Leonid Brezhnev had a problem. "Zionism" was complicating plans for his historic first visit to the United States in June 1973 to meet with President Nixon. At a Politburo session in March he asked his comrades why such a fuss was being made about Soviet Jewry. "Our whole policy on the Jewish question is formulated by Dymshits alone," Brezhnev insisted, "so you can’t say we’re keeping the Jews down. Maybe we need to exercise our brains a little on this one?" Veniamin Dymshits, deputy chair of the Council of Ministers and the highest-ranking Jew in the Soviet government, hardly had any answers. Two years earlier he had written the following in a memorandum to the Communist Party’s Central Committee:
Zionist propaganda presents figures in the tens of thousands for the number of families who allegedly wish to emigrate to Israel. It is difficult to believe this, but the question arises: has anyone tried to investigate the details, on location, regarding the people who have submitted applications to leave? Who on earth are they? Why, on the basis of what information and whose propaganda, have they come to this wild desire to leave the Soviet Union for a capitalist country fighting with the Arabs on behalf of foreign interests?
The animating forces in the lives of Soviet Jews were indeed a puzzle. In the aggregate, Soviet Jews were spectacularly successful, outperforming all of the USSR’s many ethnic groups, including Russians, whether the benchmark was higher education, residence in desirable urban centers like Moscow and Leningrad, entrance into prestigious occupations or prominence in high-status pursuits from filmmaking to physics. Yet behind hundreds of thousands of Jewish success stories loomed a collective loss of language and culture, a complex outcome of both self-Russification and suppression of the Jewish inheritance by the Soviet regime. By the middle of the twentieth century, moreover, what had been the world’s first anti-anti-Semitic state, the country most responsible for crushing the Nazis, was engaged in its own state-sponsored persecution of those it branded "cosmopolitans" and "Zionists." By the time of Brezhnev’s rise to power in the late 1960s, the USSR’s affirmative action policies had caught up with the Jews, effectively putting a halt to, and in some cases reversing, their meteoric rise. Like its czarist predecessor, the Soviet government decided to limit Jewish access to institutions of higher education and white-collar professions—the major difference being that Soviet quotas were kept secret, thereby fueling rumors and uncertainty among a generation of Jews whose hopes of matching their parents’ achievements were quickly fading.
In his wide-ranging and engagingly written first book, When They Come for Us We’ll Be Gone, Gal Beckerman answers many of Brezhnev’s and Dymshits’s questions. The wild desire to leave the Soviet Union for Israel first emerged among Jews not in Moscow and Leningrad but in Riga, the capital of the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic, one of the former czarist territories that had enjoyed a brief period of independence following the Russian Revolution, only to be re-annexed by the Soviet Union during World War II. In the early 1960s, with scarcely two decades under Soviet rule, Jews in Riga were far more likely to retain Yiddish or Hebrew and to be familiar with Jewish traditions than were their counterparts in Russia proper. If "Zionist propaganda" influenced them, it was in the form of texts left over from the interwar period by figures like the militant Zionist Revisionist Vladimir Jabotinsky.