I WENT to Russia in 1986 at the cusp of Glasnost, just as new freedoms were opening up while the old repressions were still in place.
I and my then student daughter were on a secret mission to visit refusniks — Soviet Jews who had been refused visas to emigrate to Israel.
It was all cloak-and-dagger spy stuff. We were briefed by the Council for Soviet Jewry not to speak about our secret mission in our hotel bedroom, which was probably bugged.
One of my assignments was, as a British Jewish journalist, to visit one of my Soviet Jewish journalist counterparts who proceeded to entrust me with a much more dangerous assignment — to smuggle out of the country an anti-Soviet article written in Russian.
All tourist trips to Russia in those still-Soviet days were strictly regulated, much like in North Korea today. You couldn’t stray off the beaten track and had to go on the prescribed tourist trips.
I wasn’t taken in by the impressively ornate Russian architecture. As I alighted from the tourist coach in Moscow’s Red Square, I was physically sick on the pavement.
That was my gut reaction to Russian oppression and repression... and it still is to this day.
As Labour MP Chris Bryant said in a parliamentary debate on the recent poisoning of Sergei Skripal: “Under Putin, the Russian Federation has managed to combine all the worst facets of communism and all the worst facets of rampant capitalism, all wrapped in a national security state that keeps its people poor and kills its political opponents.”
Unfortunately, oppression seems to be in the Russian genes, whether it is rule by a cruel Tsar, the beastly Stalin or wily Putin.
In this context, it literally sickens me that Israel has not seen fit to join the rest of the free world — including American president Donald Trump, who has his own ambivalent relationship with Russia — in condemning the country after the ghastly Salisbury attack.
I know that, with the war in Syria waging literally on Israel’s doorstep, the Jewish country — which is allowed, courtesy of the Kremlin, to make the occasional raid against its enemies fighting themselves to death there — has strategic interests in not upsetting Russia. It sickens me nevertheless, but then I have a sensitive stomach. I don’t feel happy that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman are best pals with Putin.
Asked about why Israel failed to fall in with the rest of the free world in expelling Russian diplomats, Israel Construction Minister Yoav Gallant said that one of the reasons was because “more than a million immigrants who have come from Russia to Israel and the Russian administration views them as Russian citizens, or old citizens, or veterans of Russia”.
What sort of a reason is that?
Hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors managed to land up in Israel. Did post-Nazi Germany retain links with them as German citizens?
The Germans were rightly too ashamed of their Nazi past to be so chutzpadik. Those of us who were involved in the Soviet Jewry campaign are all too aware of the oppression that Jews suffered in the Soviet Union.
But Putin and his cohorts have surprisingly short memories.
True, many Jews today feel at home in Russia. On the day of Putin’s recent election, Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar said: “Today’s Russia is one of the most attractive places in the world for the development of Jewish life.
“In Russia, traditional values have been strengthened. This is, to a very large extent, thanks to the Russian leadership.”
Yet Putin recently accused Jews of interfering in the American elections.
I don’t trust the former KGB agent, who is currently encouraging Russian speakers across the world to maintain links with their old homeland with the eventual aim of returning there as well as influencing the countries where they are currently living to promote favourable links with Moscow.
The International Co-ordinating Council of Russian Compatriots has been incredibly successful in Israel, where more than a million Russian immigrants have conveniently forgotten past Russian antisemitism and are encouraging their new country to maintain good relations with their previous homeland, from which they could not wait to escape.
In the 1970s and 80s, we used to march through the streets with banners proclaiming the Pesach motto: “Let My People Go!”
Our protests and prayers were answered and hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews were set free.
Would that they would remain free and not feel the need to still bow down to the old enemy of Russian repression, be it tsarist, communist or pro-Putin!