From Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul

Fighting for Freedom

Be isolated, be ignored, be attacked, be in doubt, be frightened, but do not be silenced.

Bertrand Russell

Boris Nadgorny was a promising young physics student in Moscow in the 1980s. But this was a time when the Soviet Union had a policy of intense oppression of their Jewish citizens, and Boris could never achieve his full potential as long as he remained in the shadowy halls of Soviet academia. But Soviet officialdom wouldn’t let him leave the country.

Jewish activists around the world tried everything they could to help Soviet Jews. When the case of Boris became known in England in 1987, he was “adopted” by the students at Oxford University. Jews and non-Jews at Oxford worked very hard to bring his case to the attention of the world.

Boris’s name soon became well known among the entire Oxford student body. Among their many action programs was a telephone campaign to the Soviet Embassy in London. On a daily basis, students would call and ask why Boris Nadgorny was not permitted to emigrate. They wore badges all over the campus that read, “I phoned the Embassy twice today, have you?” All eight thousand students, Jewish and non-Jewish, participated in this remarkable daily phone-athon.

Besides all the normal procedures for political action, Oxford students came up with an ingenious plan. The student body invited a Soviet official to the Oxford campus to report on glasnost, the new spirit of freedom brought to the Soviet Union by Mikhail Gorbachev, who had recently come to power. The official was Sergei Shilov, the cultural attache of the Soviet Embassy in London. Shilov did not realize that the real aim of the students was to ask him during the question-and-answer period about Boris.

Five hundred students attended the meeting in a large hall and listened as Shilov was asked about Soviet Jewish “Refuseniks.” Then he was asked specifically about Boris Nadgorny—why had he not been permitted to leave the country?

“No,” Shilov replied, “Boris was not refused, it is not true, and he can go any time he wants.”

At that point an Oxford student, Irina Brailovsky, stood up and said that she was a former Soviet Refusenik, and that she had accurate information that Boris had just recently been refused permission to emigrate.

Next came the big surprise, which had taken careful behind-the-scenes management by the organizers of the meeting. The meeting chairman entered the room and announced that Boris Nadgorny was at that very moment on the telephone to Oxford, and a loudspeaker had been set up so that he could speak to the gathered group.

A buzz of excitement went around the hall, which was hushed immediately as the sound of Boris’s voice came loud and clear over the loudspeaker.

“Yes, I was refused just two weeks ago,” he said in heavily accented English.

Someone at the meeting then asked Shilov about his own statement, made only minutes earlier, that Boris was in fact allowed to leave the Soviet Union.

With Boris still waiting on the telephone, it was impossible for a Soviet official to continue to lie so blatantly in front of a large group of people. This was a time when the Soviets were earnestly seeking warmer relations with the West, and Shilov could not risk having his Oxford debacle spread across the pages of the British press the next day.

“Will you speak directly to Boris and tell him that he may leave?” asked the chairman of the meeting.

Shilov had no option but to do so. “You are free to leave,” he said to Boris, as the hundreds of students listened, ecstatic about the success of their audacious plan.

Boris Nadgorny was out of the Soviet Union within four months of that telephone call. He has since received his Ph.D. in physics from Princeton University, and now holds a prominent place in his field in the world of American academia.

Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins
(Reported to me by Boris’s parents, Eduard and Nina Nadgorny,
during my visit to the USSR in October 1988)

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