An Interview with former Soviet Space Program Physicist/Jewish Hero, Igal Gurvich
This past April 15th, when my parents were visiting in Israel, my dad and I had the unique opportunity to attend a Yom Ha’atzmaut picnic organized by a group of former refusniks (Jews who were not allowed to leave the Soviet Union). We were invited because my father had studied Hebrew under the tutelage of Arye Volvovsky (of Efrat) who ended up spending three years in a Soviet prison for his “anti-government” activities.
One of the people I met at the picnic was Igal Gurvich, a former physicist who has at one time worked on the Soviet space program. Another one of the people present told me a little bit about Igal’s life story and I began asking questions. I asked Igal if he was willing to be interviewed for my site and he agreed.
The following is the contents our e-mail communiqué:
Me: Please tell me a little about yourself…
Igal: My grandfather joined the Communist Party in 1905. He took part in three revolutions. My parents were party workers.
I recall how at some point in 1956, they had a quiet discussion regarding Khrushchev’s secret report about Stalin’s atrocities. In the morning, when everyone had left the house, I succeeded in unlocking the case containing the report, and began trying to uncover exactly when Stalin had broken Lenin’s creed and when his own personality cult came into existence. To my astonishment, I discovered that the cult began with Lenin and that Stalin fulfilled the former’s evil intentions.
I finished the Moscow Physical Technical Institute in 1967, at the time of the Six-Day War. That’s when I stopped being partial to Israel and my connection to the Jewish people.
I worked as a physicist at Korolev Institute on the cosmic projects “Vostok,” “Voshod” and “Soyuz.”
Me: What kind of illegal activities were you involved in? Were you ever arrested? Questioned? Was your apartment raided? Did they give your family any trouble?
Igal: At one point, I joined an underground Zionist choir. We named ourselves “אנחנו שם”—“We’re Over There!” which sounded similar to the Israeli choir “אנחנו כאן”—”We’re Here!” We got professional musicians to lead our group.
In 1976, I got married to a young violinist from our ensemble. Three other couples got married. Starting in 1974, we began hosting Purim plays (“shpils”). We’d go to St. Petersburg and Riga together.
In 1980, several refusnik families organized an underground Jewish kindergarten in their apartments. If the kindergarten was run for over a week in a row, the KGB would find out, and carry out a search. They’d confiscate our Hebrew books and we’d have to move to a different apartment. The kids even started playing a new type of game: “Knock, knock!”—“Who’s there?”—“Open up, KGB!” When the kids reached school age, they continued getting together on Sundays. One of the parents would teach Hebrew, math, music, history, and Israeli geography.
Me: When did you realize you wanted to flee the USSR?
Igal: The thought that we were living in a horrible country was constantly bothering me. The only people whom I found that were trying to save Russia were the “kykes.”
I was hoping that it was somehow possible to change the government. I began reading illegal literature printed in the underground. I met “Albrekht” who gave us instructions on how to behave when being questioned by the KGB. I’d listen to “Voice of America,” “Radio Liberty,” and other radio stations like that. I spent lots of time discussing issues that were close to heart with classmates whom I knew I could trust.
At Korolev Institute, there was a department of micro-photograph translators who had access to all NASA pictures that Russian spies had sent over to us. Knowledge of languages wasn’t enough without an understanding of the subject area. They asked me to edit one of the translations, and I was given the task of editing all their work. I was able to get a glimpse of the inner workings of the system and realized that it was impossible to change a government whose core was made of up of lies. That means I had to leave—anywhere.
Me: What were some of the difficulties you encountered once the authorities found out you wanted to leave the country?
Igal: Once I’d made up my mind to leave the Soviet Union, I was presented with a number of difficulties: If I was to leave a secret establishment, I wouldn’t be allowed to leave the country for the duration of five years and making contact with foreigners would not be permitted. I left the post-graduate program at Korolev in ‘70, and transferred to an unclassified research facility.
I began studying Hebrew on my own, but was unequal to the task. In ‘72, I joined an underground Hebrew class, where, under the tutelage of a trained instructor, it took me two weeks to master everything I’d been trying to understand for the past two years.
I fell in love with Hebrew and Israel, began attending Shabbat services in a synagogue where there would sometimes be foreigners present, and where KGB agents took pictures of everyone on hand.
I could have been excluded from the post-graduate course I was attending, and as expected, and in ’74 my worst nightmares came true. My candidate thesis had been completed, but only a month before I was to graduate, I was kicked out of the research lab due to “Zionist activities,” and my thesis paper, which happened to be the leading work amongst my peers, was labeled “irrelevant.”
I began looking for work. I’d call job posts and having told them about my education, they’d gladly invite me to an interview, but would turn me down having found out my last name. It so happened that a certain physics teacher at some university applied for permission to go to Israel and, as a result, all the faculty Jews were fired on orders from the KGB. The dean of the university realized that only Jews were able to teach physics at the university level, and since the KGB hadn’t instructed the school not to hire anymore Jews, he took a risk and hired me.
During Simchat Torah, there were a bunch of young, Jewish guys with a guitar who would sing Hebrew and Yiddish songs and a trio was created. We’d practice different songs, and perform these not only during Jewish holidays but also on occasion of someone leaving for Israel.