Visiting Soviet Women

I went to the Soviet Union to visit refusenik families and found that in a country where citizens are afraid to organize, ordinary women do extraordinary things.

For women in refusal, even baking a cake is an act of defiance. At every refusenik family’s home my husband, three other travellers and I, were greeted with warm embraces, hot Russian tea and sweet cakes. We took the food for granted until one afternoon refusenik Michael Kremen asked, “How do you like the cake? My wife put her heart and soul into it.” In the Soviet Union, food supplies are meager. Simple baked goods meant the use of sugar ration coupons and long lines to stand in. Refuseniks hosted visitors from abroad nearly every day. Still, the women baked and bought pastries for all their guests. This was a woman’s act of defiance against a system which provided few goods and discouraged visits from Westerners.

The women in refusal talked to us less about glasnost and more about the past and the future — how a whole generation of Russian Jewish boys and girls is growing up in refusal. Mothers worry about the impact that the long years of waiting, of being in limbo, has had on those normally carefree years of childhood. Mostly, they worried about the draft. If their children — some of whom were toddlers when their parents first applied to leave the Soviet Union — are drafted, the years of waiting may continue far into the future.

Finally leaving the Soviet Union also presents difficulties. One woman showed me her address book filled with names, addresses and phone numbers. She told me she could take out 5 or 6 addresses, but not the book itself. For the women, the loss of both past and present connections seemed the most frightening.

Bella Shainsky of Leningrad pointed out the family heirlooms that filled her apartment, none of which she’ll be able to take when she emigrates. “It will be hard to leave all this behind, but we know it is not possible to live here as Jews.”