MY STORY

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Story posted on March 9, 2009 at 4:00 AM

BIO Prominent Soviet dissident and human rights activist Yuri Fedorov immigrated to the United States in 1987. Arrested as a student in 1962, he was sentenced to 5 years at a labor camp for participation in one of the first young people’s human rights organization "Freedom for the Intellect". In 1970, Fedorov was a participant in the famous airplane hijacking incident, when a group of Jewish activists, refuseniks and dissidents attempted to leave the Soviet Union by hijacking a small passenger airplane to Sweden. Convicted of treason, he served 15 years in Soviet jails. After completing a year of administrative supervision in Alexandrov, Vladimir district, he applied to emigrate to Israel. Currently residing in New York State, Fedorov is a founder and administrator of the Gratitude Fund, a charity supporting needy former Soviet dissidents. MY STORY I first tried to emigrate very early, when very few people in the USSR thought about emigration. When I came out after serving my first term, my friends and I quickly realized that we would soon be jailed again. There was no way out of this situation. When the idea of an airplane hijacking first came up, we thought that we would indeed be able to escape. But very soon we realized that we were under very close police surveillance. Eduard Kuznetsov said then that we should go forward with our plan, anyway. The fact that we would be arrested would have even more significance than if we were able to get away. It was pure sacrifice. Among our co-conspirators were, for instance, members of Zionist groups from Riga. Do you know what it meant, at the time, to be a member of a Zionist group? It meant that they were constantly under surveillance, their telephone conversations were constantly listened to. They were not the kind of people who had had a lot of prison experience or much contact with the KGB. Naturally, some of them talked. In general, there were many comic aspects about our case. To the extent that somebody asked Mark Dymshits’ daughter at school: "Is it true that you’ll soon be in Israel?" Nevertheless, our case created a kind of impetus, a push that some wise people took up. Had the KGB been smart, they would have let us get away. Then, they would have had a real case on their hands. But they weren’t smart, and we knew what was in store for us. I’m not Jewish. Not Jewish at all. Unfortunately. Had I been Jewish, life would have been a lot easier for me. Jews didn’t begin to mention us, me and my co-conspirator Alexei Murzhenko, who was Ukrainian, until 1979. Then, in 1979, Kuznetsov was freed. He was extremely surprised and extremely angry because no one had ever mentioned the two of us. After that, we began to be included in the Jewish struggle to free those who were convicted in the airplane hijacking case. Almost all of our accomplices were eventually exchanged for someone or something. Either for Soviet spies who were caught somewhere or, as in the case of Iosif Mendelevich, swapped for some industrial equipment provided by Israel. But Murzhenko and I would not be exchanged, because the KGB wanted to make an example of us. They told everybody: "Don’t get involved with Jews." The KGB said to us at the beginning: "You’ll serve your full sentences." I did 15 years, and he also served a full sentence. Once Kuznetsov was freed, I felt stronger support, even though some supporters of Jewish immigration rights, like the late Lynn Singer, who at the time was Executive Director of the Long Island Soviet Jewry Committee, kept trying to tell others that there were Jewish prisoners and then there were others, and that those others must also be mentioned. As Vladimir Bukovsky recently said, there was never any division at the prison cell or the labor camp, when we were there. There were no Marxists, nationalists or Jews. Everyone was a prisoner regardless of his ideology and we all fought against arbitrary actions by the administration. If one person was picked upon for no reason, we all stood up for him because we were all prisoners. It was a lot easier for me to immigrate the second time. But let me start by saying that I survived that prison term only because it got support from outside. There was always support, it was different at different times, but there I always felt support and the KGB couldn’t do me easily, the way they could an ordinary inmate. What I mean is they couldn’t kill me. That was because they always calculated, what it would get them. They knew that my death would get them nothing but trouble. There would be publicity, they would get high level official inquiries—even if my death were the result of an accident or came of natural causes. In short, the fact that I survived was due exclusively to this support, and because I was firm. It was extremely important, to set a firm tone in dealings with them. You have to say to them, in so many words: "You are here and I am here. Our positions are clear. I am anti-Soviet, I don’t like you. There is nothing to discuss. Good-bye." Otherwise, if you are not firm with them, they get ideas and start playing games. They try to figure out how to break you. If you are firm, on the other hand, they see clearly that you can’t be broken. I came out in 1985, and was put under administrative supervision right away. Before the trial, they would threaten me with execution. But I told them: "You won’t execute me. All you’ll give me is 15 years." It had always been clear. I wasn’t even afraid. I didn’t fear an execution. But, on the other hand, they had told me from the start: "You’ll serve your full sentence." This is what they told me at the beginning and they were as good as their word. In any case, I was freed and placed under administrative supervision in the town of Alexandrov. Administrative supervision works as follows: You’ve got to be at home from 6 in the evening till 8 in the morning. You can’t even go outside to your own courtyard. You have to check in with your supervising officer every week. Always at the appointed time. If you’re late even one minute, they can start criminal proceedings against you. There was much that was comical there, too. I had to have a job, because if you didn’t hold a job in the USSR you could be jailed for parasitism. Everyone had to have a job. But I couldn’t find work. I would go to various organizations. I would get an application form to fill out. There was always a question: Have you ever been convicted. Of course, I had to check yes. What for? Anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda the first time, treason of the motherland the second. They would look at me and then they would say: "Get out of here. Don’t ever show your face again." Naturally, I was then summoned to the KGB. "How come you are not working? We’re going to jail you." I explained to them where I went to look for work, and told them that I was kicked out and told never to come back. What do you think? They thought about it for a long time, whether to put me away again or not, and decided against it. I owe this to my friends abroad, of course. They kept calling me there. They could never get through, of course, but there were those phone calls nonetheless. They created publicity and support for me. In the end, they decided to find a job for me, because no one would hire me with my CV. Indeed, how could a personnel director dare to hire a person like me? It would be the same as to sign his dismissal notice. I was the only political prisoner in Alexandrov, which is a little over 100 kilometers distant from Moscow. Alexandrov was famous because political prisoners were always sent there, but they were always there one at a time. The rest were common criminals. At one time, Kuznetsov also lived somewhere near there, doing his administrative supervision, and some other dissidents, as well. In 1986, the term of my administrative supervision came to an end, and I began to travel to Moscow to see people. By then, Dmitry Sakharov had already been allowed to return to Moscow. An amnesty for political prisoners had begun and many people were starting to come back. Naturally, I had a lot of friends among them, and I started to visit them in Moscow. Before that, I couldn’t go to Moscow at all. Forget about it. To get to my place of employment from my home, I had to pass through the Alexandrov train station. Every week or two, I would be arrested there regularly. "What’s the matter with you, Fedorov? Did you want to go to Moscow?" they would ask me at the railroad police station. They did it on purpose, of course. They knew the situation very well. They just kept up pressure. It was the same thing when I had visitors. We would have a drink and sit around talking for a while, and then invariably the police would come knocking, in order to check everybody’s papers. They always wanted to keep tab on who visited me. Of course, no foreigners were allowed to come to Alexandrov at the time. They wouldn’t allow me to relocate to Moscow, however. One local KGB officer once told me so. He didn’t actually call me into his office, but bumped into me in town. The town was quite small, and whenever I went downtown I would be noticed. He said to me: "Listen, Fedorov. I got a call from our guys in Moscow. They told me that if you keep showing up in Moscow, they’ll put you in jail again." I asked: "What for?" "For no reason. Do you have any idea how easy it would be for me to send you back to jail?" That was what he told me: "They don’t want you over there in Moscow." I thought about it and evaluated my situation. I had no ties to Alexandrov. I had no friends there, no family, nobody. The town was completely alien to me. I had lived all my life in Moscow. I thought it over and asked for an invitation from Israel. Which I used to get every three months, anyway. I didn’t even have to ask for it. Those kids in Israel were great. It was some kibbutz in Israel, which sent me an invitation regularly, every three months. Even while I was still in the camps. They kept sending it to me after I came out. I’ll always be grateful to them. In short, I used their invitation. This is how I could submit my application at once. After that, of course, the usual nonsense started. They started to call me to the KGB, asking me all those "what for" and "why" questions. I don’t know whether they were happy that I was finally leaving the Soviet Union or not. I never bothered to ask them. It was their work, to know what was going on. But I had a good excuse. I had a daughter in America, and I wanted to be closer to her. I wanted to participate in her upbringing. She was my only family. They thought for a long time whether to give me permission to leave or not. I had to gather all the documents, to surrender my military service card, etc. It was always touch and go. One time they would accept my documents, the next they would not. It was not a very difficult process, but it wasn’t so easy either. One time they even rejected my request. I became a refusenik. The moment I got my rejection, I returned to Alexandrov and called my guys. I had a group in Moscow who kept an eye out for me, in the Israeli emigration line. Israel always took care of me. By they way, they were the ones who greeted me when I was freed in Vladimir. Dangerous recidivists like me could not just be freed from the labor camp. They had to be brought to where they are supposed to reside under administrative supervision by a special guard detail. I arrived to Vladimir, and those kids met me there. They kept an eye out for all the refuseniks, the departing Jews and the prisoners. It was a very specific group, and they kept an eye out for me. At one time, it was not an exclusively Zionist center, but by then it was just Zionist. The reason for this was that all my accomplices had been freed by then. While I was in the camps, they would immediately get a word out if something happened to me and pass it on abroad. There was always information getting out. For instance, it would be passed outside by those inmates who had a visit from their families. So they had full information. When my emigration request was turned down, I called Moscow using a line that was clearly being eavesdropped on and recounted what had happened. Two days later I was called back and they told me: "You have misunderstood us. You can leave whenever you like. Even though I am not Jewish, I emigrated on the usual Israeli visa, like all the Jews. The only difference was that I was greeted at OVIR like an old friend. There used to be a colonel at the Moscow OVIR, who seemed to know everything about me. "Why are you taking your dog with you, Fedorov?" he asked me the moment he saw me. They knew everything there was to know about me. Later, when I came to Moscow with my official documents, there were still four surveillance cars following me around. I was in Moscow completely legally, since I had already turned in all my Soviet documents. I even had officially exchanged dollars on me. Yet, four cars kept following me around. Two from the Vladimir KGB office and two from Alexandrov. And I think there was even one from Moscow. They kept checking out who I was in contact with. But what was there to check? It was mostly people like myself, those who had been recently freed from the camps. The decision to let me emigrate was made at the highest level. It was the first instance when a group of previously incarcerated dissidents was being allowed to emigrate. The group consisted of five individuals. It was comprised of myself, Igor Ogurtsov, a member of the Russian Christian Movement who had also served 15 years, and others. I no longer recall who else. It was decided at the Central Committee level. The KGB had to shut up and just do its job of surveillance. My flight to Vienna only had 15-20 passengers. It was a usual large passenger airplane. There was a handful of Jews, former refuseniks, and then there was me. There were so few passengers, I even managed to bring my dog on the plane. When I was leaving, I didn’t think I would go to Israel. When we landed in Vienna, I was greeted by a representative of Israel, who informed me that Israel would be happy to welcome me. But I told him that my friends would be meeting me here, and that I would make my decision with their help. Edik Kuznetsov and Alik Ginzburg met me in Vienna. I didn’t know anything about the West, but they had conferred and said to me: "Perhaps you had better go to America." I didn’t know anything here, either.