It’s been almost 24 years since the fall of the Soviet Union. It seems to me that most young people do not know about refuseniks—Soviet Jews who were denied permission to emigrate to Israel—except Nika Vashakidze, 34, the Moscow-based director and producer of Alyad, a new documentary film that explores the complex reality of Jewish life in the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s, which was at once strictly prohibited and tacitly tolerated. Alyad premieres on Wednesday at the American Jewish Historical Society in New York.
The title of the film is a tribute to the phenomenon of young Soviet Jews congregating alyad, or “near,” the Moscow Choral Synagogue on Arkhipov Street; it features rare, sometimes unbelievable, archival footage. Here’s one incredible scene: Jews standing outside loudly (in the repressive Soviet Union!) offering Hebrew lessons. My father, a former refusenik, had previously told me about this nearly-fantastical occurrence—to my great disbelief. But seeing it on the big screen was another story, to the point where I began frantically messaging my parents: How could these meetings have occurred so openly? (My mother responded: Not “open” open, but not very covert either. It’s like pot usage for personal use—it’s still illegal but they may or may not go after you.)
“I didn’t want to talk about that which is normally discussed when you talk about refuseniks,” Vashakidze explained, in Russian. “I have a very different story: no one is fleeing, no one is struggling, no one is suffering. I am describing almost a different planet. But it’s true, and it existed. And these were the concrete events of these people’s lives.”
At times, viewers can’t help but share in the ecstasy of the film’s interviewees—Soviet Jews now living in Israel, most of whom were refuseniks—reminiscing over the heroism of their past. Ephraim (Alexander) Kholmyansky, a refusenik who became an active coordinator of clandestine Hebrew education, recalls: “By word of mouth, gradually, it took me half a year to find a Hebrew teacher in Moscow, who turned out to be my friend from school.” For any day school student who has ever zoned out in Hebrew class because it was a so-called “joke,” this revelation is humbling. Kholmyansky describes the experience of learning Hebrew as transcendent, “as if [he] had already heard [the words] before, in previous generations [and] only had to refresh them.”
Alongside Kholmyansky appear several other “heroes” who revolved in similar circles, teaching Hebrew and experiencing the spiritual redemption that only Soviet repression could awaken. Israeli Knesset Speaker Yuli-Yoel Edelstein recalls his acquaintance with Judaism, Hebrew, and Zionism while being held by Soviet authorities for “nine years of re-education.” Victor Fulmacht, a once-notable producer of samizdat (Russian for clandestine written works, that were mimeographed, photocopied, or typewritten, and then distributed and transmitted by hand), is an instantly memorable character, his eyes twinkling as he talks about the trepidation of handling unauthorized reproductions—as if still in that defiant moment.
While the interviews certainly animate the film and satisfy an urgency to immortalize these stories, it’s the archival footage that makes the documentary a true gem. Vashakidze said that she didn’t want to make a classical documentary film in which archival material, such as still photos, are used to directly illustrate the narrative of the talking heads; instead, the director weaved thematically-related archival videos throughout the interviews. For instance, there are shots of Jews building sukkahs in the Soviet countryside, a child struggling to read his native tongue (Hebrew) through a burdensome Russian accent, and improvised holiday celebrations that defy cultural genocide. This footage contributes to what amounts to a poignantly authentic atmosphere, though the relationship between the present-day interviews and the footage of the past was at times confusing. (Alyad stems from a project Vashakidze was commissioned to produce for Moscow’s Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center. The film was advised by Soviet Jewry scholar Olesya Shayduk-Immerman.)
One disclaimer is that the film may be difficult for non-Russian speakers to comprehend, and not only because the subtitling isn’t quite on par. Some terminology and concepts—like an archival snippet in which soon-to-be emigrants discuss why they can’t have parquet flooring when they move to Israel—may simply be too enmeshed in the experience of being a Russian Jew to be universally meaningful.
Vashakidze begs to differ. “People who don’t know anything about the problems of Jewry in the USSR, or about Jewry in general, or are not at all connected to the story of the Jews of the world, can watch this story, and they can simply see the story of a person—as if universal,” she said.“Anyone can relate to this as a person who questions himself about where he is, who he is, what he should do, [and] where he is going.”