Obituary: Boris Chernobilsky

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The Independent Culture
THE WORD refusenik, a Soviet Jew refused permission to emigrate to Israel, entered the English dictionary in 1976, coincidentally the year Boris Chernobilsky first entered prison. This was due largely to the exploits of Anatoly (Natan) Shcharansky, now leader of Israel's Yisrael ba-Aliyal party, Yuli Edelstein, now Israel's Absorption Minister, and Chernobilsky, who has died while swimming off an Israeli beach.

That he reached Israel at all was down to dogged persistence, coupled with copious chutzpah, in the face of a quite appalling catalogue of state- sponsored harassment. Born and educated in Moscow, Chernobilsky graduated as a radio/electronics engineer. His knowledge of radar technology, acquired during his national service in the Soviet army in the mid-Sixties, was considered by the authorities more than a decade later as reason enough to deny Chernobilsky, his wife Leah, and their three children an exit visa for a new life in Israel. The charge, as always in the land of paranoia, was one of "being in possession of secret information", the all-embracing reason for holding on to even the most reluctant and innocuous citizens.

This determined the Chernobilskys all the more to embrace their heritage and their Jewish knowledge and they turned their tiny Moscow apartment into a Jewish school, teaching first themselves, then countless other refuseniks, Hebrew in readiness for the day they would all reach Israel. In all, Chernobilsky's efforts contributed to thousands of would-be Jewish emigres achieving their dreams of a new life in Israel.

To involve yourself in any way with the Hebrew language in the Soviet Union of the 1970s and 1980s was to incur the wrath of the authorities, who regarded the learning and teaching of Hebrew as, if not illegal, then certainly a deeply subversive activity. This was anti-Semitism in a flimsy dressing. They subjected the family to a systematic reign of terror, with regular beatings and temporary prison detention, culminating for Chernobilsky in a year in a Siberian labour camp on trumped-up charges of "malicious hooliganism", the Soviet euphemism for "peaceful demonstration". He also secretly travelled to the Gulag, taking film of prison-camp life, which alerted the West to what was happening.

Active campaigning from the West, not least the intervention of Kenneth Baker, then Education Secretary, won the Chernobilskys some respite from their harassment. First their daughter Geula was allowed to leave her state school, where pupils and staff alike would taunt her for being the child of a "traitor", in favour of Moscow's Anglo-American School. Then Chernobilsky was granted a temporary visa to accept, at the House of Lords, the Henry Moore Award of the All- Party Parliamentary Committee for Soviet Jewry.

Shortly after, and close on 15 years after they first applied, the Chernobilskys received their exit visas and left for Israel, grateful to John Major and Sir Geoffrey Howe, then Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, for their assistance in securing safe passage.

Chernobilsky, always endearing, ever resourceful, and never one to conform, did not arrive in Israel the way others did. Using what little money he had garnered from the sale of his possessions, primarily his much-prized computer, he became one of the few Muscovite Volvo owners, driving the car, his family, and what little else they had across no fewer than nine borders before arriving in Haifa, to the bemusement of the transit authorities for whom this was a first. A refusenik arriving by car was a radical departure from the norm, even in a country where nothing is done by halves.

Despite all the right credentials, no less so than Shcharansky and Edelstein, Chernobilsky eschewed Israel's political life, indeed the limelight in general, preferring instead to fall back on his electrical skills from which he eked a modest existence, living a happy, quiet life close to the sea which ultimately claimed him.

His spare time, when not bathing in the Mediterranean, was given largely to assisting those Soviet immigrants less well placed than himself.

Peter Moss

Boris Chernobilsky, electrician, teacher and human rights activist: born Moscow 2 April 1944; married (one son, two daughters); died off Ashkelon, Israel 16 October 1998.