By David M. Shribman WDRB Contributor from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Amid the news of the cruel month of April -- an earthquake in Nepal, upheaval in Baltimore -- an important political landmark went virtually unnoticed. It was the death of Vladimir Slepak, one of the principal "refuseniks" who battled Kremlin officials for nearly two decades to win the right to leave the Soviet state that repressed them and reviled them even as it held them captive.
The Cold War has few heroes, but one surely was Slepak, who died at age 87 but whose life was the story of struggle and survival, and ultimately a symbol of the tireless, timeless yearning for freedom. His apartment at 15 Gorky Street in Moscow, a short walk from Red Square, was a book-choked headquarters for Soviet dissidents hoping for liberty and for Soviet Jews hoping for the exit visa that would liberate them.
His was a life that spanned the war and peace of the Soviet tragedy. The son of a revolutionary, Slepak -- "a modern-day Moses," in the words of his obituary in The Jerusalem Post -- was born a decade after the toppling of the czar. He lived for a time in China (his father, Solomon Slepak, chronicled the Communist movement there), fought the Soviet state his father helped build, was imprisoned in Siberia, became a global symbol of the fight for freedom, eventually flew to Israel and finally followed family members to the United States.
This was more than a personal struggle. "History brought together on the same soil two vigorous peoples, Russians and Jews, whose bitter destiny it was to be ruinously at each other's throats," the American author Chaim Potok wrote in his 1996 chronicle of the Slepak family. Potok, who died in 2002, was drawn to the Slepaks in his search to understand why "individuals living in comfort at the very summit of a political system (would) suddenly turn against that system and bring ruin down on their lives."
It can be no coincidence that Potok, author of "The Chosen," a signature novel of the 20th century, chose to use variations of the word "ruin" twice within four pages. For before the Soviet Union itself fell into ruin, it was a cruel tyranny that spanned 11 time zones for seven decades.
Born in idealism, the U.S.S.R. was itself a revolt against a cruel tyranny. But after overthrowing the czar, its defining characteristics were a man-made famine growing out of forced agricultural collectivization, show trials, millions of deaths, and the transformation of the word "archipelago" from the definition of a chain of islands to a metaphor for a chain of labor camps.
On trips to the forest, Slepak heard radio reports about life beyond Soviet borders, especially in Israel. "Slowly," he told an interviewer, "we realized that a free world was out there, and that our place was there."
Slepak, a radio and television engineer who designed control rooms for the Soviet military, sought merely the right to leave. He paid for that desire with prison time and countless episodes of KGB harassment, and when I visited his apartment in 1976 the pile of magic slates in the corner was vivid testimony to the belief the family's home was bugged.
"The important things we write to each other," said son Leonid Slepak, then 16 years old. "The things we know they know," he continued, "we just say."
A few years later, Leonid would resist the Soviet draft by arguing that he was an Israeli citizen in absentia and would himself live underground.
The Slepak apartment was an island of Western thought in a sea of Soviet repression. On the shelves were copies of "Exodus" by Leon Uris, "I and Thou" by Martin Buber, and "The American Political Tradition" by Richard Hofstadter. Guarding the apartment was a monstrous black terrier named Akbar, whom Slepak said had the uncanny ability to identify KGB agents. If his hair stood on end, the visitor was unwelcome.
Reached by an ancient elevator, the apartment was fitted with several bolts and was a repository for the sweaters and books countless Americans brought the family -- some to be sold on the black market for food and support for other refuseniks.
Two years earlier, before President Richard Nixon's trip to Moscow, Soviet police smashed the Slepaks' front and living room doors -- the path of their entry could still be seen clearly in that visit 39 years ago -- and arrested Slepak. His son ran downstairs to a pay station to call members of the Western press. Leonid Slepak said a KGB agent thrust his hand through the booth's glass panel and told the frightened teenager his fingers would be broken if he attempted something like that again.
For that reason Slepak -- known as Volodya to his friends -- routinely carried long underwear in his briefcase whenever he left the apartment. He knew that Moscow's dungeons were cold and clammy, even in springtime.
Among the many refuseniks in the Slepak circle was Natan Sharansky, who served nine years in Soviet prisons and who, in a remembrance for The Tablet website, called Slepak "the central figure of our entire movement of the struggle for the freedom of Soviet Jews."
Sharansky, now chairman of the Jewish Agency in Israel, recalled that on the day before his own arrest, Slepak held his hand as they walked through Moscow. "It was," he remembered, "as if he was telling them: You first have to come through me. I felt his unwavering support even while I was in prison and he was exiled in Siberia."
Shortly thereafter Slepak and his wife Masha hung a sheet from the windows of their eighth-floor apartment reading: LET US GO TO OUR SON IN ISRAEL. The Soviets responded, according to Gal Beckerman in "When They Come for Us, We'll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry," by pouring hot water on their heads from a ninth-floor balcony. Then the Slepaks were arrested.
Now the Soviet Union and Slepak are both gone. But the struggle for freedom persists, lit in the darkness by the valor, and now the memory, of Vladimir Slepak, for whom the words of Exodus 9:1 and the old Negro spiritual were an inspiration. He helped his people go.
(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.)
Copyright 2015 The Pittsburgh-Post Gazette and WDRB News. All rights reserved.