Refuseniks (отказники)
by Anna Khomina, Research and Special Projects Intern, Center for Jewish History

The refuseniks were Soviet Jews who sought and were denied permission to emigrate out of the USSR in the ’60s and ’70s, and who organized protests (such as the ones pictured above) to call attention to their plight. Jews in the Soviet Union were systematically discriminated against and barred from certain universities and professions. However, applying for a visa—and, therefore, showing a desire to leave the country as a result of suffering from discrimination—was seen as a betrayal to the Soviet cause and often denied. Those who attempted to leave were even at risk of losing their jobs or being ostracized by their neighbors.

Refuseniks were not always Jewish; some were Germans yearning to return to their country of origin or Armenians wishing to join the world-wide Armenian diaspora. However, Jews constituted the majority and public face of the refusenik movement. The proliferation of photographs such as ones above gained the refuseniks sympathizers and even sister organizations in the West, including the Movement to Free Soviet Jewry, founded by Yeshiva University student Jacob Birnbaum in 1964. Prominent refuseniks included Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky, a political prisoner who would later become an influential Israeli politician and author.

By the 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev’s efforts to improve relations with the West and the infamous USSR "Iron Curtain" led to many refuseniks finally receiving their visas.

The American Jewish Historical Society holds an extensive collection of photographs of individual refuseniks and of demonstrations, as well as the records of Soviet Jewry organizations in the United States. You can search for these documents at digital.cjh.org.