How The Son Of The Kingfish Became An Advocate For Soviet Jewry
Several years before Alexander (Sasha) Kholmyansky’ s trial in 1985 in the former Soviet Union for the crime of overt Jewish and Zionist sympathies, a delegation of Louisiana Jewish women traveled to Washington for what had become a periodic meeting with their various congressmen. They arrived at the office of powerful long-term legislator, Senator Russell B. Long, son of the infamous “Kingfish”, Huey P. Long, demagogic, populist political boss of Louisiana in the 1920’s and 30’s and inspiration for Robert Penn Warren’s novel, “All The King’s Men”. The Senator was never famous for warm and close ties with the relatively small Jewish community of the State. So, the ladies waited patiently until he emerged from his inner office, stood before them and proceeded to lecture them about pestering him to advance “Jewish issues” over “American issues”. He reminded them that his duties went far beyond narrow Jewish concerns, then dismissed the delegation and suggested that any such further meetings would fall upon deaf ears. “Don’t waste your time or mine.” It was memorable, or so they angrily reported upon their return.
Less than a year later, in a sudden and quite unexpected reversal, Senator Long requested a meeting with Louisiana’s Jewish leadership. Inexplicably he now wanted an opportunity to talk with them, and not the other way around. A few interpreted that turn as arising out of his interest in running for Senate Majority Leader, or maybe governor, in the footsteps of his father, and hoping for Louisiana Jewish political and financial support. Therefore, about twenty Jewish leaders from throughout the State met with him and his newly appointed young aide, Kris Kirkpatrick, in the Jewish Federation conference room in New Orleans. He referenced the meeting with the Jewish women’s delegation the year before and expressed regret at any “misunderstandings”. He insisted that he was and had always been sympathetic with Jewish causes and was now prepared to learn better what we felt it was important for him to know. The president of the Jewish Federation spoke persuasively about “the plight of Soviet Jewry”. A brief conversation followed, and Senator Long closed the meeting by reassuring us that he sincerely cared about Jewish interests and that if we should ever wish to call upon him in the future the best route would be to notify him by making contact with Kris Kirkpatrick.
A few years later, in fall 1984, I received an urgent phone call from Sasha’s brother, Mikhail (Misha), in Moscow. Until that moment I had always placed our periodic calls to a designated public telephone near a Metro station not far from Kirovogradskaya where he lived. We were aware that in the event the KGB cracked down on outgoing calls to America they might well confiscate his phone – or worse – as a lesson. Both Misha and Sasha were well-known Moscow morim, Hebrew teachers and mentors for Refusenik aliyah activists, Jews who had made application for emigration from the Soviet Union to Israel under the provisions of the Final Act of the Helsinki Agreements of 1975 which enunciated fundamental human rights, freedom of religion and self-determination. Predictably, they had been turned down – refused.
Following visits to the USSR in 1981 and 1983, when my wife, Shannie, and I did our best to befriend and encourage those Refuseniks we came to know, we remained in especially close contact with Misha. On the phone he reviewed details about Sasha’s arrest in July 1984 and the “open-ended” hunger strike he had undertaken as a protest against fabricated charges of illegal fire arms possession. (A pistol had been conveniently planted and discovered by the KGB under a shelf in his apartment.) His detention in a special “punishment cell” in notorious Patarei Prison in Tallinn was to be followed by a trial that effectively took place on January 31 and February 1, 1985. The KGB had hinted broadly at a “show-trial” and a lengthy prison term, thus the actual trial, to no surprise, resulted in conviction and punishment. However the sentence of one and a half years was inexplicably far less than the KGB had threatened, even though in the course of the trial Sasha took advantage of the courtroom stage to defiantly declare his Jewish and Zionist commitments and loyalties. Therefore, Misha’s risky phone call to America was, as he saw it, a matter of life and death, fearing in the months leading to the trial that it would be extremely difficult for Sasha to survive imprisonment, now especially in his drastically weakened condition.
Remembering Senator Long’s promise I called Kris in Washington. He listened attentively and assured me that the Senator remembered, as did he, and would do whatever he could. The outcome was unprecedented. The influential Louisiana senator, until then with only the thinnest of ties to Jewish concerns, himself went to the Soviet Embassy, not far from his own office, and there expressed support for Sasha and other “Prisoners of Conscience” in the USSR. Shortly afterward he co-authored a resolution in the Senate, mentioning by name Sasha, Yuli Kosharovsky and others, and calling upon the Soviet Union to honor the Helsinki Agreements and permit the immediate emigration of Soviet Refuseniks to Israel.
In spring 2013 I learned that Kris Kirkpatrick, having long before departed public service, and now established as a partner in the Long Law Firm in Baton Rouge, was planning to attend a meeting at the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans. I hadn’t seen him nor spoken with him in nearly three decades, so I called his office and wondered if we could meet for a drink during his brief stay in town. We did, and he recalled far more than I expected from that grim chapter in the mid 80’s. I told him that I was quite certain that it was he, and not the Senator, who had inspired and engineered the famous visit to the Soviet Embassy, as well as the Senate resolution. After all, what is a bright and perceptive senatorial aide’s responsibility if not to urge his boss to do the right thing and make him look good? After a weak attempt at denial of the importance of his role, Kris described his personal visit to the Yad Va-Shem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem and his acute awareness of the all-too-frequent historic repression and isolation of the Jewish people. He said he felt a responsibility to understand better, to ease the burden and to do the right thing.
Within months of Sasha’s release came news that Senator Long would not run for a ninth term. Now, at last, after decades of indifference, when he had finally become aware that the Jews in Louisiana were worth his time and effort, just as suddenly he disappeared from public life.
How distant those seemingly hopeless times Kris and I talked about now appear to those of us who came and went, who were aware but never really experienced the iron fist of anti-Semitism in that prisonhouse of peoples. We made visits and spent wrenching days and nights with men and women, some barely skin and bones as a result of hunger strikes, another grieving for her husband imprisoned in a gulag on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Siberia, eleven time zones from Leningrad and family. But, Western visitors were safe and immune, present only to offer support, to advocate on their behalf when we returned home and to remind them that they had not been forgotten.
Following our second journey to the USSR in 1983 a young guitar playing Refusenik from Kharkov, Genia, who had made the lengthy trip to Moscow several times to associate with the morim, and whom we had come to know and admire, was arrested by the KGB. In the course of interrogation he divulged almost every name. Later that winter the Ukrainian edition of Izvestia published those names, Shannie’s and mine included. We were described as “CIA agents and Zionist provocateurs”. Such portrayal is grossly inaccurate, of course, but in retrospect I think we should at least like to be remembered as Zionist provocateurs. Maybe, unwittingly, that characterization fits Russell Long, too?
Both Sasha and Misha, and their families, were granted their long-awaited exit visas in 1987 and immigrated to Israel. Sasha lives in Maale Adumim, near Jerusalem, and works for an oil exploration and production company. Misha lives in Ariel and is a member of the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Tel Aviv University. Genia lives in Be’er Sheva where he is an auto mechanic. After retirement from the Senate, where he served for 48 years, Russell Long remained in Washington as a lobbyist before returning to Baton Rouge.
Rabbi Emeritus Touro Synagogue, New Orleans
Adjunct faculty, Jewish Studies Department, Tulane University