Non-Profit Internet Source for News, Events, History, & Culture of Northern Frederick & Carroll County Md./Southern Adams County Pa.


Cold War Warriors

1980s - Exodus of Soviet Jews from the USSR

Commander John Murphy, USN, RET

Leonid Brezhnev was the second longest- serving leader of the Soviet Union – after Josef Stalin. Brezhnev ruled supreme from 1964 to 1982. During his reign the Soviets spent 20% of the USSR’s Gross National Product (GNP) on their Cold War machine. During the same period – the U.S. was devoting about 5% GNP. The U.S. was literally pricing the Soviets out of the Cold War arms race – especially with its new and grandiose Star Wars program – the SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative).

After the Six Day War in Israel in 1967, Soviet Jews inundated their government with requests to emigrate to Israel. The majority of these requests were refused and these would-be emigres became known worldwide as the "refuseniks".

"Refuseniks" led by Natan Sharanskiy (front row in center) in Moscow in mid 1970s.

By the late ‘60s there was a trickle of requests being approved. The spigot was opened a bit wider in the early 70s. By the mid 70s the Soviets were hurting for cash and sought "most favored nation status " from the U.S. The U.S. Congress tied relaxed emigration policies to its Trade Reform Act of 1975 (the Jackson Amendment). The Soviets relented and relaxed their emigration policies and got their "most favored nation status". By the late 70s and throughout the ‘80s the flood gates were open – particularly for Soviet Jews. They emigrated by the thousands to Israel and the West (France, Germany and the U.S.). I cannot find accurate statistics on the actual numbers involved, but believe they were somewhere between 50 to 100,000 per year by the mid to late ’80s. They were overwhelming both the U.S. government and Jewish – American, social service agencies. Particularly in larger cities such as New York, Detroit and Philadelphia.

The ‘word on the street' in Washington - was that CIA’s Domestic Collection Division was looking for Russian linguists to assist in interviewing this flood of Soviet Jewish emigres. I submitted an application and by 1981 was working as a "Contract Russian Language Officer" in such cities as Detroit, Boston, Cleveland and Philadelphia. I was doing this work on a part time basis – on weekends, at night and on vacation days since I had a full time job as Director of the Booz•Allen & Hamilton Inc. Russian Studies Center. The Russian Studies Center was giving me a deeper understanding of the Soviet economy and internal politics. The émigré interviewing was giving me a crash course in the modern Russian language as it was being spoken in the Soviet Union.

Soviet Jews arriving at Vienna train station …

Interview of Soviet Jews (1981-1989)

I conducted about 150 interviews with Soviet Jewish immigrants during the 1980s. Most interviews lasted from one to three hours and were usually conducted at the person’s residence. The CIA would give me a list of new arrivals that they thought might be of interest. For me, the most difficult part of this work was a long distance, phone call that I had to make in the "blind" to the person … usually at night on their home phone. These calls were difficult in the sense that part of my job was to get the person to relax and trust me – as much as you could over the phone. Some were obviously nervous or scared. I had to admit, up front, that I worked for CIA. To them I suppose I was the American KGB. And yet, most admitted that they expected to be contacted sooner or later. Kind of a right of passage in becoming an American. Something they had to go through. It made my day when I could line up three or more interviews in a single city – on a given day or weekend.

I preferred to work alone during my interviews, but on occasion was required to take a CIA Field Officer with me. Most interviews were conducted in private – with no relatives – particularly children present. This was done to avoid distractions and to try and get the contact focused and relaxed. On occasion I would interview a husband and wife together because both were of interest to the government. On rare occasions a follow up interview would be scheduled at the person’s home or in the Washington D.C. area.

Every interview required many hours of language preparation. The Soviet Russian language was a complex world of specialized vocabularies. My interviews required that I become expert in technical terminology and Soviet government acronyms. You could see a contact watch you when they threw out complex technical or organizational terms. If you showed familiarity with them … then you had credibility. I also found it reassuring when a contact said "You speak without accent" or, "Your grammar is good" or even better - " Do you have Russian ancestors?"

"I’m not really Jewish"

It was not uncommon for a contact to say "I am not really Jewish. I became Jewish to emigrate," or, "I am not Jewish, but my wife is." They were admitting that, in the 1980s, being Jewish was a quick way to get out of the USSR. Or others explained that they had Jewish ancestors, but the Soviets denied them the right to practice their religion – especially by attending services in a synagogue. If they did try to attend services during High Holy Days such as Passover – the KGB would be sure to document such "nationalistic" tendencies.

"We don’t have maps"

When you found that a contact had worked in a key city or organization "of high interest" - you tried to get a detailed appreciation for the place’s physical layout. A typical response would be "We weren’t allowed to have maps you know. They were considered classified. This made it harder for us to defect!" To build a map or graphic of their work place you began by asking "Where is North?" And went from there.

"Jews are second class citizens"

During many of my interviews, I sensed that, as Jews, they were considered second class citizens. They may have been world class scientists, but they had their place in society. I felt the pain when a contact with a doctorate in aerospace engineering or nuclear physics admitted that he was not allowed to work with colleagues at more prestigious universities or institutes - simply because he was Jewish.

"We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us"

This was standard catchphrase that was heard around Soviet factories. It sounded amusing, but I was to learn that it was not an idea that was easily discarded when a Soviet Jew emigrated to the west. There seemed to be a "screw the system" or "screw the boss" attitude in the very fiber of Soviet citizens. It was about disrespect for authority.

"We have no real motivation to work harder …"

An issue which was becoming well known in the West in the early ‘80s had to do with "Motivation in a State Planned Society". That is "You can take Ivan Ivanovich to the factory, but how do you get him do REAL work? Especially high quality work?" This was a fundamental dilemma in a large, bureaucratic world of goals and deadlines. The Soviets had "Five Year plans" for everything. They faked achieving their unrealistic goals each year and their bosses were given great praise for their achievements. Then the next year’s goals would be set even higher. The entire system was about "faking it".

Their economy was in a rut and they did not know how to get out of it. My father worked his entire life at the Gleason Works in Rochester, N.Y. A part of the very high tech, WWII machine- tool industry. They produced the machines that cut bevel and hypoid gears – large and small. A critical defense industry in the 1940s. Gleasons made huge gears that drove battleships such as the USS Missouri or tiny gears that were critical to the Norden bomb site being used in B-17 bombers. The Soviets asked the Gleason Works to establish factories in the Soviet Union at the time of the NEP ( New Economic Policy in the 1920s). They agreed and have been there ever since … throughout WWII and the Cold War. But from the beginning … Gleason engineers were reporting a problem – which was critical in their business – quality control. That is, making sure that their gears were perfect. No faults or imperfections of any kind. The problem was – the Soviet assembly lines were incapable of meeting such high quality standards. Why? Because the workers just didn’t care. There was nothing in it for them. Gleasons would bring senior Soviet engineers and managers back to Rochester for training on a regular basis. When they returned to the USSR … things would improve for a while and then it was back to the same shoddy, old ways.

"American Jews support you – the Israelis don’t trust you"

According to many of my contacts in the ‘80s - the word was floating through Soviet Jewish society that American Jews made you feel at home. They really helped you settle into American society. The Israelis wanted you, but once you got there … you were treated as a second class citizen. Unless you converted to the Orthodox Jewish faith. Then you might be accepted. True or not – this is what future emigres were hearing from relatives and friends who had successfully made it to Israel. Also, by the late 80s – the Israeli had been known to recruit entire project teams of Soviet scientists if they brought some valuable military technology with them. Given a choice – the word in Minsk, Pinsk or Chelyabinsk was to immigrate to the USA – if you possibly could.

New York City rally in support of Soviet Jewish emigration - 1967

"I didn’t have a ‘clearance’, but it didn’t matter"

Some of my contacts were scientists with advanced degrees. Their "nationality" (i.e. Jewish) meant they could not be given access to top level, classified programs. These programs required a "1st Clearance" – or the Soviet equivalent of Top Secret. That did not stop program managers who needed their knowledge and expertise from finding a way to use them." They simply brought me in ‘blindfolded ‘ or brought the problem out to me in my regular, unclassified work area." But, such "sensitive " work was also a potential problem for would-be emigres. When Soviet immigration officials asked " Did you work on classified projects?" You had better reply "Me, of course not! I was a low level technocrat. A nobody." The stamp went down "APPROVED FOR EMIGRATION"!

First case in Detroit. My first real interview with a Soviet scientist in the early ‘80s was in a sprawling, suburban Detroit apartment complex. I knew that "Vladimir" had a doctorate in radio engineering and had worked at a top research institute near Moscow. I arrived at Vladimir’s apartment right on schedule – in the company of a CIA Field Officer who wanted to observe. All was going well until I asked Vladimir for the full, formal name of his institute. He opened his mouth and I heard "vsesoyuzniy issledovatelskiy institut radioelektroniki imeni akademika Mikhaila aleksandrovich Broncha Bruevicha – NII 9".

I was stunned. My CIA companion could see I was in over my head and chuckled. I said "Could you repeat that please?" Vladimir laughed and repeated his reply …. In very small pieces over the next 30 minutes. I had just been introduced to the wonderful world of Soviet government acronyms. By the time the interview was over I knew that Vladimir had worked at the " All Union Research Institute for Radio Electronics in the name of Professor Mikhail Aleksandrovich Bronch Bruevich – NII-9". I would later learn that the name of almost every major Soviet research Institute began with "vsesoyuzniy issledovatelskiy institut" (All Union Scientific Research Institute…) of something or other. Fortunately, Vladimir was a nice guy and he sensed my misery. Also, he really wanted me to know that he was adjusting well to his new life in America and that he had a girl friend and life was looking most promising.

Stalin’s niece in Cleveland - I interviewed a middle aged woman in Cleveland who at first had refused to be interviewed. On my 3rd phone call she finally said "Oh, all right … come on by. I might as well get it out of the way. You obviously are not going to give up." Her preliminary screening in Europe indicated little of interest. No technical background or work experience. However, she had lived in the "closed city " of Akademgorodok. A well known "research and development" city that had been set up especially for research on classified defense and military issues. A "closed" city for elite Soviet scientists housing over 40 research institutes along the Ob river.

Akademgorodok, Novosibirsk - Elite "closed" Soviet Research city

Akademgorodok was a resort by Soviet standards. Also, Westerners were not welcome. I had just begun my interview on a miserable snowy, Cleveland evening - and had gone through the obligatory questions as to her life and experiences when she volunteered "I am Stalin’s niece." I was shocked. Nowhere had this appeared in any of the background I had been given. She went on to say "Of course, this is not something I talk about anymore. It is a bother. I am not proud of it." That was about as good as it got. She had no real tie to any of the more interesting Soviet institutes in Akademgorodok. The Soviet system had simply stashed her there as a comfortable place for the "fringe elite" of Soviet society – away from the meddling eyes and ears of Western observers.

As I look back on the 1980s and the massive Soviet Jewish emigration of this period … I realize two things: that it was an important first, up close look at Soviet science and industry and it was excellent preparation for what was about to come in the 1990s - the collapse of the Soviet Union and the "opening up" of the closed world of Soviet military science and research to the West. A post Cold War bonus similar to that of the flood of Nazi scientists (e.g. Werner von Braun and the Peenemunde rocket designers) after WWII.

The ‘80s gave us some access to minor functionaries and technocrats. The ‘90s would give us access to the upper levels of Soviet management and science. The people with no names or addresses - who would suddenly be reaching out to their western counterparts for support and partnerships. A time of tremendous opportunity for the West. And a chance to help Russia in its transition from Communism to a more democratic state – hopefully.

Read other articles by Commander John Murphy

Read other Cold War Warrior Articles