(Soviet refusenik activists photographed in 1976. From left to right: back row: Vitaly Rubin, Vladimir Slepak, Lev Ovsisscher, Alexander Druk, Yossi Beilin, front row: Natan Sharansky, Ida Nudel, Alexander Lerner.)

Avital and I are shocked by the news of Volodya’s death.

Volodya Slepak, nicknamed Борода (The Beard), was not just an activist, not just a refusenik, not just a Prisoner of Zion. Over the course of nearly two decades he was the central figure of our entire movement of the struggle for the freedom of Soviet Jews.

Masha and Volodya’s home in the center of Moscow was the central hub of connections among Jews visiting from all over the world and Soviet Jews coming from every corner of the USSR.

Volodya’s name was used as a password by emissaries of Jewish organizations. His signature on a letter from refuseniks was the best guarantee of the letter’s authenticity.

With incredible patience, never losing his calm demeanor or warm disposition, Volodya Slepak spoke with hundreds –no — thousands of people. And he was no different with a U.S. congressman than with a refusenik from Kishinev or a farmer from Ilyinka.

He lost his patience and good humor only in dealing with KGB. Whenever he was called for interrogations by the KGB, no one had any doubt that it was the KGB guys that would be sweating bullets, not Volodya.

Volodya was a loyal and dependable friend. When on the day before I was arrested, the KGB “tails” surrounded me in a tight ring, Volodya held my hand as we walked together day and night along the streets of Moscow, refusing to let the KGB goons to separate us. It was as if he was telling them: you first have to come through me. I felt his unwavering support even while I was in prison and he was exiled in Siberia.

An outstanding Jewish leader, a true comrade-in-arms, caring and dear friend — that is how I will remember Volodya Slepak.

May his memory be for a blessing.

Natan Sharansky is the Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency.

Related: How We Freed Soviet Jewry
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