Mark Azbel: escape of a Soviet Jew; Refusenik: Trapped in the Soviet Union, by Mark Ya. Azbel. Foreword by Freeman Dyson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $17.95

By , David Quammen is a free-lance writer.

Notwithstanding the facts that V. I. Lenin himself may have had a Jewish grandfather, and that Lenin for whatever reason spoke vehemently against anti-Semitism, to be a Jew in the Soviet Union today entails subjection to a daunting mixture of conditioned but informal hatred by the Gentile populace, and tireless systematic persecution by the government.

For a Jew to be a promising scientist, especially a physicist, is the best of all ways to gain some immunity from persecution, and a share of those precious material blessings USSR saves for its elite. But to be a scientist andm a Jew who has applied for an exit visa to emigrate to Israel, been refused, and then contested that refusal, is to face slow torture, professional ruin, and ultimate personal disaster. Mark Ya. Azbel is a theoretical physicist, a Jew, a proud Israeli, and -- to his vast relief -- a former soviet citizen.

He is also, judging from his autobiography, an extraordinary man: a living cross between Joseph Heller's Yossarian ("Catch 22"), Arthur Koestler's Rubashov ("Darkness at Noon"), and Ken Kesey's McMurphy ("One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"). Azbel first applied for permission to emigrate in 1972, and then for five years he trudged the Kafkaesque corridors of Soviet officialdom, battling the world's most efficiently malign bureaucracy. His only weapons were wit, courage, stubborn energy, and a few selfless friends who shared his situation, among them computer scientist Victor Brailovsky.

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The very idea of Soviet Jewry being allowed emigration to Israel was new in the early 1970s, so Azbel and Brailovsky with a few others became pioneers in the struggle to outmaneuver the bureaucracy and win visas. Eventually they led a tightly knit group of refuseniksm based in Moscow, attracted small but crucial gestures of support from Western scientists and politicians, and provided help to hundreds of other Jews seeking escape.

Azbel meanwhile was dismissed from his physics institute, and prevented from earning a living; harassed unrelentingly by the KGB, summoned for frequent interrogations; separated from his wife and young daughter, held without charge in Serpukhov Prison; and finally tantalized with a promise of his visa if he would give evidence against the dissident Anatoly Shcharansky. Azbel refused.

Through five years that seemed increasingly hopeless, he remained slightly more clever, and slightly more willful than the entire apparatus of official tyranny. Then, finally, Mark Azbel won.

In July of 1977, harried up to the last moment, Azbel and his family boarded a plane for Vienna with connection to Tel Aviv. The final chapter of "Refusenik" depicting that embarkation is as gripping and as exhilarating as the climax of a masterful novel. But with the exhilaration this book inspires there is also sadness, and an abiding sense of responsibility. Because when Mark Azbel flew out of Moscow, Victor Brailovsky -- with many like him -- remained behind, still fighting, still waiting. And in November of 1980 Brailovsky was arrested for "defamation of the Soviet state" and sent to Butyrskaya Prison.

What can I say to persuade you to read this moving, important, heroic book? I'm ordering extra copies to give to friends.

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