pride: the day when he argued boldly with and convinced the great Landau; the day when he spoke for the first time at Landau’s seminar at the Kapitza Institute in Moscow, with all the demi-gods of Russian theoretical physics in the audience. For Kharkhov, read Bristol; for Moscow, read Cambridge; for Landau, read Dirac or Mott: that sort of academic glory might come to any brilliant student in any great scientific community.
Soon the young Mark Yakovlevitch was a ‘visiting member’ of the group around Landau, one of the finest theoretical physicists in the world (about whom I wrote in this journal in December 1980), The eventual move from Kharkhov to the Chair in Moscow in 1964 was not quite as easy as it seemed from the outside, but the Rector of the University, Ivan Petrovsky (one of Azbel’s heroes), made exceptional efforts on his behalf. In 1966, his name was on the public list for a Lenin Prize, and it was likely that he would soon become a Corresponding Member of the Academy of Sciences, and, in time, a full Academician. At the very last moment, his name was crossed off the list. What had happened was very simple. Some years before, Mark Azbel and his friend Sasha Voronel had become very friendly with the writer Yuli Daniel. The families would meet at each others’ apartments, in Moscow or Kharkhov, for the standard Russian pastime of talk and talk and talk. When Daniel and Sinyavsky were put on trial for ‘slandering’ the Soviet state, Azbel and Voronel were submitted to intense interrogation. They did not betray their friend and were not directly charged themselves, but Voronel was demoted and Azbel only just managed to retain his post. The system had to punish them for the merest symptoms of dissent.
Was Mark Azbel already a dissenter? As a child he had begun to think things out for himself. In his early teens, he accidentally had access to a random collection of ‘forbidden’ books in many languages, and ‘by the time I entered the university,’ he writes, ‘my understanding of what was really going on in the USSR was practically the same as it is now.’ Like every sensible Soviet citizen, he had learnt to keep his mouth shut, except to the most intimate and trusted friends. It is true that he had once refused to become an informer for the KGB, but many promising young scientists and responsible people must have done the same. He had also refused to join the Communist Party, which spoilt his chances of travelling abroad. But in spite of his eccentric interest in literature and the cinema, he was not regarded by his colleagues as a ‘political person’, and by 1968 his scientific career was once more ‘moving ahead in a most satisfactory way’.
Nevertheless, beneath the successful surface of his life, there was deep discontent. From childhood, he had encountered, and had had to overcome, the virulent anti-semitism that is engrained in Russian culture. At school and on entry to university, in getting an academic job and in moving to Moscow, he had just managed to squeeze past the most bitter prejudice and open discrimination. Because Jewish students, for example, as a heritage of their peculiarly intellectual culture, seem to excel in the mathematical and physical sciences, the examination questions are simply rigged against them, so that only an infinitesimal number have access to the education and scientific careers their talents merit. This has nothing to do with religion: every child of Jewish parents carries an internal passport in which his or her ‘race’ is marked as ‘Jewish’; from this label, every act of discrimination then follows. Anti-semitism is not, of course, official policy, but informal government and party pressures reinforce popular prejudice.
Azbel records the changes in the ‘climate’ of prejudice following such traumatic public events as the ‘Doctors’ Plot’, the Israeli victory in the Six-Day War, and the Leningrad trials of the unsuccessful hijackers. Early in 1971, thousands of Jews openly applied for exit visas and – ‘it was unbelievable’ – were not all forcibly rebuffed: ‘The thought of ever being able to escape the Soviet Union had never before entered my own mind. But when this hope arose, I had no doubt that I would be among those who made a try for it. Overnight, it became unbearable to look forward to a lifetime as a Jew in Russia, tolerated only for his talents.’
The road to Vienna and Jerusalem was longer and harder than he could have expected. The second half of his book recounts the wearisome practicalities of getting together financial resources and documentation, bluffing through red tape to establish a valid application, resigning from the Institute and finding a semblance of employment to avoid being charged with parasitism. ‘I moved into a second life, outside the Soviet system I had always known.’ There are poignant accounts of the numerous other refuseniks who came to this distinguished professor for advice and assistance. There were the public demonstrations, the meetings with foreign scientists, the grave physical hardships of the hunger strike, the lecture transmitted by telephone to Israel, the seminar to be organised and led – all with their inevitable consequences of KGB surveillance, arrest and interrogation. There was a wife and young daughter to be concerned about, and friends to celebrate with, or to console in adversity. And all the time, there was the effort to complete some research in an entirely new field, with no opportunity to discuss and revise his papers in consultation with foreign experts. It was ‘a harried and nervous life wherein day after day we trod the minefield laid out for those betrayers who proclaimed their intention to transfer allegiance from the Soviet motherland to malign and sinister Zion’.
The attitude of his former scientific colleagues (many of whom were also Jewish) is revealing. By resigning from the Landau Institute before actually applying for a visa, he had sacrificed himself to save them embarrassment. Yet the director, Isaak Khalatnikov, would have nothing more to do with him, and actively impeded his departure from the country. Another old colleague, Lev Gorkov, never spoke to him again. At first, the others also shunned him, but in time they relented. Towards the end of his long wait, he found that the ‘hostility and contempt I had faced when I was first in refusal had reversed itself: I was conscious of a real concern and respect. I was quite stunned. It was not only my science for which they respected me, but for my activity in dissent and Zionism.’ This is valuable information for the future of our own relations with Soviet science. The way the refuseniks have been treated is not only an infringement of their human rights: it is also a gross violation of the traditions of scientific practice. The majority of Russian scientists probably understand this well enough and do what they can to help the victims, but the Khalatnikovs and Gorkovs who participate actively in these offences should no longer be considered members of the international scientific community. We need to know who they are, and make it clear to them personally that they are not welcome at our conferences and in our laboratories. These are the scientific élite, who value their privileges of foreign travel and esteem: through them, we may extract some leverage on behalf of the scientific and other dissenters. This is the sort of thing it was difficult to find out from our side of the hill.
It is now nearly ten years since the Sunday Seminar was founded. Alas, it is no more. In 1981 the meetings were blockaded by the KGB, and Victor Brailovsky, who took over when Azbel left, was arrested, and sent into internal exile. The hopes of the remaining refuseniks – some of whom have been trapped for those ten years – are slim. Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union has been reduced to a mere trickle. Perhaps this particular chapter of history is nearly closed. The extraordinary thing is that it should ever have taken place at all. Mark Azbel and his companions insist that they were not ‘dissidents’: that they were not attempting to alter the Soviet political system, but were merely separating themselves from it. But of course that very act of ‘refusal’ was an attack upon the system at a fundamental point. In a similar spirit of naive pragmatism, they created their seminar, to help each other in trouble. It was only afterwards that this could be seen as a return to the ‘real’ science of free and independent discussion, challenging the whole corrupt apparatus of the state technical machine. Through these decent, stubborn, courageous men and women, ‘science’, for once, found that it had a conscience.