For all the promise of communism creating a society of equals, behind the Iron Curtain in the 20th century, clear hierarchies existed. Towards the bottom? Soviet Jews, whose attempts to buy into the system in the USSR were stymied by the removal of books about their culture from public libraries, and a general resistance to their efforts to attend the nation's free universities. The state's rationale for the stonewalling shifted from whispers about Jewish conspiracies to dismissive reminders that communism and religion weren't meant to mix. But then, when some Jews asked to emigrate, their requests were denied, as officials claimed that the Soviet Union couldn't let such smart, talented people leave the country and aid the enemy.


Laura Bialis' documentary Refusenik traces the history of the international movement to liberate Soviet Jews. Many of the movement's leading lights are still alive, and they talk in alternately sardonic and wondrous tones about being young and frustrated in the USSR, passing tattered copies of Leon Uris' novel Exodus around in order to spread the story of the Jews' new place in world affairs. Between the establishment of the state of the Israel and the inspiration of the civil rights movement, people with a vested interest in the plight of the Soviet Jews—and some merely sympathetic to them—were driven to share with the press how in the USSR, Jews who applied for exit visas were often fired from their jobs and even sent to prison. By the '70s, with the negative publicity becoming more and more pervasive, the Soviets cracked down even harder, almost as a way of telling the world to butt out.

Refusenik is a little dry in its presentation, relying on a conventional mix of talking heads and stock footage. But Bialis has good footage to work with, including some film shot by the BBC in Moscow using equipment smuggled in by tourists, piece by piece. Refusenik never fully explains why this ongoing oppression of a relatively small group of people captured the imagination of activists and non-activists half a world away, or how they kept the outrage alive for decades. Something about law-abiding citizens being told they can't travel freely just tends to rile people.