Dr Mikhail Stern

Sexologist and Soviet dissident

Mikhail Shaevich Shtern (Mikhail Stern), sexologist: born Zhmerinka, Ukraine 1918; married Ida Khiger (two sons); died Amsterdam 17 June 2005.

It was a cruel irony that it was in his "beloved" adopted city of Amsterdam, where he worked as a sexologist and doctor after being freed from a Soviet labour camp in 1977, that the former Jewish refusenik Mikhail Stern was to suffer a violent death. A trusting man, he often failed to lock his house and in late April he was attacked by burglars, dying of his injuries nearly two months later.

A veteran protester against anti-Semitism in his home region in Ukraine, Stern survived three years in a Soviet labour camp in the 1970s for protesting against persecution of his two sons after they applied to emigrate to Israel.

As numerous Jews and others seeking to emigrate from the Soviet Union were rounded up by the KGB and imprisoned, protests by the growing dissident movement and sympathisers abroad began to see results. After Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre agreed to attend the International Stern Tribunal in Amsterdam in 1977 to campaign for his release, the Soviet authorities relented, freeing him a week before the event. The leading Jewish dissident Anatoli Shcharansky described the release as "unprecedented", telling Western journalists in Moscow that the official version that Stern was "amnestied on grounds of health" could not disguise the "great victory" of the campaign to free him (though within minutes the KGB arrested Shcharansky).

Grateful to the Dutch authorities - "I love the Netherlands," he always declared in recognition of the help he and his sons had received from their embassy in Moscow - Stern immediately settled in Amsterdam. He was at last able to come out as a sexologist, a profession barely allowed to exist in the Soviet Union. Soon after emigrating Stern and his son August published their path-breaking book Sex in the USSR, first in French and then, in 1980, in English.

Born into a devout Jewish family in a small town near Vinnitsa amid the turmoil in Ukraine in 1918, Stern early on decided to be a doctor, graduating in 1944. He had joined the Communist Party while still studying, and would relinquish membership only in 1974, the year of his arrest. Despite his relatively privileged background, he was dismissed from his post at the Vinnitsa endocrinological centre in 1952 during the fabricated "Doctors' Plot" when the dying Stalin imagined a conspiracy of mainly Jewish doctors plotting to poison Soviet leaders. Stern would be reinstated in 1954, the year after Stalin's death.

In 1961 he led a campaign against anti-Semitism, only to be accused in the Vinnitsa paper of killing a girl (she was in fact still alive and grateful for the treatment he had given her). His garden was dug up as officials hunted in vain for hidden gold and jewellery. In April 1974 he was summoned to the Vinnitsa visa office, where he was interrogated about his sons' application to leave for Israel. After the family flat was searched he protested to the prosecutor-general in Moscow. Two weeks later he was arrested and his fate was sealed. Many of his patients were interrogated for "evidence" that he took bribes and sold medicines for more than they cost. He was sentenced by a Vinnitsa court that December to eight years' hard labour on charges of swindling and bribery, and sent to a labour camp in Kharkov.

His two sons, Viktor and August, were both allowed to leave within months of his sentence and continued to campaign for their father's release from abroad. August also published a transcript of the trial from a secret recording - translated into English as The USSR versus Dr Mikhail Stern: an "ordinary" trial in the Soviet Union (1978) - the first time a trial of a dissident had been documented verbatim. The hapless prosecutor's attempts to get witnesses to stick to the KGB script would have been funny were it not for the outcome of the trial.

Felix Corley

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