Oct. 16, 2019
Dear Mr. Brin: Fifty years ago this week, when I was a 21-year-old college senior, I was in the Soviet Union, sent by the government of Israel to smuggle in Jewish religious items and smuggle out names of Jews who wanted to escape the Soviet Union and could then be issued a formal invitation to Israel.
I was chosen because I was a committed Jew and because I knew Hebrew and Russian. I was no hero, but the trip did entail risk. The Soviets did not appreciate people smuggling out names of Soviet citizens who sought to emigrate, information the Israeli government and activist groups in America used to advocate on their behalf.
My four weeks in the USSR were, of course, life-changing. This young American, lucky beyond belief to have spent his entire life in the freest country in the world, experienced what it was like to live in a totalitarian police state. People feared merely being seen speaking with a Westerner, lest the KGB arrest and interrogate them. People arranged to meet me at a certain tree in a certain park and only spoke to me while walking to avoid eavesdroppers. I met with Jewish engineers, doctors and professors who could find no work because they were known to the government to be “otkazniki,” or “refuseniks” — Jews who had applied for exit visas to leave the Soviet Union and been refused permission. I’m sure you know of them from your parents.
I left the Soviet Union angry and grateful — angry there are people who have the audacity to tell other people what they could and could not say, and grateful beyond measure to have been born in America, where no one could tell anyone what they could say. From that day to this, I have never taken freedom, especially freedom of speech, for granted.
Why I am writing to you about this?
Because, beyond my wildest dreams, two things are happening in America.