Freedom hasn't mellowed Mark Yakovlevich Azbel. After five years of fighting to be allowed to leave the Soviet Union, and three years writing "Refusenik" (Boston: Houghton Mifflin; $17.95, the story of his travails, he still bristles with energy.

He is a small man with tufty, curly reddish-gray hair and tiny, twinkling eyes, a lot of opinions, and a terrifying giggle. Ask him what it was like to live through those years, and you'll hear it: a squeaky giggle that would sound silly if it weren't laced with blackest irony. The anecdotes that follow it are frightful, but the tone of the giggle must have daunted even the KGB, the Soviet secret police.

This is the man who says he said to Sergei Ivanivich Gavrilov, a high-ranking interrogator, liaison between the KGB and Central Committee, that if after five years he was still being detained in the Soviet Union, "You'll encounter new troubles which, I assure you, you don't anticipate. Either you'll have to let me go, or you'll have to imprison me for a long term; you won't have any other choice. You know a lot about me, Sergei Ivanovich. You probably realize that I'm not lying. . . . So there are the alternatives for you. Which do you prefer: simply to let me go, or to create another martyr to arouse the sympathies of the scientific community? It seems to me that in this case our interests coincide."

This after four years "in refusal," a limbo Soviet Jews find themselves in after applying for a visa to emigrate, being refused because of a bureaucratic technicality , and reapplying. A long wait usually follows for the "refuseniks." Azbel, a theoretical physicist, found himself cut off from society and fired from his job after applying to emigrate to Israel in 1972. Waiting for a visa that might never come, he endured 10-hour interrogation sessions, brief imprisonments, and a hunger strike. His phone was disconnected and friends were exiled to Siberia, and he himself took to carrying a toothbrush whenever he was summoned to KGB headquarters in case he was sent straight to prison. Even so, he says he was still able to threaten the interrogator in the same gentlemanly tone the interrogator used to threaten him.

There are many refuseniks. Action for Soviet Jewry, a Boston-based group, has a list of 1,000 Jewish families in refusal in the USSR, but suspects there are about 2,000 more families it doesn't know about. And, it seems, the situation is getting worse. Not only is their right to emigrate being more directly attacked while they are in refusal, but also fewer are allowed to leave. The number of exit visas granted by the Soviet Union to Jews hit a five-year low of 500 in August, down from 4,800 visas in the peak month of October 1979.

But not for lack of commitment from Azbel. The man who talked back to the KGB is a daunting interview subject. He is so direct that talking to him is a little like being grabbed and shaken by the shoulders. "Refusenik" is not the kind of book one can talk about in the abstract. Reality stalks us at every turn of phrase. When I told Azbel "Refusenik" was exciting to read, with the wonderful exhilaration at the end, when he and his wife and daughter took off for Israel, where he now teaches at Tel Aviv University, he said, "Exciting for you! You knew how it ended!" and chuckled blackly.

Actually, the story is still unfolding, and it's getting more grim. People mentioned in the book have since been arrested, and Azbel dispenses with literary chatter to get to the point of the interview: His friend, computer scientist Victor Brailovsky, has been sentenced to five years in exile in Siberia, and it is up the interviewer, personally, to save him, he says, looking piercingly at me. "Write letters," he commands, and when I ask whom I should write to -- Brailovsky himself? -- my naivete brings out the squeaky giggle at its most deadly serious: "No, not Brailovsky! Reagan! Senators! Be useful!"

"This is not a book by a writer, it is not a novel," he says. "There are living beings. This is a message, this is what goes on."

I am to tell readers, "Would they please receive the message that has already been sent to them, despite of the fact that it is enormously expensive which is Subtlety and tact are Western luxuries Azbel has no time for.

Most who apply to emigrate from the Soviet Union are Jews, because of the anti-Semitism rife there. The book tells of the harassment of the whole community of Jewish scientists who have applied and been refused permission to emigrate. The scientists and their families become a world unto themselves. All of them are fired from their laboratories, forbidden to publish their work, constantly hauled in for questioning by the KGB, deserted by friends, and threatened with a litany of trumped-up charges such as "parasitism" -- not having a job -- or "hooliganism." Demonstrating for the right to emigrate or, in some cases, merely being mentioned by demonstrators constitutes "hooliganism," Azbel says.

It is almost impossible for refuseniks to find work in their fields, and even menial jobs as doormen are in jeopardy if it is discovered that they are really laid-off Jewish physicists, chemists, or computer scientists. For applying to emigrate, they are fired; for not having a job, they are arrested.

Sadly, the refuseniks' lot today is so much worse that Azbel's time in refusal almost looks like the good old days. Victor Brailovsky's case is a good example. Brailovsky and his wife and children had b een waiting nine years for visas when he was sentenced in June to five years of interior exile. What is frightening for refuseniks is that Brailovsky is charged not with parasitism or hooliganism, but with "defamation of the Soviet state." His case is one of the first in which a request for emigration, as well as a letter Brailovsky is alleged to have written to President Carter asking for help, has been interpreted as "defamation"; it means, essentially, he is being punished for applying to emigrate. Soviet citizens have a constitutional right to apply for emigration, but once they apply, until they get out -- if they get out -- they are punished, according to refusenik accounts. "Now they [Soviet officials] don't even try to pretend" by calling it parasitism or hooliganism, Azbel says, "and again they show they do not care" about whether what they do is legal or not. For the legal system to be used so directly against a refusenik implies that the climate for Jews in the Soviet Union has become infinitely worse, according to American professors who have visited their counterparts in the USSR , and Allen Dershowitz, one of several lawyers from different countries who worked on behalf of the Shcharansky family.

An appeal on behalf of Brailovsky was denied Aug. 14. As this story goes to press, he is on a train where political dissidents are outnumbered by other criminals such as murderers and rapists. The journey may last a month, depending on how many other exiles they have to pick up, but will end in Siberia. Brailovsky will probably serve only two years, since he has done a year in prison already, and one day in prison, under the Soviet system, is computed as three days in exile. Exile consists of menial labor in a primitive town where, most likely, he will be ostracized by townspeople.

Pressure brought to bear from the West can help, says Azbel. But "nobody should ask himself how the world can change Russia. That is much too general. Let him ask himself how he personally can help. . . . I believe only in personal approach. Don't be general."

In case we need additional motivation, Azbel spells out a terrifying scenario: "Americans do not understand that the case of Brailovsky is the model case for Jewish activists. And model case for Jewish activists is model case for Jewish emigration. And Jewish emigration is model case for the whole . . . [survival of] freedom of thought in Russia. . . . Now if everyone is shot down, America will know nothing about what goes on in Russia, and that means Russia will be free to do what she pleases, and that means [a return to] Stalin's times -- which are much too close. If Stalin's times come, it will be much too frightening, much too dangerous for Americans."

Given his experience with the KGB, it is no wonder that, in an interview, he doesn't answer questions, he contradicts them. When asked how he found the courage to keep refusing to cooperate with the KGB, for example, he says, his eyes twinkling with grim merriment: "Fright." He kept his integrity, not signing a single "confession" the KGB had ready for him about any of the other refuseniks, even when they were innocuous, because anything could be used to mount a case against his friends. "People are [only] afraid of day-to-day events," he says, which is a big mistake, because they "do not fear the ultimate danger. . . . Anybody in danger has found there is nothing more frightening than death. And [informing] is a moral death." To inform on his friends would mean "I would have to drop the whole idea of emigration," because survival of refuseniks depends so much on the personal relations which keep them from losing hope. If you inform, "you lose everybody, including even the KGB, even they don't care about you anymore. They are all lost. So you have to live all your life as a nonperson. . . . So I would say I kept my integrity due to my being frightened of this possibility. . . .

"Also, I knew what I wanted, that was a help," he says. "Understanding there was no life for me in Russia. . . . it was really not that difficult."

Perhaps he meant "simple." Because it was certainly difficult. Not only did he throw all that energy into returning the beleaguerment of the KGB and finding work to do so he would not be arrested for parasitism, he also kept active in his field. Starting in 1972, the refusenik scientists, led by theoretical physicist Alexander Voronel, held sunday scientific seminars, at which they could read their papers to each other in an effort to keep their scientific work alive as much as possible. These seminars grew as the refusenik population did. And they were visited by American scientists in Moscow during US-Soviet scientific exchanges. After Voronel got his visa and emigrated in 1974, Azbel took over.

Dr. David Baltimore of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a Nobel laureate in molecular biology, remembers the seminar he attended as a "very serious gathering of scientists who did not share a common scientific background , but were drawing on it for intellectual sustenance. It was a magnificent experience." Many of the people he met there as a visitor, he said, have since been granted visas. But "the kindest people," he says, "the ones who took us there [to Azbel's apartment], the Brailovskys," are now suffering through Viktor Brailovsky's exile. He described Brailovsky as a "gentle, thoughtful, dedicated person," and said "it's an international crime" that he is in exile.

Other scientists who had visited the seminar also remarked on Brailovsky's kindness and hospitality. Bertrand Halperin, a professor of physics at HArvard, remembers visiting Azbel when he was in the hospital. Brailovsky, who took him there, insisted on paying for the taxi, even though the few rubles amounted to "several days' subsistence" for him.

It was Brailovsky who took over the seminars after Azbel emigrated, and most observers agree that this is why he was arrested and exiled. The seminars were prevented from meeting by the KGB for about six weeks. Then, in February, they were left alone. Dorothy Hirsch, director of the Committee of Concerned Scientists, an American group that has in particular taken up the cause of the refuseniks and Latin American scientists, says that a series of Sunday seminars in exile, held all over the United state during February in support of Brailovsky, may have brought pressure on the Soviet Union to let them continue. In the spring there were more difficulties, and after the summer recess, she says, "there is apprehension and speculation on what will happen when they try to resume seminars in the fall." This fall there will be an international conference under the auspices of the Sunday seminars. American scientists and scientists from other countries have been invited.

According to Peter Pershen, a professor of applied physics at Harvard, who also read a paper at one of the seminars, it is not so surprising that American scientists are in touch with refusenik scientists in the Soviet Union.Science, he pointed out, is by its nature international. He was about to call a friend in Denmark, for example, to ask him to join him on an experiment in Hamburg.

There were many official conferences between the United States and the Soviet Union. Pershen and Halperin, both aware of the mistreatment of Jewish scientists in the Soviet Union, debated with themselves over attending these conferences. They both decided to go and to make a side trip to visit the Sunday scientific seminars. The Soviets knew they were doing this, since the refuseniks were under close KGB supervision. Halperin and a another physicist, James Langer, were held up for five hours at Mowcow airport when they were invited for a special "jubilee" seminar at Azbel's apartment, and were let go under the threat of expulsion from the Soviet Union if they attended the seminar. Pershen made it obvious where he was going as well.

When Pershen got to the seminar, he said, he found a "sparse apartment, about as big as this -- " he indicates his office, which is roomy, but not for a family of three and a seminar. It was as crowded as a wedding in a two-room flat, he says. When a member of the American group told Pershen he had been told it was "dangerous" to visit refuseniks, he worried he might have put them in jeopardy. Indeed, he found, Azbel was interrogated by the KGB the nest day. However, Pershen says they told him, "we shouldn't be afraid anything would happen to them. The USSR had to kill them or let them go, and nothing worse could happen."

Halperin arrived at a particularly "gloomy time," after dissident scientists Anatoly Shcharansky and Yuri Orlov were arrested, but "it was a very joyous occasion, very moving." The KGB had been trying to stop the jubilee seminar, and no one knew if it would come off at all. "For the moment, they were overjoyed," Halperin said. He added that Azbel was such a vital force -- after five minutes of a 20-minute talk in English, Azbel would summarize what was said in about one minute of fast Russian -- that he worried about the seminar's continuation after Azbel's release. The seminar went on for four days, and "by the second day, the atmosphere had changed. There was such concern for Orlov and Shcharansky that it was hard to keep up the elation." There was an obvious conflict between the group's desire to "keep up with their science" and the desperate situation they felt they were in, he said.

Halperin felt, however, that being publicized (two of the special seminars were covered in Newsweek) and keeping contact with Western scientists protected the refuseniks. Both professors said that their ability to help out was limited , but that being in touch with Soviet scientists gave them some leverage. Though Halperin said it was not in him to chide visiting Soviet scientists said to hav e betrayed refuseniks because he had no idea how he himself would act under similar pressure (the KGB is a threat to everyone in the scientific world, not just Jews), Pershen felt it was advisable to take such people aside and point out that it was known they had collaborated with the KGB. He reported proudly that at the Russian-American Theoretical Physics seminar, he challenged two scientists who Azbel had said spoke against him. Shortly after that, he said, Azbel was allowed to leave. Asked if the two events were related, he shrugged.

There is a dilemma, David Baltimore says, about whether to go to meetings at all. "The scientific community has historically considered itself an international community," he says. "They put allegiances to each other on a par with allegiances to their countries. There is a tremendous affinity scientists feel for someone who is working on a similar problem," whenever that person may be working. The Pugwash movement, a peace movement started as an international peace conference in Pugwash, Nova Scotia, in 1955, "maintained contact between Soviets and Western scientists all through the cold war and continues," he says. But, he added, "There are a lot of people who are conflicted today over whether to isolate the Soviet Union because of human rights violations, or contact the Soviet Union in the interests of world peace."

The US State Department, in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, stopped funding official Soviet-American exchanges except for those that dealt with humanitarian problems such as health, ecology, and food. And in response to Schcharansky's exile, the National Academy of Sciences notified the Soviet Academy of Sciences that all joint symposiums, seminars, and workshops between the academies were suspended for six months.That suspension has been extended pending the outcome of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe being held in Madrid, which is due to reconvene in October.

But individual contacts continue.

"I am often asked by American scientists," Azbel says, whether it is better to boycott Soviet scientific gatherings, or to keep the contacts in order to see refuseniks. "If you just keep the contacts, why should the Soviets change anything? If you just stop the contacts, what for? They will do it anyway. That won't change their system, and you do not specify what you want them to do.You might specify that you stop the contacts because, let's say, Orlov and Shcharansky are in prison or because [physicist Andrei] Sakharov is in exile. But after they are in prison what do people say?" The West should make the release of a refusenik a condition for further scientific contact and make the condition clear before the refusenik is sentenced, Azbel suggests. The Soviet Union rarely commutes a sentence, and to do do under Western pressure is highly unlikely. "You have to have a relation between people and nations," he says, "but allow everybody to save face. Just be very communicative, very polite."

For scientists who have been traditionally seen as head-in-the-clouds apolitical geniuses, the problems of their colleagues in the Soviet Union are more and more a political cause they rally around, Dorothy Hirsch says. Many are declining invitations to the Soviet Union as a matter of conscience.

As for the rest of us, Dr. Azbel has some instructions:

"Depends on you, depends on you." He tells the story of three people who got together to send a parcel of clothing to aid refuseniks: "So what happened? One person raised money, the other person bought them, the third person mailed. Everyone was happy. Who received it? The KGB. . . . Everybody did his duty, nobody cared."

On the other hand, he was once visited by a French graduate student who said he would write to him. Azbel just smiled at him, since no letters could get through the KGB censors. But the student returned to France and every day sent Azbel a registered letter, return receipt requested. The letters had small, insignificant messages such as "regards from Alfred," or newspaper clippings. When he had sent 60 letters, he waited a month, went to the post office, and asked for his insurance money, since he hadn't received any receipts indicating Azbel had gotten the letters. The French post office had had trouble before, and was unwilling to ask Moscow for its half of the insurance money, but the graduate student persisted. Since the Soviet Union is loath to part with currency, Azbel figures the KGB censor in charge of his mail was summoned. The letters were opened and it was discovered they were inconsequental. "My hypotheses was after that the KGB had no problems" with the letters, and sent them through. "It's easier to keep letters than checj them," Azbel says. He imagines the censor thinking, "'Who will check the letters this crazy guy receives?' The censor did not want to take his chances. So not a single letter from Alfred was lost. I received them, no matter what was written there. So, he conquered."

A small victory, perhaps, but one that brings a smile of true glee to Azbel's face, and, no doubt, sustained him in his time in refusal. "so if you start thinking about you, personally, then it's for the whole world. You won't change the whole world, but a certain group of people may be shifted, and let them shift others."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.