December 1979. The Soviet forces invade Afghanistan and bring the détente era to an abrupt end. As always during times of confrontation, the KGB is granted extra powers. Could there be a less auspicious time to start a new underground project? But I, with a handful of other Jewish activists (my brother Michael, Yuli Edelstein, and Yuli Kosharovsky) did exactly that. We worked to revive Jewish national life by teaching Hebrew and Judaism across the giant expanse of the Soviet Union.
At that time, Jewish activity was confined almost entirely to the central cities of Moscow and Leningrad, while three-quarters of the Soviet Jewish population lived in dozens of peripheral cities scattered across the giant country. Facing the enormous power and resources of the KGB, our chances of success looked bleak.
But the project turned out to be amazingly successful. During my “term of office” as head of the project, we managed to establish Hebrew study groups, and a nucleus of an active Zionist movement, in 20 cities; after my arrest, my students and colleagues who took over the project – Zeev Geyzel and Dov Kontorer added another 10 cities.
Our network was by far the biggest underground Jewish project ever undertaken in the USSR. Under the nose of the ever-vigilant KGB, we set up secret places for meeting and teaching, created masses of “forbidden” educational materials and hid them in covert storages, got these materials into the hands of Jews in dozens of far-flung cities, and sent undercover educators to teach in many of these cities.
As time passed, the KGB began to uncover traces of the secret project. The pressure and intimidation mounted. The KGB understood well enough that we were creating a framework where, on the basis of joint efforts, shared problems, and frequent regular meetings, Jewish communities were being formed, with their sights on Israel. They knew as well as we did that the Hebrew language is the natural gateway to all of Jewish civilization.
In retaliation, I was arrested. The KGB planted a handgun in my apartment and I was indicted for possessing firearms illegally. In a parallel move, they planted illegal drugs in the apartment of Yuli Edelstein and arrested him on similar trumped-up charges.
The KGB “promised” me a show trial in the manner of Sharansky’s and Begun’s trials. Their goal was as crude as it was simple: to undermine our movement by portraying us as potential terrorists who, under the guise of Hebrew classes and Jewish cultural and religious activities, were actually stockpiling weapons and practicing with them.
As a last-ditch protest, I began an open-ended hunger strike. In an attempt to break my spirit, they subjected me to their most severe punishment: incarceration in their infamous punishment cell under inhuman conditions. Supporters throughout the world rallied to pressure the Soviet government to release me. A race against time began…