The Case Histories of the Refuseniks

Authored by Mary McNulty

Mr. Gorbachev: Let My People Go

Mr. Gorbachev: Let My People Go

Mr. Gorbachev, Let My People Go

Mr. Gorbachev: Let My People Go is a pamphlet held by the Centre for Migration Studies, as part of the Arthur P. Endres collection.  It was published by the South Florida Conference on Soviet Jewry, a smaller entity of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation’s Community Relations Committee (Sanford and Sandberg, 1986).  It details cases of Jews who attempted to receive visas to leave the Soviet Union during the Cold War, specifically from the 1960s through the 1980s (Golub 1989).  These émigrés, termed “Refuseniks,” were attempting to leave the USSR to reach Israel; however, many were denied emigration visas, for a variety of reasons that caused a great deal of friction in the international community.

The pamphlet was written in 1986 as a record of a presentation given at a committee meeting discussing the plight of Soviet Jews (Sanford and Sandberg 1986).  It was the thirteenth such book written, detailing individual cases of individuals who were denied the right to emigrate from the Soviet Union; the previous twelve of which were read into the Congressional Record, detailing how important this issue was to immigration discussions in the 1980s (Sandford and Sandberg 1986).  It makes it clear that this refusal was in violation of the Helsinki Final Act, an agreement made in 1975 that committed the participating states to “respect each other’s right freely to choose and develop its political, social, economic and cultural systems as well as its right to develop its laws and regulations.” (Buergenthal 1990), while still trying to end human rights violations (Rhéaume 2008).  According to this act, denying people immigration visas based on religious beliefs was illegal, yet it took place for more than a decade.  According to Salitan (1990), this was politically motivated; the Soviet Union was attempting to quash what they saw as a Zionist movement, and so found reasons to deny people visas to travel to Israel.

Many of the people who were prevented from emigrating were prominent scientists, and as a result, some of the early supporters of these “refuseniks” were the Committee of Concerned Scientists and the Federation of American Scientists (Rhéaume 2008).  Many organizations like these believed that it was part of their duty as scientists to ensure a free exchange of data by supporting their colleagues in the USSR, and on occasion, refusing to work unless they were assured of their counterparts’ safety.  Other “refuseniks”, such as Arkady Mai, had been forced to quit highly skilled positions and then denied visas on the grounds that they had knowledge of classified information (Grassley 1983).  At times, even the status of being a “refusenik” resulted in a lack of opportunity; Helen Mai was forced to quit her job as a lecturer once it became known that she and her husband were trying to leave the Soviet Union (Grassley 1983).

Mr. Gorbachev: Let My People Go discusses many cases like that of the Mais, families who were not allowed to leave the Soviet Union, but not allowed to work once they were known as “refuseniks.”  The Ibragimovs, for example, were separated for well over a decade; the family’s two sons and their own families refused visas and then forced to stop their work, making it impossible to support their families, let alone leave the country (Sanford and Sandberg 1986).  This was a deliberate refusal on the part of the Soviet Union to allow skilled workers to leave the country, ostensibly to put an end to a Zionist movement.  But the result was the creation of a minority underclass, made up of highly skilled workers, who were in limbo for years, dependent on Western organizations to help them escape the Soviet Union.


Buergenthal, Thomas, “Copenhagen: A Democratic Manifesto,”  World Affairs, Volume 153, No. 1.  1990. Retrieved from

Golub, Judith E., “Selected Issues of Soviet Jewish Migration,”  In Defense of the Alien, Vol. 12, 1989. Retrieved from

Grassley, Charles, “A Visit with Soviet Jews,”  The Saturday Evening Post,  Vol. 255, 1983.

Rhéaume, Charles, “Western Scientists’ Reactions to Andrei Sakharov’s Human Rights Struggle in the Soviet Union, 1968-1989,”  Human Rights Quarterly, Volume 30, No. 1, 2008. Retrieved from

Salitan, Laurie P., “Domestic Pressures and the Politics of Exit: Trends in Soviet Emigration Policy,”  Political Science Quarterly, Volume 104, No. 4, 1989-1990.

Sanford, Margery and Sandberg, Adele, Mr. Gorbachev: Let My People Go.  Case Histories of the Refusniks,  Vol. 13, 1986.