Sunday, April 12, 2009
My Passover with the KGB (1978)
My Passover with the KGB (1978)
By Steven Plaut
We thought we had lost the KGB agent who had been tailing our every
movement since we arrived in Kharkov. We tried pathetic Hollywood tricks,
walking quickly through some back alleys, ducking through stores whose
shelves were invariably bare, doubling back, and cutting through urban
parks. Finally we hopped into a taxi when it was the last moment at which
we could still make it in time to the illegal Passover Seder.
We were pretty sure we had lost our tail. We were wrong. Later it
turned out he had noted down the number of the taxi into which we had
hopped, passing it on to his superiors, leading to the harassments and our
The year was 1978. It was long before perestroika and glasnost. The
place - deep inside Soviet Ukraine. Kharkov is a large ugly Stalinist
industrial eyesore, today with about 1.4 million people. It was largely
destroyed in World War II, changing hands back and forth between Nazis and
the Red Army six separate times. Before the war it had been larger than
Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine. Its Jews suffered the same fate as those
of Kiev, although the killing field in Kharkov (called Drobitsky Yar) is not
as well known as is Babi Yar in Kiev.
My "mission" to the Ukraine in 1978 was being shared with my buddy
David Mallach, today a prominent leader in the Jewish community of New
Jersey. We had grown up together in Philadelphia Habonim, had both lived in
Israel and were both fluent in Hebrew. In those days, no one with an
Israeli passport could enter the Soviet Union. The gates of Jewish
emigration from the Soviet fortress were just starting to crack open. There
was interest in finding Jews like David and myself who had already lived in
Israel and could speak intelligently about daily life and conditions there
to interested Jews in the Soviet Union. Soviet Jews knew little about such
things, due to the totalitarian controls still in effect.
I agreed to go even though it was just days before I was due to give my
PhD defense at Princeton. I sounded out my thesis supervisor. He was the
son of the great gentleman who had originally set up AIPAC, the pro-Israel
lobbying group. He did not oppose my going on the trip but demanded that I
contact him at once should I be arrested there.
The main avenue for communication with Soviet Jews in those days was
through the "refuseniks," Jews who had applied for permission to leave the
Soviet Union but were turned down for one reason or another. Since they
were generally also fired from their jobs and stigmatized for having made
the application, they had little to lose from being contacted by us.
We began our trip in Kiev, meeting with local refuseniks and their
families. They had promised to pass on word to the Kharkov family where we
expected to celebrate Passover that we would be coming to them for the
Seder. Curiously, the police left us alone in Kiev. We were expecting
worse because we had been nabbed at the airport when we entered the country
with about 40 pounds of illegal books in Russian about Judaism and Israel
hidden in our overcoats. The KGB sequestered the books but eventually let
us pass through customs. They knew we were up to no good but figured
correctly we were basically harmless.
Later we also spent some time in Moscow. The temperatures there were
below freezing. A meeting was arranged at the home of one of the
refuseniks. When we arrived, the place was packed. Some of those present
had known Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky personally before his arrest and
imprisonment by the KGB in the gulag.
When they heard I was an economist, they wanted to spend the evening
asking questions about economic conditions in Israel. Only one thing, said
the host. You will have to give the entire talk in Hebrew. At the time
there were numerous underground "ulpanim" or Hebrew classes operating in
Moscow. Everyone in the apartment spoke basic Hebrew and the host would
assist the rest with anything that was not clear. It was the first time in
my life I was to give an economics lecture in Hebrew.
At one point I tossed into the discussion a few words in Arabic as a
pathetic attempt to show off (I had just finished a year's course at
Princeton). The host answered me in flowing fluent Arabic, which
effectively put an end to my pretensions.
But back to the evening of Passover in Kharkov. The taxi took us to a
ramshackle but endlessly long apartment block, with leaking faucets
everywhere and broken lighting fixtures in the yard. Aging "civil
guardsmen" with red armbands and rifles patrolled the yards between
apartment blocks with bored indifference. After the war, Kharkov had been
rebuilt as a planned Stalinist industrial town, containing some of the
ugliest architecture on the planet.
The two of us were in holiday mood, dressed in our best. We knocked on
the door of the apartment to discover that our "hosts" were not expecting us
at all. The Kiev people must have been unable to get word through to them.
Soviet phones worked only on occasion back then and were often bugged. Not
only were our hosts unaware of our planned visit, but they did not even know
that this evening was the start of Passover.
The Soviet regime at the time was hostile to Jews but had a bizarre
attitude towards Judaism. Passover matzos were freely available throughout
the country, I guess as a sort of public relations pretense that religion
and pluralism were being tolerated in the "workers' paradise." But no other
symbols, objects, or expressions of Judaism were. Prayer books were
strictly prohibited and no traditional Passover Haggada booklets were
Our rather surprised hosts were a married couple with two young
daughters. The father had been fired from his job as a metallurgical
technician when he had applied to leave the Ukraine. He spoke a passable
English, studied as part of his training. Tonight is Passover, we
explained. We would like to make a Passover Seder with you.
But we have nothing ready, they explained, except for matzos. That's
fine, we said, we will figure out the rest as we go along.
They had plenty of matzos. As for the other Passover traditions, we
decided that borscht would serve as the sour herbs of the Seder. Vegetables
were almost impossible to get in communist Kharkov, so we decided to "dip"
in memory of the parting of the Red Sea with cabbage chunks. But without
any Haggada, how could we carry out the main commandment of Passover, the
telling of the story of the Exodus from slavery in Egypt to freedom?
By improvisation, we decided. By ad lib. David and I took terms
trying to tell the story from memory as well as we could, interrupting one
another to try to get the details correct. The father translated our words
for the girls into Ukrainian. We taught them the songs of the Seder and
sang together. We feasted on cabbage and borscht. The parents barely held
What will you do if the police figure out what you are up to, the
father asked. Oh they know already, David said, because of the airport
incident. How will you handle them if they interrogate you, he asked?
Using the Jewish secret weapon, I said, something called "chutzpah." What
is that, he asked. We had to look up the word "insolence" in his
English-Russian dictionary before he understood what we meant.
It was taken for granted that all rooms in the Kharkov hotels had
microphones and possibly cameras, so we were careful never to speak
unguardedly there. The next morning we were informed that our presence was
required in a special room in the hotel. We entered to find a senior KGB
officer with the Intourist guide serving as his interpreter. Having
considered the possibility that we would face interrogation at some point,
we had earlier decided that the best manner to adopt in such a case was one
of spoiled arrogant Americans talking down their noses to the Soviet
officials. We figured the worst thing they could do to us was expel us back
to the US.
The KGB officer glared and yelled at us, demanding to know what we were
doing in Kharkov and why we had gone to visit that family the evening
before. Our taxi driver had obviously been tracked and interrogated by him,
tipped off by the tail. We went to wish them a happy holiday, we replied.
We have a religious holiday today.
We consistently addressed the KGB officer as "young man," even though he
was 20 years older than we were. In the middle of a particularly
belligerent set of questioning, I asked the KGB officer to make us some cups
of tea with one sugar each please. Later I repeatedly asked the interpreter
if the officer was new at his job (which he translated dutifully for the
officer). I also told him to ask the officer what his salary was.
The KGB officer was obviously used to locals cowering and groveling
before him. He was outraged at our impudence but was also clueless as to
how to deal with it.
All in all, we were interrogated by the Kharkov KGB officer in a nasty
manner twice, but otherwise left to tour the ugly town. We were followed
everywhere we went by the KGB tail. Hollywood spooks notwithstanding, the
tail was clumsy and made no effort at all to hide his presence. Possibly
this was intentional, to warn off people like us from getting into mischief.
It was a few days later, on the Sabbath of Passover week. It was also
Lenin's birthday. The hotel manager told us that the custom on Lenin's
birthday was for all staff at the hotel to donate a full day's labor to the
state without getting paid and so honor Lenin's legacy. He asked if we
wanted to get into the spirit of things and join in. No way, we said, and
that is for two reasons. First, we explained, today was the Sabbath and we
don't work on Saturday. Second, we are running-dog selfish capitalists and
do not work unless we get paid or at least get stock options with a dental
plan. The manager had trouble hiding his chuckle.
What can we do this evening, we asked. What is there to do in Kharkov
on a wild Saturday night? Our guide considered the matter. You could go to
the opera, he said. Kharkov has a massive Opera House, like most Soviet
cities, and that night a special political opera was playing about the life
of Lenin, in honor of his birthday. Can you get us tickets for it, we
asked? Well, it is sold out but there are a few specially saved for
tourists. Hey, Italian opera we can see anywhere, said David, but an opera
about Lenin - that is a once in a lifetime opportunity! Only thing though -
the opera is in Russian, said the guide. All the better, we answered, that
way we will be able to enjoy the music without concern for the plot and
content of the arias.
In the evening we arrived at the opera house 15 minutes before the show
was scheduled to begin. We got ourselves into the mood and cushioned our
stomachs by downing quite a bit of the vodka in the hotel before we left,
vodka being one of the only consumer goods available in those days in the
Soviet Union. But something seemed wrong. The opera house was empty.
Maybe we got the time or the day wrong?
We quickly figured out what the problem was. The workers in various
local factories had been coerced into buying tickets for the show until it
was sold out, but they could not actually be forced to come to attend it.
None of them did. So when we entered the huge empty opera auditorium, no
one at all was there except we two Americans and our KGB tail. Well, almost
no one. Up in the balcony was a young couple who had no doubt figured they
would have the whole warm building for themselves for an evening of groping
in the dark, now terribly disappointed to see us violating their privacy.
But the show had to go on. It was state diktat. The curtain rose and
a large opera company came out onto the stage, with a full orchestra in the
pit. The problem was that the singers and players ALSO knew the auditorium
was empty, yet had to do the performance anyway. So they did so with
obvious indifference and resignation. In the middle of one scene, several
of them started bickering on the stage about where some props should be
Neither of us understood a word of Russian, yet the plot was not too
subtle to follow. It is the Russian civil war, in which the bulk of
Ukrainians actually were supporting the anti-bolshevik "whites." On stage
the "white" soldiers are evil people who come to the village and whip the
farmers. Eventually the "reds" come and rescue the farmers from the
"whites." They are led by a singing Lenin himself, with his characteristic
haircut. A farmer kneels as if to treat Lenin as a king, but Lenin
magnanimously raises him to his feet and embraces him.
The vodka was kicking in by this time, and after each song the two
Americans in the audience were responding with thunderous applause and
confederate yee-haws. When my side was aching too much from laughter we
left, a few arias before the finale. The couple up in the balcony breathed
a sigh of relief.
Out on the street in the cold, our heads stopped spinning. We went to
the central square near the opera house, in the very middle of which was the
obligatory giant statue of Lenin. With our KGB tail watching us in
disbelief, we stood before the statue and sang at the top of our lungs,
"Happy Birthday to You, Happy Birthday Comrade Lenin." In English and
We were the only people in the entire city actually turning Lenin's
birthday into a street party.