Anatoly Shcharansky’s February 1986 release from a Soviet labor camp and his emigration to Israel have once again focused world attention on the plight of Soviet religious and ethnic minorities who seek permission to leave the USSR. Shcharansky’s wife Avital had emigrated to Israel in 1974 — the day after they were married — expecting Anatoly to follow a short time later. But Soviet authorities would not allow him to leave. In 1978 he was tried and convicted on charges of treason, espionage, and anti-Soviet agitation — charges he steadfastly denied despite nearly eight years of harsh treatment, including torture by hunger, cold, and isolation, that would have broken a less courageous and indomitable spirit. Not surprisingly, Anatoly Shcharansky became a living symbol of Soviet human-rights abuses in the post-Helsinki era.
But, where Soviet emigration policy is concerned, the Shcharansky case is only the tip of the iceberg. The freedom to emigrate is an essential aspect of citizenship under any political regime, even one that claims the right to restrict or deny other individual liberties in the name of some greater good, such as protecting society against “enemies of the people” and external threats. The Soviet stand on emigration poses a serious policy dilemma for the United States: a proper U.S. concern with Soviet emigration restrictions is morally and politically unavoidable; however, it continues to hamper superpower efforts to build greater mutual trust, without which progress on such issues as trade liberalization and strategic-arms reduction will be stalled indefinitely.
Is defending the freedom of Soviet citizens to emigrate intrinsically important to the United States, or has the issue been foisted upon recent American presidents by special interests at the expense of the general good? Has Soviet emigration policy evolved in any real sense over the past 20 years, or has Moscow simply manipulated it according to the dictates of Realpolitik? Finally, is Soviet policy in this area impervious to U.S. influence, or can the right U.S. approach make an important difference?