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Soviet KGB Stories II

Sep 2023

Note: There is a previous post, about my uncle.

I never met my grandfather Lev -- he died (of stubbornness) just about a year before I was born. But I heard lots of stories. In the land of блат (blat), the person in charge of the pharmacy containing scarce but potentially life-saving medication is a good person to have on your side. And my grandfather, by all accounts, knew how to play the game. In my home city of Nikolaev, everyone knew him, and everyone owed him a favor -- therefore, or possibly also, everyone respected him.

My grandfather could possibly have aspired to a greater status than a two-bedroom apartment in a хрущёвка and the once-yearly government-sponsored vacation to the Black Sea. In his later years, he was offered an opportunity to join The Party -- a key opportunity for advancement in the USSR. But he turned it down, and this is the story of why.

Some Flavor

Before we get into the meat of my story, an anecdote.

There's a common expression among Soviet Jews, which goes "Бьют не по паспорту, а по морде." Transliterated -- "biut-ne-po-pasportu-a-po-morde". Translated -- "they punch you, not in the passport, but in the face".

This is a reference to the "Пятая графа" -- the "fifth line" of the Soviet passport, which described the passport-holder's "Nationality". For Soviet Jews, this line was filled in, "Jewish", and it served to close many doors. But -- they don't punch you in the passport. Anti-semites are keenly attuned to stereotypical ethnic features, and it was enough to simply look Jewish to get into trouble.

Lev, for what it was worth, didn't look particularly Jewish. So, when he showed up at my grandmother's house to ask her father for her hand, he was at first confused for a government inspector coming for a surprise visit to their family pharmacy. While they figured out what to do with him -- the chaos abated somewhat when my grandmother's precocious kid brother announced, "That's not an inspector, that's Sofia's boyfriend!" -- they bustled him into the kitchen.

My grandmother's grandmother was tasked with feeding Lev, which she went about grudgingly. Because he didn't look Jewish, she felt free to mutter her complaints in Yiddish while she served him food. "They put this goy in my kitchen, and I have to feed him? What's next, he's gonna ask for an (alcoholic) drink?"

My grandfather, however, spoke fluent Yiddish. He learned it at a yeshiva in Kherson, which he attended at the same time as my grandfather Semyon -- they actually knew each other in school, decades before my dad met my mom in Nikolaev. So, hearing the muttering, he responded, "Actually, a shot of vodka wouldn't go amiss." When the old woman realized that the suitor was actually Jewish after all, her reluctance instantly disappeared. Moments later the table was covered with the best in the house.

The War Years

On June 22nd, 1941, Germany declared war on the Soviet Union. My grandfather Lev had just finished his first year of medical school, and he was immediately drafted. He ended up serving as a medic on the front lines through the entire war. After Germany surrendered in 1945, Lev was not immediately released from the military. He ended up serving in the occupation for another year, helping rebuild medical facilities in a Germany that had been reduced to rubble by the Allied campaign.

When Lev finally returned to Odessa in October of 1946, his medical school had already finished more than a month of classes. He was told to come back the following year to restart his education. Lev was already way behind -- he would be four or five years older than his classmates -- and he didn't want to put life off for another year. Wandering around Odessa, he saw an announcement that the pharmacy school was still recruiting students. My grandmother had actually seen the same announcement when she showed up in Odessa to start school, a little late due to illness. And that's why I'm here to write this story today!

After School

My grandparents were married in 1949, and my uncle from the previous story was born in 1950. They moved to Nikolaev, where my grandfather immediately became the head of the pharmacological supply warehouse. I tried to figure out why a kid right out of school was immediately in charge of a medical warehouse. It seems to boil down to two reasons. The first is a massive shortage of men in the aftermath of the war. While Soviet casualties are disputed, they total at least 9 million soldiers, all men. The disputes all purport the official figures to be much too low, and there are estimates as high as 40 million military and civilian deaths -- twice as much as official figures.

The second reason is that the USSR had what, by modern US standards, unreasonably generous medical leave. There was a baby boom in the USSR, just as there was in the US, and women were going into декрет, making them unreliable employees.

Arrest, Exile, and Release

As Lev was running the pharmaceutical warehouse, the USSR was in the grips of a paranoid Stalin. As a result of the Doctors' plot, many Jewish doctors and medical workers were "dismissed from their jobs, arrested, and tortured to produce admissions".

In 1951, Lev was using petty cash from his warehouse to purchase newspapers, which he hung up on the walls for public reading. Because of this, he was accused by the local KGB of "misappropriation of public funds". In a swift trial, he was pronounced guilty.

At this time, the USSR was in a Nuclear arms race with the USA. Uranium ore was discovered in Жёлтые Воды (Yellow Waters), and the USSR needed people to mine the ore. I cannot tell if the Yellow River was actually yellow because of yellowcake uranium, or if the color was a coincidence. In any case, Lev was sent to this region of Ukraine to work in the mines.

Because of his medical training and experience, Lev was spared hard labor in the mines. Instead, he provided medical services to the miners and surrounding community. Nevertheless, he was not free to leave, and my grandmother could not visit him.

Instead, my grandmother expanded much effort trying to free him. She spoke to many lawyers, and visited many government officials. She was finally told by a well-respected advocate in Kiev, -- "Child, you just have to wait. There is no case against him, and they will let him out soon."


Stalin died in 1953. It was not until 1956 that his successor, Khrushchev, denounced Stalin and began the "de-Stalinization" of the USSR. However, almost immediately after Stalin's death, many of the political prisoners arrested during his rule were released. Among them, my grandfather Lev.

After his release, Lev was restored to his former rights and returned to his previous job. He went on to make many advances in his field. Among them, building one the first pharmacies located inside a hospital, an innovation copied from the USA.

For his service to the USSR in both military and civilian roles, he was awarded several medals. My mom likes to recount how, when he wanted to call someone in Moscow, he would connect to the operator and just say "This is Lev, connect me with so and so" -- an ordeal that was much more difficult for other people.

However, though he was liked and respected, he never forgave the USSR for sending him to prison for more than 2 years. He did not join the party, and refused to get involved in any sort of politics.

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