Moscow, USSR 1931
How did you get involved with human rights in the Soviet Union?
Ever since I was a child I was interested in politics, and I even wanted to study humanities in history. But before I graduated high school, my father was arrested. He was accused of making anti-Soviet propaganda. Many of our friends and family thought it was a mistake. We knew it was government policy. My family understood from the beginning that Lenin and Stalin would have a damaging effect on the country. It was a very difficult time for our family. Even relatives were afraid to visit and help us.
I decided to study biology because it was impossible to have a career in politics. I became a human rights activist in the 1980’s when my family applied to realize its dream of emigration to the U.S. We were denied, which made us “Refuseniks.” So, we worked with UCSJ to build the foundation for the first Soviet emigration law, which was eventually came to be in 1990.
I also organized of group of other Refuseniks to monitor the visa office and expose them for denying people on illigitimate grounds. We also organized a conference called “Freedom of Movement for Everybody” in 1989. This did a lot to change public opinion. People went from believing that only enemies of socialism would want to leave the USSR to believing that people should be able to choose where to live. Emigration sped up and millions were able to leave. I’m proud that we did something very positive.
How long was your dad in jail?
He was in jail and in a concentration camp from 1949-1954. After Stalin’s death, his case was reopened, and he was deemed “rehabilitated.” In 1962 he died at 65, weakened by the hard labor. He wrote a book of stories about the concentration camp called “In the Past Night.”
When did you leave USSR?
December, 7 1990. My wife Natasha received permission first, but refused to go alone. Our son emigrated one year before us. When UCSJ invited her come to the U.S. and speak on behalf of our reunification. UCSJ arranged for her to meet President Bush in the oval office. He issued a statement about our family and the Soviet government gave me permission to go.
How has the human rights situation changed since the fall of the Soviet Union?
It has improved: Stalin was horrible, after him it was a little better. Now, some human rights are enforced. Some are not. The goal of many groups is to legalize freedom of association. Registration should be simplified. Political parties, NGO’s, groups. Association is legal as long as you aren’t public, but once you have a blog or a lawyer your repressed. Strikes are also outlawed. Much of television and books are censored. The Internet is also partly censored. You have to be very brave to criticize the government. Corruption is very bad. The court system is not independent.
What have you been working on recently?
I want to write some memoirs about my Refusenik days and maybe my whole life. Also, the Eurasia foundation project. It will teach young Russians to be tolerant of other races and religions. It will be the first of its kind.
by Alexander Woodend