‘Vaccine refusenik’ is the latest catchphrase used to disparage anyone unwilling — for whatever reason — to roll up their sleeve for a Covid shot. Few are aware, however, that the word ‘refusenik’ could hardly be less fitting.
The term ‘refusenik’ (the anglicised version of the Russian otkaznik), which spread across the globe in the early 1980s, was used to describe the hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews (and also other minorities such as ethnic Germans of the Volga region) who were refused permission to emigrate.
These Soviet Jews, most of whom sought to build a new life for themselves in Israel, were persecuted as dissidents and traitors. In the regime’s view, the audacity of wanting to leave Utopia could not be left unpunished: thousands were fired from their jobs and their exit visas were made contingent on paying enormous bills for the social services they had received in the Soviet Union.