This week in 1986, US President Ronald Regan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev met at a summit in Rekjavik, Iceland. With the nuclear threat of Vladimir Putin today, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had world leaders who could sit down and debate over a few words regarding nuclear disarmament as was done in Rekjavik, rather than brash statements in response to Russian threats to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine.
I wasn’t in Rekjavik but made my presence felt. My issue was not nuclear weapons, but rather saving Soviet Jews. In that context, I had an unusual hobby which kept me busy and was on full display in Rekjavik albeit with my sitting in my room at Emory University.
Long before I arrived at Emory, I had been actively engaged in the struggle to free Jews from the USSR. I learned and took my lead from the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry and Chicago Action for Soviet Jewry among others. In October 1986, I was between my first two trips to the USSR, having returned from one in 1985 and planning the second after my graduation in 1987. I had just returned from my junior year at Tel Aviv University’s overseas program where I quickly brought my activism to the campus there, earning the nickname “Soviet Jon.”
I used my age and stage in life to my advantage. As a student, I kept erratic and late hours most days. And on most days, I did something in my own little way to be part of the struggle.
At some point I had been provided a list of phone numbers of Soviet embassies all over the world. Calling them and protesting the Soviet persecution of Jews was a tactic people employed and were encouraged to do. As a poor student, I was not calling them on my own dime. That would have added up to quite a hefty phone bill. I assumed that at no matter the hour in Atlanta, every day of the week, there was a Soviet embassy open somewhere in the world. So, whether it was in the morning when I woke up, late at night while studying, or in between classes, I would call a Soviet embassy somewhere in the world, on average of once every other day.
My strategy was unique. I would call person to person, collect, meaning that the operator participated in my activism. I’d tell the operator I was calling collect, looking to speak to a particular person. The operator had no idea I was calling the Soviet embassy. I’d ask to speak to famous refuseniks such as Anatoly Sharansky (who had been freed in February 1986), Ida Nudel, Yosef Begun, Alexander Kholmyansky, and others. More often than not, the Soviet embassy would reject the call, and even hang up on the operator and me. Even when that happened, the message was delivered: someone was watching and holding them accountable for the plight of Soviet Jews.
Sometimes however, an unsuspecting Soviet embassy staff member would accept my collect call. The operator would drop off the call and I’d have a conversation with whoever answered. I’d ask repeatedly to speak to one of the famous refuseniks, asking where they were and why they couldn’t come to the phone. The message was delivered even if they hung up on me after 20-30 seconds (and they paid the bill which was fun). But I tried to see how long I could engage whoever answered about the plight of Soviet Jews. After a while, I learned how to navigate the conversation to try to stretch it out as long as possible before yelling into the phone, in my best Russian, “Otpusti narod moy!” Let my people go!
Then, I’d hang up and go about my work. It made my day, sometimes even my month.
With the Rekjavik summit in the news that week, naturally I decided to call the Soviet embassy in Iceland. It was late at night in Atlanta which meant it was the middle of the night in Rekjavik. I don’t know what possessed me, but rather than asking to speak to a famous Jewish refusenik, I asked to speak to Anatoly Dobrynin, the longtime Soviet ambassador to the US. Miraculously, this was one of those times when the Soviet embassy staff accepted the collect call. I asked to speak to Ambassador Dobrynin. The Russian accented English on the other side of the ocean answered that he was at “the hotel.”
I asked what hotel to which my new Russian dutifully complied. Of course, there was no internet then so, with nothing to lose, I asked for the phone number of the hotel. Guess what, he gave it to me. I gave him my best Russian “Let my people go!” and hung up, calling the hotel collect, to speak to Ambassador Dobrynin.
Whoever answered the phone in the hotel accepted the collect call. I asked to speak to Mr. Dobrynin. Before I knew it, there was a pause and then I heard ringing on the other side. 1, 2, 3 rings and then a sleepy Russian voice answered, “Allo?”
“Ambassador Dobrynin?” I asked.
“Otpusti narod moy!” I shouted.
Before Ambassador Dobrynin could respond, I hung up, laughing, proud of myself and the circumstances that allowed me to reach him, in the middle of the night, in the middle of the summit. Regardless of how much President Regan put the issue of Soviet Jewry on the agenda of the summit itself, my message was delivered.
I don’t know if and how much that impacted anything, either in Rekjavik or in the big picture. But I do know that as much as Jews in the USSR were suffering, I had the privilege to disturb one of the Soviets’ most well-known diplomats, and make it clear that there would literally be no rest until our people were free.
I don’t know how much that would work with Russian embassies around the world today, to protest their brutal invasion of Ukraine. But if someone wants to get me Vladimir Putin’s number, I’ll be glad to give him a ring.