Exodus Day: June 13, 1975, My Parents Brought My Brother and Me Out of the Soviet Union

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

I thought today, the 45th anniversary of that occasion, was a good opportunity to repost an item that I first published in the National Review in July 2002 (with a few minor changes, chiefly to update the timing).

[* * *]

My parents left the Soviet Union on June 13, 1975, bringing my brother (age 2) and me (age 7). Fortunately, we didn't have to try to cross the Berlin Wall, or cross the Black Sea. As Jews, we were allowed to leave, thanks to America, which more or less bought us in exchange for grain shipments to the Soviets.

But here's the part that's odd to Americans: My parents left having no real idea of what life in the U.S. is like. Imagine that you wanted to move to France. What would you do? Why, you'd talk to some Frenchmen. You'd talk to some Americans who had been to France. You'd read some reliable books about France. You'd visit there. You might even move there for a couple of months and see how you'd like it.

None of this was possible for my parents, or for tens of thousands of others like them. The Soviet Union was a closed society. Travel to the West was virtually impossible. Western tourists were closely guarded.

Western books and magazines were banned. Voice of America was jammed; and when you could listen to it — as my parents often could, albeit clandestinely — you couldn't know for sure whether it was accurate or not. There were no other sources to compare it to, other than the Soviet government's anti-American slanders.

Now my parents were, by Soviet standards, fairly well-off. They had family and friends. They had jobs, including some black-market outside income (my father tutored high-school students in the math they needed to pass college entrance exams, and my mother taught English to her friends' children).

They loathed the Soviet regime, but the alternative was a leap into the total unknown. All they knew for sure about life in America was that my father would have to learn English, and that they'd have to start from the bottom rung of the ladder.

They also knew that though most Jews who applied to leave were allowed to go several months later, some fraction (the "refuseniks") would be held back — often with no rhyme or reason. And the lives of those refuseniks could be awful: All people who applied to emigrate were promptly fired from their jobs (my father was, the day after he filed his application); and if they were refused permission to depart, they remained blacklisted from their professions and consigned to whatever menial work they could find.

And yet somehow my parents had the wisdom to figure out that America really was much better than the Soviet Union, better even to a total stranger. And they had the courage to throw away their safe, settled life and move half a world away, far from everything and everyone they had known.

Courage. We live, by design, generally safe and well-ordered lives. We wisely arrange our affairs so we don't have to make really tough choices, choices where an error can mean disaster. We are fortunate that our society generally secures for us this luxury of safety.

But the one downside is that we may never be really tested — and thus may never know whether we'd pass the test. Do I have the courage to fight in a war? Do I have the courage to risk my life to save my loved ones? Do I have the courage to accept that my plane is going to be used as a bomb, and to bring it down rather than hope for rescue? Do I have the courage to abandon security in order to try to get freedom, for my family and for myself? I do not know, and I might never know.

My parents were tested, and they passed. There were others — Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, Shcharanskiy, many who are forgotten, many who perished — who showed even greater courage, the courage to publicly dissent against seemingly insuperable odds. But what my parents, and many others like them, did took courage, too, more than any decision that I myself have made.

Would I do the same? If, God forbid, the dark night of repression began to fall on America, would I know when to leave for the sake of my children, at whatever risk and cost was involved? Or would I dither and be consumed, violently like those who didn't leave Nazi Germany, or slowly like those who didn't leave Brezhnev's Russia?

If I were faced with the hard choices that, thanks to my parents' decision, I was spared, would I choose correctly? If I were called to fight a war, a demand that passed my fortunate generation by, would I acquit myself with honor?

I don't know. Many people don't know. We are reduced to small acts of courage, perhaps occasionally voicing a hard truth precisely because it's a bit risky and practically pointless, or otherwise setting aside our normal calculus of risk and benefit.

We know these are poor imitations of the real thing, precisely because the actual risk is so small. But maybe making the tiny courage into a habit might help us when we need the real thing. And maybe remembering the courage of others — the mortal courage of Flight 93, or the lesser but still undeniable courage of the emigrant — might do the same.

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  1. Well this goes against the complete “progressive” narrative. To a Bernie Bros he would condemn your parents from pulling you out of a country where you had guaranteed health care and housing, to take you to a racist nation that exploits the working class.

    I’ve always said there should be a country where the “give socialism a chance” crowd can take a vacation to see if they like it. I don’t think it will be a very popular destination after the online reviews come in.

    “It was a great vacation! In the morning you get to wait with all your fellow comrades in the bread line to get your daily ration. This gave me hours to catch up on community news and best of all the food didn’t cost me a dime. Then, while we tried to figure out how to make 3 meals out of dried rice and rotten vegetables, we all gathered around the television to watch the ONE CHANNEL available. It was awesome to not have to think about what to watch. There is only ONE CHANNEL which really reduces the anxiety of trying to select the right show. But around 3PM the power went out. Some people call it ‘rolling blackouts’ because supposedly there isn’t enough fuel to make all the electricity, but we all know this is just the resort doing its part to stop climate change. When dinner came around the fun didn’t stop. If you were lucky you could go to State Restaurant and eat. Usually only the special people get those reservations though. For the rest of us, we just trade for what is needed to make a great family dinner with the rest of the ration box. And at night, you get to sit around with all the men finishing off the ration of vodka because they know there will be more in the morning! Best vacation ever!”

    1. You’ve pointed out one problem with today’s rapturous socialists — they don’t know what it really is.

      My scheme for fixing this would be to have a bare minimum umbrella government. To me, that means no military, no police/judges/prosecutors; to most it would mean a military and police. But it pretty much has to include no victimless crime laws. What people do, if they want more, is sign up with associations by contract lasting no more than one year. The socialists could sign over their property and income. The nannies could promise to not do drugs. The racists could promise to not deal outside their clan.

      These associations would not have coercive powers other than the contract. But socialist contracts which require turning over property would not have to return said property if not renewed. Nanny contracts could not throw you in jail, but they could levy huge fines, and could waive the fines if you self-jailed yourself.

      It would not be true coercive socialism; fiscal reality would also intrude. But I believe it would be good enough for most people, who usually mean welfare not owning factories; and it could own factories if the members wanted.

      The point being that all these wannabe socialists could try it for real; most would find it lacking. Most would merely lament the intrusion of reality into their idealistic dreams. Some would shift membership to even worse socialist associations. A few would rant and rave about the damned capitalists ruining everything. But it would cut way back on the nasty mess we have now.

      Individualism can simulate socialism with contracts, but socialism cannot tolerate individualism, let alone simulate it.

    2. ” Well this goes against the complete “progressive” narrative. ”

      A family with sketchy prospects (a no-English father, for example), children (prospective dependents), and a sketchy background (black market activity) seeks to immigrate, hoping to take jobs Americans could have.

      Sounds like it’s not the liberals such a family should fear, or dislike.

      From the conservative perspective, though, at least they were white . . .

      1. Alas AK you don’t understand the nature of immigration and I highly doubt you even remember (if you knew in the first place) what the Soviet Union like.

        And immigration has everything to do with culture, which just because of how nation states form and associate can be linked to race tangentially. But it was never about race in of itself. Just another liberal strawman…

      2. As ignorant and projecting your delusion as typical. I find you ‘superior’ types are the 1st to cross the street when seeing groups of young African-American men. And 1st to call the police.

        1. Nothing “ignorant” or “projecting” about stating the plain historical facts and truth.

          And talk about projecting…you needlessly throw a rhetorical grenade that has no rational basis to the discussion…do you need to do that because your virtual signaling quota hasn’t been made for today?

      3. That does explain why Eugene (and the other bloggers here) are free of the rabid nativism we see in the comments whenever immigration is discussed.

        1. In Ilya’s case it’s practically a rabid open borders stance.

      4. You are a tireless, mindless bigot. Mr. Volokh’s family didn’t come here to steal jobs, but rather to leave a soul-stealing, godless regime that repressed all but the ruling class; their comfortable life was at the pleasure of the state. Conservatives didn’t care that they were white, only that they came legally and wanted to become a part of the American culture.

        1. It appears someone has convened yet another meeting of Libertarians For Authoritarian, Bigoted, Cruel Immigration Policies And Practices.

      5. “it’s not the liberals such a family should fear”

        https://www.yahoo.com/news/havana-hails-end-special-us-051745113.html

  2. “As Jews, we were allowed to leave, thanks to America, which more or less bought us in exchange for grain shipments to the Soviets.”

    I never knew that. I remember the grain shipments which were controversial because of fear it would raise US bread prices over $1/loaf — this in the midst of double-digit inflation and Nixon’s “War on Inflation” (“WIN”) and a wage-price freeze.. Nixon had a 49 state landslide in 1972, we left Vietnam in 1973, Nixon resigned in 1974, and Saigon fell in 1975.

    This was in the midst of Soviet/Cuban expansion throughout Africa. political turmoil and what Jimmy Carter would later label “Stagflation.” In the midst of an ongoing Cold War.

    Knowing this makes me feel better about that grain deal, and while Brezhnev wasn’t Stalin, there were a lot of people in farm states with personal memories of what Stalin *had* done 35 or so years earlier.

    This was wartime — and the flip side is Eichmann’s infamous “Jews for Trucks” proposal — to trade 100 Jews for each truck needed to fight the Soviets. Assuming he could be trusted, that’s a tough ethical issue because it would have lengthened the war.

    So too here — without the grain, would the USSR have collapsed, say, in 1979 instead of 1989? Would Putin (or the CCP) be a threat today had Reagan and not Clinton oversaw the aftermath?

    1. “So too here — without the grain, would the USSR have collapsed, say, in 1979 instead of 1989?”

      A good question. Carter certainly believed the grain was important to the Soviets, which is why he embargoed shipments after the invasion of Afghanistan. American agribusiness did not like that, and their man Reagan ended the embargo as soon as he got to the White House. Corporate interests always supersede human rights.

      1. The Soviets grew to depend on grain imports, making them less likely to start a war which would starve them. One of the dumbest things Trump has done was lock Huawei out of the US cell phone market, because now the Chinese have every incentive to ramp up their chip fab plants, instead of being dependent on TSMC in Taiwan. Better to keep your enemies dependent on you than force them to grow independent.

        Trade is always a good thing, and besides its usefulness, it is also the right thing; where do you control freaks think you get the moral authority to control who I do business with or who my friends are?

        1. The problem is that we’ve been getting dependent on them, more than them on us.

          And the specific problem with Huawei is that we’ve literally been paying them to spy on us.

    2. I wonder how different things would be if Reagan had actually believed that Communism was incompetent, instead of merely a military threat. What if he had cut the US military budget instead of expanded it into the Star Wars silliness, deregulated the US economy as much as possible, and generally freed the economy? No way the Soviets could have kept up; I think it would have ruined them even sooner. Yes, they probably would have cut their military too, after a few years of watching the US military shrink. But the booming US economy would have made theirs look dowdier by the day.

      1. An alternate could have been driving teh Soviets into such despiration them might have attacked some nearby country, not already under their control. Putin has if I’m remembering correctly already invaded a couple of his neighbors with far less desperation.

        1. The Soviets HAD “attacked some nearby country” — Afganistan — and the CIA had been so neutered post Watergate that it didn’t have a clue as to how fragile the USSR really was. The DDR was a total surprise.

      2. The arms race was the reason they felt they had to keep up, it is what bankrupted them. Looking dowdy might make them less influential, but not trigger a collapse.

      3. The collapse of the Soviet empire was mostly an internal affair. Few Sovietologists believe otherwise.

        1. Once they lost the Volokhs it was all over 🙂

  3. I am glad your parents took that risk. We are lucky to have you!

    1. Thanks — I much appreciate the kind words!

      1. I was in high school in the early 70s and went to several rallies in support of Soviet Jewry with my Temple youth group. As we used to say at my law school, all three great religions were represented: orthodox, conservative and reform! I remember these with some fondness for two reasons (1) because it was the last time I remember that the Jewish community was politically united in total solidarity, and (2) I got to watch a group of Hasidim do an exorcism of Stalin’s dybbuk from Breshnev at one. (Maybe that’s what allowed the grain deal to go through. Couldn’t have hurt). In short I want you to know, at least from my perspective, American Jews of all stripes were strenuously trying to help. Glad you made it.

    2. Came to say much the same, so I will echo. Almost every day I appreciate that this site exists. It’s an oasis of rational libertarian thought. A labor of love considering the behavior of us commentators. 😉
      Thanks be to your parents, family and fellow conspirators. May the reality they left behind never fully be realized here.

      1. I agree!

  4. May your life always stand for and may you always be remembered for the fight against repression of basic freedoms by corrupt governments and false ideologies.

  5. 1968, a pretty interesting year here, am not familiar w/ it in the history of the Soviet Union. Nothing you haven’t touched on, but it takes immense courage to leave even a dismal known for an unknown, hoped to be better that it may be. Kudos to you and yours for that.

  6. Professor Volokh

    How old were you when you first really understood the courage which your parents had shown in coming here? It’s clear that you greatly appreciate that courage and it seems likely that your recognition of it greatly colors how you think of your parents. But was the appreciation something that grew gradually over time or was there a kind of lightbulb moment where what they had done, presumably largely for you and your brother, hit you?

  7. What was your first impression of American culture?

    1. I sure hope it was Arthur Ashe and not “Laverne and Shirley”.

  8. I admire your story and strangely understand the question to oneself; “If tested, will I have the courage?” I have never been in combat, however as a range safety officer I learned exactly how unnerving it is to hear a bullet wiz by you, whether you were the target or not. I am not a tall man, but I am compact and powerful. As a youngster my father would spank and punish me if he learned that I got into a fight in school and swung first. I am left handed and he considered that an unfair advantage even against adversaries larger and older than myself. Many years later a friend and I stopped for some Cuban coffee on the way home from a night out. Near the window there was a homeless man just standing around. Two men exited the restaurant and just then the homeless man bent over to pick up a half smoked butt. One of them, delivered an expert martial arts kick to the homeless mans ribs and told him “that’s my cigarette, don’t touch it.” Never did I know that such rage and fury existed within me. I grabbed a glass from the counter in one hand and pulled a knuckle knife from my key chain and stood between the homeless man on the ground and the aggressor. I called him every vile word and hurled every insult I could imagine in Spanish and English. He moved back to size me up and said; “Fat boy, I’m going to kill you.” He probably would have, yet I know I would have hit him with a glass across the face and stuck him once or twice. His friend grabbed him and threw him into a car. I was shaking for a long time. Not one person, even my friend who was at the coffee counter dared back me up against this foul and intimidating man. Why did I do it? At the moment I had no clue. After time and retrospection I realized that it was my only course of action. My education, the examples my parents set for me, my religion, ethics, morality, the civics that were once taught in U.S. schools, Crispus Attucks, Patrick Henry, John Paul Jones, Frederick Douglass, my Cuban ancestors that died fighting for their liberty. They all welled within me and I passed not so much a test, but lived up to the expectations of the man I was brought up to be. I think that to demonstrate courage, as singular as it might be is really a contribution to the mosaic of our greatness. It’s there when you need it, whether you know it or not.

    1. Crispus Attucks was an A-hole — not a hero.

      He got shot for swinging a 4′ log at a soldier’s head.

  9. Well Eugene … you are about to have an opportunity to find out, as your newly adopted country descends into mob rule.

  10. Seemed Appropriate: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HCqR0_a6_so&list=PL3d_6qm8cqFqSA5HIuDL10jbLfxp5RFXz&index=22

    Of course the Penobscot River (which that isn’t) would be the WORST place to hide it. At the time there was Brunswick NAS that flew P-3s looking for subs, one of our two sub radio stations in Cutler, and Bangor ANG flying KC-135s to refuel the SAC B-52s.

  11. I grew up on the far north side of Chicago in a neighborhood that saw an influx of Soviet Jews from that wave of immigration. I remember them fondly. The kids were always so smart I remember thinking that the Soviet Union was some kind of genius breeding ground. And maybe they were, who knows how strong Russia would have become without Communism dragging them down in every facet of life.

  12. The irony of Republicans’ bigoted, cruel, authoritarian position on immigration is that immigrants could improve the declining, desolate backwaters in which many Republicans reside.

    Immigrants could bring ambition, education, drive, optimism, skill, tolerance, entrepreneurship, and diversity to desperate communities shackled by the opposites of those attributes.

  13. Prof. V
    Really how much oppression were your parents fleeing? If they had hung in there, in there middle-class life, for a few more years you could have lived a life with the same level of comfort as you have now. Yeah you wouldn’t be fighting the First Amendment fight like you are now, but is that really the freedom worth fleeing for?
    Sharansky, now Sharansky was fighting for something–for a life more than he could get in Russia, a Jewish life. But what were your parents fighting for, comfort? The “dark night of oppression” won here, sadly. What is life more than what the USSR wanted? Is freedom of speech all there is?

  14. EV,

    Any thoughts you’d be willing to share about our immigration regime in the Trump era with Steven Miller playing such a big role?

  15. Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. And weak men create hard times.

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