Jewish journalist chronicles his turn from ‘good Soviet boy’ to dissenter

Arkady Polishchuk says a show trial of a Jewish doctor turned him against the Soviet system. Photo by Chad Gracia, courtesy of DoppelHouse Press.

All Arkady Polishchuk’s parents wanted was to raise “a good Soviet boy.”

And at first, they succeeded. Polishchuk, a secular Jew living in Moscow, devoured the literature of his country. He was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. He knew and befriended KGB agents, many of whom he worked with as the managing editor for Asia and Africa Today, a Soviet state-run foreign affairs publication.

But by 1976, much had changed. He was in prison, held along with three other Jews for organizing sit-ins protesting delays in Jewish emigration.

As the New York Times put it at the time, “Four Jews reported missing … It was not known if they had been arrested.”

Now 88, Polishchuk is based in Washington, though he’s currently in Russia helping to take care of his ailing mother-in-law. He met his wife when she was teaching mathematics in Montgomery County. Last month, he released a memoir, “Dancing on Thin Ice: Travails of a Russian Dissenter.”

“It’s about how as a very successful Soviet journalist, I slowly became a dissenter, an anti-Soviet journalist,” Polishchuk said during a Facebook voice call from St. Petersburg.

A turning point for Polishchuk came in 1974, when he covered the trial of a Jewish doctor working in Ukraine. Mikhail Stern had been accused of harming children “in order to undermine the future of the Soviet military,” according to Polishchuk. But what the journalist saw was simple anti-Semitism.

Stern was sentenced to eight years of hard labor, and it marked the start of Polishchuk’s new career, that of dissenting reporter and advocate covering human rights abuses of the Soviet government.

Polishchuk describes much of his life with a chuckle. He says that the book is, in part, meant to convey the absurdity of the Soviet experience. But he acknowledges the deadly serious stakes dissidents and religious groups — like the evangelical Christian community he came to sympathize with — faced under the Communist Party.

When he decided to leave his job and the Party in in the mid-1970s, a friend — a journalist for Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist Party — paid him a visit.

“He was my dear friend. He risked his life and position for dealing with me, but he told me, ‘You’ll be killed very quickly. You’ll disappear,’” Polishchuk says.

He was given an offer in a meeting with KGB agents, to which he was accompanied by dissident Anatoly Sharansky.

“They told me, ‘Come back and you’ll be forgiven. If you wish, you can work as a journalist in the same magazine.’ But of course, it was a provocation, because the second you have to compromise with the security forces, they make an informant out of you.”

In the book, Polishchuk writes that his friends in the KGB and the Party may have had a hand in saving his life.

Sharansky helped him smuggle manuscripts about trials Polishchuk had attended, which were sent to foreign journals. And in 1978, Polishchuk was finally allowed to leave Russia for New York City.

When he arrived, he was greeted by the FBI, for what Polishchuk says was a “routine check-in.”

“I said, ‘Listen guys, I also know a number of Soviet spies abroad.’ And they just ignored me. My friend who worked for Pravda told me, ‘That’s why you’ll lose the war against the Soviet Union. In Russia, they squeeze out of you whatever you know.’”

Polischuk became a vocal advocate for evangelical Christians in Russia through his career as a journalist and lecturer working with Radio Free Europe and Amnesty International.

“[The evangelicals] lived in very small towns, they were basically deprived of an education, and their situation was even worse than the Jews, I thought,” Polishchuk says. “Because among Jews, you could see a lot of assimilated Jews like me, well-educated people. But those guys were kicked out of schools, their children were beaten up.”

Today, he lives with his wife and 13-year-old daughter. He considers himself lucky to have seen his older son’s bar mitzvah years ago in Washington, the culmination of a religious education that would’ve been impossible in his home country.

When he worked for a brief time in Prague, Polishchuk met a Chabad rabbi, and discussed the prospect of learning about the Jewish religion in a way that would’ve been impossible in the Soviet Union.

“I told him I would love to learn to be Jewish, but I just didn’t have the time,” Polishchuk remembers. “He told me, ‘Don’t worry, it’s so hard to be a Jew.’”

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