Iranian human rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh sits starving in a prison cell in Tehran. Twenty-five years ago that was me. The prison was Leningrad, but the story was the same – a mother of young children punished by a dictatorial regime, yearning for the basic freedoms Americans sometimes take for-granted.
Protesters carry images of Sotoudeh, and clamor for her freedom. Americans did the same for me. And soon after, I was free.
For more than a decade my husband Lev and I had been denied permission to leave the Soviet Union. We were “refuseniks” – and in November 1987 the Soviet government again informed us that we would never be permitted to leave. And so we planned the first unauthorized demonstration on Palace Square– the very site of the 1917 Communist Revolution – knowing full-well that the KGB would be closely monitoring. We brought along our infant daughter Aliyah (named for the Hebrew term for emigrating to Israel).
The timing of our demonstration was not coincidental. For we had learned that our brethren in the United States were preparing a massive demonstration of their own – one that would end up with 250,000 participants, constituting the largest gathering of Jews ever in North America – as the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev arrived for the first time in Washington, D.C. to meet President Ronald Reagan.
We left our apartment in Leningrad, carrying protest posters and started our 20 minute walk to the Palace Square. As a mother, I was overwhelmed by the knowledge that I could be placing Aliyah at risk, but impelled by the awareness that her future had to come from a willingness to speak truth to power. As we walked, two KGB cars followed along loudly trying to intimidate us by referring to our family as “objects” and I understood that this captured the essence of what we Jews were in the Soviet Union: Objects of oppression. We walked on proudly knowing that we would be metaphorically linking arms with 250,000 activists in America so that our baby girl would never grow up to be an object of the Soviet regime.
At the Palace Square the KGB and approximately 40 policemen were waiting. We chained ourselves to Aliyah’s carriage so we couldn’t be separated and took out the Soviet constitution that guaranteed freedom of expression. The three of us were quickly arrested and shoved into the bus and taken to prison. Aliyah and I were imprisoned with no food or water for five hours and were separated and kept in the different cells for much of the time. Lev spent 10 days in the prison. It was to be the last of his many arrests. The Soviet officials were bombarded by telegrams from thousands of activists in the United States. Eight days after Lev’s release from prison, on the last day of Hanukkah after more than a decade of trying, we were finally given an exit visa, to leave the Soviet Union.
Twenty five years later, Sotoudeh is imprisoned for daring to speak out against the oppressive and tyrannical Iranian regime and its denial of freedom of expression. Where are the hundreds of thousands of protesters demanding freedom for today’s prisoners of conscience? Twenty five years ago a small group of refuseniks were able to defeat a global superpower and brutal dictatorship because Americans on the other side of the globe fought for our freedom as fiercely as their forebears had fought for their own freedom 200 years earlier.
Theories abound for the reasons that Gorbachev initiated perestroika. I believe that on the Freedom Sunday 25 years ago, a quarter-million activists on the Mall shook Gorbachev.
A quarter of a century later as prisoners of conscience suffer in jail, Ahmadinejad visits the U.N., does media interviews and speaks at universities. Many speak out against him – but not enough. One generation after the incredible success story that was the Soviet Jewry movement, its lessons must be renewed and applied to present circumstances. Regimes that deny basic rights of speech and assembly to their citizens are a threat to freedom everywhere. They must be confronted. And the lesson of my experience is that if they are confronted with sufficient passion and scale, freedom will prevail.
Marina Furman is a former Refusenik and a member of the steering committee of Freedom 25, a coalition focused on teaching the history and lessons of the Soviet Jewry movement to the next generation.
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