On December 6, 1987, I was standing behind a semicircular barrier in front of a massive automated sliding gate. The gate would open at random intervals and spit out groups of people into the crowded waiting area of the customs checkpoint at Schwechat International Airport in Vienna, Austria. I would peer intently at each group desperately trying to recognize the faces I was waiting for. Yet I almost missed the moment when the gate revealed a man and a woman in winter fur hats, walking slowly arm in arm. They looked so small and so old! Almost nine years had passed, years gained by us and lost by them, but my parents were finally here.
Two months earlier in October, a call from my parents in Russia woke us up in Boston at night. With Perestroika gathering steam, Sakharov released from his exile, and star refuseniks on the way out, the time had apparently come to clean up the backlog of ordinary people. Just in May of that year, at their regular semiannual pilgrimage to the visa office, my parents were told to forget all hope until at least 1995. At my father’s age of 80 this was equivalent to a life sentence. Now, the summons had come from the authorities which were finally letting them go after nine years of refusing an exit visa.
One month earlier in September, in the basement of the suburban home of a friend near Washington, DC, my older son and I were making a poster with a picture of his American-born baby brother and the words: “My brother has never seen his grandparents. Gorbachev, let them go!” We held it high the next day across the street from Andrei Sakharov Plaza in front of the Soviet embassy at the demonstration organized by the Union of Councils for Soviet Jewry. Yet we did not allow ourselves much hope.
“It was the year 1979 as I was standing near our apartment building - for the last time. A taxi arrived to take us to Pulkovo Airport. As we went by Moskovsky Avenue I saw some statues. They were monuments to the many Leningraders who died in the siege of Leningrad. Soon we were on the plane.” Thus began a 3rd grade composition by my son who was five when that plane took off. The fabled never-before-seen outside world lay ahead for us, but the grandparents had to stay behind.
Having watched several friends become “permitniks” and leave the only country we had ever been allowed to see yet always required to praise, we hesitated to take the fateful step of applying to emigrate. We had no doubts that we would be refused and would spend uncounted years of our lives in a terrible limbo. The decision came one morning, when years of waiting suddenly seemed like a fair price to pay for eventual freedom. To find out how to fight for the right to leave and also prepare ourselves for life in refusal we sought out the great Hocham of the Helsinki agreement on human rights in Leningrad, a future hero of the critically acclaimed movie “Refusenik,” Aba Taratuta. Following Aba’s advice brought me to the office of the state procurator for the Leningrad district where I filed a complaint of violating the Helsinki agreement, addressed to comrade Brezhnev himself (in an ironic twist 25 years later, my son, by then a law professor heading a delegation of American law students, was formally greeted in the same hall by the splendidly uniformed procurator for St. Petersburg, as the city was now called).
By an incredible stroke of luck, our application was granted thanks to the hopes the Soviets had for the lifting of Jackson-Vanik amendment sanctions ahead of the much-touted Moscow Olympics. The still to come ill-fated invasion of Afghanistan which shut the exit doors tight for years did not affect us. Aba Taratuta, like my parents and many other refuseniks, had to wait for the wheels of history to turn again.
Thumbing their noses at their former keepers, both my parents lived into the next millennium. My mother, who has just turned 90, was also among those who survived the Nazi siege of Leningrad. In her battle with the two great totalitarian exterminators of the last century she won, 2-0.