Mathematician Irina Brailovsky’s story typifies those of hundreds of Jewish scientists, engineers and physicians who applied to emigrate from the USSR in the 1970s and 1980s. In retaliation, they were dismissed (or demoted) from professional employment and were shut out from mainstream Soviet science.
She, her husband Victor, a computer science expert, and family were first refused exit in 1972. For 15 years they lived in limbo until they were finally allowed to leave. Throughout their long ordeal they managed to earn a meager livelihood at odd jobs not at all commensurate with their skills and experience.
With Irina at his side, Victor helped found then and hosted the famed Moscow Seminar on Collective Phenomena (the Sunday Seminar) in an effort to overcome refuseniks’ (people refused permission to emigrate) denial of access to libraries, laboratories and scientific seminars. Through this forum, they and other refuseniks struggled valiantly to maintain their scientific skills. At the Seminar they presented their theoretical research, born of lack of access to facilities that fostered practical applications, and kept abreast of research and development with the help of visiting foreign scientists.
Irina’s and Victor’s position as leaders of the Moscow refusenik community left their family open to a range of harassments such as house searches, confiscation of scientific papers, interrogations and threats of prosecution on charges of “parasitism.” This culminated in Victor’s arrest in November 1980 and trial in June 1981 on a charge of defaming the Soviet state. He was sentenced to five years’ internal exile in Khazakstan. And CCS sprang into action intensifying its support for him and for the Sunday Seminar by organizing a series of weekly Scientific Seminars in Exile across the length and breadth of the U.S. With the participation of world renowned scientists, we were able to sensitize more and more scientists to the situation and to attract press coverage.
Concurrently in Moscow, Irina held the family together while assuming a central role in the functioning of the beleaguered Sunday Seminar, which was under constant surveillance.
Of special interest is the fact that the numerous rejections of the family’s applications for exit were refused on grounds of Irina’s alleged knowledge of state secrets — knowledge supposedly gained when she had worked at the Computer Center of Moscow State University. She persisted in presenting a constant stream of irrefutable concrete evidence to the contrary, trying to overcome this false allegation and triumph over the formidable bureaucracy. Meanwhile, when Victor tried to leave with his son Leonid (who was then under danger of call-up for military service) and without Irina, the two were refused — again on the same grounds of Irina’s alleged secrecy. At another juncture, Irina organized a “Let Our Children Go” movement in hopes of extricating refuseniks’ children from Soviet oppression. Nevertheless, when her son Leonid (already married) applied to leave on his own, he was refused on grounds that it was against Soviet policy to divide families.
The family left together — Irina, Victor, son Leonid with his wife and son, daughter Dalia and Irina’s mother Fanya Fefer — the first family in their group of veteran refuseniks to leave as beneficiaries of Gorbachev’s perestroika. They arrived in Israel in September 1987. Today Irina and Victor are part of mainstream science at Tel Aviv University where Irina is a senior researcher and senior lecturer in mathematics, and Victor is a professor of computer science.