April 29, 2011

The untold story of Valery Spitkovsky

How a brilliant scientist – and renowned refusenik – wound up dying in virtual obscurity

By Joni Schockett

Special to the Jewish Advocate

As a refusenik, Spitkovsky was cut off from his scientific world. We have just completed celebrating Pesach, the holiday when we retell the story of how, thousands of years ago, the Jews escaped from a tyrant and sought freedom in the Promised Land.

More than four decades ago, the Jews of the Soviet Union also tried to escape tyranny, but the communist government refused to let them go. They became known as refuseniks. For seeking their freedom, many lost their jobs and were ostracized. They lived in limbo, hounded by the KGB.

This is the story of one of those refuseniks.

As a young scientist, Valery Spitkovsky achieved breakthroughs that led to advancements in satellite communications and space travel. He served on joint Soviet-US expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic, setting an endurance record that still stands.

But Spitkovsky’s desire to stray from the life scripted for him destroyed his career and unhinged his world.

Spitkovsky in an alley, near one of the many apartments he called home as a refusenik. Below: in 1983, with his son Ilya.

A queen, a prime minister and scores of scientists took up his cause, bringing it to the attention of then Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. After more than a dozen lost years, Spitkovsky was allowed to leave the Soviet Union in 1990. But the next chapter in his life did not go as he had hoped.

A month ago, Valery Spitkovsky died from complications of brain cancer at the Sherrill House in Boston. He was buried at the Baker Street Cemeteries, with money provided by Medicaid. His death went unnoticed; Medicaid’s coverage does not include obituaries.

I knew Spitkovsky and his family for more than 20 years. His story is heartbreaking, but also uplifting. In spirit, it is the story of not just one refusenik, but of many.

One of Valery Spitkovsky’s earliest memories was of his mother closing the curtains tight, lighting Chanukah candles, blowing them out and then hiding the menorah. He spoke of that memory often, as if reminding himself why he had been willing to endure so much hardship.

Valery Spitkovsky was born in Odessa, Russia, in 1939. His father was an associate professor at the Odessa Merchant Marine Institute and would sometimes take along his son when he took his students out to sea. Young Valery came to love the sea, the scientific devices his father used, and the math his father taught him. He also studied Torah, but that, like the candles, was kept secret.

Valery excelled in school, especially in science, and he graduated from high school with the highest honors. At college, he earned a degree in electromagnetic wave communications. There he studied electronic tubes and the development of transistors. Some of his fellow students laughed at him when, as a freshman in 1956, he wrote a paper that predicted that one day televisions would hang on walls like “framed paintings.” He graduated in 1961 with a Red Diploma, the equivalent of summa cum laude.

On a ship during a scientific mission to Antarctica early in his career.

Between 1961 and 1964, Valery took part in several US-Soviet polar missions. He studied the aurora borealis and electromagnetic fields, researching their effect on satellite telecommunications. He established a world record by spending an entire year at Vostok Station, 800 miles from the South Pole. He loved the biting cold, but more than that, he loved his young American colleagues, who often talked about the free life in the States.

Soon after returning from his first expedition, Valery returned to university and earned several graduate degrees. He then became a radio engineer and astronomer at the prestigious Pulkovo Observatory and Academy near Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). He helped design the world’s largest stand-alone radio telescope, the Ratan 600, and he helped develop communications antennae technology that would be critical in the safe return of the imperiled Apollo 13 and the repair of the Hubble telescope. But you won’t find Valery’s name in any articles. The moment he asked to leave the Soviet Union, his name was expunged from every blueprint, every article, every paper, every book chapter. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

As his scientific status was on the rise, Valery married and had a daughter. But the marriage could not survive his long trips away from home. After his divorce, he would not see his daughter for many years.

In the 1970s, Valery worked on the joint Apollo-Soyuz space project. He made connections with more American scientists, but rebuffed their suggestions that he emigrate to work with them in the States. Meanwhile, his research was increasingly co-opted for military purposes. The Soviet military offered to make him a general if he would work on top secret weapons technology. Valery said no; he wanted his research to be put toward peaceful uses. The military persisted, and again he said no.

On March 28, 1977 – a week before Passover – Valery quit his job. He vowed never again to work for the “Devil Empire,” as he called the Soviet Union. A few weeks later he applied to emigrate to America. He was denied. Fearing that the nation would lose such a gifted scientist, the KGB confiscated his travel permits. The government took away his apartment and many of his possessions. What hurt most, though, was losing his standing in the scientific community and his many friends and colleagues. They feared for their own careers.

Valery took refuge in Leningrad’s bohemian artists’ community, among the only people brave enough to associate with him. There he met a young artist, who also had a degree in mechanical engineering. Her name was Sofia, and they fell in love.

Over the next several years, the KGB kept Valery under constant surveillance and threatened those seen with him. When he tried to reconnect with his daughter, the KGB warned his ex-wife that she risked losing her job and jeopardizing her daughter’s welfare. She cut off all ties with him.

Valery was labeled a “State Secret Applicant,” forbidden to leave the country on the grounds that he might disclose vital state secrets. Having never held anything higher than a mid-level clearance, he insisted he posed no security threat.

He told me that the KGB once backed him into a corner and hissed that he would never leave the Soviet Union – never! He told stories of trying to lose his watchers by weaving in and out of alleys, into basements and over walls. When I once teased him that he was exaggerating to make his tales more exciting, his eyes took on a far-away look and he told us that we had no idea of what the Soviets could – and would – do.

Desperate, he finally took a job fixing machinery at a post office in Leningrad, while moving around among friends. The one bright spot was that in 1982, Sofia had a baby, a boy they named Ilya after Valery’s brother. Shortly after the baby’s birth, the KGB approached the young mother and asked her to testify against Valery in a criminal trial. She was told to say that he had pressured her to leave the Soviet Union with him. She refused, but was so terrified that she and the baby went into hiding. Thanks to friends, the couple were able to meet occasionally in safe houses.

Every six months, beginning in 1978, Valery petitioned the courts for permission to emigrate; every six months he was refused. Now Sofia, separately, also began to petition the courts.

Valery remained stuck in suspended animation, watching in frustration as science and technology leaped ahead at lightning speed. His outlook was bleak – or so it seemed.

Unbeknownst to Valery, people around the world were working, many specifically on his behalf, for the release of Soviet Jews. Just after he became a refusenik, the US government sent the Soviets a letter requesting that 12 scientists be freed. His name was on that list. The request was denied, as were others that followed year after year.

In July 1988, Sofia and Valery had a second son, Matvey. Just a few months later, Sofia was granted an exit visa and told to gather her sons and leave immediately. They were flown to Rome, where they remained in a displaced persons camp for almost a year.

Meanwhile, human rights groups were stepping up their campaign for the refuseniks. A New York law firm took on Valery’s case. It collaborated with a lawyer in England, Roger Selby, who took the lead. Now, in addition to appealing on the grounds of human rights, Valery’s supporters argued that the Soviets were keeping a father separated from his children. They bombarded the Kremlin with legal briefs and the media with stories.

In a Jan. 17, 1989, letter to then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Selby wrote: “This is a particularly sad case where a boy of 6 and a baby have been separated from their father, and both I and they shall be grateful for any pressure that you and your colleagues in Government may bring to enable an exit visa to be granted to Mr. Spitkovsky with all possible speed.” Selby continued to press British officials in advance of a visit by Gorbachev. At last, Thatcher wrote Selby: “You will be pleased to note that Mr. Spitkovsky’s case will be raised during Mr. Gorbachev’s visit in April.”

The Soviets were under pressure from other quarters as well. After Valery’s plight was raised at a January 1989 human rights conference in Vienna, delegates sent letters to Moscow demanding his release.

Back in London, developments were moving swiftly. During his visit, Gorbachev met with Thatcher and attended a state dinner with Queen Elizabeth. Valery was told that even the queen spoke up for him, but there is no documented support of that. However, something must have happened in London. Within days, Valery received a call from the secretary of the Royal Society in London, the world’s oldest scientific academy, which had also been working for his release. The secretary said to expect to hear something within the next two weeks. Exactly two weeks later, the KGB contacted Valery and told him to leave the country.

In May 1989, he flew to Rome – arriving just a few weeks after Sofia and the boys had left for the States. But his 12-year ordeal was over; Valery was finally free.

Next week: High hopes collide with reality.

About the sources

This article is based on documents and letters found in Valery Spitkovsky’s home, including a brief biography. It is also drawn from conversations over the years with Spitkovsky and recent interviews with his family, friends and colleagues.


1 Comment »

  1. Wow that was strange. I just wrote an incredibly long comment but after I clicked
    submit my comment didn’t appear. Grrrr… well I’m not
    writing all that over again. Regardless, just wanted to say great blog!

    Comment by boston virtual offices — July 27, 2013 @ 2:11 pm

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