In this week’s blog post, we tell the story of Raiza Palatnik, and her journey as a Refusenik.
Jews were persecuted in the Soviet Union through much of the 20th century. Extreme nationalism took place in Russia, following the Leninist principle of all Soviet citizens falling into one general populate with no nationality distinctions. In the 1970s, Moscow had a large Jewish population, yet there was only one synagogue. There was no way to become a rabbi or even eat kosher food; therefore Jews were discouraged from learning and practicising their Jewish cultural identity.
After continual denial, Jews wanted to emigrate from Russia. Although they could apply to leave, the majority were refused permission and were often unable to get a job afterwards, even if they were a qualified scientist or librarian. Instead, the government would assign you a job, such as the roles of stoker, shovelling coal, or elevator operator.
The Russian government wanted to discourage large-scale Soviet-Jewish migration by imprisoning leaders of the Jewish movement.
Raiza Palatnik’s story
On the 14th October 1970, Raiza Palatnik was asked by two men who came to the Library where she worked, to go with them to her apartment. They claimed to be Police Officers of the Criminal Investigation Department. Outside her apartment building, they were met by an Investigator who had a warrant signed by the Prosecutor to authorise a search for stolen items from a nearby school. The search lasted for 5 hours and her typewriter and material on Jewish issues were confiscated. This material included speeches of Nassar before the Six-Day War; the interview of Golda Meir in the New York Times; and a stenograph of Joseph Brodsky’s trial. Upon signing the protocol, Raiza reported that all the items taken were her personal possessions and had nothing to do with the search stated in the warrant, and ordered their immediate return.
The next day, Raiza was addressed again at her place of work by Investigator Alexiev, who instructed her to go to the KGB office immediately. Here, she was demanded to reveal the names of the people from whom she received the anti-Soviet material. In her response Raiza stated that the search and demands were acts of persecution for her wish to go to Israel, as she had previously submitted a request that her relatives in Israel be located. The interrogation lasted for four hours and she was threatened with arrest if she refused to provide the names. At the same time, five Jews and a Russian woman were asked in a nearby room if they had been provided anti-Soviet literature by Palatnik, whether she had publicly advocated for emigration to Israel, if she had been seen with anybody who had been arrested in Leningrad, Kishniev and Riga.
Every few days Palatnik would be called in for questioning with psychological pressure, threatening her with unpleasant consequences if she did not speak the truth on who provided her with the anti-Soviet material. After not being told what she was being accused of (in accordance with the Soviet law), Palatnik wrote to the First Secretary of the District Communist Party, and complained against the unlawful procedures and persecutions by the KGB because of her wish to go to Israel. She sent a similar letter to Breznev, but received no responses. Raiza also wrote an open letter on the 20th November, explaining her cause and motivation. She finished this letter with the following “in my trial I will cry out against all anti-semites in the Yiddish I was taught by my Mother and Father.”
On 20th November the KGB searched Palatnik’s parents’ apartment for anti-Soviet literature, and found nothing. In subsequent interrogations Palatnik refused to speak in any other language but her mother tongue, Yiddish, and demanded a translator. The interrogator refused her request, and so Palatnik refused to answer any questions, only stating “nein” in Yiddish.
In the mean time, the KGB continued to summon Palatnik’s relatives and friends, and even complete strangers, to find out whether Palatnik had been distributing the anti-Soviet literature, and if she was campaigning for emigration to Israel.
On 1st December 1970, Raiza Palatnik was arrested by the KGB. Her apartment shared with her sister had been searched for material condemning the Soviet Union.
The next day, Palatnik’s husband and sister went to the KGB and requested to see documentation that stated what charges were being made against Raiza. After receiving no information from Larionev they went on to ask the Prosecutor, who revealed that Raiza was suspect of “distributing false stories slandering the Soviet State and society, according to paragraph 187 of the Ukrainian code”.
The KGB later summoned Raiza’s parents. The investigator wanted testimony from her father that his daughter had fallen “under the influence of criminal Zionist elements”. In response, Raiza’s father claimed that this was not the case, and that Raiza was a decent and honest human. He further demanded to see the documentation of the charges made against his daughter, which was refused. Raiza’s brother, Valdimir was also questioned, on Raiza’s mental health.
In March 1971, Raiza was psychologically examined, and the doctors attested that her mental health was absolutely sound. On 22nd June 1971 the trial of Raiza Palatnik took place, and she was sentenced to two years imprisonment. During her time in prison, Palatnik became very ill, and suffered paralysis in one of her arms. Her daily diet consisted of thin soup of gruel, rotten fish, and tea with and without 20 grams of sugar; cabbage soup made from water and bones; and oatmeal or a small potato with veg, as well as 500 grams of bread distributed daily. She was required to work in a sewing room with over 200 women prisoners, with the work involving the sewing of gloves, overalls and other garments, as well as quilt covers. The equipment used was over ten years old and there was no ventilation, first aid equipment, or disinfectant.
In December 1972 Palatnik was released. On hearing the news that thirty-five-year-old librarian Raisa Palatnik from Odessa had been arrested for distributing samizdat, (banned literature), a small group of women decided to hold a protest outside the Soviet Embassy in London. From these modest beginnings grew the campaign on behalf of the refusniks. This group became known as the 35’s, and were called the Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry. During Palatnik’s time in prison, this pressure group distributed leaflets asking members of the public to protest to help her, as she stood on trial in the Soviet Union. They requested telegrams and letters to be sent to the Soviet Ambassador at an address in Kensington Gardens, London, or to Intourist Moscow Ltd in Regent Street.
You can find out more about the group and the material we hold on them at the following links: